The Reichstag fire: Lessons for today
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.
What strikes Gershman is less the similarities and more the differences between 1933 and 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, “is not a democratic party, but it won even greater support than the Nazis in the 2011 elections, and thus far there has been no Reichstag fire; nor has it employed Hitler-like terror actions against its opponents.” It appears to Gershman that modern times and societies place greater constraints on would-be authoritarians.
“Evil hasn’t been rooted out of the human psyche and soul,” Gershman says. “It’s still there. But what’s missing is the totalitarian ideology of the 20th Century. I don’t see the sort of menacing forces like Stalin and Hitler in the world today, nor do I see the same Utopian urge that helped create them, though jihadism is a danger. The modern world is constraining these new leaders. It’s much harder to impose a system of total control. Moreover, authoritarian countries like China, Russia and Cuba are preoccupied with their own problems. They don’t today pose the same threat as Hitler and Stalin once did.”
That may be true. But no one disputes that global democracy is in recession due to authoritarian leaders’ shrewd, often violent, backlash to the emergence of popular movements around the world – particularly in the Middle East.
Freedom House, in its annual report on political rights and civil liberties, said the number of countries ranked as free in 2012 was 90, an encouraging gain of 3 from the previous year. But 27 countries showed significant declines in freedom, compared with only 16 that showed notable improvements.
Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s vice president for research, noted in the report’s opening essay:
…events in the Middle East dramatized two competing trends: demands for change pushed forward by popular democratic movements, and an authoritarian response that combines intransigence with strategic adaptability.
The ambiguous nature of these developments, combined with either instability or authoritarian retrenchment in other regions, had a significant impact on the state of global freedom. …This marks the seventh consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.
Freedom House criticizes both the Obama administration and its Republican opposition for failing to recognize the warning signs and do something about them. “The reluctance to provide that leadership,” Freedom House wrote, “represents a rare case of bipartisan agreement.” It noted President Barack Obama’s determination to focus on domestic concerns and many Republican leaders’ ambivalence about America’s role in the world.
Gershman is encouraged that, despite worrying trends and the West’s distractions, the world is experiencing a democracy recession but not yet a depression as in the 1930s. He worries, however, that the recession could turn worse if the United States doesn’t address its troubling mixture of complacency, partisanship, growing isolationism and failure to deal with its own domestic problems.
In the 1930s, when much of Europe failed, the United States emerged as the fail-safe backup. “If we don’t solve our own problems, don’t bring our deficit and debt under control,” Gershman said, “we will be in the shape of European countries. And this time there will be no backup after the United States.”
PHOTO: Firemen work on the burning Reichstag building in Berlin on February 1933. REUTERS/National Archives/Handout