Posted tagged ‘Weimar Germany’

Weimar Politics in AZ

January 9, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

What do we know about assassination as a political tool?

It works.  Not always, but enough.

It can be effective even if the assassin is truly a lone gunman, truly crazy, utterly denuded of membership cards or explicit links to more formal political groups.

It achieved the desired goal for the Confederate Party when Booth shot Lincoln.  White supremacists were able to play the politics of the next decade or so to resume, through the ballot box and violent terror, a political dominance that would only begin to wane almost a century later, and is not all gone yet.

It was devastating in Israel, where the settler-Likud alliance managed to transform the course of Arab/Palestinian – Israeli-Jewish peace negotiations after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.


And so on.  It works — when it does — because even though in the immediate aftermath of a political murder all parties may decry violence, the combination of the loss of leadership and the chilling effect of murderous force itself take their toll on the targeted side.


So, while I agree with those who say that this particular assassin may not himself be a poster child for the presumptive murderousness of the American right, I think, as John put it and Kay echoed:

The point we have been trying to make for the last couple of years is that Republicans need to stop whipping up crazy people with violent political rhetoric. This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are crazy people out there. Stop egging them on.

Except I’d take this a step further, and say  — whatever the particular path this killer took to these murders — we need to follow that logic a little further, to look at what that rhetoric of hate is supposed to achieve. Sarah Palin et al., aren’t trying to debate. They are trying to gain power.  In that context, those on the right who chose to employ violent rhetoric do so to help gain ends that haven’t been won (or are too much trouble to acquire) by treading democratic paths.



This isn’t new, of course.  Let me offer one example of this kind of tactic taken to an extreme.  I spent most of a decade working on a book (Einstein in Berlin) — and in it, I spent some time engaging the tragic history of the Weimar Republic.  I’m not going to apologize for Godwinizing here, because, as you’ll see, Hitler and the Nazis don’t make an appearance in the episode below.

Rather, in the early years of Weimar, you find murder turned almost into  a precision tool of politics, long before the Nazi party appeared on the scene. Between 1919 and 1922, the violent right reasserted its presence in Weimar governance while destroying the core of skill and leadership available to the left through a sustained and devastating campaign.  As I wrote some years ago:

Emil Gumbel’s dismal report, “Four Years of Political Murder” demonstrated the depth of the danger faced by the Republic, and by the left.  “The right is inclined to hope that it could annihilate the left opposition…by defeating its leaders.  And the right has done it” Gumbel wrote.  “All of the leaders of the left who openly opposed the war and whom the workers trusted…are dead.”  … Gumbel concluded, “the effectiveness of this technique is for the moment indisputable.”

The climactic and most famous assassination of the more than 340 political murders committed in this early period of Weimar came in 1922, when Einstein’s friend, Walther Rathenau, then Germany’s foreign minister, was killed.  Here’s what happened:

At about 10:40 a.m. on June 24, 1922, Walther Rathenau left his house in the countryfied suburbs of Berlin.  He settled into the back seat of his jaunty open car.  His chauffeur got behind the wheel.  There was no need for conversation between the two.  Rathenau, appointed Germany’s Foreign Minister less than three months before, drove to work each day along the same route at much the same time.  The driver put the car in gear and set out as usual up the Königsallee.  Germans are often parodied as creatures of order, and there was never a man who more aspired to be the perfect German than Rathenau.   By mid-1922 in Berlin, however, such precision had become not so much a routine as an invitation.

Rathenau’s driver drove on sedately, hugging the middle of the road.  About three blocks from the house he slowed to cross a set of streetcar tracks.  As he did so, a six-seater open touring car drew level with Rathenau’s automobile.  There were a driver and a young man in the front, and two more young men in the back, all wearing leather coats and driving caps.  A witness said that Rathenau looked over, as if worried the cars might crash.  At that moment, Erwin Kern, twenty-five years old, a former navy officer, leaned from the window of the overtaking car.  He rested the butt of his automatic pistol on his other arm and aimed at Rathenau.  The range was no more than a few feet.   Rathenau was looking at his killer as the man fired.  Kern shot  rapidly, five times — the witness said it sounded like a machine gun – and Rathenau slumped over.  As he fell, one of Kern’s accomplices stood up and pitched a hand grenade into Rathenau’s car.

Rathenau’s driver pulled over, then sped on to the nearest police station.  As he drove, the grenade went off, jolting the car forward.  The driver kept the car moving, though, and a young woman walking by, a nurse named Helene Kaiser, leapt into the passenger compartment.  “Rathenau who was bleeding hard, was still alive,” she said.  “He looked up at me, but seemed to be already unconscious.” The chauffeur turned the car round and raced back to Rathenau’s house.  His bleeding body was carried back inside, and set down in the study.  By the time the doctor arrived, Walther Rathenau was dead.

Who were the murderers?  No one, really.   They were just pissed off, underemployed, violent young men,* ex-military, (a couple of them), meeting and talking in the context of a sustained and successful campaign to paint everything about the Weimar democracy as a betrayal of the “true” Germany.

Kern and his band of four other disaffected students and veterans found each other, and began to plan to assassinate some Jew prominent enough to matter.  They settled quickly on Rathenau — he was the most obvious target, as made clear by the doggerel rhyme that had become popular among nationalist and anti-Semitic circles:  “Knalt ab den Walther Rathenau/die gottverdammte Judensau.” (“Shoot down Walther Rathenau/the goddamned Jewish sow.”)  The conspirators began to study their intended victim, learning his habits and his routes.

… A test run on June 20 convinced Kern that a revolver would not do; he would need an automatic to be sure of hitting his target.  He picked one up that evening, no great feat in the gun-ridden Berlin of 1922.  On the morning of June 24, car trouble almost sidelined the murderers, inviting unhappy comparison with the Serb gang that had by blind luck managed to kill the Archduke Ferdinand in that distant Sarajevo of June, 1914.  But the car revived just in time.  They pulled out of an alley behind the minster’s car.  Within minutes, Walther Rathenau lay bleeding to death.

Rathenau’s death marked more or less the end of the murder campaign.  But that was not because the outpouring of sorrow and anger at his killing finally compelled the German right to cease their viciousness. Rather, it was because the battle was won.  The left had been substantially weakened, and the stage was set for a resurgent center right — and ultimately, the far right as well.

History does not repeat itself.  The United States in 2011, after more than two centuries practice at constitutional democracy (and all our experience of its ups and downs), is not Weimar Germany, emerging from catastrophic defeat and attempting to master the arts of governance in the midst of international sanctions and constant internal strife.  Sarah Palin is no Erich Ludendorff, that’s for sure — for all her seeming willingness to ascend to power on her reputed skills with firearms.

But even if repetition is a myth, our past still echoes across time — and listening carefully, we may find clues to the meaning of what is happening right now.

Rathenau was murdered by sane conspirators motivated by those who created a climate of hate in which a disgraced militaristic right could return to the political arena.  Rep. Giffords was shot and others murdered by someone who may well be crazy — but that man acted within a context in which her colleagues and allies deemed it OK for an allegedly sane “leader” who lost the last election to post crosshairs over the names of her political opponents.  So here’s the lesson I draw from all of this:

The least we can do Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Roll, Christina Green and all the other victims of this murderous attack is honor them through acts of memory, so that whenever next someone advances or excuses the rhetoric of violence we say “no, not this time, not mindful of those we’ve already lost to this kind of evil.”  Naming and Shaming is not just good clean fun at this point; it’s a duty.  We have to do whatever we can to make it political kryptonite to play in that (quick)sandbox.**

As a late addition to that thought — if John Kyl, Senator and Congressional colleague to the terribly injured Gabrielle Giffords, thinks it “inappropriate” for the Pima County Sheriff to condemn the vitriolic rhetoric of talk radio and its consequences in Arizona, then he is, as Mistermix suggests below this, exactly wrong.  I’d go further.  In trying to muzzle the sheriff, Kyl is not just an assh*le. He’s part of the problem, an enabler of those who incite violence for political ends, and he should be contemned as such from every corner.

*An odd and sad footnote to that murder, the driver of the death car ultimately repented and recanted, joined the French Foreign Legion on his release, and was instrumental in saving Jews in Marseilles from the Holocaust.

**Not to self-link, and to make sure I relegate to a footnote my contempt for a mostly negligible person in our civic conversation, let me here echo DougJarvus’s snark about McArdle et al.’s defense of open carry protests at presidential events.   Here’s my post on that subject, with a full frontal assault on McArdle’s capacity for reasoning, moral or otherwise.  It was fun to write at the time.  Rereading it now just makes me sad.

Images:  Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Death of Caesar, 1867.

Francisco de Goya, The Third of May, 1814.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Actor, before 1861.

McCain, Palin, Incitement to Riot, and the Occasional Necessity of Violating Godwin’s Law

October 10, 2008

The grotesque sight of major party candidates standing mute and in apparent agreement as their supportors call for the murder of their opponent is not supposed to be part of the American political process.

It is now.

It’s obvious what’s going on, and it’s obvious why.  John McCain and Sarah Palin have already lost this election on the arguments:  for just one of many examples, by an overwhelming margin economists (chasing the rest of us) favor Obama/Biden over  McCain/Palin on an economy in crisis.

But if the actual business of the election is over — we’ve pretty much sorted out which candidate is better for the job at the moment — what is there left for the losing side to do?

Desperate measures of course, which gets me to the Godwin side of the post.  (I.e. if  you don’t like going where Godwin’s law takes you, stop reading now.)

Here’s the background:  Two notable political triumphs were won in the early 1930s as responses to the economic crisis marked by the stock market crash of October, 1929.

One was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose temperament was praised  by Oliver Wendell Holmes as well suited to calm the frenzy of the moment.  There is, as the conservative humorist Christopher Buckley notes in his endorsement of Barack Obama, one candidate now who is living that role.

And then there was the rise of a German politician with a mesmerizing speaking style and perhaps the most exquisitely honed sense of shared resentment any public figure has ever had.

On the Republican ticket, it is Sarah Palin who has taken the lead as the exponent of a strategy more like this figure’s, one that seeks to focus broad feelings of betrayal and anger onto a single stock figure of treachery and deceit that she labels with the name of her opponent.

In this, she plays on the same chords struck by that other young, little-known politician making his first foray onto the national stage in 1923.  Here’s an account of one of those early rallies:

The writer Carl Zuckmayer attended several of his speeches that year, once getting so close to the platform that he could “see the spittle spraying from under his mustache.”  To Zuckmayer, he was “a howling dervish,” but he wrote that for those who believed, the speaker dominated “not by arguments but by the fanaticism of his manner, the roaring and the screeching..and especially by the hypnotic power of his repetitions delivered in a certain infectious rhythm.”  It was a style, Zuckmayer wrote, that “had a frightening, primitive force.”

(This is taken, lightly edited, from my book Einstein in Berlin, which was, in part an attempt to understand how things went so very wrong between 1914 and 1932, the years Einstein lived in the German capital.)

That line on rhythm is right on; just listen to Palin as she hits her spots, and see how skillfully she allows her listeners to finish the thought just as she delivers her punchline.  She’s good, just not Good.

I’m not the first to go here — consider Jon Stewart’s only slightly elliptical reference to Palin’s speeches as the kind of thing heard in the late days of the Weimar Republic.  And I am not saying that Sarah Palin wishes to do as Adolf HItler did — far from it.  I loathe just about everything I can find out about her politics, but she is a small-time American style faux-populist demagogue, not, in my humble opinion, a likely architect of global conflagration and mass murder.  Just to be clear.

But what people forget when viewing Hitler only as the monstrous force he was in power is that he was a masterful manipulator of genuinely democratic processes on his path to the German Chancellorship.  The speeches Zuckmayer witnessed were shockingly effective, coming as they did during the devastating economic crisis of the German hyperinflation, at time when the German middle class was largely wiped out.  Their themes and the framing of crisis as the focus of shared bitterness and resentment now serve as a model for what Palin and to a lesser extent McCain are now trying out.

Thus the reason that the current tack by the McCain and Palin team is leaving so many observers disgusted, frightened and angry:   it is because it does not take much historical memory to see the danger, the inherent dishonesty, and the moral bankruptcy of such an approach.

It was once possible to view this election as one that either side could lose without assaulting what Bruce Springsteen so beautifully described as “the repository of people’s hopes and dreams and desires” that is America.

Now, with the echoes of some of the worst moments in the long, sad twentieth century sounding in our ears, it has become clear that one side has now shown itself as the ticket that should lose.  John McCain, the engineer of his own dishonor, should be ashamed of himself.

Let Springsteen have the last word:

Update: Credit where credit is due.  John McCain today began pushing back against the worst impulses of his crowds.  As reported on Time‘s Swampland blog, McCain on several occasions corrected questioners who sought to demonize Barack Obama.  Key quote:

he … snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, “I’m scared of Barack Obama… he’s an Arab terrorist…”

“No, no ma’am,” he interrupted. “He’s a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements.”

The post above still stands, however, (a) as an indictment of Sarah Palin, and (b) as a reminder that John McCain has let this cancer eat away at his candidacy to this point.  But if he sustains this effort to remind his supporters of the need to distinguish between hating the (political) sin and loving — or at least respecting — the (from one vantage) political sinner, then he will have reclaimed some part of the honor that his campaign to date has cost him.  The next step is to make sure that Governor Palin gets the message — but this is a welcome first gesture.

Update 2: Of course, if we keep getting reeking nonsense like this from the McCain campaign, then shame doesn’t begin to cover that first full measure of moral degredation with which the Senator from Arizona will have achieved by the end of this election season.