UPDATE (June 21, 2005): If you are coming here via the pseudonymous Juan Non-Volokh's childish and dishonest misrepresentation of this lengthy posting, and would like to learn something about the meaning and history of fascism, please follow the links in the extended discussion, below, and also consider reading the material here (quoting historian Robert Paxton), here (quoting historian Fritz Stern), here (political scientist Lawrence Britt's well-known discussion of the defining characteristics of fascism) and here (Mussolini on fascism, noting, among other things, that fascism is "the complete opposite of Marxist socialism").
UPDATE: Moving to the front from Sept. 2, in order to encourage more comments. Do check out the many very interesting remarks already posted at the end.
Jessica Wilson (who will be blogging here next week) has called my attention to this provocative essay. There is a bit of hyperbole, and inaccuracy, in Part III, but not enough to deprive the piece of interest.
There is a growing concern among many both inside and outside the country that the United States is gradually becoming inhospitable to freedom and democratic values; longtime readers will recall the many examples I've noted in the past. (Click on the Of Cultural Interest category, and scroll down for some examples.) Could it be that the U.S. is poised to be transformed the way another democratic society was transformed in to a world-historic monstrosity in the 1930s? That the current Administration has gone so far as to revive the Nazi doctrine of preventive war clearly exacerbates the concern. Does the analogy have any merit? Are there legitimate grounds for concern? The questions are timely ones, and of more than merely academic interest.
Of course, the inquiry may seem premised on an odd supposition: namely, that there are laws of historical transformation, such that if we discover the same antecedent conditions, we can predict what the consequences will be. But even if we relax that assumption, the question about historical precedents is still not without interest--for if the current situation has sufficient similarity with an earlier historical situation, then we at least have defeasible reasons for planning accordingly.
We should begin by briefly revisiting the almost banal way in which Hitler transformed democratic Germany in to a dictatorship. This libertarian writer, relying on William Shirer's account, reviews the basic facts usefully:
"In the presidential election held on March 13, 1932, there were four candidates....[A]lmost 70 percent of the German people voted against Hitler [in this election], causing his supporter Joseph Goebbels, who would later become Hitler’s minister of propaganda, to lament in his journal, 'We’re beaten; terrible outlook. Party circles badly depressed and dejected.'
"Since Hindenberg had not received a majority of the vote, however, a runoff election had to be held among the top three vote-getters. On April 19, 1932, the runoff results were: Hindenburg 53.0 percent; Hitler 36.8 percent; Thaelmann 10.2 percent. Thus, even though Hitler’s vote total had risen, he still had been decisively rejected by the German people....
"Even though Hitler had badly lost the presidential election, he was drawing ever-larger crowds during the congressional election [in summer 1932]....
"The July 31, 1932, election produced a major victory for Hitler’s National Socialist Party. The party won 230 seats in the Reichstag, making it Germany’s largest political party, but it still fell short of a majority in the 608-member body. "On the basis of that victory, Hitler demanded that President Hindenburg appoint him chancellor and place him in complete control of the state [Hindenburg declined]...Political deadlocks in the Reichstag soon brought a new election, this one in November 6, 1932. In that election, the Nazis lost two million votes and 34 seats. Thus, even though the National Socialist Party was still the largest political party, it had clearly lost ground among the voters.
"Attempting to remedy the chaos and the deadlocks, Hindenburg...appointed an army general named Kurt von Schleicher as the new German chancellor. Unable to secure a majority coalition in the Reichstag, however, Schleicher finally tendered his resignation to Hindenburg, 57 days after he had been appointed.
"On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Although the National Socialists never captured more than 37 percent of the national vote, and even though they still held a minority of cabinet posts and fewer than 50 percent of the seats in the Reichstag, Hitler and the Nazis set out to to consolidate their power. With Hitler as chancellor, that proved to be a fairly easy task.
"On February 27, Hitler was enjoying supper at the Goebbels home when the telephone rang with an emergency message: 'The Reichstag is on fire!' Hitler and Goebbels rushed to the fire, where they encountered Hermann Goering, who would later become Hitler’s air minister. Goering was shouting at the top of his lungs, 'This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very day be strung up.'
"The day after the fire, the Prussian government announced that it had found communist publications stating, 'Government buildings, museums, mansions and essential plants were to be burned down... . Women and children were to be sent in front of terrorist groups.... The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and civil war.... It has been ascertained that today was to have seen throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property, and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the beginning of general civil war.'
"So how was Goering so certain that the fire had been set by communist terrorists? Arrested on the spot was a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe. Most historians now believe that van der Lubbe was actually duped by the Nazis into setting the fire and probably was even assisted by them, without his realizing it.
"Why would Hitler and his associates turn a blind eye to an impending terrorist attack on their national congressional building or actually assist with such a horrific deed? Because they knew what government officials have known throughout history — that during extreme national emergencies, people are most scared and thus much more willing to surrender their liberties in return for 'security.' And that’s exactly what happened during the Reichstag terrorist crisis.
"The day after the fire, Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to issue a decree entitled, 'For the Protection of the People and the State.' Justified as a 'defensive measure against Communist acts of violence endangering the state,' the decree suspended the constitutional guarantees pertaining to civil liberties: 'Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.'
"Two weeks after the Reichstag fire, Hitler requested the Reichstag to temporarily delegate its powers to him so that he could adequately deal with the crisis. Denouncing opponents to his request, Hitler shouted, 'Germany will be free, but not through you!' When the vote was taken, the result was 441 for and 84 against, giving Hitler the two-thirds majority he needed to suspend the German constitution. On March 23, 1933, what has gone down in German history as the 'Enabling Act' made Hitler dictator of Germany, freed of all legislative and constitutional constraints.
"One of the most dramatic consequences was in the judicial arena. Shirer points out, 'Under the Weimar Constitution judges were independent, subject only to the law, protected from arbitrary removal and bound at least in theory by Article 109 to safeguard equality before the law.' In fact, in the Reichstag terrorist case, while the court convicted van der Lubbe of the crime (who was executed), three other defendants, all communists, were acquitted, which infuriated Hitler and Goering. Within a month, the Nazis had transferred jurisdiction over treason cases from the Supreme Court to a new People’s Court, which, as Shirer points out, 'soon became the most dreaded tribunal in the land. It consisted of two professional judges and five others chosen from among party officials, the S.S. and the armed forces, thus giving the latter a majority vote. There was no appeal from its decisions or sentences and usually its sessions were held in camera. Occasionally, however, for propaganda purposes when relatively light sentences were to be given, the foreign correspondents were invited to attend.'
"One of the Reichstag terrorist defendants, who had angered Goering during the trial with a severe cross-examination of Goering, did not benefit from his acquittal. Shirer explains: 'The German communist leader was immediately taken into “protective custody,” where he remained until his death during the second war.'
"In addition to the People’s Court, which handled treason cases, the Nazis also set up the Special Court, which handled cases of political crimes or 'insidious attacks against the government.' These courts 'consisted of three judges, who invariably had to be trusted party members, without a jury. A Nazi prosecutor had the choice of bringing action in such cases before either an ordinary court or the Special Court, and invariably he chose the latter, for obvious reasons. Defense lawyers before this court, as before the Volksgerichtshof, had to be approved by Nazi officials....'
"The Nazis also implemented a legal concept called Schutzhaft or 'protective custody' which enabled them to arrest and incarcerate people without charging them with a crime....
"Oddly enough, even though his dictatorship very quickly became complete, Hitler returned to the Reichstag every four years to renew the 'temporary' delegation of emergency powers that it had given him to deal with the Reichstag-arson crisis. Needless to say, the Reichstag rubber-stamped each of his requests.
"For their part, the German people quickly accepted the new order of things. Keep in mind that the average non-Jewish German was pretty much unaffected by the new laws and decrees. As long as a German citizen kept his head down, worked hard, took care of his family, sent his children to the public schools and the Hitler Youth organization, and, most important, didn’t involve himself in political dissent against the government, a visit by the Gestapo was very unlikely....Describing how the average German adapted to the new order, Shirer writes, 'The overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of culture had been destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation.... The Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being cowed.... On the contrary, they supported it with genuine enthusiasm. Somehow it imbued them with a new hope and a new confidence and an astonishing faith in the future of their country.'"
The preceding account is obviously written by our libertarian author in a way to suggest analogies with the present. Some of the analogies are fairly silly and superficial (Hitler did not receive a majority of the popular vote before assuming absolute power--and neither did Bush!), others plainly less so (both Hitler and Bush--but not only these two in the pantheon of political leaders--have exploited public fear to undertake what would have been untenable repressive measures [in the case of Bush, e.g., trying to detain citizens beyond the reach of judicial review]). But what are the significant differences and similarities between now and then? I've listed a few below. I've also opened comments, but will delete anonymous posts and off-topic postings. I know I'm fortunate to have a lot of educated and thoughtful readers, from many parts of the world, and I'd welcome their thoughts on this matter. I am particularly interested to hear how the situation in the U.S. looks from abroad.
(1) Hitler, from early on in his political career, had a clear dictatorial and racist agenda; Bush does not. Indeed, Bush, the man, is largely devoid of an agenda or ideology--he was a relatively benign, moderate Republican Governor in Texas--cutting taxes, protecting business interests, bankrupting the state--and has moved far to the right as President. Political expediency (not suprisingly) seems to dictate many of his positions. Yet if there is no reason to think he is a racist or anti-semite, it is equally clear that he is a religious extremist, a point of view that could, under certain circumstances, lend itself to equally illiberal and undemocratic results (why tolerate the ungodly, those who worship a different god, etc.?) Bush also has, in some respects, a fascist personality: all the evidence suggests he is unable to cope with being challenged, with criticism, with dissent. His oft-expressed certainty about occupying the moral high ground--together with his almost complete lack of moral judgment--also bodes ill for his conduct and policies in a crisis situation.
(2) Germany was in the throes of economic castrophe when Hitler assumed absolute power, a fact that must go some distance to explaining the ease of the transition. (See this vivid account by a Welsh journalist just six months after Hitler took power.) There is obviously potential for such an economic catastrophe in the U.S.--especially given the gross mismanagement of economic affairs, even by capitalist standards, the last few years--and that may pose the greatest threat to democratic stability. Yet there is also another route by which state power over individual lives could expand dramatically: namely, in the wake of another terrorist incident of real magnitude it is easy to imagine the same bovine legislators who approved the Patriot [sic] Act without reading it agreeing to the suspension of habeas corpus, and perhaps other drastic measures. (We already have fascist propagandists whitewashing the last American experiment with herding suspect racial groups in to concentration camps. On how the media accord attention to these lies, almost without challenge, see Professor Muller's account here.) And while that is not the same as a suspension of the rights of free speech, assembly, etc., in practice it could obviously amount to the same thing. The combination of economic meltdown and terrorist catastrophe would probably spell the end of even nominally democratic America, would it not? Is there a more optimistic scenario?
(3) Democracy in Germany was, at the time of Hitler's rise to power, a short-lived experiment--only two decades earlier, Germany was a non-democratic monarchy. In some respects, democratic culture is more deeply rooted here, having survived, for example, the quasi-fascistic McCarthy era, and overcome the even more heinous era of American apartheid and the police states that destroyed the lives of non-whites throughout much of the country. (Those ignorant of the actual history of American apartheid, as recently as the 1940s and 1950s, for example, are often unaware that many [most?] Southern states ran secret police forces who, like their South African counterparts decades later, maintained the racial regimes through state-sponsored terror and spying.)
(4) Sheldon Wolin and others have noted that democratic culture is vibrant on the ground in America, in a way it may not have been in Germany. Wolin dubbed our situation "inverted totalitarianism": we don't have gangs of fascist thugs breaking heads on the streets (or not too many, anyway); we do have a vibrant popular culture of dissent and protest, though it is a minority, not majority, culture phenomenon (but it exists and isn't, yet anyway, at risk). (Perhaps when they pull "The Daily Show" from TV it will be a sign that the end is near?) In many segments of the country--especially universities, but also in the major commercial centers on the two coasts--"live and let live" and ideological pluralism is still the order of the day (with certain limits--communists and NeoNazis are generally not welcome).
At the same time, we are witnessing alarming expansions of state power (to spy, to pry, to detain); the collapse of the rule of law in crucial areas (separation of powers, rights of habeas corpus--though with a hopeful push-back from the courts recently); and, finally, the packing of the judiciary with ideologues who exacerbate both the other tendencies. (In the 4th judicial circuit of the United States, the process is complete--there, if a 3-judge panel produces a decision deemed "too liberal," en banc panels are then convened, where the conservative majority on the circuit can overturn the remaining liberals. The rule of law is, for many purposes, effectively abolished in states like Virginia and North Carolina as a result.)
(5) While there are openly fascistic elements in the Republican Party (as even political moderates sometimes notice [and here too])--they don't claim the label, of course, but they embrace many of the central values (read Tom DeLay's speeches, for example, which even appropriate the Nazi metaphors of health and sickness to describe the political battles between conservative Christians and secular liberals)--even the Republicans still include a genuinely libertarian segment, genuinely opposed to state power (think Congressman Ron Paul here in Texas, or the academic sympathizers with the Republican Party, who are overwhelmingly libertarians). Still, all indications are that the fascistic elements have the upper hand within both the party's actual power structure and in the popular culture: Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell pale in importance in comparison to Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, etc. (I sometimes wonder whether libertarian academics who dismiss worries about resurgent fascism have ever read, for example, Michael Savage? If you change a few of the target groups, he is literally indistinguishable from Nazi polemicists. There is reason to think Savage knows it, given his favorite rhetorical trope.)
(5) Much may turn on what is meant, of course, by "fascism," which is why I started by alluding to the erosion of freedom and democratic values. As this article reminds us (thanks to this site for the link), one might well think that "some provisions of Bush's PATRIOT Act, his detention of American citizens without charges, his willingness to let corporations write legislation, and the so-called 'Free Speech Zones' around his public appearances are all steps on the road to American fascism." The author then recalls Vice-President Henry Wallace's 1944 New York Times essay on fascism:
"The dangerous American fascist is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power."
Or as the Italian philosopher, and Mussolini contemporary, Giovanni Gentile put it, in a definition Mussolini subsequently claimed credit for: "Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." And herewith a modern American Heritage Dictionary definition of "fascism": "A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism." There is nothing unreasonable, plainly, in worrying that the Bush Administration and its policies represent the coming of fascism in the above sense to the American landscape (mainstream economists, like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong, have documented the merger of state and corporate power during the Bush years at length)--but it is perhaps more fascism of the Italian, not Nazi, variety, since it has no racial component. Vice-President Wallace wrote:
"American fascism will not be really dangerous...until there is a purposeful coalition among the [corporate] cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information...
"The symptoms of fascist thinking are colored by environment and adapted to immediate circumstances. But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice. It may be shocking to some people in this country to realize that, without meaning to do so, they hold views in common with Hitler when they preach discrimination...
"The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy. "They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection."
As has been noted by others, one of the two major "news" sources in the United States is straight out of Hitler's or Stalin's playbook. Indeed, there are reasons to think that other news outlets are following that lead. If the most convenient, and most powerful, sources of "news" become propaganda arms of the extremist party in power, what could the consequences possibly be except grim? And would the media that essentially collapsed in the face of the rush to war in Iraq do any better in the face of a rush towards a police state?
Perhaps this is the most worrisome development, namely, the absence of a public, mass-media based intellectual culture in this country, with any critical distance from the interests of corporate and state power. When "liberal" National Public Radio regularly brings on two dopey journalists, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, for some "balanced" news analysis, it is clear that the spectrum of acceptable, critical opinion is very narrow indeed. Combine that with the now mainstream militarism of the society--the Democrats try to "out-tough guy" the Republicans--and you have the ingredients for something very dangerous. It's perhaps also worth noting that in important respects, the United States has already left the league of democratic nations. Thanks to naked and politically-motivated gerrymandering (by both Democrats and Republicans, though more, more recently, by the latter), there are almost no real electoral contests for members of the House of Representatives any longer in the U.S. And that is before we even touch the corrupting influence of legalized bribery and sound-bite elections on the remainder of the democratic process! What does the future hold? How concerned are my readers about these issues? How do you read the evidence? I am eager to hear from others. No anonymous posts, of course, and if you have particular expertise to bring to bear (e.g., historical, economic, sociological), don't be bashful about making that known.