The Reichstag fire: Lessons for today

February 28, 2013

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

13 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The law of unintended consequences works in mysterious ways — a lesson for today’s politicians. There are tinpot dictators going rampant all over the place, and it is up to the responsible major powers to stop them before one of them sets the world ablaze again.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

I think you are missing the greatest parallel between the Reichstag fire and a modern day event. The modern day event is 9/11. Whether or not the Reichstag fire and 9/11 were inside jobs is not something we should discuss because it always generates lots of pointless controversy, and everyone pretty much believes whatever they believe. However, the fact that both were used by national leaders to needlessly invade a foreign country is hard to argue against. I’m sure some will try though.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

This article is a thinly-disguised mishmash of revisionist European history, US propaganda, and outright lies designed to draw the US into interfering with the sovereignty of other national governments.

It makes me sick to read such tripe in Reuters, but then it fits with their extreme liberal viewpoint, which is nearly always wrong.

For example, you state “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.”

What you fail to mention is the backdrop of how Hitler achieved power in Germany, which was due ENTIRELY to the obscene Treaty of Versailles which attempted to fix the entire blame for WWI on Germany alone, thus setting massive “war debt/reparations” payments that Germany could never hope to meet, which was the primary cause of the collapse of the legitimate German government, and sealing the fate of the world to suffer WWII as a consequence.

It is this same blind stupidity of the wealthy elite today that is driving the world towards another global economic crisis, and perhaps towards WWIII as a result.

You are correct in stating that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And today that rhyme is taking on the same ominous tones of the entire early 20th century all over again. The policies you are insanely arguing for now are no different than the wealthy elite mentality that drove the world into disaster then. When will we ever learn?

The US is embarked on a quasi-religious course to convert the world to “democracy” when we, in fact, have none at home. We are a plutocracy, not a democracy.

Your mention of “Freedom House” is a pathetic joke, since they function as one of the political arms of the US government, and their measures of “political rights and civil liberties” should be confined to the US alone. We need to solve our own problems first, before attempting to preach our “gospel” to other nations.

You state “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.”

But the real point you and Gershman apparently fail to understand is that the recent turmoil in other countries IS democracy at work, with the local people taking control of their own governments after being held under the dominance of foreign powers for decades, mainly through puppet leaders put in place to ensure governments friendly with the US and other European powers.

Why is it the US preaches “democracy and freedom”, but then actively suppresses it in other nations when they attempt to obtaining. The reason, obviously, is that it must be the “US brand of democracy” or it doesn’t count. Those are the acts of a totalitarian empire.

For example, anyone familiar with the history of Iran understands why they — since the overthrow of their US puppet regime back in the 1970s — adamantly refuse to “cooperate” with the US and other European powers. They remember all too well what we have conveniently forgotten, that it was the European powers that caused them great harm when they were totally defenseless. It would seem what they are doing now is a wise course of action, not extremist religious dogma, that they refuse to negotiate with nations who cannot negotiate in good faith with them, and have proven this many times over. Quite simply, they do not intend to become the victim of other nations’ imperialistic designs again. They, at least, are capable of learning from history, whereas the US is incapable of doing so. THAT is the underlying reason for their supposed intransigence in terms of their drive to become a sovereign nation.

Gershman is correct, however, that if the US fails to deal with its own domestic problems — meaning the growing disparity in wealth and economic inequality due primarily to treasonous actions by the wealthy elite in terms of seizing control of the US government to subvert it for their own use, mainly by twisting tax, trade and banking legislation to favor only their own wealthy class — we will not survive as a nation.

You state ““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”.

This is a fact. Unfortunately, the wealthy elite have successfully twisted the facts to create their version of revisionist history to make it appear they are not the problem. In fact, it is their growth to dominance once again — since they nearly destroyed this nation due to their greedy excesses during the 1920s, which resulted in the Great Depression of the 1930s — that is the ONLY problem we have in the US today.

THAT is the problem that MUST be solved.

Unfortunately, we as nation seem to be completely unable to shake off our complacency and understand what our problem is, or to even recognize we have a major problem that is destroying this nation.

Thus, quite soon we will cease to exist as a nation. That much is certainly true.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@pseudoTurtle,

The “wealthy elite” are not the enemy of American citizens, but their sole possible ally against the mindless and ravenous beast that is our present government. If “we, the people” cannot somehow reassert control over it, it will certainly destroy the way of life we enjoy and cherish. Our voices, their money, together and forward!

Since WW II the United States has allowed itself to become as Gulliver, a giant restrained by the world’s largely incompetent or illiterate other “states” with little in common goal other than maintaining such restraint. It is all but impossible to throw off such myrid and pervasive bonds, for while “down” these political and financial pygmy/dwarfs have inflicted upon America many, many tiny cuts that have, together over time, rendered it essentially deaf, dumb and blind.

America’s judiciary has increasingly removed it’s yoke of responsibility to this nation and it’s people and has proclaimed itself above the law. This branch of government at federal, state and local levels is no longer meaningfully accountable for it’s actions and inactions to anyone but themselves. Such absolute power corrupts inevitably and absolutely.

Once “we, the people” decided to pay our “representatives” to go to Washington and do the nation’s work, they had to create full time jobs for themselves there. Unfortunately much of that “make work” has become meddling by a rising “political privileged class”, and it is no accident that a majority are in or of the legal profession whose interests are quite different from those of average American citizens.

Today anyone can see that America’s people and “special interests” are increasingly positioned against each other like chess pieces. Much of our economic and intellectual strength and energy is dissipated by opposing cyclones of mindless and fruitless activity or, as Shakespear said: “Much ado about nothing”.

Without common cause and consensus between the government and it’s goverened as to what is to be done, what it is to cost, and where the money is to come from all natural restraints as to the size and cost of government have been thrown off. A government that is without limit in authority will grow until it’s ever-increasing confiscation of the fruits of commerce and production destroy it as totally, completely and inevitably as an ungoverned engine with a wide open throttle.

We need an “intelligent revolution”, one in which the means of inovation and production are not destroyed, but coordinated to define and support agreed goals for an ever better yet sustainable future quality of life. In short, we need a destination and a course to sail towards it.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Grand self-defeat of complete moral failures.

Bad riddance,

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

Very good point, possibilianP. However, I would say that the greatest parallel was the willingness of the people to surrender so much of their self-determination and so many of their rights over to the government in the name of safety.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep –

Are you serious?

Your comment is not worth a reply.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@PseudoTurtle,

You speak only for yourself, and your silly rants against the “wealthy elite” sound peculiarly like those of OWC against “the 1%”, a “sound bite” of disproportionate effect and longevity far beyond it’s patent distortion of reality.

I offer personal opinions based on 72 year’s life experience and observation for others to believe (or not) as compared with their own. Those opinions either stand or fall on their own, and their popularity concerns me much less than their “truth” content. The latter is fair measure of credulity.

So, yes, I’m QUITE “serious”. I “care” and so I write. Time and the continuing flow of human events will be the ultimate judge of “right” or “wrong”, and there is no appeal from that forum.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I do not share the views presented in this article.

Aside of the fact that each country should leave the others alone, in peace, rather than interfering in their political, cultural and economic life, we, here in the US, have absolutely no legitimacy for giving advice or lessons to others.

Indeed, as already pointed out by others, we are and have been for a long time, in fact, a predatory plutocracy, a “Nation under greed and violence”, certainly not “under God”, especially among our financial and political potentates.

Of course, this started at our creation, based on the spoliation and genocide of the original inhabitants of his land, the “First Nations” of American “Indians”, and the extensive use of slavery, all of which was in direct contradiction with our own professed religious and moral principles…most of us conveniently forget about these founding facts, as well as others such as the fact we were the first nation to massively bomb civilian cities in Germany and Japan, during WWII.

So, the best way to influence positively the rest of the world is to reform ourselves, first and foremost. The rest is literature, as they say, i.e. self-serving propaganda.

Posted by llouest | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep –

It is unfortunate that I seem to only “speak only for myself”, cursed like Cassandra so that my predictions would not be believed.

In spite of this, I would like to think my comments comprise a ‘“sound bite” of disproportionate effect and longevity’, but they are far from being a “patent distortion of reality”.

I too “offer personal opinions based on (71) year’s life experience and observation for others to believe (or not) as compared with their own”.

However, you state that “those opinions either stand or fall on their own, and their popularity concerns me much less than their “truth” content. The latter is fair measure of credulity”, which is where we begin to differ.

My opinions are backed up by demonstrable historical fact, as well as an education that includes extensive knowledge of the subject matter I am presenting — I am a retired CPA, MBA who has worked very closely with these “wealthy elite” for several decades in the high tech industry as a Plant Controller and Finance Manager for international corporations (which gives me “insider information” on how they think), plus a personal passion for economics and European history, especially as to how the two relate to the economic/political events that transpired during the early 20th century and its prima facie effects on the economic/political situations of today — that obviously goes far beyond what you are capable of understanding.

Apparently, what you don’t understand frightens you and thus you respond to my comments with meaningless rants that are far from “silly”, but represent a danger to this nation.

I, too, am quite serious, but why I care at this point and continue to write I cannot hope to explain to you.

You are indeed correct that “time and the continuing flow of human events will be the ultimate judge of “right” or “wrong”, and there is no appeal from that forum.”, which is really the point I am attempting to make from my “quasi-hindsight”. Those who reject what I say will face the consequences, for little can be done to me anymore.

OOTS, on a personal note, I have made many attempts to reason with you, but we are universes apart and there is no point in replying to any of your personal rants.

From now on, IF I choose to continue writing, which is becoming more and more unlikely, since there is little time and it obviously serves no useful purpose, I will ignore any more of your personal attacks on me as not being worth my time or effort to reply.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

pseudoturtle – You have the history right and OOTS is talking work ethic again like he usually does. It’s amazing how popular the work ethic is when a person realizes it actually pays off. Defenders of laizez faire capitalism always use the argument that people work hardest when they reap the fruits of their own toils.

It’s been my experience that the work ethic never counted as much as money, position and influence. Even among the faculty of the first college I attended in the early 70s; the smart (knowing the ropes there), wealthier and better positioned within the power structure of the school knew they could get others to do the work and they could reap the rewards. They didn’t knock themselves out to teach (actually none of them had much real work experience outside the school and the old timers tended to do the same things they always did) but spent allot of time infighting about educational theory and defending their tenured turf. And one thing you never do with faculty is insult them or question their creds. They will take it out on you, especially if they are liars. I am not exactly talking about my own experiences.

The vital thing required to succeed in a capitalist system is “capital”. The Chinese know that. And they like cash. They invented the word “cash”. Anything the employee knows, or any skills he has, are really only an aspect of “labor” and those are never fully profitable until there is capital to employ them. The employers control their value. The Chinese communists knew they had to use labor to accumulate capital. But we got used to capital making capital and they still had all that labor. My father likes to sing the praises of holding companies and pretty soon the economic structure of the country will look like the album cover of “My Fair Lady”. And all of that control is accomplished by using capital. Labor and assets are preserved as long as they are useful.

Now control of capital seems to be pooling in fewer hands and labor – even the advantages of highly skilled and knowledge based labor – are being eroded by what OOTS always maintains are “pigmies” (and always too many of them) in spite of the fact that they are rapidly building the new states and economies of the 21st century. What they are saying is the US way of life costs too much! And we aren’t really doing that or are finished? We more or less did that over the last 30 years. OOTs, stop flattering yourself. This country is desperate not to fall apart completely. There are megawealthy people eager to be the totally governing elite and will easily become the new leisure class if they can succeed in convincing the rest of us that low taxes are a boon to all. And it doesn’t really matter how you insult me OOTS – I’m not the only one in my condition. You’ll never know how dry I am!

Our ten years of warfare isn’t so much to open them to new freedoms but to make sure we get some pivotal, profitable and even controlling interest in their new and vital activity. In other words, the wars are for our health, more than for theirs. It also in our domestic oil producer’s interest to keep ME oil suppliers “disturbed”.

BTW – Hitler may have had a message that appealed to the German people but the wealthy industrialists who were determined to reverse the effects of the Treaty of Versailles bankrolled him. I don’t blame them, actually. It takes two to tango, even in war. I think they went murderously insane. And no European country was Caesar’s wife (but I know how politicians lie – she’s was a real skank – but the girls got to know the territory without fainting). OOTS always calls it a rant when he doesn’t want to listen to a thing you say – haven’t you noticed, pseudoturtle?.

Work has little to do with success in the capitalist world. “Hard working” is rather difficult to define actually. Hard work can be wasted as rapidly as it is rewarded in a free market: especially in this hyper sophisticated and derivative financial market. I can easily propose that there were many hardworking homeowners; both at their jobs and in maintaining their principal stake in capital – their homes (and as I understand classic economic theory a house isn’t capital at all but an adjunct to the cost of labor) – who found they had lost one or both a few years ago because they didn’t have sufficient capital to keep them. Most of the people in this country are not financial experts and they don’t have the spare cash to risk on the very crooked Wall Street casinos anymore.

Face it: this country is terrified that the manipulation and role of self serving global mastermind and well armed bully it assumed for itself for over 100 years is ending and it might well find it is on the receiving end of “masterminded” political manipulation by others. And a lot of them don’t have fond memories of our self-styled virtues or “heroic” efforts in their (actually our) “defense”.

The developing world is full of young people and we are an aging nation. Money is the most evaporative of substances and events of the crash have demonstrated that. But their minds and bodies are here and the foundation of everything.

BTW – I think Mark Twain was wrong about history rhyming. It think it always presents anagrams of the same old historic issues and struggles. It just spells them differently each time by putting the letters or issues in a different order. And if history isn’t doing that, “we the people” are usually busy renaming the obvious in an attempt to blind ourselves to the obvious. That’s why a lot of capital gets spent on public relations.

The Chinese invented a hybrid political economy and we are stuck with straight capitalism. We mistake “knowing what’s up from what’s down” as “authoritarian”. But without some sense of a correct deep answer to a lot of questions, a lot of useful knowledge is wasted or destroyed.

We are having a very real problem in establishing some basic truths to social and political life. But I am not at all eager to see the likes of Stalin, Hitler, or Chairman Mao either. We’ll probably get one of histories nasty anagrams.

All one can ever say about life until you die is that you suffer. That is, at least, a rock bottom “authoritative” answer: I least, I can’t argue with it. How much suffering you can stand before it makes you useless, or your life is more basic than a feral creature, is a matter of personal stamina, standards of living and civil liberties, isn’t it? It’s also a matter of education: and I agree with those who instinctively know that education should be as easy to obtain as possible. But we are making it harder to get and far more expensive.

BTW – I’m getting used to the idea that human beings are more alike than different. That is: if a spaceship came to earth, it would only have to take look at a small sampling of people to get an accurate picture of us and our level of development. That is to say, I don’t think a gilded elite is such a great bargain. Society doesn’t get that much for the money controlled by “lords”. They are usually the most selfish and aggressive of men (society’s silverback male gorillas) and tend to bring the level of governance down to their level. Everybody is prone to vanity and we all tend to think we are more important than we really are. If you have a lot of wealth and power you can go insane with too much. Hardly anyone every gets that much and society has always seemed to know how to reign in the mighty, until lately it seems? .

I get a horrible feeling St. Francis of Assisi met up with Thorstein Veblen and they are plotting to sack some “hateful mansions”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Not hard to see why the US is failing in its education system… Just read some of these comments…. lol

IIouest: ‘the fact we were the first nation to massively bomb civilian cities in Germany and Japan, during WWII.’
WRONG: Germany mass bombed London in 1940, after mass bombing Warsaw in 1939…
Japan mass bombed Beijing, and Shanghai in 1937, and many other places later in 1939-1941. Including Chongqing, Manila, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
All of these events happened LONG before we mass bombed Dresden, or Hiroshima in the mid-40s…

OneOfTheSheep: ‘Time and the continuing flow of human events will be the ultimate judge of “right” or “wrong”, and there is no appeal from that forum.’
WRONG: History is and always will be written by the ‘winners’ or the victor’s if you will… The nation that wins, writes the history of human kind….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

@edgyinchina,

You changed the subject. Mine was “Time and the continuing flow of human events…”. Yours was “History”.

If we are honest, history is frequently compiled stories of survivors which may or may not be actually put down on paper by them. There are very few conflicts without survivors on both sides, which would mean very little of “history” that is “told” from a single perspective.

Of countless massacres that have taken place in all ages and places, survivors are most certainly NOT “victors” or winners, although their side may eventually prevail in the overall. Survivors have proven again and again to be both persistent and successful in getting their experience(s) “on record” for future historians.

I am well aware that Winston Churchill was not worried as to how history should treat him for he said “I shall write it”. And he did! But that is the exception and not the rule. What I actually said was not “WRONG”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive