This week marks the 80th anniversary of the German Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933. That arson blaze ignited one of history’s ugliest stories of a fragile democracy gone tragically bad — and its generational consequences.
Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazis, elected Germany’s dominant party six months earlier, had exploited the fire – which he claimed was set by a half-blind, disabled, Dutch communist bricklayer – to transform Germany into a militarized dictatorship. This set in motion the Third Reich, World War II, the Holocaust, the destruction of Europe and the deaths of 60 million people, 2.5 percent of the global population.
History doesn’t repeat itself, as Mark Twain famously said, but it does rhyme.
“Perhaps the most powerful parallel between 1933 and 2013 is the political and economic weakness of the West and our self-absorption and tendency toward isolationism,” said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Now, as then, democracy’s most prominent global representatives in the United States and Europe are in political and economic disarray. At such times, Western elites often turn inward and lose confidence – disengaging from global responsibility and underestimating the potential ripples from democratic setbacks in faraway places.
In 1933, Washington was distracted by the Great Depression, which bankrupted 40 percent of U.S. financial institutions. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, a third of Americans were ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed. Now, with Syria in flames and nascent Middle Eastern democracies threatened, what then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright described as “the indispensable nation” is otherwise engaged with debt, deficits and the political inability to address them.