But for Maizlish, the biggest takeaway from the debate over the Compromise of 1850 as it relates to present circumstances is the danger of extreme polarization. “When representatives fall into making absolutist statements, there is very little room for compromise or progress,” he says. “That happened then and it is clearly happening now. And when representatives are fearful of challenging their constituents to think in terms of a larger good, and instead pander to their constituents’ narrow prejudices in exchange for votes rather than assuming the burden of national leadership for themselves, disaster is at hand. Moderates need to lead and compromise, but they need to ensure they’re compromising on the right matters, not just ensuring some weak ‘peace for their time’ that they win by caving to dangerous radicals, like those pro-slavery congressmen who refused to make necessary reforms.”
“One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” ― Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany
Cass Sunstein has an interesting review in the NYRB entitled It Can Happen Here. It’s a good, short read. The title of the piece, so you’re aware, is oddly chosen because Sunstein thinks “full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here [in the U.S].” So why name it that? I’m not sure.
Anyway, Sunstein’s review looks at 3 books that attempt to account for how Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the pre-WWII German liberal democratic republic.
These books, for the most part, tell the story from the view of the average working class German. It was ultimately the German people’s collective action and inaction that allowed Hitler and the Nazis to take and keep power. But the change (the fall into fascism), as we’re told, wasn’t a sudden thing—at least not in the awareness of the average German. The descent into tyranny was gradual. By the time most German people realized it, it was too late to do anything about it. Sunstein quotes a philologist who captures a set of common sentiments that many Germans seem to have had when reflecting back on that time:
…a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
So it was an incremental descent into tyranny aided, as one writer put it, by the “‘Automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.” For me, it’s easy to see how this might happen in a democracy.
To be clear, if an election is an indicator of whom and what political party a nation supports (and it is), then Hitler didn’t have popular (majority) support amongst the German voters. The other parties combined, all more left leaning, garnered the majority of support. The problem was the left leaning opposition parities were divided and that gave Hitler’s Nazi party a united front in the German Reichstag (parliament) and the keys to power. Hitler and his fascist right-wing party came to power in 1933 and basically seized dictatorial powers that same year. The speed of things, confusion, mass lies, propaganda, and fear were all on Hitler’s side. An important set of things to keep in mind when thinking about how this might happen in our own time.
Certainly most Germans could see the fracturing of their democratic society (and its values) when Hitler seized full dictatorial control of the government so quickly. Some German’s actually welcomed the fascist authoritarianism. As Sunstein’s review points out, there were working class Germans who said (years after the fall of Nazi Germany) that the Nazi years were the “best years of their life.” So there were some Germans, knowing full well what had happened, who still admired Hitler and the life he gave them. When asked about the horrors the Nazi regime had carried out, like the murder of 6 million Jews, many of these Nazi working class supporters just dismissed that as basically “Fake news.” Of course reading this made me feel all the more pleased that Nazi Germany had been utterly destroyed.
I didn’t read the books involved in this review, so I can’t properly critique the gradualist theory. My theory is that initially a lot of Germans who hadn’t supported Hitler grew to support Hitler. Even if they weren’t initially comfortable with Hitler and how he’d seized power and his divisive, hateful rhetoric, they chose to make moral compromises, over and over, because of a booming economy (mostly via a massive stimulus in government spending on the military) and a perceived order and stability that initially, at least, were all very agreeable. Many other Germans, even among the political opposition, sold out politically and morally. They decided it was best to go along. A German Republican at the time of Hitler’s rise told a man who’d voiced a deep opposition to the Nazis, that he needed to learn to “Howl with the wolves.” An apt metaphor when you think about it. A pack of wolves, indeed, had taken over the country.
The problem, of course, was the Germans had made a deal with the devil, and the deal quickly became far more costlier than anticipated. Word was slowly spreading about the imprisoning (and murdering) of political enemies and the growing number of Gestapo raids and missing people (Jews AND fellow Germans) and their families and the suppression of individual rights. And so now the deal couldn’t be broken without a lot of death and destruction. The devil would get his due. The wolves would feast on the lambs.
One of the nice things about early morning jogs on the National Mall is all the small gardens and memorials you come across by happenstance. This morning, because of a construction project blocking my normal path, I was detoured down some steps and into a small garden tucked away near the 14th street bridge along the Potomac river.
It’s a beautiful memorial garden dedicated to George Mason of colonial Virginia, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A life size bronze statue of Mason sits on a stone bench beneath a long trellis that curves along the southern end of the garden.
Mason appears relaxed and contemplative. On the bench to his right is his hat and walking stick, and on his left are two books; one by John Locke and the other by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Mason was one of the three Virginia delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787 who refused to sign the final draft of the Constitution. Mason actually wrote a paper entitled Objections to this Constitution of Government. Mason cited a lack of a Bill of Rights as his chief concern. But he also wanted an immediate end to the slave trade. He would eventually get his Bill of Rights when they were introduced by James Madison during the First Congress of 1789. The slave trade with America would not end until 1808, and, of course, slavery within the United States would not end until the Civil War.
It was George Mason, by the way, who gave Virginia its official title of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For Mason the state’s name would indicate that power stemmed from the people.
You may have noticed some writing to the left of Mason’s statue, engraved in the stone on the back of the bench. Let me note, these words were written before the Declaration of Independence was published in July of 1776.* The words just might ring familiar to you:
All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights…among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
— George Mason, May 1776
*The Declaration of Independence was written over the period between June 11th and July 4th of 1776.
In the darkness you could hear the crying of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some prayed for help. Others wished for death. But still more imagined that there were no Gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.
What might the destruction of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have looked like when Mount Vesuvius erupted? Well, we don’t know for sure, but years of study and science have given us a really good idea. Here’s a fascinating full length animation with sound.
I knew Mark Twain had served briefly in the confederate army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He served 2 weeks, had enough of “retreating,” so he abandoned the confederate army and headed West (Nevada) with his brother to sit out the war. I had read about Twain’s Civil War service only in secondary material, but recently I finally got around to reading Twain’s own essay on his Civil War experience in a piece he called The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.
I should note, Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state and largely southern in culture, and was piloting steamboats on the Mississippi River when the war broke out.
After reading Twain’s story, I couldn’t help but post the second paragraph, a model specimen of Twain’s humor and charm as a writer:
Out west there was a good deal of confusion in men’s minds during the first months of the great trouble, a good deal of unsettledness, of leaning first this way then that, and then the other way. It was hard for us to get our bearings. I call to mind an example of this. I was piloting on the Mississippi when the news came that South Carolina had gone out of the Union on the 20th of December, 1860. My pilot mate was a New Yorker. He was strong for the Union; so was I. But he would not listen to me with any patience, my loyalty was smirched, to his eye, because my father had owned slaves. I said in palliation of this dark fact that I had heard my father say, some years before he died, that slavery was a great wrong and he would free the solitary Negro he then owned if he could think it right to give away the property of the family when he was so straitened in means. My mate retorted that a mere impulse was nothing, anyone could pretend to a good impulse, and went on decrying my Unionism and libeling my ancestry. A month later the secession atmosphere had considerably thickened on the Lower Mississippi and I became a rebel; so did he. We were together in New Orleans the 26th of January, when Louisiana went out of the Union. He did his fair share of the rebel shouting but was opposed to letting me do mine. He said I came of bad stock, of a father who had been willing to set slaves free. In the following summer he was piloting a Union gunboat and shouting for the Union again and I was in the Confederate army. I held his note for some borrowed money. He was one of the most upright men I ever knew but he repudiated that note without hesitation because I was a rebel and the son of a man who owned slaves.