There's a saying that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Alas, a look at three of the darker chapters of world history in the 20th century reveals that we may already be in the process of repeating it. This disturbing historic trilogy will make the icy hackles of deja vu rise in all observers of America's current administration.
When this essay comparing Hitler's rise to power with Bush, and the tactics of the present GOP with the 1930s Nazis and Stalin's communist regime was first published in July, 2001, I was the recipient of a flood of hate mail and even a couple of death threats from militant rightwingers. But the comparison hit home: the article has been been circulating all over the world, reprinted in at least five languages. Unlike the lame, even bizarre comparisons rightwingers try to make between Clinton, Dean, et al. and Hitler, the similarity between Bush's regime and the rise of the Nazis is REAL and has evoked a shock of recognition in readers - or, as the title says, a "Chilling Deja Vu."
CHILLING DEJA VU: Hitler and Bush; Stalin and Bush's Conservative Reform Movement; The GOP of 1936 and Today's Dirty Politics
By Cheryl Seal
This article first appeared in Democrats.com in July, 2001
BUSH AND HITLER: Is History Repeating Itself?
No one expected Hitler to rise to power. He had failed at just about everything he had even undertaken until he discovered politics. In the world of spin and power plays, a superficial gift of gab and bullish determination could replace intelligence and idealism without missing a beat. Hitler found that the path to the top was short: Just tell a discontent people what they want to hear and make promises you have no intention to keep.
In Hitler's first radio speech after becoming Chancellor on January 30, 1933, he pledged [this is a direct quote from that address] "to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation" and invoked God's blessing on the German government. (Hitler was a fervent Christian until his egomania superceded faith in a "higher power" - a fact too many have either forgotten or never knew, thanks to sanitized school history books). But, the Fuhrer soon proved he had no intention of being a uniter. The Nazis' battle cry throughout their campaign had been "down with the liberals!" Once in office, Hitler made "liberals" (a mass group into which he lumped social democrats, gays, Jews, and any threat to Hitler's model of Christian society) his sworn enemies.
As soon as he was in office, Hitler began ramming through one action after the other in rapid, aggressive succession. His sidekick Goebbels, head of propaganda and undoubtedly the bulk of the diabolical brains behind the operation, gleefully wrote in his diary: "The struggle is a light one now as we are able to employ all the means of the state [which included the judiciary]". In addition, he noted, "Radio and press are at our disposal."
Hitler believed that to consolidate his power, he needed to create an "enemy of the state." Contrary to popular belief, the first "enemy" Hitler formally targeted was not the Jews but the Communist Party. Why? Because they were the most outspoken activists against his regime. Hitler was thus the first to invoke the spectre of "the Red Menace." He intentionally sought to provoke party activists to violent protest so, under his new aggressive laws suppressing public dissent; he could round them up and arrest them. Aware of this ploy, the Communists laid fairly low for a time, believing that Hitler was merely a puppet of reactionaries and his regime would not last.
But the Fuhrer, becoming progressively more drunk with his new power, was not so easily thwarted. To facilitate his demonization of the "Reds," he sent provocateurs to orchestrate a staged act of "terrorism." Their dupe was a young revolutionary named Van der Lubbe, who was implicated in (i.e. framed for) the bombing of the Reichstag (the equivalent of the Congressional building).
This incident gave Hitler the excuse he needed for "cracking down" on "enemies of the state." He rallied the Germans against the "terrorists" and passed the odious "Enabling Acts," in which the government was granted the right to bypass any due process for "suspects." One human right after the other was revoked: the Jews were stripped of all rights, trade unions were broken, and rival parties were made illegal. In addition, Hitler began to isolate Germany from the rest of the world: One of his first actions after assuming power was to withdraw from the League of Nations.
From the start, Hitler courted the conservative Christian clergy. To their shame, historically, many clergymen became his closest allies and most effective tools, as propagandists, spies, and suppressors of dissent. The clergy's most important role in the beginning, was to fuel anti-liberalism and anti-Semitism. Jews, according to Hitler, were "the source of every ill that had befallen Germany and of every continuing threat." [Substitute the word "liberal" and you have the new GOP's main party philosophy]. Historian John Weis pointed out that "Hitler inspired only those who shared his anger."
Hitler made public dissent first all but impossible, then illegal. At first, whenever groups tried to voice a protest during a public speech, he would have storm troopers clear the dissenters from the hall. Hitler also made sure that the media did not give provide the public with any coverage of dissenters or public protests because it was "encouraging of destructive elements." [Recently when I asked a reporter at the Associated Press why protests are not being covered, he said reporters are instructed not to because to do so "would be encouraging of destructive displays."]. So, what the media faithfully recorded was Hitler and Hitler supporters. To see an old German newsreel, you'd never guess there were plenty of dissenters around - at least until they were all shot or sent to concentration camps.
Hitler was very fond of photo ops. He believed they were his best form of PR and pounced on them at every opportunity. The files abound with shots of Hitler with bright-faced Germany families; he especially liked being photographed with school children. At the same time, Hitler actively promoted "family values" and high moral standards. He believed women should go back to being at home with their families and not in the work force. He also believed there should be little or no separation between the state and his brand of Christianity, especially since he firmly believed that the emotional fervor of religion could be used to effectively to promote the state's objectives. Under Hitler, worker protections were dismantled, one by one. Soon workers were laboring for longer hours for less pay. Worse yet, all trade unions had been smashed, so there was no recourse. Unfortunately, the Social Democrats were not organized and did not offer a solid front for opposing Hitler and his initiatives. Soon, they found themselves overwhelmed by a highly organized, aggressive and fanatically single-minded army of Nazi Party appointees who did whatever Hitler told them to do without questioning. Here we end the story, because we all know what happens next: the Holocaust and World War II.
STALIN AND BUSH'S CONSERVATIVE REFORM MOVEMENT: A Pattern of Despotism?
Joseph Stalin was successful in seizing and retaining power primarily because he was able to stack the Politburo with politicians as extreme as himself and to dictate their actions and their votes on every issue. Party dissenters were harassed mercilessly by the Politburo members who remained blindly loyal to Stalin. With a block of supporters who did not think for themselves, Stalin was able to completely reverse Russia's policy on a number of key issues, right across the board. For example, in 1936, he completely reversed the liberal communist doctrines pertaining to family, divorce, and abortion. He made divorce difficult, made abortion illegal, and stressed "family values" [do we see a 'dictator pattern' here?].
Stalin's propagandists used a three-point strategy to convince the Russian people that things in Stalin's policy that were in fact extremely bad for the country (including the systematic round up and extermination of all "enemies of the state") were in fact "good."
Point One: Create arguments that how the negative thing is actually NOT bad, but is actually good. [Present day ex: convincing people that greenhouse gases will give us lush green plants, not fry the planet].
Point Two: Show how the negative thing is actually not true. [Present-day ex: Global warming does not exist].
Point Three: Show that the negative thing is actually being caused by "enemies of the state" - most likely liberals. [Present-day example: We can't sign Kyoto because it is really a plot to ruin our economy].
THE GOP OF 1936 AND TODAY'S DIRTY POLITICS: How the Former Gave Birth to the Latter
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., FDR was attempting to guide the nation safely through the depression. The outrageous treatment of American workers throughout the industrial era up until that point by the corporate "bosses" had become a major issue. Men and women worked 12-14 hours a day, had no unemployment benefits, no health insurance, no safety regulations - no job security whatsoever. In response to this sorry state of affairs, labor unions were forming, but they were being met with brutal resistance by the Bosses and their henchmen. Because FDR championed the worker's cause and called for all manner of reforms - including the social security system - he was identified as "the enemy" of the bosses. The Republican Party, the attack dog of big business even then, was turned loose on the President with a vengeance. His every step was "dogged."
Just as corporate America saw FDR as an enemy, many of them, including IBM and G.W. Bush's grandfather, saw in Hitler a friend and treated this vicious genocidal maniac with far more respect and deference than they did FDR. The GOP was to learn many of its nastiest tactics from Hitler and Goebbels, including using communism as a scapegoat/enemy of the state to consolidate power just as soon as they had a Republican back in the White House (Eisenhower in 1952).
Another Hitler tactic learned by the GOP was the use of the smear. Hitler advised telling a damaging lie about an "enemy," then repeating it over and over, no matter what proof may be offered to counter it. The GOP poured an unprecedented amount of money into the 1936 campaign of their candidate Alf Landon. The party launched what was then dubbed the "nationwide selling campaign strategy." To do this, observed political writer Ralph D. Casey in 1937, the party was showered with the money and vigilant efforts of "a small but determined group of businessmen." Casey says the campaign was designed to be "an intensive, subtle, highly-organized salesmanship drive to 'unsell' President Roosevelt and to 'sell' Governor Landon and his highly-advertised common sense." [You have to hand it to the GOP for single-mindedness: they're still using the same buzzwords - "common sense," et al. - after 65 years!].
The GOP "sales team" identified several key points of attack, which they have used with almost no variation in every campaign since, whether appropriate or not.
- Accuse opposition of overspending
- accuse opposition of supporting "big government" - Identify a bogeyman - usually the communists and/or liberals [wonder who they learned that from?], although they have gotten a bit creative and now include environmentalists, anti-gun folks, and scientists on their list of "enemies of freedom"
- condemn New Deal (i.e., government social programs) as communistic or in some other way "unAmerican"
-Manipulate statistics to own advantage
- Accuse opposition of waging a class war.
Day in, day out, the GOP attacked FDR, throwing suspicions on everything he did, and said, and on everyone he had ever known. His family dog was not even exempt from political attacks! FDR had nothing but contempt for this self-righteous underhandedness. He denounced the GOP as a pack of "economic royalists" who used the flag and constitution as smokescreens. "I welcome their hatred," he proclaimed. It was the GOP that started the bane of our current system: paid political ads. In the 1930s, these were called "radio spots." It was in the ugly election of 1936 that the first conservative "talk show" was set up. These programs were created expressly as outlets for GOP propaganda. "No political party has ever excelled the businesslike effectiveness of the Republicans in the distribution of their party propaganda," observes Casey.
In the 1936 election, farmers and ranchers were courted by Republicans who shamelessly praised them for their "All-Americanism" a "rugged individualism." At the same time, of course, the same Republicans were supporting the right of bankers to foreclose on farms and ranches and opposing efforts to provide farm relief. Even the usually non-politically-oriented "Variety" magazine condemned the ruthless GOP campaign machine. "Political parties are being reduced to merchandize which can be exchanged for votes in accordance with a well-conceived marketing plan, taking stock of income levels, race, local problems, exactly as does a commercial sponsor. This differs not one whit from the tactics employed by any corporation."
To their credit, Americans in the 1930s were not as easily swayed by propaganda as they apparently are today. They were grateful to FDR for having placed the interests of the common man first and corporations second, for taking steps to make life less stressful and uncertain through the construction of safety nets such as relief and social security. In the end, despite the estimated over 170 million press releases spit out by the GOP and the countless millions it spent, the party could not buy its way into the White House. . Instead, FDR was given an earned vote of confidence by the American people to whom he devoted the last decade of his life. Landon lost big time, winning just two states (Maine and Vermont, which are both making up for this lapse today). Three days before he was elected, FDR said, "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I would like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces have met their master."
How I wish he had been right.
Selected Bibliography: Special thanks to Loyola College in Baltimore, which makes JSTOR (the Journal Storage project initiated by the Mellon Foundation) available to the public.
"The 1936 Republican Campaign," Ralph D. Casey; 1937, "Public Opinion Quarterly"
Essay by Charles W. Smith, Jr. "Journal of Politics," August 1939
"Public Opinion Inside the USSR," by anonymous U.S. government official, spring 1947 issue of "Public Opinion Quarterly"
"Future of Psychological Warfare," Hans Spiel, spring 1948 issue, "Public Opinion Quarterly"
"The Ideology of Death," John Weiss, 1996
"Hitler's Willing Executioners," Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, 1996
"The American Pageant" by Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy (the BEST U.S. History book ever produced!)
See also: http://baltimore.indymedia.org/newswire/display/3446//index.php