The Lesson of the Reichstag: All it takes to lose a democracy is an “emergency”



Hope.JPGNever in my adult life—even in those fall days of 2001—have I so often felt dread listening to current events unfold as I have these last couple months. These are times where it would help my comfort immensely to be somewhat less familiar with so many historical examples of civil liberties lost and the oppression, evil, and death that frequently follows.

The news reports that sink my stomach today all seem to involve the rapid growth of government power at the expense of individual liberties. Both legislation and executive orders issued, renewed, or expanded in the last few years have allowed indefinite detention of citizens, limited free speech, attempted to disarm citizens, placed communications and transportation more firmly under federal control, and subordinate religion to the state. Consider the examples below:

  • American citizens today can have their email and text messages read by the government without any cause or warrant through the renewed FISA.
  • American citizens today can be arrested and held indefinitely without charges, under undefined regulations of the National Defense Authorization Act section 1021 (NDAA). (Check out “7 Ways to get yourself Indefinitely Detained” slideshow at the end of this article.)
  • American citizens’ religious freedom is increasingly subordinate to the dictates of the state..
  • At least three American citizens have already been intentionally killed by the US government without habeas corpus rights.
  • How long will it be before the US practice of killing with drones will be turned on those in the continental US—or what “national security threat” might arise to make it necessary?
  • And another American citizen was blamed for inciting the attack on our own embassy. He wasarrested even though it quickly became clear the situation was a coordinated terrorist attack which was allowed to proceed with the US government watching its own citizens die.
  • US Citizens are increasingly being subjected to roadblocks, amounting to warrantless searches. This video shows the experience of one truck driver. And my own family experienced a similar event in June 2012 when we encountered this mandatory checkpoint on I-35 in Iowa. Local, state and federal authorities were working together to stop, detain and harass ordinary citizens traveling for business and pleasure.
  • American citizens’ right to protest (free speech) is no longer allowed anywhere the authorities don’t want it. You may no longer speak out freely against their government without fear of unknowingly being in an illegal area from which to protest. To me, this means that American society now comes dangerously close to failing the “street corner” test outlined in the book Case for Democracy.
  • The government has the legal framework to assume control of every aspect of life from water to weapons in the event of a “national emergency.”
  • And if losing our rights to speech, religion and warrantless searches was not enough, we are all more than familiar with the current push to leave American citizens disarmed as well.

Much of this—so far—is not yet activated. Instead, we are told, it is only for the case of national security or national “emergency”. In addition to the civil liberties erosions, we could find many other areas of concern, such as attempting to bring economic bodies under government control. And the President’s recent cabinet selections which even NPR identified as “more of an eye toward what he wants than what political expectations demand,” only adds to my fears. Control of transportation? Interruption in communication? Citizens unable to fight back? Government officials at all levels willing to go along? It will take but a single event and subsequent decree to activate emergency powers and fully enact all of the above.

Which brings us to the Reichstag.

In 1933, according the my Western Civilization textbook, “never intending to rule within the spirit of the constitution” a leader rose who quickly “used the instruments of democracy to destroy the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first liberal democracy, and create a dictatorship.”

The German constitution contained Article 48, a provision which allowed the president and the chancellor to head the government without the Reichstag, or parliament, during times of national emergency. In July 1932, with promises for business and property protection and “slow” social change, the Nazi party won a significant portion of the representative seats. Through political pressure, Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor and took office in January 1933. A month later, the Reichstag building was burned. Questions remain today as to whether it was a communist activist or the Nazis themselves who committed the crime, but at the time, Hitler used it as the national emergency needed to activate Article 48.

One month after the fire, and after the additional political gains due to propaganda and intimidation during an election, the new government passed the Enabling Act (1933), which exceeded all previous such provisions. This version allowed for the emergency government to conduct foreign affairs, and not be bound by the Constitution, and also stipulated that the German states had no recourse to abolish or change the laws. With a suitable “emergency” as an excuse, Hitler possessed nearly total autocratic power within only two months of becoming Chancellor.

Within weeks of the crisis, Germany had a totalitarian government firmly in place. The Enabling Act was followed quickly by other laws which outlawed labor unions and political parties, and still more decrees and laws which allowed indefinite detention, limited free speech, disarmed citizens, controlled communications and transportation, and subordinated religion to the state.

Within a year and a half of the Reichstag fire, the German government executed political opponents. A police state developed, the government eliminated any remaining civil liberties, and even brought the church under Nazi control. Within 5 years of the fire, more fires were set in Germany, this time to Jewish homes and businesses during Kristallnacht, and tens of thousands were taken to concentration camps. All because a suitable crisis allowed “emergency” powers to be activated.

The textbook I referenced also states, “With astonishing passivity, the political parties had allowed the Nazis to dismantle the government and make Hitler a dictator with unlimited powers.” As a Libertarian friend of mine noted, “…all of the legislated laws [of today] were passed with broad bipartisan support; this is a systemic issue, not a partisan one. The one thing [both Democrats and Republicans] could agree on was striping the Bill of Rights.”

Let me clearly reaffirm that my point is this: History teaches us certain valuable lessons, which we ignore at our own peril.

To ignore the eerie parallels from 1933 to our present time is to remain willfully blinded to our situation. In both times, a political party came to power with promises of economic relief. In both times, over the course of a few short years, civil liberties were legally dismantled and central power expanded through a series of both legislative and executive action. Many of these laws have been established to take effect in the event of “emergency.” In 1933 that “emergency” was the burning of a public building. We in the United States have begun to witness a potentially comparable rapid increase in the expansion of government and legal erosion of civil liberties. And if no emergency comes fast enough, one may very well be generated.

Like the Reichstag fire.

A hero at another time of danger and decision in America’s history once urged: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” (Patrick Henry)

Winston Churchill titled his book on the 1930’s The Gathering Storm. He was one of very few who recognized, labeled, and struggled against a threat that wouldn’t be accepted by the rest of the world until it was almost too late to stop it.

Now, in 2013, I’m feeling rain drops. The United States is currently—today!—at a point where all we would need is our own Reichstag event to entirely lose our democracy and enter a phase of totalitarian rule. We must wake up and repeat the cry of our founders: “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

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  • GrammarNazi

    I chuckled in seeing the graphic accompanying your title. This is Obama’s fault? You write as if “emergency” provisions began in the last 4 years, when most are Bush era leftovers. I’d love to see if you warned of looming totalitarianism post-9/11 under Bush. Somehow I doubt it; this smacks of partisan opportunism.

    You throw around the word “totalitarian” in a shrill way that cheapens the meaning of the English language. And you underestimate the resilience of our republic (not democracy). “Give me liberty or give me death?” Really, we’re in a revolution now?? It frightens me that DMACC lets you teach undergraduates. Go move to Texas and join the secession.

    • Mark

      I agree.

      This article is nothing short of reactionary babble. You don’t have to agree with any or all of Obama’s policies, but to take such a sensationalist stance that this administration is in any way like Nazi Germany entails an enormous leap of faith. A leap of faith which, mind you, requires you to also consider the previous administration as the previous commentator mentions.

    • Peeps

      Simply untrue, just look at the reaction of this country to the crises of the last decade, a few days after 9/11 a two thousand page bill is awaiting to make us safe and at the same time strip us of our 4th Amendment rights, a roomful of dead kids is sees a new and improved Feinstein gun ban that will target every day handguns that are used primarily for self defense, but the focus is on assault weapons as this scares the public. Mark my words, we are one terror attack or mass shooting away from throwing away the Bill of Rights, this isn’t partisan this is an issue of the state having pure disregard for the very rights we are supposed to defend, and a citizenry of Obama apologists and Bush admirers willing to overlook the abuses of an executive, dependent on if there is a D or R next to their name. This is not partisan, there are not two left or right sides, this is a choice between liberty and authoritarianism, between an educated and vigilant public and a nation distracted by circuses and satiated by bread from the dwindling soup line of democracy.