200th Blog Post

…And the timing couldn’t be better, since I cannot think of anything to write about!

So, I’ll do what I did for the 100 milestone back in 2016 and list some links to essays that I’m still fairly comfortable with.

I’ll keep the bullshit canned and go straight to the list, but not without saying “Thank you” to you readers, followers, commenters, and “likers” who have stuck with longitudes, even after my periodic silences.

The Night Watchman

Adolescence is a difficult and confusing time, and maybe more so when you attend a traditional, single-sex boarding school. My school was way out in rural western Pennsylvania. We wore coats and ties, shared formal meals, had strict study hours, and were required to play sports. A lot of boys struggled. Some were there one day, then gone the next. I made it until graduation, and I think what helped me glide over the waves was finding little chunks of floating driftwood to cling to. This brief, long-ago, personal drama was one of them.

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

In 2017 I read William Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It really affected me, and it was no coincidence that I read it soon after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. It became clear to me that a lot of the tactics Trump used to gain and consolidate power (and still uses, with the assistance of his party) were on full display in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s: attacks on the press, demonization of critics, far-right nationalism, sloganeering, authoritarian rhetoric, racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, the “Big Lie,” etcetera, etcetera. So to deal with my disgust, I wrote a four-part series on Nazism before the U.S. entered WWII. This link takes you to my summarization, in the last part.

No, I’m not calling Trump a Nazi. But you’d have to either be willfully ignorant or a blind and deaf pig farmer in Patagonia not to recognize the parallels.

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Longitudes loves talking about music and movies. Here’s a link to a review of the music featured in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seven-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. [I also critiqued the documentary itself (click here), but it’s a shade more hard-hitting.] I’m still disappointed that Ken (“Mister America”) never solicited my input before choosing songs for his soundtrack. I think my two cents would have enhanced his project immeasurably. Then again, I could be overestimating my musical acumen. After all, I would never have picked Ringo to replace Pete Best.

Marching for Our Lives

Like “The Night Watchman,” this one is autobiographical. It describes my involvement in a march in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio to protest government inaction on gun control. Those of you reading from outside the U.S.A. probably shake your heads at the strange fascination America has with firearms. Well, some of us inside the country are doing the same thing. The march was precipitated by a horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that killed 17 students and injured 17 others. The killer had known mental health issues, but at 18 years was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a local gun store. The massacre surpassed Littleton, Colorado as the deadliest high-school shooting in the country’s history…so far.

Both the march and a rally afterwards were significant for including a number of local children and students. When young people have to take to the streets to try and fix problems their parents helped create, your country’s in bad shape.

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

(A different face of fascism.) Lillian Gish was a silent-film actress who extended her career into talkies and made over 100 films in her 99 years. She’s been called “The First Lady of American Cinema” and was a “pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques” (AllMovie Guide). She’s also from my home state of Ohio. In 1976 Bowling Green State University honored her and her actress-sister Dorothy by naming its theatre and film department after them. But in 2019 the college’s Black Student Union petitioned to rename the department, because in 1915 Lillian had acted in The Birth of a Nation, producer D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking yet controversial film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. (Gish was only 22 and had appeared in the film at the behest of Griffith, her film mentor.) University trustees unanimously voted to remove the Gish name.

This is my attempt to make a black-humor statement (note the Kubrick reference in the essay title) about a phenomenon of the 21st century known by its critics as “Cancel Culture.” Should we remove or tarnish someone’s name due to a single incident in their youth, or should we weigh their indiscretions against the context of their times and the full measure of their lives? And what does wiping out a name solve, anyway?

This one didn’t get a lot of “likes.” (Not that I use “likes” to influence what I write about.) Maybe I should have provided more backstory. Maybe most readers agreed with the name-changing. Maybe my attempt at dark humor was too acidic. Or maybe it just went over people’s heads. No matter. I like it, so here it is again.

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

The legendary singer/actress died on May 13, 2019 at age 97. I’ve never been a huge fan, but for some reason her passing hit me hard. It might have been because she was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” She also symbolized a simpler time in America that required societal role-playing and which a lot of people now pine for…and not necessarily for the best reasons. I’m sure some of it had to do with the fact that on the day she died I visited her childhood home here in Cincinnati. There was something melancholy and palpable about being the only person there on that grey, blasé day.

So I did what I usually do in those situations. I wrote it all down.

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

how democracies die

“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.)

lapua

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.

coughlin

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)

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble…Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. – Adolf Hitler, from “Mein Kampf” (1925)

This is the last post in my series on fascism, specifically the German “Third Reich.” If you dropped in for the first time, you might want to start with the first post. What I’m trying to do here is understand how and why people expressed enthusiasm for Nazism, or were lulled into indifference, both inside and outside of Germany. A few of the reasons I’ve uncovered include post-World War I fatigue, the Great Depression, German Sonderweg, pre-existing anti-Semitism, and Adolf Hitler’s uncanny ability to practically hypnotize people with oratory and lies. The countries I’ve discussed (very briefly) include Germany, Russia, France, and England.

I’d now like to discuss my home country, America.

It’s true that America joined England, France, and, reluctantly, the Soviets in defeating the Nazis and liberating the concentration camps. And we did so, amazingly, while simultaneously waging a war with Japan. My beautiful mother-in-law likes to say (over and over), “If it wasn’t for our boys in that war, we’d all be speaking German.”

(Danke, mutti).

But as satisfying as it is to wave the flag, especially when we’ve emerged as victors, the buildup to war with Germany was more complicated.

***

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “In FDR there died the greatest American friend we have ever known.”

The “Big Three” (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill) at Tehran Conference in 1943. In addition to being allies, Roosevelt and Churchill were also good friends. Stalin… not so much.

Unlike his boss Woodrow Wilson during the First World War, Roosevelt was committed to assisting England from the moment it was attacked by Germany in 1940 (and even before). In 1937, he proposed quarantining warmongering countries like Germany and Italy. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he extended military aid to Britain and France. And prior to the war’s end, he demanded unconditional surrender from Germany rather than armistice.

Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which changed everything, Roosevelt’s great hurdle in assisting the Allies and bringing down Hitler was an isolationist sentiment that pervaded America. American citizens feared the bloodshed that they’d witnessed in the First World War. Additionally, wealthy capitalists feared communism, and viewed Hitler as a check against its spread. And, just as in Germany, there was an incessant paranoia (and, undoubtedly, envy) about consolidation of power by successful Jews.

The list that follows is just a smattering of groups and individuals that either unwittingly or actively tried to prevent America from assisting the European democracies in putting an end to Hitler and the Third Reich:

Henry Ford: From 1920-22, automobile entrepreneur Ford, one of the most powerful men in America, published an anti-Semitic set of booklets and pamphlets entitled “The International Jew,” warning of an increasing “Jewish menace.” His work caught the notice of a young Hitler.

Ford earned the dubious distinction of being the only American mentioned in Hitler’s 1925 blueprint for Nazism, “Mein Kampf.” And much later, SS chief Heinrich Himmler cited Ford as being “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters.”

Henry Ford, dressed to the nines, accepting his Order of the German Eagle award, on his 75th birthday in 1936, the height of Nazism.

U.S. Congress: Even after Germany’s repeated violations of the Treaty of Versailles, politicians from both parties adhered to a policy of non-intervention. Congress passed three Neutrality Acts, from 1935 to 1937, to maintain American isolationism. This was all in the face of Mussolini invading northern Africa, General Francisco Franco and the Falangists (similar to Italy’s Fascisti) revolting against the republican Spanish government, and Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland.

Charles Lindbergh: Americans adored the aviation hero. He flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in the “Spirit of St. Louis,” and Americans suffered with him after his young son was murdered.

But Lindbergh possibly exceeded even Ford in both anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi activities. As a member of the isolationist America First Committee, he lobbied against U.S. intervention in Europe and openly defended Hitler’s military aggressions. In one infamous America First speech (60 years to the day before the Twin Towers fell), Lindbergh lectured Jewish groups in America, advising them that U.S. military intervention against Hitler would only hurt European Jews.

Some choice Lindbergh quotes:

(The) greatest danger to this country lies in (Jewish) large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.

(Three groups are) pressing this country toward war: the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.

We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood.

Hitler’s destruction would lay Europe open to the rape, loot, and barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of western civilization.

Charles Lindbergh, pushing for non-intervention at an America First Committee rally. Roosevelt was quoted as saying “I am convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.” After he tagged Lindbergh as being a “defeatist and appeaser,” Lindbergh resigned from the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Lindbergh was a staunch believer in eugenics, and after the war, he fathered seven children by several mistresses to prove it. He was awarded the Order of the German Eagle by the Nazi government (Ford also received this award). He accepted it from Hermann Goering at a dinner in October 1938. Several weeks later occurred Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the first anti-Jewish pogrom, carried out by Nazi SA troops and German citizens. Even after this, Lindbergh declined to return his award.

Breckinridge Long: Long was assistant secretary of state under Roosevelt. He directed anti-immigrant efforts that effectively barred Jews and others from attaining asylum in the states following their well-publicized persecution in Germany. As late as 1943, when the U.S. government had documented evidence of German atrocities against the Jews, Long gave secret testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that attempted to stifle revisions to harsh immigration policies.

(Maybe the most infamous example of indifference to the Jewish plight occurred in 1938, when the passenger ship St. Louis, loaded with over 900 Jews fleeing Europe, was refused entry at every American port. The ship eventually returned to Europe and unloaded these unfortunate exiles at Antwerp, Belgium… which shortly thereafter was enveloped in a swarm of cockroaches wearing jackboots and swastikas).

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.: The patriarch of the Kennedy family, Joe Sr. amassed a fortune importing Scotch whisky, transacting real estate, merging film studios, and through insider trading on Wall Street. During his Hollywood tenure, he had a three-year affair with silent film star Gloria Swanson.

In 1938, he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Britain by President Roosevelt, an old friend. He must have made Roosevelt chew off his cigarette holder, because his sails definitely lacked the tack of Jack. He was right there with Neville Chamberlain during the Munich appeasement (see previous post). Then he tried to arrange a clandestine meeting with Hitler, about the same time as Kristallnacht. He argued against military aid to England, famously saying that “democracy is finished” there. He also bragged that he knew “more about the European situation than anyone else.”

Kennedy’s biographers cite numerous examples of his anti-Semitism, some of it confirmed in letters between Kennedy and his friend, Charles Lindbergh. After Roosevelt secured the Catholic vote and was re-elected in 1940, he fired Kennedy. Joe Sr. spent the rest of his life directing his energies toward his sons.

Arch-appeaser and British Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

American Capitalists: As I hinted above, certain American heads of industries were more concerned about Communists than about Germans in the 1930s and early ‘40s. They ran powerful businesses, and weren’t about to see their successes jeopardized by a “Red Menace,” which they felt a far right fascist like Hitler could help suppress.

But there was an even darker side. Many of these corporations did significant business in Hitler’s Germany. Ford Motor Company’s German branch, Ford-Werke, used French POWs as slave labor prior to the U.S. entering the war. Here are some others who nurtured a close relationship with the National Socialists:

James D. Mooney (President of General Motors Overseas): in 1938, Mooney received the Order of the German Eagle. In 1939 he met Nazi officials to discuss GM’s Adam-Opel facility in Germany. He arranged for a meeting between a Goering employee, one Helmut Wohlthat, and Joseph Kennedy, regarding exchanging loans for more open trading possibilities. Mooney resigned from GM after several leading American publications accused him of Nazi sympathies.

Thomas J. Watson Sr. (Chairman and CEO of IBM): in a book called “IBM and the Holocaust,” author Edwin Black argues that Watson willfully ignored Nazi persecution of Jews in a quest for profit. IBM manufactured a punch-card machine that was used by Nazis to tabulate and track Jews in Germany, and later to track inmates within the concentration camps. Watson’s IBM began its business relationship with the Nazis in 1933, the year the party consolidated its power (and established the first concentration camp, at Dachau). Nazi Germany soon became IBM’s biggest customer, right behind the U.S. In 1937, Watson attended an International Chamber of Commerce meeting in Berlin, where he accepted the Order of the German Eagle.

IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr.

Torkild Rieber (Chairman of Texaco): Rieber illegally lent Texaco oil to Francisco Franco after Franco’s fascist uprising in Spain. He also traded oil with Nazi Germany for tankers. In June 1937, President Roosevelt met with him and threatened him with an oil embargo, but Rieber continued to do business with Germany in secret. After the start of the war, and despite a British embargo, Rieber arranged for Columbian oil to be shipped to the Nazis.

The day after France surrendered to Germany, on June 26, 1940, senior executives from Ford, GM, ITT, Texaco, and typewriter pioneer Underwood – including Rieber and Mooney – met with a German businessman and agent named Westrick at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for a celebratory dinner.

 ***

Question: Before accepting their precious Order of the German Vulture awards, didn’t these obsessive capitalists bother to read “Mein Kampf,” written in 1925, which practically laid out everything Hitler and the National Socialists would do in the next 20 years, including extermination by poison gas? And if so, did they conveniently forget it while shaking hands with Hermann Goering?

Conclusion:

Trying to end this horror story appropriately is a bit of a struggle. It needs a moral, but it begs for someone better equipped than me to offer it. Just a few thoughts before I jump to a sunnier latitude on longitudes:

My friend Tad suggested that the title “Fascism for Dummies” sounds trite and mean-spirited, and I’m inclined to agree. For posterity (blog posts get lots of “hits” long after they’re published) I’m thinking of shortening it to just “Fascism.” But if anyone has a better suggestion, please let me know.

Also, I received a personal email from someone that cynically predicted I would eventually be making Trump comparisons. I guess this person read between the lines. Because I’m one of those who still strives for truth, I’ll be truthful: when I started writing, I was considering doing just that. But I changed my mind. However, it’s not because I want to spare Trump or anyone who supports the current right-wing cabal in Washington. I still think our current president is a despicable person and a terrible choice for a leader, and that America has made a big mistake.

The reason I won’t draw specific comparisons is that I’m afraid if I do, I’ll be exploiting something that should remain unexploited. What happened in Europe from 1933 to 1945 was a horror unimaginable, and the millions who suffered and died deserve more than being a touchstone for today’s petty politics. What happened there and then transcends politics. While it should never be forgotten, it shouldn’t be exploited, either. I’ll just offer this:

Whatever society, or whatever political persuasion, it’s important we keep our eyes and ears open and elect good leaders who will nourish our humanity, rather than diminish it. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a book called “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The theme is that every human has the capacity within himself for both good and evil. Whether we submerge Hyde, or allow him to poke his head out occasionally… or strut around in broad daylight in full regalia… is up to us.

Sources:

“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer

“American History: A Survey” by Alan Brinkley

“The Kennedy’s at War: 1937-1945” by Edward J. Renehan Jr.

http://www.wikipedia.com

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.

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(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).