The lesson of the National Socialist movement is that laws and constitutional safeguards offer scant protection against someone who will play by the rules but disregard basic ideas of right and wrong. Policies, such as the targeting of minorities, can have a legal basis. With the resurgence of emergency measures and cries of ‘public safety’ across many countries, this lesson for our generation shouldn’t be lost.
- National Socialism Today
National Socialism has not lost any of its fascination for historians and political scientists. The political currency of the National Socialist phenomenon is still strong. For Germans it remains a source of shame, for the victors of WWII a source of propaganda. For both it serves a useful political purpose.
Notwithstanding the academic interest, there are signs that ‘lay people’ are becoming weary of the subject. That is despite the fact that any TV program on the National Socialist phenomenon will still attract a large audience.
- Lessons Not Articulated
I feel, however, that one lesson from the National Socialist era is either not understood or not properly articulated to the general public by experts. After the abortive Beer Hall putsch in 1923, Hitler committed himself to seizing power by purely legal means. Everyone understands that. But that is not the end of the story. Hitler never, I repeat NEVER, did away with the liberal Weimar constitution. He never abandoned the furniture of democracy that he used to ascend to power and that he ultimately sought to destroy. As an example, he always sought approval from the Reichstag for the Enabling Acts he needed to prosecute his aims even up until the end of WWII.
- Pursuit of Legal Means by National Socialism
Like a trophy, the National Socialists kept the German constitution in place. It served their ends and gave the populace a sense of continuity with the past. Any measures they took, the rounding up of political opponents, the ethnic cleansing, the Attila-like ‘excursions’ into Eastern Europe – none of these were illegal. In a sense, there was no National Socialist revolution.
What we have to understand, I believe, is that laws and constitutional protections are no barriers to determined individuals bent on implementing their inhumane policies. Laws and constitutional rights may in fact legitimate such tendencies.
- When is Necessity ‘Necessary’?
There are times when a constitutional regime may be in danger and when it is unable to function. Then, it may become necessary for a short period of time to enact dictatorial powers. These powers have to be clearly justified: what is the specific threat, how long do these measures need to be kept in place, when will the threat be said to have passed? Open-ended threats and a constant accruing of wide-ranging powers are not hallmarks of democracies. If these are being bandied about, ask yourself: is there is a threat serious enough to justify such encroachments into the lives of ordinary citizens?
There is an increasing public weariness towards the National Socialist story and this is manifested politically. The lessons about targeting and stigmatizing minorities, cries of ‘public safety,’ false narratives about the exclusivity of national destinies, are once more coming to the fore. Hitler showed that revolutions do not have to be affected, parliaments may stay in session, protocols observed, laws may remain untouched … but all the while the most subtle forms of propaganda may facilitate hatred under our noses.
Colm Gillis has authored two books on political theory and is in the process of authoring a third. Details on his latest book can be found below by clicking on the link.