"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In These Sad, Tense Times, It's Well to Remember the Lessons of the Past

Slouching Toward Kristallnacht
They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945

With the expansion of executive powers looming, the threat of terrorist bombers, Mexican irredentists in the American West, and the insinuation of Islamism into Europe and North America, it would be well to remember how insidiously Naziism took over in Germany as the population wrestled with problems foisted upon them following World War I. Germany was in the surrealism and euphoria of Hitler's early years, years that brought them back.

Mayer, an American journalist of German/Jewish descent, says of his work:
"How could it -- the Holocaust -- have happened in a modern, industrialized, educated nation ?  The genesis of my interest in the Third Reich lies in my search for an answer to that enigmatic question."
I know few people who haven't asked themselves the same thing. The first, most likely hypothesis is that most people didn't know what was happening to the Jews. I may be wrong, but I believe that's been shot down pretty decisively by now.
The following excerpt from Mayer's They Thought They Were Free... provides some pretty plausible clues (the emphases are mine)...

"What no one seemed to notice," said a colleague of mine, a philologist, "was the ever widening gap, after 1933,between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know it doesn't make people close to their government to be told that this is a people's government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote.  All this has little, really nothing to do with knowing one is governing.

What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.

The crises and reforms (real reforms too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted,' that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.  One day it is over his head.

Read it all and take time to consider where we are going. It gives one pause to think about why presidents need so much power and what could happen to us one way or the other. The danger of the war is real and so is the possibility of an abuse of power...


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