Thursday, February 16, 2017

It Can Happen Here

In 1935, American author Sinclair Lewis wrote a satirical novel called It Can't Happen Here about a fascist takeover in the United States. The story features a fictional politician named Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip who defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election by running on a populist platform and promising to restore America's greatness.

Upon taking office, President Windrip immediately outlaws any form of public dissent and creates a militarized police force called the Minute Men to keep American citizens in line. After minimizing the influence of Congress and the Supreme Court, Windrip rules through executive actions, continually abusing his position of authority in order to gain more power. Meanwhile, Americans let it all happen because they bought into the myth that this self-serving charlatan would lead them to prosperity.

So you might think that this all sounds familiar. The thing is, so would a lot of Germans at that time. You see, Lewis drew inspiration for many of the plot elements of his novel from what had been happening in Germany since the end of World War I. As discussed in a previous article, their economy wasn't exactly doing too well. In fact, the deutschmark was pretty much worthless throughout most of the 1920s. The desperation that this caused led to a revitalized sense of nationalism as Germans vowed to make their country great again by whatever means necessary.

In 1925, Paul von Hindenburg was elected President of Germany on just such a platform. In order to restore Germany to the glory of its mythologized past, Hindenburg surrounded himself with a group of cronies who became known as the "Kamarilla," which included his son Oskar and a military advisor named General Kurt von Schleicher. With the help of the Kamarilla, Hindenburg was able to greatly expand his own power, including the time when he gave himself the authority to dissolve the German parliament, known as the Reichstag, with the intent of forming a new government more ideologically aligned with his own views. Hindenburg also granted himself the power to appoint a Chancellor. This person would effectively be the head of the government, overseeing all of its moving parts, while Hindenburg himself remained the head of state.

...and Hindenburg's mustache was named the 
official beer sponge of the Weimar Republic.

During Hindenburg's first seven-year term, the German economy saw little improvement. People were angry. Jewish bankers became scapegoats. A far-right nationalist movement developed within the fragments of their broken country. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Germans questioned why their government was still paying war reparations when their own people were starving. In ever-angrier voices (or maybe it just sounded that way because they were German), they asked, "Shouldn't their own country come first?" while people in brown shirts believed themselves to be inherently better than everyone else, particularly the "lesser citizens" among them.

Paul von Hindenburg successfully ran for reelection in 1932. At 84 years old, he only ran for public office again because he was seen by many as the only person who could beat the candidate from the Nationalist Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP in German, Nazis to everybody else). Yes, that candidate was an up-and-coming political firebrand by the name of Adolph Hitler. Hindenburg took about 53% of the vote, compared to Hitler, who only received about 37%. However, while the Nazis did not have a majority in the Reichstag either, the remaining seats were split among the two other major parties, thereby giving the Nazis more overall influence in the legislature.

Hindenburg still got to pick the radio station.

Hindenburg was pressured by Nazis in the Reichstag to appoint Hitler as Chancellor, which he reluctantly did in January 1933. It is therefore accurate to say that Hitler was democratically elected, although technically, he was actually appointed to the position of Chancellor by the President. The following month, an arson set the Reichstag ablaze. A young Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe took the fall and was promptly arrested. His trial was sensationalized on national radio. Millions tuned in. They came for the drama but stayed for the propaganda. Van der Lubbe was of course found guilty, although some historians have suggested that Hermann Göring, founder of the Gestapo and President of the Reichstag at that time, was actually the one who started the fire. (Many years later, Billy Joel helped narrow down the list of suspects.)

Pictured: pure fucking evil.

In the immediate aftermath of the arson, the Reichstag temporarily met in the Kroll Opera House, where they passed the "Reichstag Fire Decree." This was kind of like the Patriot Act in that it suspended a number of civil liberties in the name of protecting people from these (anarchic communist) terrorists, which people were led to believe had infiltrated their communities. Only the big, strong government could protect them. In March, the Reichstag then passed the "Enabling Act," which granted the executive branch the power to make laws without the Reichstag. By essentially voting themselves obsolete, this was a major step toward establishing a true authoritarian government.

Hitler's power as Chancellor only continued to increase as more and more rights were stripped away from the German people. Millions of innocent people died, while millions more fled their homeland. When Paul von Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, Hitler appointed himself Führer, abandoning any last pretenses of democracy in favor of full autocratic rule. As Sinclair Lewis was keen to recognize, people tend to let dictators get away with their crimes in plain sight until their horrific actions are no longer considered criminal. All the while, people tell themselves that it can't happen here.

It is happening, and only we can stop it. Democracy and justice are the only viable remedies.

Resist fascism. Vote for a common good.

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