When Democracy Failed: The Warnings of History
Source Neal McBurnett
Date 03/03/23/10:27

   Published on Sunday, March 16, 2003 by

   When Democracy Failed: The Warnings of History

   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 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

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

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.

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 was true.

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 departments.

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 family.

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.

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
worth remembering.

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 Year."

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

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 over a dozen books, including "Unequal Protection" and "The
Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho