On Learning Our Lessons from History
Everyone has heard some version of philosopher George Santayana’s famous saying that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The study of history is crucial to knowing what might happen in the future.
Please bear with me as I add my own footnotes to Santayana’s maxim: “Whatever has happened in history could happen again.” Now, of course, the past is unrepeatable in the literal sense. An event of the past can never happen exactly in the same way in the future. So don’t over-literalize my maxim. My point is simply that if something happened in the past, something like it could happen in the future. The past is never totally “over and done with.”
What am I aiming at? Simply this: Many Americans seem to think that some things that have happened in other countries in the past cannot ever happen here.
I recently read a long op-ed piece in a newspaper arguing that what happened in Germany in 1933 and afterwards (viz., the rise to absolute power of Hitler and Nazi totalitarianism) cannot ever happen here because of our different system of government (viz., “checks and balances” between three separate branches of government). The author of that essay seemed to think that only the German post-WW1 parliamentary system of government made it possible for Hitler to grab total power and that our different form of government will always prevent that.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
To that I say “hogwash.” The author of that opinion column does not know what he is talking about.
I won’t go into all the details of the “whys” and “wherefores,” but only mention, as one example, that there was a separation of powers in the Weimar Republic of Germany after WW1 that, had it functioned well and had the people vigilantly supported it, and opposed any radical distortions of it, would have prevented the totalitarianism that emerged especially in 1935. The President of Germany (Hindenburg) was the head of state; Hitler was elected by a plurality, not majority, to be Chancellor (like prime minister) under Hindenburg. He was elected to lead the German Reichstag (parliament) in a coalition government. He was head of government but not head of state. Hitler did what anyone who was paying close attention to his writings and speeches should have been able to predict. When Hindeburg died in 1934 and when the Reichstag building was allegedly burned by a supposed communist agitator Hitler combined the two offices—head of state and head of government. Opponents of that power grab, which was unconstitutional, were intimidated into either abstaining or voting for it. Germany under Hitler was a democracy with checks and balances and separations of powers—until a frightened and ignorant population went along with Hitler’s grab for total power. There was no inherent weakness in the Weimar Republic’s constitutional democracy; the weakness that permitted totalitarianism to rear its ugly head in one of the world’s most civilized countries was the population’s fear of communism and ignorant openness to Hitler’s and the Nazis’s scapegoating for the country’s troubles after WW1.
Knowing that many people react to any mention of Germany under Hitler in the 1930s—as if that was totally unique and nothing like that could ever happen here and that it constitutes “playing the Hitler card,” an alleged faux pas—I will mention another example of something that did happen in the past from which we Americans could learn much.The Republic of South Africa was a parliamentary democracy in the late 1940s. It had been led mostly by the English citizens and modeled itself after Great Britain. It was a functioning member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. While the native African minority and other people of color (e.g., Indian immigrants and their descendants) were mistreated and usually unable to vote, the path toward racial unity in one nation-state was well trod and the future seemed bright. Then came the disastrous election of 1948 in which the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power. It was a free and fair election (at least among the white population) that stopped the progress in its path and instituted Apartheid—one of the most evil and oppressive systems the modern, Western world has ever known.
My point is that in both cases democracy and separation of power, checks and balances, multi-party systems, did not prevent evil from emerging from within a freely elected government. And the evil did not really begin within the governments; it began within the ignorance, fear and hatred of the populations (or large segments of it).
My point is also that many Americans believe, wrongly, that “It can’t happen here”—meaning totalitarianism or something like it (e.g., systemic oppression of large segments of the population by the government). In the 1930s American novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote and published It Can’t Happen Here—a “semi-satirical” novel ridiculing many Americans’ belief that what was happening in Germany, Italy and Spain (viz., fascism) couldn’t happen in the U.S. More recently American novelist Philip Roth wrote The Plot against America (2004) along the same lines as Lewis’s earlier novel.
Many Americans live in fear of outsiders and live in blissful ignorance about the dangers of totalitarianism within, among ourselves. Populist nativism and xenophobia have long been seedbeds of potential totalitarianism among Americans. Ironically, fear of “big government” can lead and sometimes has led to totalitarianism.
Again I say, whatever has happened in history could happen again. Only the study of history and abandonment of radical versions of “American exceptionalism” combined with vigilance toward power can help assure that totalitarianism never happens here. Our “system of government” cannot assure it.
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