Democracy Failed: The Warnings of History
March 20, 2003
By Thom Hartmann
The 70th anniversary wasn't noticed in the United States,
and was barely reported in the corporate media. But the Germans
remembered well that fateful day seventy years ago - February
27, 1933. They commemorated the anniversary by joining in
demonstrations for peace that mobilized citizens all across
It started when the government, in the midst of a worldwide
economic crisis, received reports of an imminent terrorist
attack. A foreign ideologue had launched feeble attacks on
a few famous buildings, but the media largely ignored his
relatively small efforts. The intelligence services knew,
however, that the odds were he would eventually succeed. (Historians
are still arguing whether or not rogue elements in the intelligence
service helped the terrorist; the most recent research implies
they did not.)
But the warnings of investigators were ignored at the highest
levels, in part because the government was distracted; the
man who claimed to be the nation's leader had not been elected
by a majority vote and the majority of citizens claimed he
had no right to the powers he coveted. He was a simpleton,
some said, a cartoon character of a man who saw things in
black-and-white terms and didn't have the intellect to understand
the subtleties of running a nation in a complex and internationalist
world. His coarse use of language - reflecting his political
roots in a southernmost state - and his simplistic and often-inflammatory
nationalistic rhetoric offended the aristocrats, foreign leaders,
and the well-educated elite in the government and media. And,
as a young man, he'd joined a secret society with an occult-sounding
name and bizarre initiation rituals that involved skulls and
Nonetheless, he knew the terrorist was going to strike (although
he didn't know where or when), and he had already considered
his response. When an aide brought him word that the nation's
most prestigious building was ablaze, he verified it was the
terrorist who had struck and then rushed to the scene and
called a press conference.
"You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in
history," he proclaimed, standing in front of the burned-out
building, surrounded by national media. "This fire," he said,
his voice trembling with emotion, "is the beginning." He used
the occasion - "a sign from God," he called it - to declare
an all-out war on terrorism and its ideological sponsors,
a people, he said, who traced their origins to the Middle
East and found motivation for their evil deeds in their religion.
Two weeks later, the first detention center for terrorists
was built in Oranianberg to hold the first suspected allies
of the infamous terrorist. In a national outburst of patriotism,
the leader's flag was everywhere, even printed large in newspapers
suitable for window display.
Within four weeks of the terrorist attack, the nation's now-popular
leader had pushed through legislation - in the name of combating
terrorism and fighting the philosophy he said spawned it -
that suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy,
and habeas corpus. Police could now intercept mail and wiretap
phones; suspected terrorists could be imprisoned without specific
charges and without access to their lawyers; police could
sneak into people's homes without warrants if the cases involved
To get his patriotic "Decree on the Protection of People
and State" passed over the objections of concerned legislators
and civil libertarians, he agreed to put a 4-year sunset provision
on it: if the national emergency provoked by the terrorist
attack was over by then, the freedoms and rights would be
returned to the people, and the police agencies would be re-restrained.
Legislators would later say they hadn't had time to read the
bill before voting on it.
Immediately after passage of the anti-terrorism act, his
federal police agencies stepped up their program of arresting
suspicious persons and holding them without access to lawyers
or courts. In the first year only a few hundred were interred,
and those who objected were largely ignored by the mainstream
press, which was afraid to offend and thus lose access to
a leader with such high popularity ratings. Citizens who protested
the leader in public - and there were many - quickly found
themselves confronting the newly empowered police's batons,
gas, and jail cells, or fenced off in protest zones safely
out of earshot of the leader's public speeches. (In the meantime,
he was taking almost daily lessons in public speaking, learning
to control his tonality, gestures, and facial expressions.
He became a very competent orator.)
Within the first months after that terrorist attack, at the
suggestion of a political advisor, he brought a formerly obscure
word into common usage. He wanted to stir a "racial pride"
among his countrymen, so, instead of referring to the nation
by its name, he began to refer to it as "The Homeland," a
phrase publicly promoted in the introduction to a 1934 speech
recorded in Leni Riefenstahl's famous propaganda movie "Triumph
Of The Will." As hoped, people's hearts swelled with pride,
and the beginning of an us-versus-them mentality was sewn.
Our land was "the" homeland, citizens thought: all others
were simply foreign lands. We are the "true people," he suggested,
the only ones worthy of our nation's concern; if bombs fall
on others, or human rights are violated in other nations and
it makes our lives better, it's of little concern to us.
Playing on this new nationalism, and exploiting a disagreement
with the French over his increasing militarism, he argued
that any international body that didn't act first and foremost
in the best interest of his own nation was neither relevant
nor useful. He thus withdrew his country from the League Of
Nations in October, 1933, and then negotiated a separate naval
armaments agreement with Anthony Eden of The United Kingdom
to create a worldwide military ruling elite.
His propaganda minister orchestrated a campaign to ensure
the people that he was a deeply religious man and that his
motivations were rooted in Christianity. He even proclaimed
the need for a revival of the Christian faith across his nation,
what he called a "New Christianity." Every man in his rapidly
growing army wore a belt buckle that declared "Gott Mit Uns"
- God Is With Us - and most of them fervently believed it
Within a year of the terrorist attack, the nation's leader
determined that the various local police and federal agencies
around the nation were lacking the clear communication and
overall coordinated administration necessary to deal with
the terrorist threat facing the nation, particularly those
citizens who were of Middle Eastern ancestry and thus probably
terrorist and communist sympathizers, and various troublesome
"intellectuals" and "liberals." He proposed a single new national
agency to protect the security of the homeland, consolidating
the actions of dozens of previously independent police, border,
and investigative agencies under a single leader.
He appointed one of his most trusted associates to be leader
of this new agency, the Central Security Office for the homeland,
and gave it a role in the government equal to the other major
His assistant who dealt with the press noted that, since
the terrorist attack, "Radio and press are at out disposal."
Those voices questioning the legitimacy of their nation's
leader, or raising questions about his checkered past, had
by now faded from the public's recollection as his central
security office began advertising a program encouraging people
to phone in tips about suspicious neighbors. This program
was so successful that the names of some of the people "denounced"
were soon being broadcast on radio stations. Those denounced
often included opposition politicians and celebrities who
dared speak out - a favorite target of his regime and the
media he now controlled through intimidation and ownership
by corporate allies.
To consolidate his power, he concluded that government alone
wasn't enough. He reached out to industry and forged an alliance,
bringing former executives of the nation's largest corporations
into high government positions. A flood of government money
poured into corporate coffers to fight the war against the
Middle Eastern ancestry terrorists lurking within the homeland,
and to prepare for wars overseas. He encouraged large corporations
friendly to him to acquire media outlets and other industrial
concerns across the nation, particularly those previously
owned by suspicious people of Middle Eastern ancestry. He
built powerful alliances with industry; one corporate ally
got the lucrative contract worth millions to build the first
large-scale detention center for enemies of the state. Soon
more would follow. Industry flourished.
But after an interval of peace following the terrorist attack,
voices of dissent again arose within and without the government.
Students had started an active program opposing him (later
known as the White Rose Society), and leaders of nearby nations
were speaking out against his bellicose rhetoric. He needed
a diversion, something to direct people away from the corporate
cronyism being exposed in his own government, questions of
his possibly illegitimate rise to power, and the oft-voiced
concerns of civil libertarians about the people being held
in detention without due process or access to attorneys or
With his number two man - a master at manipulating the media
- he began a campaign to convince the people of the nation
that a small, limited war was necessary. Another nation was
harboring many of the suspicious Middle Eastern people, and
even though its connection with the terrorist who had set
afire the nation's most important building was tenuous at
best, it held resources their nation badly needed if they
were to have room to live and maintain their prosperity. He
called a press conference and publicly delivered an ultimatum
to the leader of the other nation, provoking an international
uproar. He claimed the right to strike preemptively in self-defense,
and nations across Europe - at first - denounced him for it,
pointing out that it was a doctrine only claimed in the past
by nations seeking worldwide empire, like Caesar's Rome or
It took a few months, and intense international debate and
lobbying with European nations, but, after he personally met
with the leader of the United Kingdom, finally a deal was
struck. After the military action began, Prime Minister Neville
Chamberlain told the nervous British people that giving in
to this leader's new first-strike doctrine would bring "peace
for our time." Thus Hitler annexed Austria in a lightning
move, riding a wave of popular support as leaders so often
do in times of war. The Austrian government was unseated and
replaced by a new leadership friendly to Germany, and German
corporations began to take over Austrian resources.
In a speech responding to critics of the invasion, Hitler
said, "Certain foreign newspapers have said that we fell on
Austria with brutal methods. I can only say; even in death
they cannot stop lying. I have in the course of my political
struggle won much love from my people, but when I crossed
the former frontier [into Austria] there met me such a stream
of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we
come, but as liberators."
To deal with those who dissented from his policies, at the
advice of his politically savvy advisors, he and his handmaidens
in the press began a campaign to equate him and his policies
with patriotism and the nation itself. National unity was
essential, they said, to ensure that the terrorists or their
sponsors didn't think they'd succeeded in splitting the nation
or weakening its will. In times of war, they said, there could
be only "one people, one nation, and one commander-in-chief"
("Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer"), and so his advocates
in the media began a nationwide campaign charging that critics
of his policies were attacking the nation itself. Those questioning
him were labeled "anti-German" or "not good Germans," and
it was suggested they were aiding the enemies of the state
by failing in the patriotic necessity of supporting the nation's
valiant men in uniform. It was one of his most effective ways
to stifle dissent and pit wage-earning people (from whom most
of the army came) against the "intellectuals and liberals"
who were critical of his policies.
Nonetheless, once the "small war" annexation of Austria was
successfully and quickly completed, and peace returned, voices
of opposition were again raised in the Homeland. The almost-daily
release of news bulletins about the dangers of terrorist communist
cells wasn't enough to rouse the populace and totally suppress
dissent. A full-out war was necessary to divert public attention
from the growing rumbles within the country about disappearing
dissidents; violence against liberals, Jews, and union leaders;
and the epidemic of crony capitalism that was producing empires
of wealth in the corporate sector but threatening the middle
class's way of life.
A year later, to the week, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia;
the nation was now fully at war, and all internal dissent
was suppressed in the name of national security. It was the
end of Germany's first experiment with democracy.
As we conclude this review of history, there are a few milestones
February 27, 2003, was the 70th anniversary of Dutch terrorist
Marinus van der Lubbe's successful firebombing of the German
Parliament (Reichstag) building, the terrorist act that catapulted
Hitler to legitimacy and reshaped the German constitution.
By the time of his successful and brief action to seize Austria,
in which almost no German blood was shed, Hitler was the most
beloved and popular leader in the history of his nation. Hailed
around the world, he was later Time magazine's "Man Of The
Most Americans remember his office for the security of the
homeland, known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and its SchutzStaffel,
simply by its most famous agency's initials: the SS.
We also remember that the Germans developed a new form of
highly violent warfare they named "lightning war" or blitzkrieg,
which, while generating devastating civilian losses, also
produced a highly desirable "shock and awe" among the nation's
leadership according to the authors of the 1996 book "Shock
And Awe" published by the National Defense University Press.
Reflecting on that time, The American Heritage Dictionary
(Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983) left us this definition of
the form of government the German democracy had become through
Hitler's close alliance with the largest German corporations
and his policy of using war as a tool to keep power: "fas-cism
(fbsh'iz'em) n. A system of government that exercises a dictatorship
of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state
and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism."
Today, as we face financial and political crises, it's useful
to remember that the ravages of the Great Depression hit Germany
and the United States alike. Through the 1930s, however, Hitler
and Roosevelt chose very different courses to bring their
nations back to power and prosperity.
Germany's response was to use government to empower corporations
and reward the society's richest individuals, privatize much
of the commons, stifle dissent, strip people of constitutional
rights, and create an illusion of prosperity through continual
and ever-expanding war. America passed minimum wage laws to
raise the middle class, enforced anti-trust laws to diminish
the power of corporations, increased taxes on corporations
and the wealthiest individuals, created Social Security, and
became the employer of last resort through programs to build
national infrastructure, promote the arts, and replant forests.
To the extent that our Constitution is still intact, the
choice is again ours.
Thom Hartmann is the author of over a dozen books, including
"Unequal Protection" and "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight."
This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission
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