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The road to serfdom via democracy

by Shanie

"Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade." -
(James Shirley: The Contention of Ajax and Ulyses I.iii, quoted by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History)

(October 02, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Man, wrote Professor Arnold Toynbee, does not live just in the immediate present. He lives in a mental time-stream, remembering the past and looking forward – with hope or with fear- to an oncoming future. Toynbee was arguing the case for the study of history; why we should concern ourselves with anything beyond the range of our own time and space. The two World Wars and the present worldwide anxiety, frustration, tension and violence tell the tale. We are surely going to destroy ourselves unless we succeed in growing together into something like a single family. For this, we need to become familiar with our history.

We ignore history at our peril. We know what happened in Germany in the period between the two great Wars. The Weimar Republic was established in the last days of the First War bringing down the imperial government of Kaiser William II. But the new democratic republic, dominated by moderate socialists faced threats both from the radical left and the nationalist right. The former, the Spartacists, disregarding the advice of their leaders Rosa Luxembburg and others, launched a short-lived revolution to overthrow the government. The problems of the government were further exacerbated by an economic crisis caused by huge debts and a growing trade deficit. The nationalist right had no commitment to the liberal democratic principles on which the new republic rested. The traditionally nationalist middle class identified the republic with defeat in the war and the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty. Right wing intellectuals attacked democracy as a barrier to the true unity of the German nation. Leading the movement to bring down the republic were the German Communist Party on the left and the Germany Workers Party on the right. Adolf Hitler had joined the Workers Party in 1919 and through his skills as a demagogic orator and organiser, quickly rose to be the leader of the Party, which had changed its name to National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi).

Commenting on the role of the intellectuals in turning the German people away from democracy and political freedoms, the German historian Karl Sontheimer writes: "Nothing is more dangerous in political life than the abandonment of reason. The intellect must remain the controlling, regulating force in human affairs. The anti-democratic intellectuals of the Weimar period betrayed the intellect to ‘life.’ They despised reason and found more truth in myth or in the blood surging in their veins…. Had they a little more reason and enlightenment, these intellectuals might have seen better where their zeal was leading them and their country."

The Rise of Hitler

In 1923, Hitler made an abortive attempt to overthrow the Weimar republic through what was termed the ‘Beer Hall’ putsch. This unsuccessful attempt made Hitler realise that insurrection cannot succeed against state power. He acknowledged that he could not gain power by force but only by exploiting the instruments of democracy – elections and party politics. He would use seemingly legal means to destroy the Weimar Republic and impose a dictatorship. As Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, was later to say: "We have openly declared that we use democratic methods only to gain power and once we had it we should ruthlessly deny our opponents all those chances we had been granted when we were in the opposition."

In 1925, economic conditions in Germany had improved and the republic seemed politically stable. So at the elections to Reischstag in 1928, the Nazis received only 2.6% of the vote with 12 deputies. But the Great depression worsened Germany’s economic plight. Hitler promised all things to all people and Nazi propaganda worked overtime to depict Hitler as a saviour who as sent by destiny to rescue Germany. The Nazi vote base soared from 810,000 in 1928 to 6.4 million in 1930; its representation in the Reichstag from 12 to 107. In 1932, it received 37.3 % of the vote and won 230 seats. As the leader of the largest party, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. There was now no looking back for Hitler. The conservative middle class that had intrigued to put him in power, had underestimated Hitler’s skill as a politician, his ruthlessness and his obsession with racial nationalism. Never intending to rule within the spirit of the constitution, Hitler quickly moved to assume dictatorial powers. Using the excuse of a lone arsonist who had set a fire in the Reichstag, Hitler persuaded the aging President Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree suspending civil rights. Hitler then used these emergency powers to arrest, without due process, Communist and Social Democratic deputies.

In the March 1933 election, Nazi thugs broke up opposition meetings. Intimidated by street violence and captivated by Nazi mass demonstrations and relentless propaganda, the Nazis won 288 seats in the Reichstag of 647 deputies. With the support of 52 deputies of the fellow rightist Nationalist Party and in the absence Communist and Social democratic deputies who were under arrest, the Nazis now had a secure majority. Hitler then got the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act which permitted him to enact legislation independently of the Reichstag.

In the same year, Hitler outlawed the Social Democratic Party, and within a few weeks the other parties disbanded themselves on their own. The property of the trade unions was seized, their leaders arrested and strikes forbidden. The Nazi-sponsored German Labour Front was established to become the official organisation of the working class. Historians report there was evidence that the working class in 1933 would have resisted the Nazis but the leadership never mobilised the proletarian organisations. With surprising ease, the Nazis had imposed their will over the nation.

A group of historians write: "With astonishing passivity, the political parties had allowed the Nazis to dismantle the government and make Hitler a dictator with unlimited power. Hitler had used the instruments of democracy to destroy the republic and create a dictatorship. And he did it far more thoroughly and quickly than Mussolini had (in Italy)."

The Church’s Complicity in Nazism

The role of the religious leadership in this period of German history needs to be noted. Both the German Evangelical and the German Catholic Church demanded that their faithful render loyalty to Hitler; both turned a blind eye to Nazi persecution of Jews, both condemned resistance and found much in the Third Reich to admire. When Germany attacked Poland, starting World War II, the Catholic Bishops declared: "In this decisive hour we encourage and admonish our Catholic soldiers, in obedience to the Fuehrer, to do their duty and to be ready to sacrifice their whole existence." A prominent Lutheran theologian ‘welcomed the change that came to Germany in 1933 as a divine gift and a miracle.’

But when the war ended, the German Evangelical church leaders lamented: "We know ourselves to be one with our people in a great company of suffering and in a great company of guilt. With great pain do we say: Through us endless suffering has been brought to many people and countries…, We accuse ourselves for not witnessing moiré courageously." This was also the lament of a German Lutheran Pastor, the well-known Martin Niemoeller who said in 1959:

"In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me — and by that time no one was left to speak up."

It is about such persons that Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political philosopher, commented when he wrote: "After having successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people"

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