COMMENTARY: Lessons for our democracy from the not-so-distant past

April 15

As latter-day partisans fling terms like “dictator” and “Nazi,” I decided to read William Shirer’s classic book about the real thing.

In “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man — a layabout and chronic failure — who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany’s woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.

Mocked as clownish at first and imprisoned for a foolhardy putsch, Hitler kept honing his message, created a strong organizational structure, unleashed a cadre of brown-shirted bullies to attack dissenting voices and waited patiently for collapsing national fortunes to make his vision of national purpose appealing.

In time, desperate people rallied to his rhetoric and, without truly understanding the aims he clearly spelled out in “Mein Kampf,” set about giving all power to the once laughable “Austrian corporal.” It took about two years for a “constitutional” transfer of power to become a dictatorship and police state. All of Germany’s political parties proved too weak, self-serving and corrupt to resist Hitler’s relentless use of bullying, phony crises, lies, scapegoating and national-pride rhetoric.

I have much more of Shirer’s book to read. But I find it fascinating to read about the early years, when the vision was forming, the calculated scapegoating found its voice and a demented genius patiently waited for a crumbling world to sink to his level, then struck hard and fast with merciless violence.

We seem a long way from the conditions that spawned Hitler and Nazism. The mega-wealthy venture capitalist who recently likened his opponents to “Nazis” found his whining greeted with derision. Fred Phelps’ maniacal targeting of gays was a mild snarl compared with brown-shirt bullies who did more than carry nasty signs. Our entitled 1 percent don’t yet come close to the delusional Prussians, rapacious Junkers and self-serving monarchists who turned Germany into the shambles that Hitler could exploit.

Even the sturdiest democracy, however, can lose its footing. If enough people feel put upon and decide their hope lies in giving up freedom, a free nation can turn quickly sour. Would-be saviors wait in the wings, stirring fear, stoking hatred.

A democracy’s contest of ideas will never be a pretty one. Even a modern economy will never seem fair to all people. Freedom includes opportunity for cheating, grasping and coarsening.

But worrisome moves are afoot. States are taking steps to deny votes to certain categories, as if their citizenship was a trial run, not a bedrock right. Wealth-hungry politicians are awarding outsized political benefits to the wealthy. Hyperpartisan officeholders refuse to govern. Relentless opposition bolstered by distorted information claims public attention and undermines public confidence. Religious fundamentalism serves itself and provides talking points to bullies.

These paths — declaring some people expendable, fawning over wealth, encouraging bullies, deliberately undermining the nation — are dangerous for any nation, especially for one that dares to celebrate diversity and to protect the vulnerable.

Where the latest developments lead remains to be seen. But now isn’t the time to assume our hyperpartisan politicians have the nation’s best interests at heart.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

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