How does something that extraordinary happen? It's a question that has not only burdened American Baby Boomers, but three generations of postwar Germans as well. But for them it's much more than just a historical curiosity. For postwar Germans it's also been a nagging sense of collective guilt – guilt about events they had nothing to do with, but guilt nonetheless. It's a guilt built on the realization that their parents and grand parents either participated in, supported and/or enabled what happened over half a century ago -- or, at the very least, did nothing to prevent or stop it.
Of course the fascist rulers of the Third Reich ruled with a heavy hand. So it's not hard to understand why so many Germans simply laid low rather than oppose the regime.
While the rules have tightened here since 9/11, we've not experienced anything near that scale. Speaking out is remains a survivable exercise.
Which begs the question; what will be our excuse? How will we explain the things we've allowed this administration to get away with -- the torture, the “renditions,” the secret prisons, the warrant-less wiretapping, the lies we and our media allowed to stand? What are we going to tell our grand children when they ask us what the hell we were thinking, feeling and doing while all that was afoot?
I understand it's against the rules of polite society to recklessly throw the “f” word around by comparing anything that's happening today to the kind of atrocities that occurred under Hitler. It''s even worse to compare any contemporary American political/religious/social leader to Hitler.
So I won't. I won't go that far, because it hasn't gone that far – yet.
I don't ask you to accept that there are any genuine corollaries between the events that led to Germany's decent into fascism and what's been going on in America over the last few years. I only ask that you consider the events back then and the events we are living through now. I think you will agree that, at the very least there are spooky similarities – and , at the very worst, there are striking similarities.
Either way, there are valuable lessons to be learned, mistakes to be avoided and, maybe, just maybe, warnings worth heeding.
|Germany And Then||Here and Now|
|Use events to restrict legal rights, like Habeas Corpus: |
On the night of February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building was set on fire. The unnerved public was told the fire had been a signal meant to initiate a communist revolution. The Nazis found the event to be of immeasurable value in getting rid of potential insurgents. The event was quickly followed by the Reichstag Fire Decree, rescinding habeas corpus and other civil liberties. (1)
|Adminstration Questions Habeas Corpus|
In one of the most chilling public statements ever made by a U.S. Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales questioned whether the U.S. Constitution grants habeas corpus rights of a fair trial to every American. (2)
|Use events to expand executive branch powers new powers:|
Just 30 days after fire destroyed the Reichstag, German legislators were convinced to pass the Enabling Act of 1933. It passed with 444 votes, to the 94 of the remaining Social Democrats. The act gave the government (and thus effectively the Nazi Party) legislative powers and also authorized it to deviate from the provisions of the constitution. With these powers, Hitler removed the remaining opposition and turned the Weimar Republic into the "Third Reich". (3)
|After 9/11 US passes Patriot Act:|
Just 45 days after the September 11 attacks, with virtually no debate, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. There are significant flaws in the Patriot Act, flaws that threaten your fundamental freedoms by giving the government the power to access to your medical records, tax records, information about the books you buy or borrow without probable cause, and the power to break into your home and conduct secret searches without telling you for weeks, months, or indefinitely. (4)
|Consolidate federal power:|
Further consolidation of power was achieved on 30 January 1934, with the Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reichs (Act to rebuild the Reich). The act changed the highly decentralized federal Germany of the Weimar era into a centralized state. It disbanded state parliaments, transferring sovereign rights of the states to the Reich central government and put the state administrations under the control of the Reich administration. (5)
|National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive |
This policy establishes "National Essential Functions," prescribes continuity requirements for all executive departments and agencies, and provides guidance for State, local, territorial, and tribal governments, and private sector organizations in order to ensure a comprehensive and integrated national continuity program that will enhance the credibility of our national security posture and enable a more rapid and effective response to and recovery from a national emergency. (6)
|Reduce the influence of the national military by creating an independent force.|
The German army had traditionally been separated from the government and somewhat of an entity of its own. The Nazi paramilitary SA expected top positions in the new power structure and wanted the regime to follow through its promise of enacting socialist legislation for Aryan Germans. Wanting to preserve good relations with the army and the major industries who were weary of more political violence erupting from the SA, on the night of 30 June 1934, Hitler initiated the violent Night of the Long Knives, a purge of the leadership ranks of Röhm's SA as well as socialist-leaning Nazis (Strasserists), and other political enemies, carried out by another, more elitist, Nazi organization, the SS. (7)
|Privitization of US military operations|
Blackwater USA is a private military company. It has alternatively been referred to as a security contractor or a mercenary organization by numerous reports in the international media. Blackwater is based in the U.S. state of North Carolina, where it operates a tactical training facility that it claims is the world's largest. The company trains more than 40,000 people a year, from all the military services and a variety of other agencies. The company markets itself as being "The most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations company in the world." (8)
|Replace regional civil law enforcement with a nationalized police force.|
The inception of the Gestapo, police acting outside of any civil authority, highlighted the Nazis' intention to use powerful, coercive means to directly control German society. Soon, an army estimated to be of about 100,000 spies and informants operated throughout Germany, reporting to Nazi officials the activities of any critics or dissenters. Most ordinary Germans, happy with the improving economy and better standard of living, remained obedient and quiet, but many political opponents, especially communists and Marxist or international socialists, were reported by omnipresent eavesdropping spies and put in prison camps where many were tortured and killed. It is estimated that tens of thousands of political victims died or disappeared in the first few years of Nazi rule. (9)
|Authority of the Secretary of Homeland Security.|
"All authorities and functions of the Department of Homeland Security to administer and enforce the immigration laws are vested in the Secretary of Homeland Security. The Secretary of Homeland Security may, in the Secretary's discretion, delegate any such authority or function to any official, officer, or employee of the Department of Homeland Security, including delegation through successive redelegation, or to any employee of the United States to the extent authorized by law. Such delegation may be made by regulation, directive, memorandum, or other means as deemed appropriate by the Secretary in the exercise of the Secretary's discretion. A delegation of authority or function may in the Secretary's discretion be published in the Federal Register, but such publication is not required." (10)
|Make militarism pay.|
Nazi rationale invested heavily in the militarist belief that great nations grow from military power and maintained order, which in turn grow "naturally" from "rational, civilized cultures". The Nazi Party appealed to German nationalists and national pride. ... Many companies dealt with the Third Reich. Volkswagen was a Nazi project. Opel employed Jewish slave labour to run their industrial plants. Additionally, Daimler-Benz used prisoners of war as slaves to run their industrial plants. Other companies that dealt with the Third Reich—many of which claim not to have known the truth of what the Nazis were doing —were: BMW, Krupp (made gas chambers), Bayer (as a small part of the enormous IG Farben chemistry monopoly), and Hugo Boss (designed the SS uniforms, admitted to this in 1997). (11)
|Defense Contractor CEO Pay Up 200 Percent Since 9/11 |
The ratio between CEO and worker pay across the market climbs to 431 : 1, up from 301 : 1 last year, according to a new CEO pay study from United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies. The report, which surveys 367 leading US corporations, focuses particularly on 34 of the top 100 defense contractors in 2004 with 10 percent or more of their revenues from defense contracts. It finds "a trend towards individual war profiteering by CEOs," with CEO pay at these companies rising 200 percent from 2001 to 2004. Stepping back to look at across-the-board comparisons, the ratio of average total compensation for all 367 CEOs ($11.8 million) to average production worker pay ($27,460) is 431-to-1 in 2004, up from 301-to-1 in 2003. (12)
|Prosecute gays and stress "traditional family values."|
The Nazis opposed women's emancipation and opposed the feminist movement, claiming that it was Jewish-led and was bad for both women and men. The Nazi regime advocated a patriarchial society in which German women would recognize the "world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home." (13) The Nazis believed that male homosexuals were weak, effeminate men who could not fight for the German nation. They saw homosexuals as unlikely to produce children and increase the German birthrate. (15)
|Congress passes Defense of Marriage Act/Don't Ask, Don't Tell.|
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does two things. First, it provides that no State shall be required to give effect to a law of any other
State with respect to a same-sex "marriage." Second, it defines the words "marriage" and "spouse" for purposes of Federal law. (14)
"What I fail to understand is exactly how the military would be expected to house openly-admitted homosexuals, in an environment where we force people to room together, without seriously violating the sexual privacy rights of the heterosexual majority, or causing major problems with morale." (16)
|Eliminate labor unions to reduce labor costs|
The Nazis abolished trade unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike. An organization called the “Labor Front” replaced the old trade unions, but it was an instrument of the Nazi party and did not represent workers. According to the law that created it, “Its task is to see that every individual should be able… to perform the maximum of work.” Workers would indeed greatly boost their productivity under Nazi rule but they also became exploited. Between 1932 and 1936, workers wages fell, from 20.4 to 19.5 cents an hour for skilled labor, and from 16.1 to 13 cents an hour for unskilled labor. (17)
|The New Face of Unionbusting|
Last December the Labor Department's top official in California made the most expensive and dangerous call of his life. Richard Sawyer thought he was just enforcing wage and hour laws, and protecting workers' rights. That is, after all, the Labor Department's mandate. Instead, the price for his call was his job.Republican politicians are seeking to ban one of the labor movement's most effective campaign strategies - Justice for Janitors. Sawyer's predicament highlights the evolving nature of unionbusting. What has traditionally been a business dominated by consultants, guards and lawfirms, conducting dirty campaigns to beat unions in strikes and NLRB elections, has taken on a much wider scope. (18)
|Increase the money supply, ease credit -- go into deficit -- borrow like crazy|
The German government expanded the money supply through massive deficit spending. However at the same time the government imposed a 4.5% interest rate ceiling, creating a massive shortage in borrowable funds. This was resolved by setting up a series of dummy companies that would pay for goods with bonds. While it was promised that these bonds could eventually be exchanged for real money, the repayment was put off until after the collapse of the Reich. These complicated manoeuvres also helped conceal armament expenditures. (19)
|Increase the money supply, ease credit, cut taxes, go into deficit -- borrow like crazy.|
The U.S. budget deficit is financed by borrowing. China's investment in U.S. government debt (bonds) has more than tripled in the past five years, from $71 billion in 2000 to $242 billion in 2005.
Under pressure to pay for hurricane recovery, the war in Iraq, a costly transportation bill, tax cuts, and a new prescription drug program, Congress and the president have been unwilling to raise taxes or make deep spending cuts. The only alternative is to borrow. (20)
|No unions, imported labor, slave labor keep wages low.|
While the strict state intervention into the economy, and the massive rearmament policy, led to full employment during the 1930s, real wages in Germany dropped by roughly 25% between 1933 and 1938. In addition, more than ten million people were put into forced (slave) labor, further depressing wages. (21)
|Weakened unions, cheap labor from Mexico keep wages low.|
With the economy beginning to slow, the current expansion has a chance to become the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that fails to offer a prolonged increase in real wages for most workers.The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity has risen steadily over the same period. (22)
|Share the booty with helpful elite.|
What may have looked like utter confusion -- within the German government -- was in fact a cunningly orchestrated program, one that was able to mobilize such groups as Germany's elites, who were not simply delirious with religious hope and hatred. Other more specialized works have shown that the amount of nepotism and cold-blooded corruption under the Third Reich was just incredible.
(V.R. Berghahn is the Seth Low professor of history and the director of the Institute for the Study of Europe at Columbia University.)
|Share the booty with helpful companies|
The payback from these lobbying efforts can be enormous. Between 1998 and 2004, the 41 defense contractors that paid fees to PMA collectively won $266 billion in contracts from the Pentagon, according to CRP. That amounts to almost 30% of the dollar value of all contracts awarded by the Department of Defense. Moreover, of this amount, $167 billion — nearly two out of three dollars — was received from contracts that were awarded without "full and open" competition. In fact, PMA clients account for 47% of all such non-competitive contracts — contracts in which the government negotiates with a single contractor (23)
The first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves. Historians have documented evidence that Heinrich Himmler instructed his camp commandants to destroy records, crematoria and other signs of mass extermination, as Germany's defeat became imminent and the Nazi leaders realized they would most likely be captured and brought to trial. Following the end of World War II, many of the former leaders of the SS left Germany and began using their propaganda skills to defend their actions (or, their critics contended, to rewrite history). Denial materials began to appear shortly after the war.[24)
|"This Governement Does Not Torture People." |
(George W. Bush)
There is a growing consensus that the harrowing images of Abu Ghraib did great trauma to our national psyche - and was one of the steepest falls from grace in our nation's history. Like everyone else, I had seen the images that came out of Abu Ghraib and was shocked and saddened by them. And like so many others, I wondered how could people, particularly Americans, treat others so inhumanely? I initially set out to do a documentary about why ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of evil. Were the people who committed these acts psychopaths? Or were they the sweet kids next door behaving badly in times of war? (25)
First a definition: The Big Lie:
But who better to define the Big Lie than one of it's most successful practitioners, Hitler's very own Karl Rove – Joesph Goebbels:
And so it came to pass -- then and there and here and now. Which is why I say, Ich bin ein Berliner. I – we – have begun down the same road. On September 12, 2001 we stood where the German people did on February 28, 1933, the morning after the Reichstag building was destroyed. They were lied to by their leaders and allowed the fear of enemies – real and imagined -- seen and unseen -- to replace common sense and reason. They allowed those lies to supplant curiousity, suspicion and the search for truth. They allowed false patriotism to mask the genuine motivations. And thus they shared the guilt for the horrors that followed.
I now understand how it happened, though that understanding has not -- and cannot -- led to forgiveness. Some things are simply, and literally, unforgivable.
And I better understand how we got where we are today.
I also understand that history is unlikely to forgive us either.