(Re-published from Jurist | Feb. 3, 2017) How did a great country with a strong and respected place in the world, a center for culture and tolerance, elect a man who would plunge the world into what a commentator called “a place of anguish and fear”? This is a question many historians and policy makers asked themselves about Germany in the 1930’s.
The manner in which Adolf Hitler came to power initially was legitimate and within the constitutional bounds of German law. An obscure former corporal in the German army, he ran for the highest political office in his country on a platform of nationalism, essentially declaring it time to make “Germany great again.” Stung by the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany retreated inward burdened by reparations and eventual economic depression; this liberal democracy struggled to redefine itself in a post-WWI world. Hitler’s speeches declared that Germany could be a great country again, with a strong people, who could move forward to reclaim their historic place in Europe. All this rang true to a defeated people.
Hitler’s rhetoric in those days formed the murky beginnings of a far darker political dynamic, but the German people — Dem Deuctshevolk — shop workers, shopkeepers and farmers, looked beyond this darker theme and focused on a more promising future in a proud and assertive Germany. As he ran for Chancellor, Hitler focused on the economic issues of the time, promising to restore the German economy and bring back jobs. “German business first” was what a German citizen liked to hear.
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, barely more than eight years after he was released from a Bavarian prison for the Beer Hall Putsch. The first year of his rise to power was a heady time where money poured into infrastructure and rebuilding the German army, in blatant violation of the Versailles Treaty. The concept of a people’s car, a Volkswagen, became a reality to be driven on the world’s first interstate road system, called the autobahn. German citizens saw jobs, better pay, and a brighter future.
Then the nibbling at Germany’s democratic principles began, subtle at first, but picked up over the next few years, and by the time of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, led to a state policy to shift power from the people to one person, a Fuehrer. Backed by the Reichstag, new laws were passed shifting the power to a single executive. Additionally, as this happened, Adolf Hitler began to raise the stakes against perceived enemies of the state by using fear to cause the German people to give away their freedoms one at a time to fight the threat — Bolsheviks, Slavs, and Jews. Claiming a conspiracy to keep Germany weak, various minorities were singled out as a threat to the country and its people. It was this existential threat from within and outside the country that Hitler built upon a fear so much so that the citizens of Germany turned to their leader, their Fuehrer, to protect them.
The intellectual elite of Germany and much of the middle class at first stood back, amused, embarrassed, disbelieving that this proud nation of culture, of tolerance, of openness would elect this small little man who ranted and raved about a great German nation, a Reich that would last a thousand years. They could not believe that he would last long politically and stood aside in the early years thinking that the political system in place would cause his demise. By the time they realized the shift of almost complete power to one man had actually happened, it was too late. They had only one choice: swear allegiance or leave. Some left when they still could, but most stayed and accepted their national fate.
I have faced down dictators most of my professional life. To understand my adversary I have studied the twentieth century’s dictators, how they came to power, their psyche, and their methods of destroying their own citizens. There are patterns, similarities, regarding despots, dictators, and thugs who rise to and hold power in their countries. Their track record is horrific with the destruction of over 95 million human beings at the hands of these dictators in the last century.
Understanding the similar conduct of largely ordinary men rising to absolute power can help us in many ways: from investigating and prosecuting them for violations of domestic and international crimes, identifying those politicians or political movements trending toward despotism, to prevention and counter measures to blunt their move to power. Liberal democracies today need to understand the past, the present trends, to protect our futures. The consideration of these traits are instructive today in the United States and elsewhere.
So what are those similarities among despots and dictators? First in a country where a dictator comes to power, there is an anger towards the establishment, a long term disappointment and lack of trust in their government.They use this loss of faith in the centralized government to start building a political base to gain power. Dictators want to “drain the swamp,” to clean house, to start over.
Second, the rising dictator uses fear to shift that frustration away from their policies to what is called “a boogey man.” Dictators for a century all used a “boogey man” to focus their citizenry away from their absolute power to a threat outside the country. The Three Pashas in Turkey blamed the Christian Armenians for the loss of the Ottoman Empire; Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews for weakening Germany; Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung focused on Western capitalism; and the Ayatollah of Iran blamed the Great Satan of America for their economic problems. Outsiders who were different, who had a different religion became an internal and external threat and were either accounted for and interned or deported. Those who sought admission to their country were banned for who or what they were.
Third, dictators view the press as their enemy and initially seek to limit press access to their regimes, then ban or control the press entirely. They consider the press an enemy of the state and take appropriate action. The liberal press is blamed for factual distortions. The dictator declares they are not using real facts and fashion their own truths, what you would call today “alternative facts.” Joseph Goebbels stated that “if you lie to the people long enough, they will believe it as the truth.” In a dictatorship the truth is the first casualty …
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