As quoted by Andrew Stuttaford in a recent review in the Wall Street Journal of three new books about the Third Reich, Ernst Lubtisch, the distinguished Hollywood director and German-Jewish emigré, replied to a question put to him at a party given in his honor by President Hindenburg in 1932, the year before Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. “That’s finished,” he said, about his disinclination to work again in the Fatherland; “nothing good is going to happen here for a long time.”
How many readers, I wonder, finished that sentence without an augenblick of dread. How many Americans, indeed—whether readers of the Journal, or of the New York Times, or people who take their news from the sounds and images in television broadcasts—are not touched in these days of acute public tension, nihilistic anger and irrational hysteria, vicious hatreds viciously expressed in speech and in writing, mobs spontaneous and organized, physical violence and intimidation? How many do not feel overshadowed by an oppressive sense of some very large and very dark thing approaching, something of which they have no previous experience and cannot imagine for themselves even if they have watched all the Hollywood films?
Whatever is coming is a manifestation of history on the order of the Russian Revolution or the founding of the Third Reich. Will we shortly find ourselves returned to 1917, to 1933—or caught up by something qualitatively different from them both, equally terrible but unique to the third decade of the 21st century? “Nothing good is going to happen here for a long time.” While opinion polls do not indicate that this is how the majority of the country is thinking, the news reports suggest that it is.
In any event, now is not a comfortable time to be reading, as I have been doing, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. So far as I can tell I was not supernaturally guided to take it from the shelf after leaving it unread in my library for four decades. (Though Chesterton did call a coincidence a spiritual pun.)
Political battles and the rising levels of anger and hatred they produce have reached the point where it is reasonable to wonder how much longer the American social and political order can withstand them. Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Russian literature at Northwestern University, while concerned by what is happening believes that the United States is “obviously” not in a revolutionary situation—presumably as Lenin defined the thing, since the proletariat he identified as the necessary revolutionary agent does not exist in this country. There are, indeed, few if any similarities between Russia in 1917 and the U.S. in 2020.
The Weimar Republic before 1933 and America today are another matter, though of course the differences between them are striking too.
Germany in the Republican years (1918-33), like the United States during the past four, was an angry and confused country that grew steadily more so. The German people were reacting to their overwhelming military defeat in the Great War, which resulted in the utter humiliation of the nation and the total destruction of its economy. In America, social and political crisis was caused not by a lost war but by a lost election, as one-half of the country strenuously resisted its equally humiliating—and entirely unexpected—defeat by the other half in the cultural and political war that had divided the nation for a generation and more.
Weimar by contrast was not divided; it was fragmented among various opposed political parties, cultural groupings, and the conservative Prussian military that sought to unmake the Treaty of Versailles. When Hitler came to power after President Hindenburg appointed him Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933 by default, he owed his success to the political maneuvers by Germany’s most powerful men who expected to use and exploit him before tossing him aside. His National Socialist Democratic Party lacked an electoral majority in the country, and had lost the second-to-last national election. Donald Trump, though he fell short in the popular vote by nearly three million ballots, swept the Electoral College by a large majority that was challenged rhetorically at the time and for some months afterward, but from spite and frustration rather than by any hope of reversing the result. Significantly, Hitler’s accession to the Chancellorship, like Trump’s to the presidency, was the result of collaborative political activity. As such it was last of its kind that the Germans were to know for 12 years, as well as their last democratic election.
There is a difference between the two things, though it is not immediately obvious. An officially rigged election, or a canceled election, or an election denied, is obviously not a democratic election. But another alternative is possible, and that is an ideological election; an election conducted on ideological rather than political terms. Once Hitler became Chancellor, and almost immediately thereafter Fürher, his politics, and consequently those of Germany, became ideological politics, or—more accurately perhaps—political ideology. Similarly, immediately after Donald Trump was inaugurated (and even before, as we are learning), the Democratic opposition and its leftist allies adopted the ideological politics they have been practicing for the past four years in the name of “progressivism” and will attempt to institutionalize should they take the presidency and one or both chambers in November; precisely as Adolf Hitler did almost at once. In Hitler’s First Hundred Days, Peter Fritzsche writes, “The Nazis and their allies only took 52% of the vote in early March , despite grabbing every unfair advantage they could. Yet barely two months later, many of the 48% were either changing sides or settling into acquiescence.” Might something similar happen in America in 2021 should Mr. Trump be defeated for reelection and Mr. Biden elected President? (Biden has speculated publicly that Trump might refuse to vacate the White House should he lose.)
“The National Socialists,” Fritzsche argues, “were not riding a wave of newfound popularity; indeed, in the last big elections, in November 1932, they had lost votes. If the public desired anything, it was a political truce, which many saw as the prerequisite for economic recovery.” Germany lacked a majority opinion on anything. “After all the electioneering of the previous year, the political system had checkmated itself.” Yet, “More Germans were for Hitler than for any other thing in January 1933.” Further, “Germany was a startling place in the years after the Great War in that political conflicts expressed themselves in the future tense and borrowed the rhetoric and choreography of rebellion and revolution.” More still, “the public’s acceptance of the persecution of the Jews in the early years of the Third Reich sheds light on how the Nazis resolved the paradox of promoting national unity by dividing the country.
They did so by promulgating a binary world view. National Socialists gathered in friends and pushed out foes. They nurtured good Germans while clobbering bad ones.” And they promoted their program by keeping it as vague as possible, evincing their distrust for capitalist economics but also their commitment to private property. All this made it possible for them to seduce the many Germans who were convinced that “something had to be done” by appealing to their optimistic sentiments, rather than their despairing ones. These included German Christians, some of whom encouraged an exclusively Christian mythology in which Moses was replaced by Wotan and Saul by Siegfried.
Most shameful of all, “Neither the Protestant nor the Catholic Church,” Fritzsche writes, “which also guarded its autonomy on doctrinal issues, stood in the way of the ‘national community’ and the racial and military obligations it required.” In view of this fact it is especially significant that—according to Robert Gellately, the author of Hitler’s First Hundred Days—a survey of the voting history of another nationalist party and of the Communists shows that a majority of German voters supported parties that rejected the Weimar Republic in favor of a socialist dictatorship of one sort or another.
In the United States in 2020 the American political divide, like that in Germany in 1933, is ideological, owing mainly to the program and strategy of one of the parties. The National Socialists were hugely advantaged, in their coming to power and afterward, by Hitler’s success in the late 20s and early 30s in creating something like a shadow government, or framework, by getting Party members elected Gaulieters of many federal states and as representatives in various regional parliaments; by establishing a shadow army staffed by Party members and what amounted to a Party police force answerable to himself; and by asserting a strong national presence by setting up a Party press and founding a number of cultural organizations: the entire apparatus prepared to exchange shadow for substance as soon as the Nazi Party took power.
The progressive party in the United States has no such framework in place. What it does have instead is almost complete cultural dominance in America: the media, the educational system, the publishing business, and the entertainment industry. The technological industry belongs to the progressive party, which controls as well the federal bureaucracy, the Pentagon, and the top military brass, though not the rank-and-file. It owns and dominates the legal establishment from which the State draws the preponderance of its staff members. With such massive power and influence, progressivism has in place the equivalent of a shadow government: alert, prepared, highly charged, and prepared for instant self-installation whenever progressives retake the White House and commence imposing their agenda, which includes packing the Supreme Court, legalizing the murder of fetuses and infants on demand, and directing their weird and sinister inversion of anti-black racism toward citizens of no-color.
Despite the advantages the American ideological party holds in the coming election, the old fashioned political one has advantages of its own. Though Germany, like the United States, is a federal state, it is also an incomparably smaller one, territorially and demographically, as well as being far more regionally, geographically, ethnically, racially, economically, and politically diverse. More, it becomes increasingly divergent from the culture and politics of the capital region as it stretches out toward the West Coast, where the political and social cultures repeat the progressive cosmopolitanism of the Eastern one. (It is true that in 1933 Berlin too was culturally much more liberal and cosmopolitan than the rest of Germany, as capital cities pretty much everywhere are; while Bavaria, where Hitler and the National Socialist Democratic Party got their start, was conservative.)
In between of course there are progressive pockets, but mainly the central and mountainous United States remain political rather than progressive, or post-progressive: less ideological, less intolerant, and less affected by what the late French writer Jean-François Revel called the totalitarian temptation. Thus for now—down to the November election, at any rate—the party of politics controls the majority of the 50 governorships and the 100 state houses. The United States, therefore, is a far tougher proposition for the party of ideology to take over, subdue, and rule than the Weimar Republic was.
Further, a large proportion of Americans does not appear to believe, as a majority of Germans did in 1933, that the arrival of an ideological government is inevitable, or desirable. Bernie Sanders’ frankly revolutionary agenda during the primaries last winter proved that, as did the failure of his initial 16 opponents to gain political traction by appropriating parts of it for themselves. Nevertheless, the leftwing political establishment’s toleration of mass violence, looting, burning, and other acts of destruction; the excuses it makes for such criminal behavior despite knowing better; and its reluctance to oppose and control the violence and mayhem demonstrate a pervasive moral weakness and lack of character on the part of American politicians and officialdom that recall the public authorities’ response to street violence—a good deal of it perpetrated by Hitler’s Sturmabteilung—in Germany toward the end of Weimar.
When conservatives, Republicans, and President Trump argue for more limited government, their ideological opponents denounce them as enemies of civilization; when anarchist mobs call for abolishing the police, burn their headquarters, occupy urban neighborhoods with AR-15s and other long guns, declare autonomous zones, and force businesses to close and shutter their shops, local officials commend them for their courage, authenticity, and idealism. Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle declared that the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in her city is “not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection” but instead “a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world.” She added that, “We could have the Summer of Love.” Mayor Durkan could have felt comfortable and at home in the Weimar Republic during its final days.
After Trump’s election as president, the Left decided it was morally free, in fact obliged, to defy and disobey democratic rules and democratically made laws until a progressive administration was restored to replace the newly elected democratic one. In a recent column L. Brent Bozell III warned that, should the ideological party win the national elections this year, it could mean the end of democracy in America. We shall all discover on November 3 how much of the country agrees with him—including American Catholics, who appear to be moving away from Donald Trump. Fifty-five percent of Catholics, according to a recent poll, do not intend to vote for him, compared with the 32 percent who reported that they expected to do so and the 12 percent who said they “would consider” giving him their vote.
They might reflect, before Election Day, on the history of the Third Reich’s relations with Catholics and the Church of Rome. During the Blood Purge of June 30, 1934, the Nazis murdered Eric Klausener, the head of Catholic Action, and suppressed Catholic publications, while the Gestapo’s agents violated the sanctity of the confessional. Less than three years later, Pius XI issued the encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Sorrow”) in which he accused the German government of having violated the Concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich of 1933 and of encouraging “secret and open fundamental hostility to Christ and His Church.” During his rise to power and his first year as Chancellor, Adolf Hitler attempted (successfully) to hide his contempt of his Catholic supporters and his hatred for the churches generally, which—he promised his closest associates—he would “deal with” when he judged the time had come to move against them. The American ideological party of today has made no such attempt, preferring to signal its hostility to Christians—Catholics especially—instead.
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