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Carroll County Times Opinion

Wack: A look at Hitler’s rise provides frightening lessons for our current political situation | COMMENTARY

In his Jan. 25 Community Voices column, my friend and Opinion page colleague Chris Roemer wrote about the Reichstag fire in 1933 providing lessons about civil liberties and government control. He is right that the Reichstag fire was an important step for Hitler’s ascent to dictatorship. However, there are other salient lessons from that period of history that, with additional context, give guidance about our current political situation. The most urgent is that because of disinformation and political violence, the German people willingly gave Hitler his power.

Hitler began his political career in the 1920s when he joined an existing political movement competing against the communists in German politics, demanding an end to the economic hardships caused by World War I. Importantly, from the beginning, he framed his arguments around lies about weak leaders betraying the country, that Germany won the war, that Jewish bankers were plundering the economy, and that foreigners sought to enslave Germans.

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WWI veterans and street thugs joined him as his security, beating hecklers and anyone attempting to disrupt his rallies. This group became known as the brownshirts, or SA (“Sturmabteilung” in German). The SA and the communists engaged in escalating street violence often resulting in serious injury and death. To avoid responsibility when there were crackdowns on political violence, the Nazis created new organizations to shield the SA, like the Hitler Youth, as well as a commercial arm that took control of the German cigarette market, selling “Sturm” brand cigarettes, to fund further growth hidden behind legitimate commercial enterprises. The Nazis also went on to own or control newspapers, publishers, radio, and film production.

Hitler was also a big fan and early practitioner of propaganda techniques based on his WWI experience. Using books, news articles, movies, and radio broadcasts, the Nazis worked relentlessly to portray the communists as responsible for all problems in Germany, and a constant threat to freedom and safety. Of course, the communists were doing similar things, because they actually were infiltrating governments, organizing political activity, and plotting to overthrow democratic governments. As with all effective disinformation, just enough truth mixed with lies can be very effective to influence and control public opinion and behavior.

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Life in Germany in the 1920s was difficult. The Allies crippled the German economy with sanctions, causing hyperinflation and massive unemployment. Basic living became ruinously expensive. Nazis blamed these hardships on the usual scapegoats of Jews, banks, communists, and foreigners. Then the global economic collapse of 1929 worsened things.

It was in this environment that Hitler sought power. Using their growing control of media, effective propaganda, and air travel to campaign nationwide, successive victories gave them increased representation in the German Parliament. In 1928, they only had 12 seats, then increased to 196 seats by November 1932. The communists had 100 seats. Hitler wanted them out.

Hitler ran for president against Hindenburg in 1932 and lost, but because the Nazis had so many seats in Parliament, he maneuvered his way into being appointed chancellor in January 1933, a deal which conservative politicians thought would contain and control him. This gave Hitler some legitimate control of the government, but he wanted more.

The German constitution had a provision called The Enabling Act which gave the chancellor almost unlimited power to deal with a specific emergency. As soon as he became chancellor, Hitler pressured Hindenburg to institute the Enabling Act, but he needed two-thirds of the vote in Parliament and the Nazis only controlled one-third. He convinced Hindenburg to dissolve Parliament and set new elections for March. Hitler immediately campaigned for the Enabling Act, arguing to the German people they needed the communists out because they were destroying the country, and the Nazis needed a two-thirds majority to get the Enabling Act. This was all a month before the fire, and he told the German voter exactly what he intended to do.

On Feb. 27, the Reichstag burned, and the next day, pushed by Hitler, Hindenburg issued an emergency decree banning the Communist Party, among other things. Even with communists arrested and driven from public life, enough center-left moderates won in the election to deny the Nazis sufficient seats to pass the Enabling Act. Using a mix of political violence, sweetheart deals, arrests, bribes, and intimidation, Hitler inveigled a coalition of center-right minority parties to join the Nazis, and they voted for the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933, handing Hitler absolute power, all through legal means.

Disinformation played a big role in the rise of the Nazis and Hitler’s overthrow of German democracy. The rise of Nazism has lessons for today, but perhaps in uncomfortable ways.

The frightening lesson for us is that the German people gave Hitler power, because of disinformation, political violence and systemic failure. The struggle inside the Republican Party between reality-based Republicans and Trumpism continues. How the rest of the country responds to that, not one event like Jan. 6, will determine whether we repeat the catastrophes of the 20th century.

Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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For any member of the community who would like to submit a guest community voices column for publication consideration, it should be approximately 700 words and sent to bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.


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