Reblogged from SinkingArk
“How could something like this ever happen?”
“Why didn’t the people do something?”
“How could a whole country go crazy?”
“If I had lived then, I would have done something.”
Introduction and brief apology
First off – no, the repetition in the title is not an error. And – I’ll get to the quotes above, below. Promise.
Those following my still nascent blog (thanks, by the way!) may have noticed a decrease in frequency over the last two weeks. I took a few weeks off to travel through Europe, and since I had limited internet access anyways figured I’d try to stay somewhat disconnected (try it sometime, it’s refreshing).
First off, apologies. I know that part of the responsibility – if you want to call it that – of running a blog is maintaining consistency. That said, time away from the monitor’s gradual erosion of my corneas actually allowed for a bit of time to reflect on some of the issues I’ve been writing about.
The first result of this contemplation is the article you’re reading now. It’s a big longer than my usual posts, and requires a touch of historical context, but ultimately ends with an appeal to you, my dear readers. I have a handful of these “reflection” topics I intend to post, and while they will not entail action items, I believe they will lay out more fully the rationale for the moral duty carried by citizens of a democracy to maintain constant vigilance in the form of participation in their self-governance. In other words, why I’m writing this blog at all.
I visited Berlin, among several other cities. Berlin is both an old city and a new city. While its history traces back to 13th century Europe, nearly every building in it is has been built in the last 70 years, as the city was utterly destroyed in the allied bombings during WWII and the battle of Berlin. It is impossible to walk through Berlin and not feel history’s weight bearing down upon you. The events that transpired in this city influenced not only on the remainder of the 20th century but continue to impact our present day as well.
During my time in Berlin, I was fortunate enough to go on three very well led historical tours, one whose focus was the Third Reich. The Third Reich was the name used by the Nazi dictatorship as both a subtle nod to Germany’s two prior historical periods and, in the deluded and crazed minds of the Nazi leadership, a connotation of the beginning of a new “great” empire. With each step another remarkably tragic tale of loss screamed through time as a reminder of the suffering heaped upon the citizens of the world by the Nazi regime. Indeed, all buildings that withstood the Allied bombing were very visibly riddled with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin.
While there is great value in recognizing and remembering history’s humanity – that a prior generation’s misery marks not just a date but the individual experience of millions of individuals – the most powerful element of Berlin’s historical essence is the reminder of the agony that can be reaped upon mankind when the wrong person (or types of people) is able to consolidate unchecked, absolute power. While I won’t go into too much detail on the rise of the Nazi regime (there are countless books written on the subject by authors much better versed than myself), I will at least remark on something new that I learned about this period of Germany’s history that really surprised me. And I thought I had at least a decent background on WWII history.
Hitler’s insanely fast rise to power
I had always assumed that the Nazi’s rise to power had been a gradual process. I understood the Nazi Party had been, technically, elected democratically (by a plurality of votes, however, not a majority), however the election at this point happened in an environment that was largely opposition-less. I had, however, thought that these power grabs were made one by one, over a longer stretch of time. This was only partially correct. While Hitler did significantly step up his control on the country when appointed Chancellor in January 1933, as well as having incrementally developed his access to physical force over time through the Sturmabteilung (“SA”, i.e. Storm Detachment, Brown Shirts) – which was the Nazi party’s original paramilitary wing that would ultimately be usurped by the Schutzstaffel during the political purges of the Night of the Long Knives – the real terror arguably began when the German Parliamentary building (the “Reichstag”) was set ablaze, and the Fire Decree of February 27th was passed that legalized crackdown on opposition parties.
After the quasi opposition-less election was held on March 5th, of which the Nazi party received 40+% of the vote, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution called the Enabling Act was passed, which gave the Chancellor full legislative powers (i.e. could create and pass laws without the approval of parliament) for a period of four years. When President Paul von Hindenburg – the only technical remaining balance of executive power – died in 1934, Hitler used the Enabling Act to legally consolidate Chancellorship and Presidency into a single new office: der Führer. At this point, the Nazi party had effectively established a dictatorship and began to systematically eliminate all remaining opposition by either sentencing to forced labor and concentration camps or assassination.
You see, both Hitler’s powers as Chancellor and the Enabling Act were granted in complete accordance with the rules laid out by a democratically elected government. Germany under the Weimar Republic (the government that existed immediately before the Nazi’s rise to power) had been experiencing severe economic problems due to a number of causes. These included mandated repatriations stemming from WWI, hyperinflation in the early 1920’s resulting from policies to inflate the economy out of war debt (in 1923 the German mark was worth only one-trillionth of what it had been worth in 1914), the U.S. banking crisis that led to the Great Depression and destroyed the market for U.S. loans that had been funding Germany’s redevelopment, and the resulting deflationary spiral that followed from 1930-1933.
As the economy sputtered then began to tumble, German society gradually saw the erosion of their middle class as wealth inequality grew. People wanted answers, but the extreme gridlock in parliament prevented any serious reform. As a result, Hitler was able to convince ex-Chancellor Papen to persuade President von Hindenberg to grant Hitler near-dictatorship powers (the Chancellorship was a democratically appointed office, but combined with von Hindenburg’s old age and the Nazi party’s growing influence, essentially amounted to a dictator-like office), supposedly to implement policies to combat the serious challenges facing Germany and, as the Nazi party saw it, halt the momentum of communism that threatened to overturn the social structure and endanger the industrial class. Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor was supported by twenty representatives from the financial, industrial and agricultural industries. Following Hitler’s appointment, Hitler and Göring met a number of industrialists who planned to fund the Nazi party’s election campaign.
As mentioned above, the real straw that broke the camel’s back was the burning of the Reichstag, which led to the Fire Decree and, ultimately, the Enabling Act, which entrenched Hitler’s complete de facto legal dictatorship over Germany. Today, it is still unknown who set the building ablaze.
Here’s what shocked me about all of this: Hitler was essentially able to destroy German democracy in only 6 months, without the Nazi party even having received the majority of votes.
So, what the fuck happened? One month after Hitler was appointed Chancellor it was time for the parliament to vote on the extension of Hitler’s powers via the Enabling Act, and guess what the tally was? 444 to 84, and all opposition were the Social Democrats (since the remaining members of the Communist party had, at this point, fled or been imprisoned). Initially, the Social Democrats planned to boycott the vote by not showing up, which would have prevented the quorum needed to vote on the Act. However, Hermann Göring, President of the Reichstag and future head of the Luftwaffe, changed the parliamentary procedural rules at the last minute such that any members that were “absent without excuse” were to be considered present, forcing all the Social Democrats to show up in person to vote against the Act. At this point, many of the remaining 120 Social Democrats had either been arrested or had fled the country, but even if all 120 Social Democrats had been present the Enabling Act would have still had a clear majority and passed.
While the Enabling Act “only” granted Hitler constitutional authority for 4 years, as it turns out, those granted with absolute power generally aren’t the types inclined to step down when their time’s up. Perhaps Hitler had “learned” his lesson from the Romans – whose strong aversion to monarchy led to frequent assassinations by the Senate of anyone appearing to grab unchecked power – and upon obtaining dictatorial powers immediately started arresting, torturing, and assassinating his political opponents.
Think that the rampant political assassinations somewhat influenced the vote for the Enabling Act? At this point, any remaining semblance of governmental checks and balances had been crushed and the atrocious unencumbered Nazi juggernaut’s ugly crusade began, conquering and enslaving the minds of the German people through rule by abject terror. At this point, there was no escape for Germany, nor for Europe, nor the world.
“How could something like this ever happen?”
“Why didn’t the people do something?”
“How could a whole country go crazy?”
“It’s really scary what can happen when one person has too much power.”
“If I had lived then, I would have done something.”
These are the reflections that several people in my tour group (not to mention millions of others) let gasp through horrified expressions while taking in the detached brutality of the Nazi party. And, of course, I joined in with them. At the same time, however, I wondered how many of these folks – wearing their justified faces of disgusted disbelief – would end up traveling home and going about their daily lives differently as a result of that experience, or if it would instead be filed as one of those sentimental history lessons that’s neatly tucked away in the back of the mind in the “travel stories” memory catalog.
Nazi Germany is a tale of failed of checks and balances
I would argue that the lesson to be learned is not that a terrible period of time was experienced by millions in the 1930’s-1940’s, or even that mankind is capable of committing immense crimes against itself, but rather that a failure of checks and balances can very quickly lead to the aggrandizement of power by a single psychopath.
Hitler was, unarguably, one of these psychopaths. But it is not Hitler’s immeasurable capacity for evil that scares me (he’s now dead), but rather the near certainty that people exactly like him still exist today, as they have in every societies of all generations. All that protects a society from the evils that can be inflicted upon it by these psychopaths is institutionalized restraint on executive power.
So, to return to the above reflections: how could something like this happen? Why didn’t anyone do anything? There is, obviously, no single explanation for the rise of the Nazi party. However, part of the failure of the Weimar government is undoubtedly attributable to the apathy of the German electorate. So much had gone so wrong that Germans became weary of the efficacy of their parliamentary process. Both the Communists and Social Democrats saw each other as a worse alternative even to Hitler and a growing disconnect began to separate the extreme party leadership from the base. Gridlock and broader political disillusionment allowed for rapid action by the Nazis, and by the time anyone recognized what had happened and tried to put together a united front to defeat German fascism, it was too late.
One must feel sympathy for the average German living at the time. Those who opposed were killed, and those who didn’t, or at least couldn’t because they were not sufficiently informed about politics to oppose when it could have made a difference, were faced with a dire binary decision: conform to the demands of the party or face certain torture, death and the destruction of all who you love. If, facing such a choice, you think that you would have acted any differently, then you are not being intellectually honest with yourself.
It is easy, while living in relative safety, to look back into the annals of history and judge those who faced impossible decisions. But it is difficult to see in ourselves today the faults (of both commission and omission) made by our predecessors, especially when those of the latter can now be illuminated with the benefit of hindsight. Instead, we must reflect seriously upon this disastrous period of time – as well as many others – and recognize the the unbounded blackness of human experience that can be wrought by political apathy.
Reflections on common reflections
We are not all born to take to the battlefield. Neither are we all endowed with the mind to innovate, nor the tongue to drive the action of men. However, in America, we are all born with – at least theoretically – the right to influence our own destiny and determine how our leaders govern. It is not a perfect right, nor is it one always maintained, and it is undoubtedly true that certain people are always able to exert more power on the system than others. But regardless of our relative level of disenfranchisement or disinterest, being endowed with the privilege to live in a tentatively democratic society (and in a way all democratic societies are tentative, it is just a matter of degree) bestows a duty to stay informed and exercise that democratic influence as the people find necessary, lest our inaction weaken the institutions that our predecessors built and passed to us and cause them to cease functioning as they were intended.
While we cannot all be expected to sacrifice life and limb for our democracy, we are all morally obligated to sacrifice at least something in order to maintain it. That may be 60 minutes a week for some, several hours for others, or serving in local civil rights leadership roles for the truly ambitious, but ultimately the responsibility for maintaining our democracy – the best system we know of to prevent subjugation from those who will to oppress – falls on all of us individually. Democracy does not have an autopilot button. To prevent terror, dictatorship, and the destruction of our rights, we must not only face external threats but also protect our system of governance within. For it is the corruption of institutions at home and the unbalancing of power that ultimately leads to democracy’s downfall.
We must act now, vigilantly monitoring the world around us and flexing our democratic strength while there is no overt, palpable threat on the horizon, for when that threat appears and makes itself manifestly clear it will be too late to make peaceful change. After all, what is democracy but the chance to prevent threats to our well being without requiring violence? The pages of history, and the streets of Berlin, show us this much: they speak to us the voices of lives lost who would but dream of the opportunity to effect change without the threat of death, imploring us to instead learn from their mistake. Ensuring that their suffering was not in vain requires that we stop taking our democracy for granted.
A much wiser person than I once said:
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
– John Stuart Mill
Let complacency’s constant threat be our guiding light and take spirit with me in embracing our not-yet lost opportunity to determine our own fate.
P.S. I recognize there is a fine line to be walked when recollecting events leading up to WWII and the Nazi regime, and I am in absolutely no way trying to say that Hitler’s Germany is comparable to America’s current situation. The point I am trying to make, however, is that democratic checks and balances are extremely fragile and if broken allow a dangerous amount of power to be consolidated into the hands of tiny very few people in a short amount of time.
 The First Reich dates from approximately the middle ages to the consolidation of the German state in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck, and the Second spanning from Germany’s founding to the end of World War I).
 Except, of course, for dictatorship privileges during the Roman Republic, which was also a position that could be granted by the Senate, but only for specified periods, after which time the Senate must re-approve the dictator’s power. Every dictator in Roman Republic history stepped down when their time came, saving Julius Caesar, who’s rule and resulting death effectively marked the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire.
 “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” – Winston Churchill.