“Hitlerland”–Can It Happen Here (in America)?

What do I mean by “it” in this post’s title? I don’t mean Hitler, of course. I mean the phenomenon described vividly and frighteningly by journalist and author Nagorski in his book (which I am reading) entitled “Hitlerland.” It’s a detailed account of Americans living in Germany during Hitler’s riser to power. Most of them were journalists or diplomats; a few tourists are included. The sources are their journals, articles, books and diaries. What’s frightening about the (true) story is how many of them refused to see what was right before their eyes. Some of them saw with their own eyes either events or proof of events and still shut their eyes or minds to what was happening. And some who did see what was happening and tried to sound the alarm were considered hysterical by others–including some in our own State Department. (I previously read the book In the Garden of the Beasts which is similar to Hitlerland only it focused on one particular diplomant–America’s ambassador to Germany during part of the 1930s. He tried to sound the alarm to the State Department but was considered an alarmist and mostly ignored.)

The stories in Hitlerland are shocking. I’ve read many of them before, but the book sheds new light on the events: vicious beatings of Jews on the streets in full view of the public, a little boy thrown out of a third story window by Brown Shirts (SA) during the so-called Kristallnacht. Then the deportations of Jews and others to concentration camps. The rise of the concentration camps. The absolute power Hitler demanded and received from President Hindenberg, the public reviling of Jews and others by Nazi leaders, the propaganda used to manipulate the German public into going along with Hitler’s invasions of neighboring countries that were no threat to Germany, etc., etc.

But what is so shocking is how average, “good” German people bought into Nazi propaganda and enthusiastically supported virtually whatever Hitler and the Nazis did.

Novelist Sinclair Lewis’ wife was an American journalist living and working in Berlin in the 1930s. She was one of those who saw and tried to sound the alarm–to fellow Americans and the world–about Hitler’s and the Nazi’s nefarious schemes and the horrible events that were beginning to unfold. Lewis wrote a book entitled “It Can’t Happen Here” about a mythical but (to him) possible Fascist America–if Americans were not vigilant in defending their rights and freedoms against the natural tendencies of powerful men (and perhaps a few women) to grab more and more power.

I think most Americans like to think what happened in Germany in the 1930s was somehow unique and that we, America, are immune to such abuses of power. And yet, it seems to me recent events raise some questions about that mentality. How many people objected when our government invaded Iraq under false pretenses? (Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was never a real threat to “our freedoms.”) How many spoke out forcefully against the loss of freedoms with the passage of the “Patriot Act” and how many are now alarmed and voicing alarm at the revelations of the extent of surveillance of American citizens’ private communications?

Remember that Hitler grabbed dictatorial power on the premise that Germany was under terrorist attack after the burning of the Reichstag. Germans were willing to allow him to suspend their freedoms and rights to protect their safety–even though their safety was probably not at all threatened.

I am NOT suggesting that our government is becoming what Hitler’s was. What I am suggesting is that it’s possible and perhaps inevitable that such could happen IF we are not vigilant and vocal with regard to protecting our constitutional freedoms and rights including freedom from unreasonable search and seizure–including from mass surveillance of private communication.

I am also reading a very prophetic (in the sense of challenging) book entitled Saving Christianity from Empire by University of St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer entitled Saving Christianity from Empire. It’s a hard-hitting, fact-filled warning about American nationalism and its dangers. If the author is correct we Americans have allowed our fear of terrorism change our way of life in extremely dangerous ways. And it has also resulted in aggressive militarism and unjust imperialism with hardly a protest from frightened Americans.

I would like to require all American students to study the history of German political and social life between the two world wars. Doing that over thirty years (including during a year of living in Munich where much of it began) has dramatically changed my perspective on the dangers of nationalism and over reactions to terrorism and xenophobia.

 

 

 

 

  • Randy Walberg

    The cautionary tale is most definitely worth heeding. One striking difference is that the dramatic changes in “Hitlerland” were orchestrated by one man. The gradual changes in the American situation have happened over years of different people and parties coming from different ends of the political spectrum in power.

    • Roger Olson

      One thing I’ve learned from all the books I’ve read about the rise of National Socialism in Germany (Naziism) is that it was not orchestrated by one man; many men (and a few women) participated. Eventually, of course, Hitler became the absolute leader, but there were colleagues without whom he probably couldn’t have accomplished it. And rival parties cooperated without realizing what was happening. Hitler’s initial term as Chancellor of Germany was in a coalition government. Then, of course, there were his close supporters–Goering, Goebbels and others. After grabbing absolute power (with the help of German President Hindenberg) he wiped out all his opponents. He couldn’t have done that without a lot of help. But, yes, so far, in America, anyway, there’s no single personality like Hitler on the horizon. Pray there never will be!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hi Roger,

    Your post this AM on the drift to excessive control is as brave as it is important. The piece referenced below from Peggy Noonan in WSJ is contra their editorial (according to video sidebar) and that’s not the only good thing about it. Along with your warnings, her argument about loss of faith (in the ideal of country) should resonate with those still awake or just awakening.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324188604578543721259199626.html

    Blessings,

    Bev

  • steve rogers

    You are so right on with this one. The problem as I see it, however, is that it is not just one party that is not to be trusted. Both of the dominant political parties have demonstrated tendencies to misuse the trust of the public and abuse power to preserve and expand power. I am alarmed about this as are many, but wonder how I should respond. I find the blogosphere so noisy it is almost irrelevant. And, I haven’t found taking to the streets to be particularly productive for me. That said, I am watching this closely.

    • Roger Olson

      I have always tried to resist conspiracy theories of all kinds. However, my study of history leads me to realize there can be and sometimes are invisible forces at work (both invisible in the sense of spiritual and invisible in the sense of human but hidden) in pernicious changes taking place in governments. I agree with you that our two major parties seem different on the surface but act similarly when in power. One constant (in recent years) is the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to get poorer. Another one is growth of power by intelligence agencies. Finally, the grasp of American empire continues to grow unabated. One has to wonder why? Why has Obama, I wonder, failed to reign in forces unleashed by previous administrations. I thought that was what he was all about. I’m beginning to think I was wrong. What you point out is one reason I have often voted for “third party” candidates–I think we need real alternatives in our political system.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger,

    You are right about the danger. Aggressive militarism and “unjust imperialism” (isn’t the first word assumed in the second?) have and will continue to bring us and the world into greater poverty of all kinds.

    I think that the Treaty of Versailles planted many of the seeds that Hitler cultivated in his rise to German political power. It (the treaty) was vindictive and humiliating of the German people – and it ground much of the hope for a better tomorrow out of them.

    Grasping for power comes from many corners – from busybodies, from treasure-seekers, from egoists – all with sweet sounding messages – all heading to the same end of tyranny.

    I don’t think that Nationalism is nearly the greater danger in America – for the Nationalists presently want to constrain America within the bounds of the Constitution. That will likely change when they may be returned to power. But for now, the greater danger is by those who undermine our freedom “for our own good”. Like you comment on the surveillance, it is to protect us. Like those who ban sugary drinks or fatty foods, it is to keep us healthful. Like those who thieve treasures of others, it is to make sure we are caring for the less fortunate. (I learned last Sunday that Charlemagne enforced the tithe by force of law. At least he stopped at 10%!) These (all, including the extreme Nationalists that you mention) are enemies of freedom and free people.

    -Tim

  • Curt Day

    Roger,
    I think our pursuit of pleasures, comfort, and career makes us want a laissez-faire relationship with our government. In this relationship, the citizens are the negligent parents while government is our spoiled child. And since those who are comfortable are allergic to change, we will see what we want to keep our current state of affairs.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    Tyranny can happen anywhere.

    We have an ignorant electorate and brainwashed society (thank you public school system).

    The pieces are in place.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Roger, I, too, was very disappointment with the president in not changing some of the Bush policies, especially the Patriot Act and our continuing “war” on terrorism, but also the Gitmo injustice. What may seem like a minor infringement of “illegal search and seizues” are the alcohol checkpoints on highways. The attitude: “Hey, if you’re not drinking and driving, you got nothing to worry about.” The “War on Drugs.” Paraphrasing Cheney after the signing of the Patriot Act for the “War on Terrorism.”
    Fear is the source, divisiveness part of its basic character. We don’t have a two party system any more, we have opposing trenches. There are no arguments over policies, it is seen by both as right versus wrong, and for too many others on both sides, good versus evil. The Civil War began to take shape, after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, pretty much the same way. Nullification laws breezing through red states’ legislatures, most for the holy crusade of protecting the unborn. I do not see a way of stepping back from this precipe–without Christians en masse deserting their political entanglement forward positions.

  • Ken

    Roger:

    I lived in the Middle East for 8 years not long before the invasion of Iraq. When I spoke up in an online Christian forum of friends about why it was wrong no one was sympathetic, and many thought I was wrong, because they just believed that the US government (and the party in power then) could do no wrong.
    It shook me up.

    I later told my children I had read ‘All Quiet on The Western Front’ as a teenager and had been thankful that we were educated and would never fall for the hoopla a government could generate and go to war over it. The invasion of Iraq proved me wrong.

  • frylock243

    As for the Iraqi WMDs, it’s very easy to say there were none in hindsight, but everyone in the world, from every intel agency (not just our own) to even Saddam’s own officers believed he had WMDs until it was revealed that he didn’t have them, or at least didn’t have them to the capacity it was believed he did. Everyone also conveniently the numerous UN resolutions and massive Oil for Food that was undermining the sanctions which were the only other recourse to discipline for breaking the resolutions. What other recourse on Saddam was there? The Obama approach? Threaten something and fail to follow through signaling to the world that you are weak and ineffectual and therefore to be taken advantage of and ignored which is what it happening now.

    As for the Patriot Act, I spoke out against that one. There are some things in it that are useful. I think our agencies should be able to communicate with one another so that they’re not all reconstructing the same case at the same time. That’s inefficient, but the FISA thing never sat very well with me although I could see some of the point to it. So long as we were only following the networks from a suspect to another, it was one thing, but we’ve allowed our overly PC nature and natural tendency toward government control to morph it into an excuse to scoop up everyone’s everything. So we’re all guilty until proven innocent now.

    • Roger Olson

      I edited out the final sentence because it was inflammatory.

  • Norman

    The survival of the “tribe” has been a driving force in humanity forever and it is easily awakened whether by “real” enemies or “supposed” ones. Without those raw instincts able to be awakened the ability for group survival recedes into extermination. That instinct can be harnessed just as easily by a Hitler as by a culture such as America illustrated in driving out the Indians (Canaanites found in our promised land) or wealthy Slave holders and their society that supported irrational bondage of humans.

    We are just a perceived threat away from similar paths looming at any time.

    • Roger Olson

      I agree, but I happen to think that education can work against that–if it’s done rightly. I think, for example, that reading Hitlerland or a book like it can help people see how easily they might be manipulated by their own government in a time of great political and economic stress. The Germans of the 1920s and 1930s were not monsters or stupid; they were normal people living in highly stressful times who were not sufficiently critical thinkers to see and question what was happening right before their eyes.

      • Norman

        Roger,

        Yes, optimistically education is our hope it seems and thus why educators like you are a value much beyond what you are paid. However pessimistically speaking, education/knowledge although a greater force in the world than it has ever held has not always appeared to yield substantial dividends in what one might call Wisdom. Wisdom seems to take in a limited percentage of people, while the culture at large can be led at will, notwithstanding
        attempts at increasing discernment. I wish it wasn’t so but I know my own journey required extensive growth and a continual immersion or we revert back to our survival instincts.

        But thank you for you’re striving to make a difference. That
        is all anyone can ask for.

        • Roger Olson

          I agree; wisdom is our only hope and goes beyond mere knowledge. When I say “education” I generally mean a combination of information and transformation with the primary aim being maturity of thought, wisdom.

          • Norman

            Sounds like a good summary of 1 Cor 13. :) I believe Paul would say amen!


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