Sunday, September 06, 2009
History We Shouldn't Forget
Lately, I've been reading through William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." As I perused the early chapters about Adolf Hitler's ascendancy in Germany, I was struck by these excerpted passages . . .
The plan was deceptively simple and had the advantage of cloaking the seizure of absolute power in legality.
Before the [Reichstag] was the so-called Enabling Act—the Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich, as it was officially called. Its five brief paragraphs took the power of legislation, including control of the Reich budget, approval of treaties with foreign states and the initiating of constitutional amendments, away from Parliament and handed it over to the Reich cabinet for a period of four years. Moreover, the act stipulated that the laws enacted by the cabinet were to be drafted by the Chancellor and 'might deviate from the constitution'. No wals were to 'affect the position of the Reichstag'—surely the cruelest joke of all—and the powers of the President remained 'undisturbed'.
Hitler reiterated these last two points in a speech of unexpected restraint to the deputies assembled in the ornate opera house, which had long specialized in the lighter operatic works and whose aisles were now lined with brown-shirted storm troopers, whose scarred bully faces indicated that no nonsense would be tolerated from the representatives of the people.
"The government [Hitler promised] will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures. Neither the existence of the Reichstag nor that of the Reichsrat is menaced. The position and rights of the President remained unaltered . . . The separate existence of the federal states will not be done away with. The rights of the churches will not be diminished and their relationship to the State will not be modified. The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one."
The fiery Nazi leader sounded quite moderate and almost modest; it was too early in the life of the Third Reich for even the opposition members to know full well the value of Hitler's promises . . .
The vote was soon taken: 441 for, and 84 (all Social Democrats) against. The Nazi deputies sprang to their feet shouting and stamping deliriously and then, joined by the storm troopers, burst into the Horst Wessel song, which would soon take its place alongside "Deutschland uber Alles" as one of the two national anthems.
Thus was parliamentary democracy finally interred in Germany.
. . . it was all done quite legally, though accompanied by terror. Parliament had turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide, though its body continued on in an embalmed state to the very end of the Third Reich.
This is history recorded by someone who watched it happen. I think we all would do well to think about it again, lest it happen in our own time, and in our own country.