When Democracy Failed: The Warnings of History
Thom Hartmann

This piece, originally published in March, 2003, marked the 70th anniversary of a Dutchman’s successful firebombing of the German Parliament building,“the terrorist act that catapulted Hitler to legitimacy and reshaped the German constitution.” What follows are excerpts.

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 70 years ago — February 27, 1933. They commemorated the anniversary by joining in demonstrations for peace that mobilized citizens all across the world.

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 human bones.

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.

…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 terrorism.

…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 interned, 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 sown. Our land was “the” homeland, citizens thought: all others weresimply 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.

…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.

…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. ….

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 Alexander’s Greece.

…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.

…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 (fash’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 lived and worked in Germany during the 1980s, and is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Unequal Protection” and “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.” This article is copywritten by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint in print, email, blog, or web media so long as this credit is attached. These are excerpts from a longer piece published in March16, 2003 on CommonDreams.org.