Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—The Unraveling

how democracies die

Young people today might have difficulty with this: at one time in America, the two main political parties shared similarities, and actually showed civility to one another.

As the late, great Lou Reed once sang, “Those were different times.”

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, describe an America in which many conservatives actually voted Democratic, and many liberals actually voted Republican. The conservative South voted solidly Democrat, a tradition that dated to Reconstruction. And the urban Northeast was populated by fiscal conservatives, many of whom were fairly liberal on social issues. (My dad was one of them.) And—hard to believe, now—but white evangelical Protestants actually leaned Democratic.

This era encompassed 100 years of American history. But there was a dirty caveat to this calm bipartisanship: African-Americans were excluded from the democratic process.

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which brought black citizens into that process, a sea change occurred in American politics. Previously, heterogeneity characterized both parties. Whereas they divided on the issues of taxes, federal spending, government regulation, and unions, they did agree on race. But with these two Congressional acts, the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights, while the Republican Party became the party of a white status quo.

“In the decades that followed, southern white migration to the Republican Party quickened. The racial appeals of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and, later on, Ronald Reagan’s coded messages about race communicated to voters that the GOP was the home for white racial conservatives.”

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Newt Gingrich in 1979 (AP Photo)

And while this was occurring, blacks (and, later, other minority groups) not surprisingly supported the party that emphasized human rights.

This is significant, because “for the first time in nearly a century, partisanship and ideology converged.” (The bold type is mine.) Today, the two parties are divided not only by policy, but they also represent, as How Democracies Die aptly displays, “different communities, cultures, and values.” This polarization was exacerbated by religion, especially after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and Ronald Reagan’s outreach in the 1980s to the so-called “Moral Majority”: white Christians opposed to legalized abortion, gay marriage (later), and who advocated school prayer.

How Democracies Die says that this ideological separation occurs in other Western nations, such as Britain, Germany, and Sweden. However, these nations don’t have parties exhibiting the same hostility as in the U.S. Part of this may be due to America’s long history of only two major parties, so the “anger” is less diffused. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while both parties have shifted closer to the fringes, this polarization has been “asymmetric, moving the Republican Party more sharply to the right than it has moved Democrats to the left.” They cite a 1964 essay by historian Richard Hofstadter that discusses “status anxiety,” which occurs “when groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat. This leads to a style of politics that is ’overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.’” The authors conclude that Hofstadter’s essay is far more relevant today than when it was written.

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Bill Clinton

What is the “existential threat”? It is the changing demographic landscape in America. Blacks, Latinos, gays, non-Christians, and other once- disenfranchised groups (most of whom vote Democratic) are growing, and Christian Caucasians (most of whom vote Republican) see their numbers slipping.

The authors cite many events and trends since the Nixon administration’s “Enemies List” and illegal wiretaps—the latter condemned and punished via bipartisan gatekeeping—that indicate with clarity why political “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance” (recall that these are the unwritten rules, or the glue that binds democracies) have become obsolete. I’ll highlight a few of them:

Newt Gingrich: the former GOP Speaker of the House began his Congressional career in 1978 in Georgia with a “cutthroat vision of politics” that “questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism.” His team actually distributed memos to Republican candidates encouraging them to use pejorative descriptors to characterize their Democratic opponents, such as “pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, anti-flag, anti-family, and traitors.” Gingrich encouraged a no-compromise style of political hardball, and “was one of the first Republicans to exploit” severe polarization as a political tactic.

Filibuster abuse: before the 1970s, the annual number of filibuster attempts never exceeded seven, but “by 1993-94, the number had reached eighty,” under a GOP minority in Congress hostile to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Clinton hostility: “Senate Republicans…pushed aggressively for investigations into a series of dubious scandals, most notably a Clinton 1980s land deal in Arkansas (the so-called Whitewater investigation).” They followed this by appointing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate. When Gingrich became Speaker in a GOP landslide in 1994, the party “adopted a ‘no compromise’ approach—a signal of ideological purity to the party base—that brazenly rejected forbearance in pursuit of victory by ‘any means necessary.’” This bore fruit with a five-day government shutdown in 1995; a 21-day government shutdown in 1996; and reached its “apogee” with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in December 1998 for lying to a grand jury about extramarital sex. It was a strictly partisan maneuver by a Republican House to bring down Clinton.

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Tom DeLay (photo Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

“In an act without precedent in U.S. history, House Republicans had politicized the impeachment process, downgrading it…to ‘just another weapon in the partisan wars.’”

Tom DeLay: Gingrich left Congress in 1999, but his brutal style of no-compromise politics was inherited by a Texan, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay “shared Gingrich’s partisan ruthlessness,” packing lobbying firms “with Republican operatives” (the K Street Project) and starting a “pay-to-play system that rewarded lobbyists with legislation based on their support for GOP officeholders.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse DeLay of carrying “routine norm breaking into the twenty-first century.”  Longitudes accuses him of idiocy, based on statements like “God wrote the Constitution.”

(I’ll pick up with the 21st century next time…there’s sadly much more, starting with the explosion of propagandistic conservative media outlets that began during the Clinton years.)

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game

 

how democracies die

For those of you late to the game, I’ve been reviewing a recently released book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. The gist of this book is that democracies usually don’t die via military coups, but instead crumble from within, via legitimate elections and failures of “gatekeeping” measures, and that conscientiousness on the part of political parties is the best guarantor of maintaining democracy.

***

Americans are justly proud of their Constitution, which frames our government, and stipulates a federal separation of powers, the rights and responsibilities of state governments, and which includes 27 important amendments (the first ten of which are known as the Bill of Rights). I’ve talked with a few people who feel America’s constitution (our written “rules of the game”—see previous post) is so strong, that our country is impervious to democratic breakdown.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America’s constitution is often vague and ambivalent and susceptible to radically different interpretations. Also, the U.S. Constitution has been used as a model, almost verbatim, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, yet those nations nonetheless plunged themselves into dictatorships (under Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Ferdinand Marcos, respectively). Germany’s Weimar Republic had a constitution “designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds,” yet it “collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.”

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

The authors argue that, while written rules of the game are important, along with referees to enforce them (e.g. judiciary), these work best in conjunction with unwritten rules, or basic norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that “we may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.”

And institutional forbearance means “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”

Think of democracy as a game that we want to continue playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them, to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow….In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.

The authors cite certain powers held by the executive and legislative branches that are vaguely addressed in the U.S. Constitution, or not at all, but both branches have adhered to certain unwritten rules regarding them. For example, the Constitution doesn’t limit the number of terms during which a president can preside. However, all U.S. presidents since George Washington, other than one, have limited themselves to two terms in office.

The Constitution also does not limit the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. However all presidents (again, other than one) have adhered to the unwritten rule of limiting the court to nine justices.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has the power to filibuster (which the framers designed to assist minority parties in the Senate), block presidential court and cabinet appointments (“advice and consent”), and impeach. But for most of the country’s history, Congress has exhibited institutional forbearance, courtesy, and “reciprocity” regarding these powers.

How Democracies Die highlights that, excluding the Civil War era, on only three occasions since 1776 have democratic norms (checks and balances) been seriously violated in America:

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U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt at court packing, his issuance of 3,000 executive orders, and his decision to seek a third term in office. (However, FDR never slipped into autocracy due to bipartisan resistance. Also—due to the dire situations of the Great Depression and WWII, most historians have given FDR a pass, similar to what occurred with Lincoln’s violation of habeas corpus during the Civil War.);
  2. McCarthyism and red-baiting in the 1950s;
  3. Richard M. Nixon’s authoritarianism and illegal activities in the 1970s, which resulted in a looming impeachment and his eventual resignation.

On all three occasions, guardrails held due to bipartisan cooperation. “Episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of ‘death spiral’ that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the authors state that, beginning with civil rights legislation in the 1960s, things began to slowly change in the United States. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, which have held our democracy together like cement on brick, have increasingly become passé.

And over the past few decades, our unwritten rules of the game have been violated at an alarming rate, creating a toxic atmosphere that has allowed a Donald Trump to attain the highest office in the land. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss this trend in a powerful chapter entitled “The Unraveling.”

I’ll tackle that chapter next time.

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Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

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“The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

In my last post, I discussed how authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, show how certain democracies have failed worldwide (e.g. those in Germany, Italy, and Venezuela).  Some countries, however, have successfully prevented democratic decay when threatened by authoritarianism.

Belgium is one. In the economically depressed 1930s, Belgium resisted an urge to swing toward fascism. Two far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, surged in Belgian polls. (The leader of the Rex Party later collaborated with the Nazis.) Belgian centrist parties appeared to be in retreat. The mainstream Catholic Party was partly sympathetic with the popular Rexists, and could have joined with them. Instead, it went in the opposite direction.

The Catholics weeded out pro-Rexist candidates.  They also employed Rexist-style propaganda techniques, and created an anti-Rexist “Catholic Youth Front.” Their most effective gatekeeping technique, however, was to ally with the Belgian Socialist Party and Liberal Party behind leader Paul van Zeeland, to create a robust coalition that sidelined the Rexists. (At least, until the Nazis invaded Belgium.)

Similar gatekeeping occurred in Finland, when an extreme-right Lapua Movement surfaced in 1929. Finland’s more moderate conservatives pulled together to snuff out this “brief burst of fascism.”

More recently, in 2016 in Austria, the main center-right party (Austrian People’s Party) had an opportunity, but refused to ally with the ideologically similar but anti-immigrant, radical-right Freedom Party of Austria, ultimately defeating it.

(Notice how these various right-wing extremists were all toppled, not by their ideological opposites – liberals and socialists – but by moderates and fellow conservatives who were ideologically similar.)

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Emblem of Finnish Lapua Movement

And America has its own laudable record of squelching extremists. Henry Ford, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace were all enormously popular with certain segments of America. But Ford, Coughlin, and Lindbergh were virulent anti-Semites, Wallace was a Southern racist and segregationist, and McCarthy was a rabid and reckless Red-baiter. (Long was assassinated, but some historians claim the “Kingfish,” who claimed he was the Constitution, had all the characteristics of a demagogue.) All of these men had political ambitions, and some succeeded at the state level. None, however, were able to progress beyond their current stations, chiefly due to a strong U.S. party system that prevented it.  (McCarthy was ultimately censured and disgraced. He began drinking heavily, became addicted to heroin, and died at age 48.)

As mentioned earlier, America’s best gatekeepers are our political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, ironically, the oft-citicized “smoke-filled room” of party bosses serves to weed out extremists that otherwise might threaten democracy. They say there’s always a tension between “will of the people” (which Alexander Hamilton warned about, and which has resulted in figures like Long, Wallace, and Trump) and too much gatekeeping, such as elite party leaders.

But democratic gatekeepers aren’t limited to political parties; they also include political institutions and non-political figures. To illustrate this, the authors draw parallels between democracy and a soccer game. A fair soccer game involves referees, rules, and equal opponents. When any one of these gatekeepers is debilitated, the game can tilt.

Referees: Who are the referees in politics? The judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Without strong referees, the authors argue, “The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured.” He can buy off opponents (including those in the media), pack the courts, and threaten impeachment of justices.

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Anti-Semitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin (photo Detroit Free Press)

Opponents: Once referees are in tow, autocrats then turn to their opponents. However, the authors say that most contemporary autocrats don’t wipe out all dissent, such as Mussolini or Castro did, but merely sideline “key players” opposed to their government. These players include opposition politicians, business leaders, and cultural or religious figures who have good standing with the populace.

Rules: To entrench power, autocrats must also change the rules of the game, such as altering constitutions and electoral systems to tilt the playing field against opponents. Example: post-Reconstruction Southern states. To circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern white Democrats used anti-democratic poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting, which consolidated white power in the South for a hundred years.

“Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes.”

How Democracies Die points out that autocrats often take advantage of national crises, which allow them to break free from democratic institutions, often legally. Defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.

Example 1: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, was an outright subversion of democracy, and a black mark in an otherwise exemplary presidency.

Example 2: after 911, the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, “never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.” But Americans, including a bipartisan Congress, gave Bush a pass.

And then there are those leaders that invent crisis, like Adolf Hitler. No one knows for certain whether, as Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed, a communist Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Some historians believe the Nazis did it themselves. Nonetheless, it ushered in a thunderstorm of Nazi barbarism that didn’t end until a dozen years later.

(To be continued)

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Burning of the German Reichstag

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

how democracies die

Two posts ago I previewed a book I was reading called How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (see “Tolling Bells?”). I finished the book, and now want to share my thoughts.

I’ll offer one more preface, though. In my view, since the election of Donald Trump, the American electorate can be separated into three groups: those who will support Trump no matter what, based on one or more narrow ideologies that they view Trump as upholding; those who are disgusted with Trump’s personal and/or political behavior, yet who, in the words of writer Sinclair Lewis, believe “it can’t happen here”; and people like me, sickened by what they see, and who also believe democratic principles in America are eroding now, and have been for a while.

How Democracies Die has only reinforced my feelings about the road America is traveling down.

It’s a small book, but contains many ideas. Therefore, it’s probably best I break the book into digestible bits:

Fateful Alliances.  Most authoritarian leaders ascend not through violent coups, but through legitimate elections, and alliances with established political figures. The most well-known are, of course, Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler exploited a reeling German economy and infighting between the major German parties, and an alliance with conservatives who believed they could “contain” him. Mussolini used the power of theatricality, his party’s 35 parliamentary votes, divisions among the political elite, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by his own Blackshirts to gain premiership. Political order was restored, and the Italian stock market soared.  Mussolini became a rock star…but only briefly.

While Nazism and Fascism were the two most horrific examples of democratic breakdown, the authors discuss a more recent example. Military leader Hugo Chávez in Venezeula was assisted to power by democratic President Rafael Caldera, whose popularity was waning, and who saw an alliance with Chavez as a political lifeline. He considered the demagogic Chavez a passing fad. He was mistaken. In 1998, Chavez was elected by a majority of voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt ask “(W)hat kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often populist outsiders do.” They cite five of 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012 as being populist outsiders who ultimately weakened democratic institutions.

They also provide four indicators of authoritarian behavior:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

They argue that all democratic societies require “gatekeepers” to prevent authoritarians from gaining power, and the greatest gatekeepers are political parties and their leaders. Keeping extremists off party ballots, resisting alliances with extremist parties, resisting the urge to “normalize” extremists (as Caldera did with Chavez), and uniting with parties of opposing ideologies to block such extremists are all effective gatekeeping techniques.

They conclude “Fateful Alliances” with this:

For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.

(To be continued)

Tolling Bells?

how democracies die

A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, there have been a number of books about the ramifications of his election. Some are “celebrity” memoirs, such as those by former FBI Director James Comey and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. But one book that has jumped out of the pack, for me, is How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

It goes without saying that the provocative title might be construed as advertising a book-length opinion editorial. This book does point a firm finger at the current government in D.C. (How could it not?) But it goes deeper and analyzes how a demagogic figure like Trump could have been elected in the U.S., and what this means for the future of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t partisan propagandists, but professors of government at Harvard University who have studied democratic breakdowns in Europe and Latin America, independently publishing books and articles related to world governments, including the U.S.

I’m partway through the book, and hope to share a review in a coming longitudes post. But for now, here’s a teaser, taken from the Introduction to How Democracies Die:

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all of these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?

Maybe this book can offer some valuable insight into a troubling time in the U.S. I’ll try to share what I learn.

Stay tuned…

A Boy and a Raccoon

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“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

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Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be a just children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

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Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

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Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

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(Author photo)

Fantastic Lies One Could Live With

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Peder C. Lund died last year. His company died with him.

I don’t expect many of you to know Peder (pronounced PAY-der). Only unless you’re the type that stockpiles nitro-glycerin and regularly dons camo fatigues on trips to the 7-11.

I didn’t know his name until recently. But many years ago, Peder and I crossed paths. I’ll go into that later. Right now I’ll (try to) describe the man and what he did in life.

Lund was the co-founder and owner of Paladin Press, founded in 1970 by Lund and a fellow Vietnam Green Beret, Robert K. Brown. This publishing firm, based in Boulder, Colorado, produced instructional books and videos with titles like How to Kill Tanks, The Revenge Encyclopedia, How to Shoot Your M16/AR-15 in Training and Combat, The Ultimate Sniper, How to Open Locks Without Keys or Picks

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Typical tacky Paladin Press book cover

You get the picture. Not long after the company’s founding, Brown sold his interest to Lund and started the comparatively tame Soldier of Fortune magazine (emphasis on “comparatively”).

Paladin Press specialized in how-to manuals about killing, in addition to more innocuous, garden-variety gun, ammo, and martial arts books. All were characterized by bad writing and tacky graphics. One of their more ivy-league and humorous publications is How to Get Rich as a Televangelist or Faith Healer. The author, one Bill Wilson (probably a pseudonym), claims his book teaches “how to tailor your message for maximum gain, and…weasel out of trouble when your lavish lifestyle or personal misconduct hits the fan.”

Snipers and televangelists. Like peanut butter and jelly.

Lund knew the makeup of his buyers, and he supplied their dope. Who were the buyers? Well, the government-phobic right wing, for starters. Venture to the fringe of this species, and you encounter a more dangerous sub-species. Insecure men; outsiders who find identity, acceptance, and machismo in paramilitary clubs… perpetually adolescent, excessively nationalistic, and probably racist; white males with survivalist obsessions, plagued with small minds and, if you believe some people, small genitals. And here and there, a few clinical sickos. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a customer for Paladin’s Homemade C-4: A Recipe for Survival.

(I know what some of you are thinking: this pond scum seems to be everywhere these days).

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A skinny Lund trying to look macho on the cover of his buddy’s magazine

Lund did well as a publisher. He built an opulent man-castle in the Colorado foothills, complete with indoor fountain, his own forest in back (perfect for guerilla maneuvers), and an expansive view of downtown Boulder, a town populated by New Age hippies, health food junkies, and rock climbers. Lund went through four wives. He was an adored paterfamilias at Paladin, supposedly paying and treating his employees well, and each year he rewarded their loyalty with a free trip to Baja. On the outside, he cultivated the image of an average, common-sense, all-American small businessman.

Then in 1996, Lund and Paladin made national news. They were sued by a Maryland family who claimed a Paladin book called Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors was used by a contract killer, James Perry, in the assassination killings of three family members, including a quadriplegic boy, to get trust fund money. The case became a First Amendment cause cèlébre. The ACLU, New York Times, and Washington Post jumped to Paladin’s defense. The case went as high as the Supreme Court (which refused to hear it), and eventually was settled out of court, with the family receiving millions in damages.

Lund claimed he didn’t want to settle, but his insurance company pressed for it. Paladin destroyed all warehouse copies of Hit Man.

The author of Hit Man, who used the pseudonym “Rex Feral” (Rex is Latin for “king,” and feral means “wild”) was never implicated. Writer Karen Abbott was able to track down the real Rex Feral. It turns out she was a divorced mother of two who lived in a trailer park and got her ideas from TV, movies, and mystery novels… (Isn’t America great??). When Abbot pressed for a personal interview, the woman declined, saying she didn’t want to be a hero, “tragic or otherwise. I just want to sit on my rocker on my porch and tell my grandsons stories they’re certain are fantastic lies.”

hit man

Paladin Press’s most notorious title

After the Hit Man case, Lund continued to publish his how-to books on killing, but the rise of web journalism gradually took the steam out of Paladin. He died on June 3, 2017 while on vacation in Finland. Paladin Press closed its doors this past December.

***

Earlier, I said that I once met Lund. Here’s what happened:

I was just out of school, confused about what I wanted to do, and living in Boulder. Back then, my road map was the beat classic On the Road, so I did a lot of tramping. I was returning to Boulder from Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was dirty and beat and just wanted to collapse on my bed in the boarding house. But my extended right thumb was getting windburned.

Just as the sun was dropping over the spires of the Rockies, a shiny Porsche passed, then eased into the gravel in front of me. I ran up, opened the door, and hopped in with a relieved “Thanks!” The guy looked about 40, with thick black hair and bushy eyebrows. Memory is fuzzy, but I think he was wearing several rings as big as halogen lamps. My impression was a conceited guy who liked to flaunt his wealth.

I’m reconstructing the conversation, but these are the basics:

“How far you headed?” he asks.

“Downtown Boulder’s fine,” I answer.

“I’m headed to a club about eight miles ahead,” he says. “Is that good?”

“Sure, that’s great,” I respond, inhaling his aromatic cologne. “Thanks.”

Then a brief, awkward silence, the kind that inevitably follows introductions between a driver and hitchhiker.

“Where do you work?” he asks.

“At Häagen-Dazs,” I respond sheepishly. “I just graduated, so I’m still trying to break into my field. Not easy with this recession.”

“What did you study?”

“Journalism.” More awkward silence. Then it’s my turn to break it.

“What kind of work do you do?” I ask.

“I own a publishing company.” My body sinks deeper in his bucket seat.

“Wow, imagine that!” I respond nervously, with thoughts of a possible job interview, but also feeling embarrassed that I scoop ice cream for a living.

The guy’s now smirking like he knows he’s hot shit. “Journalism, huh? My company’s called Paladin Press. Ever hear of it?”

Yes, I had. Only a few years earlier, I’d read a story by popular syndicated columnist Bob Greene about this controversial publishing company. Greene was relentless in his criticism. He basically eviscerated Paladin, but only after drawing, quartering, and decapitating.

“Actually, I think so,” I reply, maybe hoping he won’t ask where I’d heard about it. At this point, I’d snuffed any idea of a job interview.

“Where’d you hear?”

“Uh, Bob Greene.”

This response shatters Lund’s previously cool exterior. No longer James Bond, he becomes a raging Bill O’Reilly on amphetamine.

“That f#@*ing liberal bastard!!” he yells. “He came out here to interview me and $#!*#!$!@#…”

(I forget what all he sputtered, but he went on for a while).

After he quiets down, the remainder of the ride is silent. I can now smell perspiration and a little seething mixed with the cologne. He lets me out in the crowded parking lot of Boulder’s premier discotheque. I thank him, shut the door, and walk the rest of the way home.

***

Paladin Press may have had a Constitutional right to publish its death porn. The Supreme Court never rendered a verdict, so by now it’s a moot point. But there’s another law besides U.S. Constitutional law. A child pornographer may be innocent of rape when one of his readers rapes a child, but isn’t the pornographer an accessory? If not legally, then morally?

Like I said, memory isn’t foolproof. However, impressions and feelings are. And my feeling is the same now as on July 30, 1983, when I thanked Lund for the ride then slammed his car door.

I’m damn glad that I ruined his evening.

 

Denver Post

(photo by The Denver Post)

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

(Illustration courtesy Edward Camp)

“…(U)pon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do pounce… And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum…” – Herman Melville

When I was in high school, we were assigned a novel called THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

It’s about three cowboys who are accused of cattle rustling and murder. While the cowboys insist on their innocence, a vigilante posse is convinced of their guilt. The vigilantes outnumber the cowboys, so they get the upper hand. The cowboys are hanged after a long night of drunken accusations and brutality. After the vigilantes commit their dirty deed and ride home, they’re stunned by what they discover: the cowboys were innocent after all.

The book is fiction, but it was my introduction to several life realities: warped vigilante justice…the concept of “court of public opinion” … the behavioral trait where people will do things in a group which they wouldn’t normally do alone (mob mentality) …and the idea that the majority in a democracy is not necessarily right. I’ve never forgotten the book. If you don’t like to read, you should at least see the movie, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn. It will stay with you.

Clark published THE OX-BOW INCIDENT in 1940. The 1943 movie was nominated for Best Picture. One would think such a powerful story would offer a moral lesson to those who would rush to judgment. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, America underwent the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy hearings, a demagogic, Cold War smear campaign to hunt down alleged Communists. Careers were permanently destroyed.

In 1950, a slow-witted man in England, Timothy Evans, was tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder, despite later being found innocent. His case contributed to England’s abolishment of the death penalty. The U.S. is now the only Western nation to execute prisoners, despite numerous death row inmates later being exonerated.

Currently, America is in the throes of public figures being accused of sexual misconduct.  The entire reality show is sad and tawdry, a perfect second course to last year’s election. For some people, though, it’s a form of gladiatorial entertainment.

The latest name to fall from grace is author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct.

I usually walk the other way when I see sensational “soft” news like this. While I definitely don’t belittle the problem of sexual misconduct, obviously more widespread than anyone could have imagined, I’m more concerned about things like health care, income inequity, environmental degradation, and gun deaths. I know only a few details in the cases involving Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken. The reason I’m writing about Keillor is because for many years, off and on, I’ve listened to his live radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best programs on radio.

Another reason is that, whether Keillor’s guilty or innocent, there are some troubling signs.

On November 29, Keillor was suddenly fired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), after 42 years of employment, for alleged improper conduct with a woman. The station had hired a law firm back in October to independently investigate allegations. Both the law firm and MPR have been silent about the details. Not so Keillor, who retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year.

“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor explained. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness, and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized…We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

On Facebook, Keillor commented “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation.”prairie image

MPR didn’t just fire Keillor. Similar to what happened to late football coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University after the child sex abuse scandal, it’s trying to erase all evidence of his presence, including cancelling rebroadcasts of his old shows, removing them from the MPR website, and canceling production and distribution of his syndicated series The Writer’s Almanac.

It’s almost assured that, after MPR’s actions, listenership for A Prairie Home Companion will suffer collateral damage and decline. Keillor’s already been consigned to the Bill Cosby Memorial Landfill, so this won’t be punishing him.  Similar to what happened at Penn State, when NCAA sanctions punished students, alumni, and fans, listeners of A Prairie Home Companion will be punished. The show, now hosted by Chris Thile, may end up dying a slow death.

Additionally, PBS recently pulled an episode featuring Keillor from its “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series.  Venues around the country are also canceling prescheduled shows with Keillor. Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts was one, commenting that it “finds all victimization of people deplorable.”

(Does “all victimization” include Keillor and listeners of A Prairie Home Companion ?)

Just so no one thinks I’m excusing Garrison Keillor and downplaying this woman’s suffering, I’ll emphasize that he may indeed be guilty of more than just sliding his hand across a woman’s back to console her.  In which case he deserves a just punishment.  But he also may be innocent.  No one knows the truth at this point except Keillor and the woman (or women).  Not even MPR.

My problem is MPR fired him without ever consulting him about the allegations (at least, that the public is aware of).  They and others also want to erase any evidence of Keillor.  Though still a far cry, this expunging of history nevertheless has the whiff of Nazism and the dystopian worlds of Kafka and Orwell.

Once more in America in this age of tweet-friendly soundbites, a new term has been coined: “outrage machine.” But if there truly is outrage, how is it possible a man can be elected to the presidency after incontrovertible evidence of misogyny and sexually inappropriate behavior? Are we a nation of hypocrites?

***

If my wife or daughter were the victim of sexual harassment, I’d be at their sides in a heartbeat. At work, I’ve participated in ethics training. A good chunk of this training involves how to associate and how not to associate with employees of the opposite sex.

Some things are obvious. You don’t invite female co-workers to your bachelor pad to watch X-rated actors like “Long Dong Silver,” like one of our Supreme Court justices reputedly did (and I emphasize “reputedly”). You don’t grab them in their private parts, like our sleazeball president advised men to do (and here, I’ll emphasize definitively advised).

But there’s a large grey area (philosophical, not physical). One person’s idea of harassment could be another person’s attempt at being friendly or compassionate. There’s also the dating game. How many times can an employee request a date without it being considered “harassment”? Three times? Twice? Or should it be absolutely forbidden to request social time with an employee of the opposite sex?

Can you compliment someone on their outfit or hair? If she’s feeling depressed, can you put your hand on her shoulder? If so, does the shoulder have to be clothed, or can it be bare? Can you move your hand slightly while it’s on this bare shoulder?

I’m not being facetious, I’m totally sincere. Judging from what’s happened lately, I think we now need to ask ourselves these questions.  How are we going to define sexual misconduct? Should an office manager now be concerned about smiling at a co-worker? Could a friendly smile be construed as a sexually suggestive “leer”?

***

Garrison Keillor’s guilt or innocence isn’t the point of my essay. My point is that, even before all evidence and testimony are in, and despite his denial of sexual misconduct, he’s been hung by the neck in the court of public opinion. The court here includes Minnesota Public Radio; all those who have cancelled his future appearances (some adding editorial spice, like Berkshire Theatre Group); and various journalistic sharks around the country who smell blood.

The Republican Party, dominated by white males, is completely out to lunch regarding the problem of sexual misconduct by public figures.  The Keillor story is the opposite extreme: knee-jerk liberals anxious to judge, convict, execute, and expunge all traces of a man who didn’t even get the opportunity to defend himself.  And I say this as a liberal.

The idea is to discourage and punish sexual misconduct.  You aim for the bullseye. But you don’t pull back on the string until the bow’s ready to snap. Otherwise, you miss the target completely. And you could do a lot of harm in the process.

 

ox-bow incident

Fascism for Beginners, Part 3: Torpor

Our local public television station has been airing two excellent films lately, both related to fascist politics. One of them is the 1962 version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, about American P.O.W.s hypnotized by Reds during the Korean War. There’s much more to this brilliant movie, but if you haven’t already seen it, I won’t divulge the plot.

The other movie is JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. It’s loosely based on fact, and it concerns the post-WWII trial of four German judges who, under the tent of Nazism, helped carry out a sterilization program and sentenced innocent people to death.

One of the judges is a rabid Nazi who shows no remorse. Two of the judges are weak and confused. But the fourth judge, “Ernst Janning,” is a tragic figure.

Highly intelligent, respected both inside and outside of Germany for his judicial knowledge, Janning is a man of great ideals who holds himself above his less enlightened peers. But during the Hitler years, he slowly and inexorably became corrupted. He despises what the Nazis did, but he also despises himself. He is tormented by the knowledge that, because of his actions, he’s turned his entire life into “excrement.”

The defense attorney wages an admirable but futile battle to exonerate Janning, who is a hero of his. At one point, American prosecutors show film footage of liberation of the concentration camps (this is actual footage, and it’s not for the squeamish). The defense attorney becomes so desperate, he tries to justify the judges’ actions by blaming other nations and individuals for Germany’s descent into barbarism.

I’d like to briefly discuss these accomplices, who also figure largely in William Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Joseph Stalin

Russia: In April 1945, the first troops to enter bombed-out Berlin were the Russians, hated by both Hitler and the Western democracies (Joseph Stalin was as fascistic as Hitler or Mussolini, just a different political stripe). Had not the Russians repelled German forces at Stalingrad in 1942-43 – maybe the bloodiest confrontation in the history of man – the war would have had a different outcome. But in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This treaty enabled the two dictatorships to mutually carve up Poland and Eastern Europe.

Stalin was as brutal, cunning, and power-obsessed as Hitler. He just didn’t share Hitler’s pathological theories on race. Stalin’s great mistake was that, like so many others, he trusted Hitler. But Hitler despised Communism almost as much as Judaism, and he ridiculed the Pact from the moment it was signed. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when, against his top generals’ advice, Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. Stalin’s uncharacteristic coziness with Hitler during the Pact allowed the Germans to build their military and expand their territory for a period of two long years.

The result: hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, Jews, Bolsheviks, and resistance fighters in the East were ultimately rounded up and exterminated by Nazi Einsatzgruppen.

Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” executing a Ukrainian Jewish mother and her child (whom she’s clutching to her chest). This 1942 photo was never intended for distribution, but was somehow smuggled outside the Nazi sphere.

France: France had an opportunity to stop Hitler early on. On March 7, 1936, German forces illegally broke the 1925 Locarno Treaty and entered the demilitarized zone in the French Rhineland. Author Shirer was present when Hitler made the announcement to the German Reichstag, and recorded in his diary the disgusting scene that follows:

All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads… Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah.

Had the French stood up to this blatant act of aggression, it would have rendered Hitler weak and unreliable in the eyes of Germans, and possibly shortened the reign of the Third Reich. In 1936, the German army was not the juggernaut it later became. Additionally, army Commander-in-Chief Werner von Blomberg had already decided on retreat in case of French countermeasures. But France had been devastated by the previous war and was “paralyzed by internal strife” and “sinking into defeatism.” Hitler’s military coup in the Rhineland set the stage for similar maneuvers in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and ultimately the invasion of Poland.

Neville Chamberlain

Great Britain: under the terms of the Locarno Treaty, Great Britain was obligated to assist France after Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland. Instead, it incomprehensibly believed Hitler when he assured the European democracies that he only desired peace, and that his actions weren’t hostile. Then, in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brokered with Hitler the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia (this after allowing the Nazis to force an Anschluss and annex Austria, creating a “Greater (Nazi) Germany”).

Chamberlain’s continued appeasement of Hitler was greeted with huge approval by British citizens and Parliament, since it prevented outright war (although succeeding Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained highly critical). In reality, it merely delayed the inevitable, for it permitted Germany to strengthen its armed forces and opened the door for Hitler to invade Poland, which officially started World War II. Soon, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France also toppled to the Germans.

Many of those same British who applauded the Munich Agreement would soon be huddling in bomb shelters while the German Luftwaffe roared overhead.

***

There’s one other “accomplice” I’d like to talk about. But I’ll wait until the fourth and final installment of “Fascism for Beginners” to discuss my home country.

(Header image: detail from the “Hell Panel” from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch)

Fascism for Beginners, Part 2: Feeding the Beast

On February 24, 1926, leading NSDAP (aka National Socialist, or Nazi) officials met in the town of Bamberg in southern Germany. Hitler attended. In the crowd sat a skinny young man with blazing eyes and a crippled leg named Joseph Goebbels.

The Bamberg conference would be a defining moment for Goebbels and the Nazis. Until now, the well-educated but impressionable Goebbels had supported a northern German Nazi leader named Gregor Strasser.

Strasser was a typical Nazi: nationalistic, militaristic, and racist. But he was strongly opposed to Hitler’s 25-point Program (see previous post), and he competed with Hitler for party leadership. At the Bamberg assembly, Hitler delivered a withering two-hour speech. Any opposition to his extremist program was quickly smothered.

After Bamberg, Goebbels, like an adoring schoolgirl – and like so many other Germans – began to fall under Hitler’s spell. He would eventually rise to become Nazi Minister of Propaganda, one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, and, next to Hitler, the person most responsible for bamboozling an entire country. Strasser would later be executed by Hitler.

Two days after this meeting, just 213 kilometers west of Bamberg, in the beautiful city of Frankfurt, a Jewish girl named Margot Frank was born. Exactly 19 years later she would die of starvation, exposure, and disease, along with her younger sister, Anne, in a concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

***

Historians and writers have been scratching their scalps for over 70 years over how a Western democracy, albeit a fragile one, could elect a dictatorship, then permit a bunch of misfits and sadists to start a global conflict, rape their nation, and commit the greatest act of genocide in history. There’s more than one reason, and they’re all very complex. But William Shirer discusses some of them in his book, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. I lack the space to adequately cover them, but I’ll try to graze the surface:

Margot Frank. Like her sister, Margot kept a daily diary while her family was in hiding. It’s never been found.

Sonderweg: “Sonderweg” is a German word meaning “special path.” It’s a theory that German peoples’ values developed differently from other Western nations due to the nature of their leaders, as well as the writings and teachings of certain German philosophers and thinkers. Before WWII, historians looked at Sonderweg in a positive light. But after the war, they viewed it as having hindered development of liberal democracy, and helping give rise to fascism.

Shirer discusses Sonderweg and proposes that Nazism was a logical evolution of a national character that dates to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther is famous for his “Ninety-five Theses,” which broke from Roman Catholic dogma and helped initiate the Protestant Reformation. But Luther also openly hated Jews and advocated violence against them. His anti-Semitic writings, needless to say, were circulated widely in Nazi Germany.

Shirer cites a number of Germans after Luther whose beliefs (Shirer claims) contributed to a rising German nationalism and sense of Aryan superiority. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, and composer and writer Richard Wagner are the most well-known. While these cultural giants undoubtedly influenced 20th-century German thought and attitude, Nazi propaganda skillfully selected only those ideas of theirs which helped promote its cause, then twisted them for its own purposes. For example, although Nietzsche is famous for his philosophy of the “Übermensch” (a superior human who creates new values in the absence of God), he also spoke out against anti-Semitism, and he didn’t intend his humanistic philosophies to imply Aryan racial or German national superiority.

But did many Germans in the Depression look beneath the surface of the Nazi propaganda?

The THIRD Reich: Hitler and Goebbels sold many incredible fictions to the country during their moment in history’s spotlight. One of them was that Nazi rule represented a third realm, following the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and German Empire (1871-1918), and it would last a thousand years. It lasted less than a baker’s dozen, but enough gullible Germans became convinced that Hitler followed a line of great rulers that began with Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and continued with Otto von Bismarck.

Both Frederick and Bismarck have mixed legacies. They made Germany strong, but they did so through relentless militarism and imperialism. Additionally, Frederick marginalized Jews and despised the Poles, referring to them as “vile apes.”

Frederick II (Frederick the Great)

Hitler kept a miniature portrait of Frederick up through his final days cowering in his Berlin bunker.

Treaty of Versailles: Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors in World War I. After it was defeated by the Allies in 1918, Germany was required to accept responsibility for starting the war, disarm its military, relinquish large tracts of territory, and pay reparations (the equivalent of $442 billion U.S. dollars today) under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Many, including some in the Allied sphere, considered the penalties too harsh (although not the French, who suffered most during WWI).

Every political party in the Weimar Republic, from the liberal Social Democrats to the Catholic Centre Party to the conservative German National People’s Party, railed against the treaty, but none more so than conservatives, nationalists, and ex-military leaders. Many of them – especially the far-right National Socialists – found a convenient scapegoat in socialists, communists, and especially Jews, who had been successful as business leaders and were thought to have benefited from a weakened Germany.

Hitler was very skilled at gaining traction for his extremist ideas by appealing to Germans’ patriotism and racial heritage and demonizing “the other.” Hitler knew that once you can convince enough people of a shared enemy, and create an impression that this enemy is sub-human and has devious motives… it’s extremely easy to get people behind you. Hitler’s most fanatical adherents were young people who could be easily indoctrinated (“Hitler Youth”), and the lower educated, who could be easily duped. Although the Nazis took the tactics of demonization to unparalleled lengths, such behavior has been exhibited over and over throughout history by people in power seeking political gain. The strong preying upon the weak. It happens in dictatorships, as well as democratic republics… including the U.S.

But I digress.

Once the Jews, Bolsheviks, and intellectuals could be purged from Germany, Hitler argued, “Der Vaterland” would be purified. It could then unify its many independent provinces, regain its lost territories, and expand on them (providing Germany its “Lebensraum,” or “living space”). Then, once again, it could bask in the greatness for which it was preordained.

As jobs became ever scarce and German exports slowed to a trickle in the first years of the Depression (1929-1933), citizens hungered for quick and easy solutions… even if some of the solutions made them a little queasy, or might be temporarily “uncomfortable.”

Hitler and the National Sadists provided these solutions with gusto.

***

(Thanks for sticking with me in this unsavory topic. In the next installment of my “Fascism for Beginners” series, I’ll discuss how German citizens weren’t the only ones who contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany).