Slicing Away Liberty: 1933 Germany, 2006
February 21, 2006
By Bernard Weiner, The
must confess that I'm utterly baffled by the lack of sustained,
organized outrage and opposition from Democratic officials and ordinary
citizens at the Bush Administration's never-ending scandals, corruptions,
war-initiations, and the amassing of more and more police-state
power into their hands.
And so, facing little effective opposition, the Bush juggernaut
continues on its rampage. How to explain this? Certainly, one could
point to a deficient mass-media, to the soporific drug of TV, to
having to work so hard that for many there's no time for activism,
to education aimed at taking tests and not how to think, to the
residual fear-fallout from 9/11, to a penchant for fantasy over
reality, to the timid and unimaginative Democratic leadership, to
scandal-fatigue, etc. But I would suggest that even more disturbing
answers can be found by examining recent history.
Just so nobody misunderstands what follows: I am not saying that
George W. Bush is Adolf Hitler, or that the rest of his Administration
crew are Nazis. What I am saying is that since history often is
opaque (making it difficult to figure out the contemporary parallels),
when the past does offer a clear lesson for those of us living today,
we should pay special attention.
What happened in Germany in the 1920s and '30s can teach us much
about how a nation in a few years can lose its freedom in incremental
slices as a result of a drumbeat of never-ceasing propaganda, strong-arm
tactics, government snooping and harassment, manufactured fear of
"the other," and wars begun abroad with the accompanying rally-'round-the-flag
In America of the 1980s and '90s, it was extremists on the far-right
fringes who believed the country was moving toward "black helicopter"
authoritarian rule in Washington, and often blamed big-government
liberal Democrats. Now, as a result of just four-plus years of the
Bush Administration (supposedly anti-big government, conservative
Republicans), huge segments of American society, including those
in the mainstream middle, wonder what has happened to our democratic
republic, our civil liberties, our time-honored system of government.
THE ENABLING MANTRA OF 9/11
The Busheviks defend the Administration's harsh, sweeping actions
as necessary in a "time of war." The U.S. was attacked by forces
representing fanatical Islam, this reasoning goes, and the old rules
and systems simply don't apply anymore - they are old-fashioned,
"quaint." Instead, we are expected to inculcate the "everything-changed-on-9/11"
mantra, the effect of which is to excuse and justify all. Defense
of the fatherland comes first and foremost, trumping all other considerations,
including the Constitution, checks-and-balances in the three branches
of government, separation of powers, the Geneva Conventions, international
law, etc. etc. (The Busheviks refuse to believe that one can be
muscular in going after terrorists and do so within the law and
with proper respect for the Bill of Rights and Constitutional protections
of due process.)
Not only do the Busheviks pay no attention to recent history,
but they seem to have forgotten how our very nation came into existence
and why: our Founding Fathers rebelled against a despotic British
monarch, one who ran roughshod over their rights and privacy and
religious beliefs. Learning that hard lesson, they established a
system of government that scattered power so that no person or party
or religion could easily reinstate authoritarian rule. Politicians
and citizens would have to compromise and cooperate in order to
get anything done. It's a slow, cumbersome system (democracy, said
Churchill, is the worst form of government ever invented, except
for all the others), but the system they devised served this nation
well for more than two centuries, making American government a model
for much of the rest of the world.
And now, using the fear of terrorism as justification for all
their actions, the Bush-Rove-Cheney-Rumsfeld crew within just a
few years have moved America closer to a militarist, one-party state,
led by a ruler in whom virtually all power is vested. In '30s Germany,
this was called the Fuhrer Principe, the principle of blind obedience
to the wise, all-powerful Supreme Leader. We've seen other such
examples in Stalin's Soviet Union, Kim's North Korea, Mao's China,
Saddam's Iraq, etc.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND LOTS OF UGLY
To the Busheviks, there is pure Evil and pure Good, and because
we Americans are pure Good, especially blessed by God, we can do
anything in the service of fulfilling God's plan, which only we
understand. If you're not with us, you're against us; get on board
or get out of the way.
And so, under Bush/Cheney, we've become an America that has codified
torture in official state policy, that admits it went into a war
under false premises but continues to keep our targeted troops there
anyway, that spies on its citizens without court orders, that is
willing to out a covert CIA agent (one who was probing the extent
of Iran's nuclear program) for reasons of political retaliation,
that "disappears" American citizens into military jails and doesn't
permit them any contact with the outside world, that flies suspects
in its care to secret prisons abroad and "renders" others to countries
that use even more extreme torture measures, that passes laws permitting
police agents to "sneak and peek" into citizens' homes, phone records,
computer databases, library requests, e-mails and medical records
without permission or even informing those whose privacy had been
violated, that neuters the Congress by saying it will listen to
"suggestions" but that the ultimate decisions are to be made by
the Chief Executive, that emasculates the political opposition in
Congress by cutting them out of the key decision-making processes,
that declares the president has the right to violate the law whenever
he so chooses and Congress and the courts have no role to play in
reining in that power-grab, that is eager to keep America on a permanent
war footing since it's engaged in a never-ending battle against
a tactic (terrorism), and on and on.
Even though much of the above transpired in secret and is only
now being revealed, not all of this desecration of the American
ideal happened overnight. As in Germany in the 1930s, the extremists
placed in charge of the government said one thing in public and
did another in private, slowly slicing away at rights of the citizenry,
to avoid triggering a popular uprising.
THE SLICING MACHINE
In the beginning of their rule, the Nazis would announce restrictive
policies aimed at marginalized citizens (the mentally handicapped,
for example), and if no great uproar of objection came from any
power centers such as the churches or physicians or political leaders,
the Nazis would proceed to the next slice aimed, say, at Communists,
or homosexuals or Jews or Gypsies. All of these moves were carefully
couched in terms of saving the national security of the Reich or
purifying the country of "non-productive" or "destructive/dangerous"
elements in society. The Nazi propaganda machine was clever, intense
and all-pervasive, using the Big Lie technique masterfully - endlessly
repeating its falsehoods until the drummed-upon populace came to
accept them as truth.
Many ordinary "good Germans" and moral arbiters went along with
these violations of civil rights and liberties either because they
inwardly agreed with the propagandists or because they were afraid
to disagree in public. Those few leaders in academia, the church
and the press who courageously or even tentatively demurred or asked
too many questions tended to be punished - demoted, fired, their
honors revoked, etc. - and so more and more citizens got the message
to "watch what you say." The Nazi juggernaut pushed on, widening
its list of what was forbidden, issuing harsher and harsher edicts.
Hitler, leader of the rabidly right-wing Nazi party, was installed
as chancellor in 1933, even though his party was not in the majority,
in the hope that he could bring some order and stability to a society
still reeling from the horrendous economic/social Great Depression
that had devastated the country during the '20s and early-'30s.
Given the reins of power, Hitler felt free to unleash policies that
most citizens earlier had rejected as way too extreme. He had written
about them in his book Mein Kampf, but many thought he would
modify his demented views once he was inside the establishment corridors.
The "Enabling Act" that gave Hitler full control of the organs
of power in Germany was passed in 1933, following the burning of
the German Reichstag (Parliament), an arson that was blamed on Communist
"terrorists." Hitler "temporarily" suspended civil liberties during
this "national emergency," which of course never ended. Hitler lied
to the Reichstag about his true intentions in order to obtain approval
of the Enabling Act. Shortly after its passage, Hitler began rounding
up tens of thousands of political enemies and sending them to concentration
camps. Democracy was dead in Hitler's Germany.
The corporate titans, seeing that there might be profit to be
gained from Nazi economic and military policies, supported Hitler's
rise and rule; those who had objections to what he was doing thought
they could tame his passions through their immense influence. But
slowly, and then quickly, the Nazis took over one institution after
another, until total control was in their hands. To stamp out any
hint of dissent, all citizens were to spy on each other - "each
one of us the Gestapo of the others," to use Sebastian Haffner's
scary phrase - and the security forces arrested and tortured at
will. (To learn
more from Haffner's contemporaneous account, see Germany
in 1933: The Easy Slide Into Fascism).
Arming itself to the teeth, Hitler's military forces carried out
lighting-quick wars of conquest ("Blitzkrieg") on weaker nations
and the fascist German empire spread over Europe and, in alliance
with Japan, in Asia as well. More than forty million human beings
would die in the resulting World War II. His arrogant belief in
his own military intuition and infallibility led to his downfall,
as, against all common sense and advice, he invaded the Soviet Union
and wound up in a military quagmire of the worst sort.
PARALLELS IN OUR OWN AGE
Again, what follows here is not to allege one-for-one comparisons
to Nazism, but to note certain parallel events and tactics that
require special consideration if we are to avoid imitating disastrous
history even more fully.
In our time, a Leader (who, we later learned, probably lost the
election) was installed in 2000 by a far-right majority faction
of the Supreme Court. The Hard Right had been laying plans for a
restoration of Republican rule after Clinton won re-election; first
they made sure Clinton would be unable to concentrate on his political
agenda by constant iterations of supposed scandals that, as various
probes demonstrated, revealed no illegality. When Clinton handed
the Republicans an opening by engaging in a sexual dalliance in
the White House, they engineered an impeachment and trial by the
Senate; it didn't really matter that Clinton was not convicted,
as the requisite damage had been done, with a side benefit - his
Vice President and presumable successor was tainted by being close
to Clinton and thus weakened politically.
The point of all this is that the Hard Right restoration forces
were planning for a Bush administration far in advance of the actual
2000 election. There was no one person's Mein Kampf, but
other writings laid out in stark terms what this neo-conservative
cabal had in mind for the country's foreign/military policy should
they return to power, especially in the reports of The Project for
The New American Century: "pre-emptive" wars of conquest, permitting
no rivals for influence, control of energy sources, etc. (See "How
We Got Into This Imperial Pickle: A PNAC Primer," where PNAC
lays out the sole-Superpower strategy for achieving "benevolent
hegemony" around the globe.)
Some of that planning included an invasion of Iraq. Even though
Cheney still won't reveal what executives made up his secret energy
task-force, we do know that at least part of that panel's meetings
involved the question of Iraq, with discussion
and a map of which companies might get exploration blocks after
Saddam was removed from power. Further, former Treasury Secretary
Paul O'Neill revealed how astonished he was that at the first meetings
of the Bush Cabinet in early-2001, much time was spent on the need
to invade Iraq.
The terror attacks of 9/11/2001 served as the equivalent of the
"Reichstag Fire" - or, seen another way, as a "new Pearl Harbor",
the phrase lifted from a 2000
PNAC document. The Bush Administration's "enabling act" came
in several key bills passed by Congress: the unread and barely-debated
Patriot Act, which gave virtually unlimited police powers to the
government in rooting out "terrorism," and the Authorization for
the Use of Military Force (AUMF), written so broadly as to give
the Supreme Leader authority to take whatever unspecified actions
he considered to be necessary against those responsible for 9/11.
Attorney General Gonzales recently claimed that the AUMF, in conjunction
with Article 2 of the Constitution, permits Bush to authorize both
the torture of prisoners and spying on American citizens, without
the need to seek any court warrants, thus over-riding the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act that states in no uncertain terms
that all such eavesdropping requires court permission.
REINING IN DISSENTERS AND THE INTERNET
Even though the mainstream, corporate-owned media by and large
does the bidding of the Bush Administration, ignoring and playing
down bad news and hyping the Administration's spin points, full
control of the mass media is still not complete - even with the
Bush Administration spending $1.6
billion tax dollars last year on its own public-relations spin.
The few insurgent media outlets and reporters, and the unruly analysts
on the internet, are still to be dealt with. (FEMA has contracted
with Halliburton and others to build several hundred detention camps
around the country, ostensibly to house illegal immigrants but easily
convertible for malcontents of one sort or another. See Maureen
Likewise, the Judiciary. Bush & Co. have placed nearly two hundred
of its Hard Right jurists on the federal appeals courts, and got
its new Federalist Society justices onto the Supreme Court - presumably
tipping the balance in favor of more rightwing decisions - but more
work needs to be done to lock down total control of the Judiciary.
The democratic institutions that possibly could still backfire
on them are approaching terminal weakening: the Republican-controlled
Congress has become a rubber-stamp appendage of Karl Rove's political
office; the Democrats are essentially marginalized with no real
power except to whine and complain and embarrass.
Plus, election votes are counted by the same GOP-friendly corporations
that controlled (and appear to have manipulated) the vote-tabulations
in 2002 and 2004, that manufacture the computer-voting machines,
and that own the secret, proprietary software.
The one dangerous element that cannot be fully controlled are
the human beings who are the public face of the Hard Right elite.
Bush is a simpleton who often says more than he should, giving away
the game; Cheney is a callous Rasputin whose penchant for secrecy
as he runs the government constantly gets the group into hot water;
Rumsfeld is a media-savvy incompetent whose fingerprints are all
over the Iraq disaster and the torture scandal; Rove, a brilliant
dirty-pool tactician (it is reported that his grandfather was an
active Nazi Party supporter in Germany), is likely to be indicted
in the Plamegate scandal. Others Administration heavies, such as
Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales are little more than toadies
for the big boys.
So, let's see: a Supreme Leader who has taken his country into
blitzkrieg ("shock and awe") attacks on foreign nations, bogging
down in an ill-advised invasion quagmire in Iraq; who has forsaken
civil rights and liberties in the name of defense of the fatherland;
who has destroyed or rendered toothless his nominal opposition;
who has wrapped himself in the flag and questioned the patriotism
of those who raise questions about his policies; who has engaged
in a Big Lie propaganda strategy to move his agenda; who has demonized
internal enemies; who violates the law to get what he wants and
claims that he serves a higher power in doing so; who controls (or
whose agents control) the voting process; and so on.
What's scary is that it didn't take much verbal stretching to
see the parallels, even admitting that life in Bush's U.S.A., however
comparable in many areas, can scarcely be equated to life in Hitler's
Even so, history has presented its warnings to us. Will we understand
and act in time to return our country to a more moderate balancing
point, thus making us better protected in terms of national security?
It's up to each of us.
This bungling Bush crew seems to have a reverse Midas touch; virtually
everything they touch turns not to gold but to foul-smelling waste
matter. They are so out of touch with the American mainstream that
they've brought their own poll numbers down into the 30s, and key
Republicans in self-defense are racing to separate themselves from
Bush before the November elections. Bush & Co. may be reckless bumblers,
endangering America's national security and economy and environment,
but they still wield the levers of power and they're not about to
give them up; indeed, it appears they are willing to take us all
with them as they fall.
That's our challenge, to get rid of them as quickly as possible
- by agitating for impeachment hearings now, or moving for impeachment
and a Senate trial after taking back the House in November - and
return America from its current dark cave and out into the bright
light of hope and civility and reality-based governance.
Bernard Weiner has taught at various universities, worked as
a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently
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