In Which I Bring Down the Wrath of Godwin on Myself: Teabagger Breach of the Peace/Last Days of Weimar edition
Just to be clear. I do not think that the month of August, 2009 in the United States bears any deep resemblance to Berlin in September of 1930, just after Hitler’s National Socialists achieved their first real election breakthrough.
But there is no doubt in my mind that the teabaggers — and even more, their pay-and-puppet masters, are using tactics that the worst of Berlin’s political actors that month would have understood and applauded. The sustained, organized disruption of ordinary political discourse is a time-honored tool of the authoritarian insurgent.
To those engaged in these attempts to disrupt the ordinary conversation between representatives and those whom they represent, the notion that there could be argument and dissent — an exchange, however heated — is for the weak, for fools (and for those foolish enablers of the bully-boys who wallow in false equivalencies).
Their purpose — stated bluntly in this strategy memo is not to engage, but to delegitimize, to render not just individual small (d) democracy voiceless, but to derange the whole notion of democratic process. The goal is to seize power, not to win it.
The worst of those on the right are quite open about it, and that includes House Republican leader John Boehner, gleefully endorsing the planned campaign of disruption of Democratic Representatives’ attempts to engage their constituents.
So far all this is simply my gloss on a story already reported all over the political blogosphere. All I have to add to the conversation is the explicit reminder that none of this is new. It is straight out of the playbook of the Berlin Gauleiter, Joseph Göbbels, masterfully amplified by his boss, Adolf Hitler.
Some years ago, I spent a lot of time wallowing in this particular historical cesspool as part of my research for Einstein in Berlin — the book I wrote using Einstein’s 18 years in that city to provide a novel vantage point on what actually happened to transform an ambitious Imperial capital into the heart of darkness that Einstein had to flee. Here’s a taste of what I found in the immediate aftermath of the 1930 Reichstag elections:
Shortly after the September elections Thomas Mann gave a lecture that took the threat of his rise to power very seriously, yet, repeatedly interrupted by Nazi heckling, he could not resist expressing a kind of bemused contempt, dismissing Hitler as a figure of “politics in the grotesque style, with Salvation Army attractions, mass fits … and dervish-like repetition of monotonous slogans until everyone is foaming at the mouth.”
Perhaps so, as Count Kessler had acknowledged in his very depressed diary entry on election day. National Socialism, he wrote, was “a delirium of the German lower middle class.” But madness or not, he added, “the poison of its disease may, however, bring down ruin on Germany and Europe for decades ahead.”
Between the campaign of 1930 and the climactic struggles of 1932 and January 1933, the Berlin and the national Nazi parties mastered the art of disrupting the basic idea of democratic politics. They set out to produce not just disorder, but the impression that no order — no basic safety and security in the ordinary business of every day life — was possible in so bathetically weak a society as that subject to mere democracy. Here’s an account of an episode in 1932, and Hitler’s own inversion on the question of the real victims of Nazi fanaticism:
Hitler continued to remain largely above the fray, while his aides stage-managed the steady campaign of street fighting, periodic brawls and rehearsed outrages. By the 1930s, Hitler had refined his image. In public he was the visionary, the mesmerizing leader, a conjurer of visions of a greater Germany, above the fray. He could use the riots and murders his followers provided him with to drive home his Führerprinzep, his claim that Germany could only be saved by his own, unquestioned, transcendent genius for leadership. Absolute loyalty to the absolute authority of the Führer was all it would take to save the nation – and he, uniquely among the rabble of Germany’s failed democratic leaders, was prepared for the role.
To ready the ground for the Nazi rise to ultimate power, the party raised level of violence witnessed by ordinary Germans with each passing month. An incident on June 10, 1932 was typical of the strategy. That afternoon, several hundred members of the Nazi SA and SS private armies invaded the working class district of Berlin-Wedding. The detachment split up: two platoons blocked the ends of a stretch of road, while the main body marched along it, chanting anti-Semitic slogans and in a more or less random display of thuggery attacking anyone luckless enough to be out and about. The Nazis beat up some thirty locals, including several old people and one pregnant woman, who was hospitalized in dire condition. When the police arrived, the Nazis barricaded themselves in several buildings and opened fire; it took six hours to clear the entire street.
It was a meticulously calibrated provocation, not quite an outright revolt, for the SA did not target the government directly, or neighborhoods of people rich or powerful enough to make their complaints stick in official quarters. But it lent credence to the perception that life for ordinary Germans was getting more chaotic, more dangerous, ever more out of control. Malevolently and masterfully, Hitler was able to portray the Nazi creators of the violence as both admirable and the source of the ultimate solution to the chaos. In January, 1932, he had told an audience of wealthy industrialists that “I know perfectly well, gentlemen, that when the National Socialists march through the streets and there is a sudden tumult and uproar, the Bürger …looks out and says ‘they’re disturbing my rest again.’” But, Hitler pleaded, “don’t forget that it is also a sacrifice when hundreds of thousands of men of the SA and SS have to get into trucks every day to protect meetings and make marches.”
One of the persistent tropes of the crazy right in this country at this time is precisely this claim of the victim’s mantle. When leading voices call Sonia Sotomayor a racist; when one of the most popular radio and television hosts in the country tells his audience, in all seriousness, that President Obama “hates white people;” when senior members of the disloyal opposition dally with wild conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace to prove the illegitimacy of the twin horrors — contained in one skinny frame! — of an African American and a Democrat in the White House — when all this is pouring out into the public square — then you have an assault on Obama, those who voted for him and on the whole idea of a democracy in which elections mean something.
It’s a grand old tactic; it’s one that worked in Germany in the early thirties. The consolation is that it did not in more robust democracies.
Image: William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election series, “The Chairing of the Member,” 1755.