Using the Nazi analogy to discredit political opponents is a popular game that seems to work best as a substitute for honest criticism. Although such comparisons usually do little more than expose one’s ignorance of the actual history of the Third Reich, it doesn’t mean that valid comparisons don’t exist. Within the right context, similarities can be drawn, Godwin’s Law be damned.
Actually, there’s only one good reason why the subject should ever be brought up in the first place. Nazi Germany was a fundamental transformation of a parliamentary democracy that became a one party dictatorship. Just as important, it was done within the government’s legal framework and with a popular mandate from the people. That factor alone makes it a relevant example of a government gone wrong—a compelling schematic and a warning for citizens concerned about the future of their own respective countries.
Consider the following: (1) The rise and fall of Nazi Germany is an important page in world history that’s relatively recent; (2) It took place in a Western European country with a democratic parliamentary government, not too far removed from other democracies of its time; (3) In spite of the fact that Germany had free elections with a duly elected and functioning legislature, the country ended up in the hands of criminals.
Here’s an intellectual exercise I’ve used to help me develop my political perception of ongoing events. You can try it too:
Imagine you’re a German citizen sometime after WWI but before any members of the Nazi party were elected to Parliament. At what point might you have come to the realization that your country was headed for catastrophe?
This is admittedly a flawed exercise, as we can’t really duplicate the thoughts and feelings of a German population that had to endure a military surrender followed by the severe provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. And it would be difficult to imagine the hardships brought on by the worldwide Great Depression that was in many ways more acutely felt in Germany. Nevertheless, we can at least try to derive some understanding of how governments go bad, and why the citizens allow it to happen.
As a German citizen, you would have been way ahead of the curve if you’d started getting concerned about your country in 1929. The Nazis were a well recognized political party with elected members in Parliament. Joseph Goebbels, in charge of propaganda, staged the first truly grand-scale Nazi Party rally featuring blaring Wagnerian overtures, goose-step marches, and torchlight processions. From 1924 to 1929 they increased their Parliament numbers from 12 to 107. The Nazis were an up and coming German political party experiencing support at the ballot box. Would that have been something that you would have considered cause for alarm?
Perhaps by 1932 you might have wondered what was fueling the increasing popularity of the Nazi Party. In February, Hitler decided to run for president against Hindenburg, getting 30% of the vote. Hindenburg received 49%, failing to get the absolute majority he needed to win. A run-off election would be necessary. By July the Nazi Party became the largest political party in Germany, holding 230 seats, representing 37% of Parliament. As a German citizen, what might you have thought about that?
Imagine how you might have reacted in January 1933 when, in an attempt to keep the Nazi Party in check, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany. At least one man did react. Former General Erich Ludendorff who had once supported Hitler sent a telegram to President Hindenburg regarding his new chancellor:
“By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.”
Were these the words of a man with perceptive insight or the rants of a reactionary kook?
Shortly after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, Hindenburg passed the “Law for the Protection of People and State” giving him the power to arrest leaders and members of the German Communist Party without any approval from Parliament. This in effect allowed the Nazis to force all opposition parties to shut down. By this time the Nazi Party had increased their Parliament seats to 288, representing 44% of the Reichstag. Was this just business-as-usual politics or something more?
Things got much more serious later that year, but did anyone take serious notice? In March 1933 the German parliament passed the Enabling Act as an emergency measure “to remedy the distress of the people and the state.” It allowed Hitler and his Cabinet to pass laws without parliamentary consent and paved the way towards a one party dictatorship. At this point, what might have been your concerns as a German citizen?
Maybe you might have objected to some of the laws that Hitler passed following the passage of the Enabling Act. The “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” specified that all employees not of “Aryan” descent or opposed to the Nazi Party would be forced to resign. Hitler proclaimed the Nazi Party to be “the only political party in Germany.” All others were banned. And he declared that to defend Germany he had the right to act unilaterally as “supreme judge” without resort to courts. Would you have called him a dictator?
If by this time you were not yet convinced that Hitler had gone from Chancellor to absolute ruler, what happened in August may have removed all doubt. The death of President Hindenburg inspired Hitler to issue a decree appropriating to himself the powers of the President, including supreme military command. The decree was illegal but it wasn’t challenged. By any definition of the word, Hitler had become dictator of Germany, and was from then on called the Fuhrer.
OK, so Hitler was Fuhrer of the Third Reich. Was that such a bad thing? A referendum was held the same month which asked the public if they approved of Hitler’s powers. Ninety percent said ‘yes’. Unfortunately by this time German citizens were powerless to oppose Hitler even if they’d wanted to. Loyalty oaths had become mandatory for all public officials and dissent of any kind was vigorously shut down by the Gestapo.
With virtually no political opposition, Hitler took his first steps towards world domination. In February 1938, Germany annexed Austria. In March 1939, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, and six months later invaded Poland. Military invasions of Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Holland would follow in the Spring of 1940. These were good times in the eyes of many Germans. Would you have perceived something otherwise?
From this point on, everyone knows how the story goes and how it ends. Although there were Germans who were no doubt having second thoughts by this time, there would be no turning back. It had gotten far too late to prevent Germany’s eventual destruction. And therein lies the lesson of Nazi Germany.
Totalitarian nations, dictatorships, and police states don’t happen overnight. They start out as supposedly good ideas with support from the citizenry. In fact history shows that in the beginning, despots and tyrants are viewed as heroic protectors, benevolent rulers, welcomed with fanfare and open arms, perceived as champions of the people. But eventually average citizens wake up amidst chaos and decay, look around, and ask in bewilderment, “Wha hoppin?” Of course by that time, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.
There’s also a lesson to be learned about tyrants and their legions of fanatic followers: Some people never learn no matter how bad it gets. Blind loyalty is not a faculty of reason. In 1945, as Russian troops surrounded Berlin, Hitler’s approval ratings were probably still somewhere above zero. The true believers who empower tyrants usually hold on to their illusions all the way to the grave.
There’s one last lesson to remember. The inhuman atrocities committed by the Nazis occurred relatively late on their timeline. By the time the Nazis were resorting to torture, mass murder and military aggression, they’d been established for at least a decade. If rampant brutality is your only gauge for recognizing a dangerous regime, you’ve missed a few red flags along the way. And worse, you’ve waited too long to stop it.