Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Heroes We Don't Honour Enough

(Otto Wels, 1873-1939)

I'm sure I'm not the only person to watch the US Debt Ceiling battle and general thrust of its recent politics who has had their thoughts drawn toward the fall of the German Weimar Republic in 1933.  No, Republicans aren't Nazis, or even close to them, but the situation still has similarities worth exploring. 

The German elections of 1933 were in no way free and fair.  The NSDAP had attained power at the beginning of the year, and between the state levers at their disposal, and the Party's SA enforcement arm(y), a variety of voter and opposition intimidation and obstruction means were used.  Still, Hitler fell short of the parliamentary majority he wanted, with his strongest opponents, the Social Democrats and the Communists coming in second and third.  Coming on the heels of the Reichstag Fire, Hitler immediately moved to pass the Enabling Act, which (among other major changes) allowed him to pass laws without needing parliamentary action or approval.   Hitler would have no trouble reaching a majority, combining NSDAP's 288 seats with the German National People's Party's (DNVP) 52 to beat the half way mark of the 647 seat Reichstag.  However the Enabling act was actually a constitutional change, which required asset of two-thirds of legislators with two-thirds attendance.  To get there, Hitler used powers given to him in the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest all the Communist deputies, but with the Social Democrats, and their 120 deputies against the bill, Hitler needed the support of the fourth party, the Centre party, and their 74 seats to attain the necessary supermajority.

To do this, Hitler negotiated in bad faith with the Centre party's Chairman, Ludwig Kaas.  It was a testament to the perils of negotiating a seperate peace rather than standing in solidarity, as Kass told his party:
"On the one hand we must preserve our soul, but on the other hand a rejection of the Enabling Act would result in unpleasant consequences for fraction and party. What is left is only to guard us against the worst. Were a two-thirds majority not obtained, the government's plans would be carried through by other means. The President has acquiesced in the Enabling Act. From the DNVP no attempt of relieving the situation is to be expected."
In the end, Hitler made verbal guarantees around the status of religion and specifically the Catholic church in exchange for Centre's support of the act.  A letter that was to formalize these promises somehow never arrived, and yet Centre plunged ahead and voted for the act anyway (SA thugs surrounding the Reichstag certainly may have helped too).

In the end only the Social Democrats would vote against the act (the Communists certainly would have, had any been able to attend), all 94 members who had dared to attend that day.  Only their leader, Otto Wels spoke against the act from the floor:
"At this historic hour, we German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism. No Enabling Law can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible ... From this new persecution too German Social Democracy can draw new strength. We send greetings to the persecuted and oppressed. We greet our friends in the Reich. Their steadfastness and loyalty deserve admiration. The courage with which they maintain their convictions and their unbroken confidence guarantee a brighter future." 
 Moreover, Wels looked directly at Hitler and said:
"You can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honour. We are defenseless but not honourless."
The act passed 444 to 94.  Elected opponents to Hitler paid a heavy price in the Nazi regime.  A memorial today honours 96 members of the Reichstag who would be murdered by the Nazis.  Otto Wels would flee Germany and die in exile in 1939 (especially tragic that he did not live to at least see the demise of Nazism).

The whole incident fairly reeks with lessons for contemporary politics.   Just read Krugman's recent (excellent) attack on centrism, and try and convince yourself that today's centrists would behave any differently than the craven Centre party did, even if they were faced with actual personified evil in the form of Nazism rather than the banal bottomless greed of modern conservativism.  Sure, the Republicans aren't Nazis but I hear echoes of Kaas' rationalization for surrender the-possible-is-the-limit almost daily in US politics.  The remnant of the sane, traditional right wing of German politics in the DNVP made exactly the same faustian bargain that today's moderate right wingers make in uniting with an irrational force on the assumption that they can control and benefit from it  (notably, the leader of the DNVP was a kind of former-day Berlusconi or Murdoch media baron of his day). 

Last, the courage of Wels and the other SPD deputies ought not to be forgotten.  In an era where charlatans try and rewrite history for contemporary political advantage, it is to spit on the graves of those 96 deputies to try and claim that liberals, social democrats or even communists are the true progenitors of fascism.  We don't need to hand wave theoreticals about this.  We have a legislative record.  When the chips were down, the centre-right, the business right, the nativist right and the cautious centre voted with the Nazis, and only the far left and centre-left stood against them. 

(See, also this excellent set of rebuttals to the notion that Hitler was a leftist, and Dave Neiwert's specific criticisms of Goldberg's book)

1 comment:

  1. a variety of voter and opposition intimidation and obstruction means were used.

    gee, that sounds familiar.

    that was a very good post daniel. these are excellent lessons that we shouldn't ever forget