March 22, 2003

When Democracy Failed: The Warnings of History – Is it about to repeat itself?


AUTHOR: Thom Hartmann

The 70th anniversary wasn’t noticed in the United States, and was barely
reported in the corporate media. But the Germans remembered well that
fateful day seventy years ago – February 27, 1933. They commemorated the
anniversary by joining in demonstrations for peace that mobilized citizens
all across the world.

It started when the government, in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis,
received reports of an imminent terrorist attack. A foreign ideologue had
launched feeble attacks on a few famous buildings, but the media largely
ignored his relatively small efforts.

The intelligence services knew,
however, that the odds were he would eventually succeed. (Historians are
still arguing whether or not rogue elements in the intelligence service
helped the terrorist; the most recent research implies they did not.)

But the warnings of investigators were ignored at the highest levels, in
part because the government was distracted; the man who claimed to be the
nation’s leader had not been elected by a majority vote and the majority of
citizens claimed he had no right to the powers he coveted.

He was a
simpleton, some said, a cartoon character of a man who saw things in
black-and-white terms and didn’t have the intellect to understand the
subtleties of running a nation in a complex and internationalist world.

coarse use of language – reflecting his political roots in a southernmost
state – and his simplistic and often-inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric
offended the aristocrats, foreign leaders, and the well-educated elite in
the government and media.

And, as a young man, he’d joined a secret society
with an occult-sounding name and bizarre initiation rituals that involved
skulls and human bones.

Nonetheless, he knew the terrorist was going to strike (although he didn’t
know where or when), and he had already considered his response. When an
aide brought him word that the nation’s most prestigious building was
ablaze, he verified it was the terrorist who had struck and then rushed to
the scene and called a press conference.

“You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in history,” he
proclaimed, standing in front of the burned-out building, surrounded by
national media. “This fire,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion, “is
the beginning.” He used the occasion – “a sign from God,” he called it – to
declare an all-out war on terrorism and its ideological sponsors, a people,
he said, who traced their origins to the Middle East and found motivation
for their evil deeds in their religion.

Two weeks later, the first detention center for terrorists was built in
Oranianberg to hold the first suspected allies of the infamous terrorist. In
a national outburst of patriotism, the leader’s flag was everywhere, even
printed large in newspapers suitable for window display.

Within four weeks of the terrorist attack, the nation’s now-popular leader
had pushed through legislation – in the name of combating terrorism and
fighting the philosophy he said spawned it – that suspended constitutional
guarantees of free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus.

Police could now
intercept mail and wiretap phones; suspected terrorists could be imprisoned
without specific charges and without access to their lawyers; police could
sneak into people’s homes without warrants if the cases involved terrorism.

To get his patriotic “Decree on the Protection of People and State” passed
over the objections of concerned legislators and civil libertarians, he
agreed to put a 4-year sunset provision on it: if the national emergency
provoked by the terrorist attack was over by then, the freedoms and rights
would be returned to the people, and the police agencies would be
re-restrained. Legislators would later say they hadn’t had time to read the
bill before voting on it.

Immediately after passage of the anti-terrorism act, his federal police
agencies stepped up their program of arresting suspicious persons and
holding them without access to lawyers or courts.

In the first year only a
few hundred were interred, and those who objected were largely ignored by
the mainstream press, which was afraid to offend and thus lose access to a
leader with such high popularity ratings. Citizens who protested the leader
in public – and there were many – quickly found themselves confronting the
newly empowered police’s batons, gas, and jail cells, or fenced off in
protest zones safely out of earshot of the leader’s public speeches. (In the
meantime, he was taking almost daily lessons in public speaking, learning to
control his tonality, gestures, and facial expressions. He became a very
competent orator.)

Within the first months after that terrorist attack, at the suggestion of a
political advisor, he brought a formerly obscure word into common usage. He
wanted to stir a “racial pride” among his countrymen, so, instead of
referring to the nation by its name, he began to refer to it as “The
Homeland,” a phrase publicly promoted in the introduction to a 1934 speech
recorded in Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda movie “Triumph Of The

As hoped, people’s hearts swelled with pride, and the beginning of an
us-versus-them mentality was sewn. Our land was “the” homeland, citizens
thought: all others were simply foreign lands. We are the “true people,” he
suggested, the only ones worthy of our nation’s concern; if bombs fall on
others, or human rights are violated in other nations and it makes our lives
better, it’s of little concern to us.

Playing on this new nationalism, and exploiting a disagreement with the
French over his increasing militarism, he argued that any international body
that didn’t act first and foremost in the best interest of his own nation
was neither relevant nor useful.

He thus withdrew his country from the
League Of Nations in October, 1933, and then negotiated a separate naval
armaments agreement with Anthony Eden of The United Kingdom to create a
worldwide military ruling elite.

His propaganda minister orchestrated a campaign to ensure the people that he
was a deeply religious man and that his motivations were rooted in
Christianity. He even proclaimed the need for a revival of the Christian
faith across his nation, what he called a “New Christianity.”

Every man in
his rapidly growing army wore a belt buckle that declared “Gott Mit Uns” –
God Is With Us – and most of them fervently believed it was true.

Within a year of the terrorist attack, the nation’s leader determined that
the various local police and federal agencies around the nation were lacking
the clear communication and overall coordinated administration necessary to
deal with the terrorist threat facing the nation, particularly those
citizens who were of Middle Eastern ancestry and thus probably terrorist and
communist sympathizers, and various troublesome “intellectuals” and

He proposed a single new national agency to protect the security
of the homeland, consolidating the actions of dozens of previously
independent police, border, and investigative agencies under a single

He appointed one of his most trusted associates to be leader of this new
agency, the Central Security Office for the homeland, and gave it a role in
the government equal to the other major departments.

His assistant who dealt with the press noted that, since the terrorist
attack, “Radio and press are at out disposal.” Those voices questioning the
legitimacy of their nation’s leader, or raising questions about his
checkered past, had by now faded from the public’s recollection as his
central security office began advertising a program encouraging people to
phone in tips about suspicious neighbors.

This program was so successful
that the names of some of the people “denounced” were soon being broadcast
on radio stations. Those denounced often included opposition politicians and
celebrities who dared speak out – a favorite target of his regime and the
media he now controlled through intimidation and ownership by corporate

To consolidate his power, he concluded that government alone wasn’t enough.

He reached out to industry and forged an alliance, bringing former
executives of the nation’s largest corporations into high government
positions. A flood of government money poured into corporate coffers to
fight the war against the Middle Eastern ancestry terrorists lurking within
the homeland, and to prepare for wars overseas.

He encouraged large
corporations friendly to him to acquire media outlets and other industrial
concerns across the nation, particularly those previously owned by
suspicious people of Middle Eastern ancestry. He built powerful alliances
with industry; one corporate ally got the lucrative contract worth millions
to build the first large-scale detention center for enemies of the state.
Soon more would follow. Industry flourished.

But after an interval of peace following the terrorist attack, voices of
dissent again arose within and without the government. Students had started
an active program opposing him (later known as the White Rose Society), and
leaders of nearby nations were speaking out against his bellicose rhetoric.

He needed a diversion, something to direct people away from the corporate
cronyism being exposed in his own government, questions of his possibly
illegitimate rise to power, and the oft-voiced concerns of civil
libertarians about the people being held in detention without due process or
access to attorneys or family.

With his number two man – a master at manipulating the media – he began a
campaign to convince the people of the nation that a small, limited war was

Another nation was harboring many of the suspicious Middle
Eastern people, and even though its connection with the terrorist who had
set afire the nation’s most important building was tenuous at best, it held
resources their nation badly needed if they were to have room to live and
maintain their prosperity.

He called a press conference and publicly
delivered an ultimatum to the leader of the other nation, provoking an
international uproar. He claimed the right to strike preemptively in
self-defense, and nations across Europe – at first – denounced him for it,
pointing out that it was a doctrine only claimed in the past by nations
seeking worldwide empire, like Caesar’s Rome or Alexander’s Greece.

It took a few months, and intense international debate and lobbying with
European nations, but, after he personally met with the leader of the United
Kingdom, finally a deal was struck. After the military action began, Prime
Minister Neville Chamberlain told the nervous British people that giving in
to this leader’s new first-strike doctrine would bring “peace for our time.”

Thus Hitler annexed Austria in a lightning move, riding a wave of popular
support as leaders so often do in times of war. The Austrian government was
unseated and replaced by a new leadership friendly to Germany, and German
corporations began to take over Austrian resources.

In a speech responding to critics of the invasion, Hitler said, “Certain
foreign newspapers have said that we fell on Austria with brutal methods. I
can only say; even in death they cannot stop lying. I have in the course of
my political struggle won much love from my people, but when I crossed the
former frontier [into Austria] there met me such a stream of love as I have
never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators.”

To deal with those who dissented from his policies, at the advice of his
politically savvy advisors, he and his handmaidens in the press began a
campaign to equate him and his policies with patriotism and the nation

National unity was essential, they said, to ensure that the
terrorists or their sponsors didn’t think they’d succeeded in splitting the
nation or weakening its will. In times of war, they said, there could be
only “one people, one nation, and one commander-in-chief” (“Ein Volk, ein
Reich, ein Fuhrer”), and so his advocates in the media began a nationwide
campaign charging that critics of his policies were attacking the nation

Those questioning him were labeled “anti-German” or “not good
Germans,” and it was suggested they were aiding the enemies of the state by
failing in the patriotic necessity of supporting the nation’s valiant men in
uniform. It was one of his most effective ways to stifle dissent and pit
wage-earning people (from whom most of the army came) against the
“intellectuals and liberals” who were critical of his policies.

Nonetheless, once the “small war” annexation of Austria was successfully and
quickly completed, and peace returned, voices of opposition were again
raised in the Homeland. The almost-daily release of news bulletins about the
dangers of terrorist communist cells wasn’t enough to rouse the populace and
totally suppress dissent.

A full-out war was necessary to divert public
attention from the growing rumbles within the country about disappearing
dissidents; violence against liberals, Jews, and union leaders; and the
epidemic of crony capitalism that was producing empires of wealth in the
corporate sector but threatening the middle class’s way of life.

A year later, to the week, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia; the nation was now
fully at war, and all internal dissent was suppressed in the name of
national security. It was the end of Germany’s first experiment with

As we conclude this review of history, there are a few milestones worth

February 27, 2003, was the 70th anniversary of Dutch terrorist Marinus van
der Lubbe’s successful firebombing of the German Parliament (Reichstag)
building, the terrorist act that catapulted Hitler to legitimacy and
reshaped the German constitution. By the time of his successful and brief
action to seize Austria, in which almost no German blood was shed, Hitler
was the most beloved and popular leader in the history of his nation.

around the world, he was later Time magazine’s “Man Of The Year.”

Most Americans remember his office for the security of the homeland, known
as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and its SchutzStaffel, simply by its most
famous agency’s initials: the SS.

We also remember that the Germans developed a new form of highly violent
warfare they named “lightning war” or blitzkrieg, which, while generating
devastating civilian losses, also produced a highly desirable “shock and
awe” among the nation’s leadership according to the authors of the 1996 book
“Shock And Awe” published by the National Defense University Press.

Reflecting on that time, The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1983) left us this definition of the form of government the German
democracy had become through Hitler’s close alliance with the largest German
corporations and his policy of using war as a tool to keep power: “fas-cism
(fbsh’iz’em) n. A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the
extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business
leadership, together with belligerent nationalism.”

Today, as we face financial and political crises, it’s useful to remember
that the ravages of the Great Depression hit Germany and the United States
alike. Through the 1930s, however, Hitler and Roosevelt chose very different
courses to bring their nations back to power and prosperity.

Germany’s response was to use government to empower corporations and reward
the society’s richest individuals, privatize much of the commons, stifle
dissent, strip people of constitutional rights, and create an illusion of
prosperity through continual and ever-expanding war.

America passed minimum
wage laws to raise the middle class, enforced anti-trust laws to diminish
the power of corporations, increased taxes on corporations and the
wealthiest individuals, created Social Security, and became the employer of
last resort through programs to build national infrastructure, promote the
arts, and replant forests.

To the extent that our Constitution is still intact, the choice is again


Thom Hartmann lived and worked in Germany during the 1980s, and is the
author of over a dozen books, including “Unequal Protection” and “The Last
Hours of Ancient Sunlight.” Visit his website at

This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but
permission is granted for reprint in print, email, blog, or web media so
long as this credit is attached.

2003 Archives
About Raven SiJohn

Leave a Reply