Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An American Reichstag Fire?

From The American Prospect:  http://prospect.org/article/american-reichstag-fire

February 27 is the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Reichstag and gave Hitler a pretext to seize total power. How strong are America's firebreaks?

Peter Schrag February 24, 2017

Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and the court system. 
                                  —Donald Trump, tweet, February 5

On the night of February 27, 1933, less than a month after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, fire gutted the central chamber of the Reichstag in Berlin, the nation’s parliament building. To this day, historians are still debating whether it was the work of a lone arsonist, the Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe, who was caught at the scene and soon confessed, or as journalist William L. Shirer later asserted in his classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, that there was “enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.”

But of one thing there was no doubt.

Within hours of the fire, hundreds of people were arrested and put in “protective custody” or sent to concentration camps, and the next morning (in the words of the Cambridge University historian Richard Evans), “the cabinet, which still had a non-Nazi majority, met to draw up an emergency decree that abrogated civil liberties across Germany. Signed by President Hindenburg the same day, it abolished freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of the press, suspended the autonomy of federated states, such as Baden and Bavaria, and legalized phone-tapping, the interception of correspondence, and other intrusions.”

The decree was the first of two major measures that eliminated all institutional checks and gave Hitler absolute dictatorial powers. The second, passed a month later by the Reichstag, gave Hitler plenary power—the power to enact laws without any action by the parliament whatever. Quoting Evans again,

The Nazis used them to bludgeon their opponents into submission and their allies into compliance. By the summer of 1933 all opposition had been crushed, more than a hundred thousand Communists, Social Democrats, and other opponents of the Nazis had been sent to concentration camps, all independent political parties had been forced to dissolve themselves, and the Nazi dictatorship had been firmly established.

Could it happen here, as the historian Robert S. McElvaine of Millsaps College recently warned in the Huffington Post?  

The odds are that it could not—not in the same way and certainly not to the same extent, despite Donald Trump’s megalomaniacal rhetoric and the radicals in his entourage. Trump has no global agenda, clings fanatically to no ideology, has no Weltanschauung, as Hitler had; his highest priority appears to be himself.

Nor is America in 2017 like Germany in 1933. The two cultures are vastly different and the technology that enabled Trump to gain political power is just as accessible to his opposition. It’s also likely, judging by his appellate court opinions, that Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court, will, despite his conservative leanings on issues like abortion, be faithful to the Constitution’s protections of the press and free speech; he will not eviscerate them.
Moreover, in the view of CUNY historian Benjamin Hett, whose 2014 book Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation Into The Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery makes a strong case that the fire was a Nazi plot,

The media environment of today [he wrote me in an email]—with 24-hour cable news, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, etc., etc.—is so much more intrusive than in 1933 (and the federal government is so full of people who would be happy to leak incriminating information, not least in the intelligence services) that the Trump administration would have no chance of getting away with a deliberate terrorist attack as a pretext for a coup d’état. … The other important difference is that Trump is dramatically less popular than Hitler was in 1933 and there is significantly more pushback from the population to the things he is trying to do. Not that I wouldn’t put it past Trump and [Stephen] Bannon to be thinking about this kind of thing.

But as a refugee from Hitler (Class of ’41), I’m too much aware of the extent to which the Nazis were underestimated as low-class clowns and thugs until it was too late. Similarly, in the past election, the media, the pollsters, the Democrats and millions of other Americans, and not just the left, also underestimated Trump. In that context, I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s post-war observation that “in 1933, indifference was no longer possible. It was no longer possible even before that.”

Continue reading at:  http://prospect.org/article/american-reichstag-fire

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