Rhyming History

Mark Twain is supposed to have said that history does not repeat but it rhymes. Whether or not Twain actually said it, the meaning of this expression is that while historical events do not repeat themselves precisely, there are certain patterns to history. People are people, whatever the differences in geography or culture, and people tend to react to similar events in similar ways. With this in mind, I would like to consider certain historical events with which the current political situation is starting to rhyme in some ominous ways.

The first rhyme begins on January 30, 1933, when German President Paul von Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. Hindenburg did not like Hitler very much. Hindenberg was an aristocratic Junker of the old Prussian mode and a monarchist and he despised Hitler as a demagogue and a plebian rabble-rouser. The Nazis, while short a majority, had become the largest party in the Reichstag and it was impossible to form a governing coalition without them. Hitler’s price for such a coalition was to be named Chancellor. Hindenberg had done a creditable job as a Field Marshall in charge of the German military in World War I, but by 1933 he was old, he was 85, tired, and perhaps a bit senile. He succumbed to the pressure to make Hitler Chancellor, against his better judgment.

Hitler was not yet a dictator, though. The Nazis held only three cabinet posts and there were new elections for the Reichstag coming up in March. Most observers felt that Hitler could be contained. Then, on  February 27, a fire broke out at the Reichstag building. A Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was found on the scene and arrested. While many then and since have suspected the Nazis of starting the fire themselves, the historical consensus is that van der Lubbe was indeed the arsonist. Nevertheless, the Nazis were swift to take advantage of the incident, citing the fire as evidence of a widespread Communist conspiracy to overthrow the Weimar Republic and institute a Soviet regime.

Is history repeating itself, or rhyming?

The Nazi press spread stories of an imminent Communist takeover inciting panic among the German population and the following day  President von Hindenburg signed the Reichstag Fire Decree, giving Hitler emergency powers, suspending the civil rights of the German People, including freedom of speech and the press and the right to peaceably assemble. The Communist Party was banned and those Communists not already in custody are rounded up and arrested. A month later, on March 24, the Enabling Act was passed, giving the Chancellor the power to rule by decree. Hitler was now a dictator and only President Hindenberg’s prestige and control of the German army stood in the way of absolute power for Hitler. This last barrier was removed when Hindenberg died on August 2, 1934. Hitler combined the offices of president and chancellor and assumed the title of Fuhrer and Reichskanzler.

Does all of this begin to sound familiar? Substitute Democrats for Nazi, Conservative for Communist, and Capitol riot for Reichstag fire and I could easily be talking about the current political situation. There is no Hitler to be found anywhere, thank God, and no one is actually talking about establishing a dictatorship, yet, but it is clear that the Democrats are using last week’s riot at the capitol to justifying attacking our most basic civil rights, with the aid of their Big Tech allies. Conservatives are already being purged from social media platforms, and who can tell what the coming Democratic Congress will enact. Prominent Progressives are openly talking about the need to “reprogram” Trump supporters, people are losing their jobs for backing the wrong side, and Democrats are talking about the need to rein in media “misinformation”.

I have long opposed comparing any politician or political party to Hitler or the Nazis. No one in mainstream American politics, I have said is anything at all like some of the worst people in human history. I might have to revise that position. If the Democrats are going to make use of the Nazi playbook, line by line, then I am going to start calling them what they have revealed themselves to be, Nazis or Fascists.

Meanwhile, if history continues to rhyme in this fashion, I am afraid we are in for some very dark times.

 

Stopping Hitler

If you had a time machine, would you go back in time and kill Hitler before he became the Fuhrer in Germany? Perhaps you could kill him while he was a homeless artist in Vienna, or arrange to have him shot during World War I. If murdering a person, even Hitler before he committed his atrocities seems wrong, perhaps you could arrange for his parents never to meet. Surely a world in which Adolf Hitler was never born would be a better one.

I would not go back in time to kill Hitler if I had a time machine. I don’t think that killing Hitler would make that much of a difference. Hitler was far from being the only radical, anti-Semitic nationalist living in Germany at the time, and it is likely that if Hitler had not been there someone worse might have seized power. Perhaps someone who actually listened to his generals and won the war.

Probably every country has any number of potential Hitlers living in it at any given time. Usually, these people are cranks who organize minuscule political parties and rant about their eccentric political views. In ordinary times, such people have no chance of obtaining any power. To stop Hitler, we would have to consider what conditions in Germany allowed someone like Hitler to seize power and if those conditions could be changed.

I don’t think that there is much question that World War I created Hitler. If the war had never occurred, Hitler would have remained an obscure artist, living hand to mouth. The economic and political turmoil that followed Germany’s defeat and allowed a demagogue like Hitler to flourish would never have happened. To stop Hitler, we must stop World War I.

But how? It would not be so simple as preventing Gavrillo Princep from assassinating Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand. That assassination was the spark that set off the powder keg that was pre-war Europe, but the powder keg was already there. If the assassination of Franz Ferdinand had not occurred, something else would have been the spark.

I think the root of the problem in pre-war Europe was Germany. This is not to say that the German Empire was solely, or even primarily responsible for the war, every one of the combatants bear at least some of the blame, but the ultimate cause of the tension and uncertainty that made a general war in Europe, if not inevitable, at least highly likely was Germany. To understand why Germany was a problem, we must briefly recall some German history

Unlike countries like England or France, Germany did not emerge from the middle ages as a unified nation-state. Instead, Germany remained a conglomeration of states of various sizes from free city-states to small feudal states to large kingdoms like Prussia and Austria. All these German states were part of the Holy Roman Empire, to be sure, and owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Emperor never had much power outside his personal territories and as time passed, the Holy Roman Emperors had less and less authority until the Holy Roman Empire became an empire in name only, with the various states gaining almost complete independence, until the farce was ended with the abdication of the last Emperor in 1806.

The Holy Roman Empire

After the Napoleonic Wars, German patriots began to call for German unification, generally based on the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. This did not suit the rulers of the various German states, who preferred to retain their power and privileges, and the German liberals were not very successful. After the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, it became clear that Germany would not be united as a federation of liberal states, but through blood and iron. The autocratic and militaristic Kingdom of Prussia took up the cause of German unification and under the leadership of its able chancellor, Otto von Bismark, Prussia led an alliance of German states in successful wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871).

German Unification

After this series of victories, it was easy for those states not already affiliated with Prussia to join together in the new German Empire, and on January 18, 1871, Bismark proclaimed the foundation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace at Versailles, with his master King Wilhelm I of Prussia becoming Kaiser Wilhelm I.

This new central European power disrupted existing European balances of power and German military and economic might frightened the other powers. This might not have led to disaster if Germany had been led by wise leaders, who could calm the tensions of a rising Germany, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but leaders of Germany were not wise or disposed to calm the fears of its neighbors.

Wilhelm I had not been particularly enthusiastic about the project of German unification. He was a patriotic Prussian, proud of his kingdom’s conservative, autocratic traditions and he did not want to see Prussia absorbed into a liberal Germany. Bismark, himself a conservative autocrat, assured the King that the German Empire would be a greater Prussian Empire, and while he had to make some concessions to German liberals, such as a constitution providing for a legislature elected by universal male suffrage, permitting political parties, etc, Bismark made sure that all the real political power in the new empire stayed with the Kaiser and his chancellor.

Wilhelm I’s son, Frederick was far more liberal than his father. He was married to Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Victoria, and the husband and wife were agreed that the British system of constitutional monarchy was the best system of government. This did not please either Wilhelm or Bismark, and the two conspired to keep Frederick from any position of state that wielded any real power.

Frederick III

 

The old Kaisar couldn’t live forever, and when he died on March 9, 1888, it seemed that the German Empire would take a liberal turn under its new Kaisar Frederick III. There was just one problem. Frederick III was already dying of cancer of the larynx when he succeeded to the throne. Frederick was Kaisar for just ninety-nine days before he succumbed to his illness, clearing the way for his own son, Wilhelm to succeed him as Kaisar Wilhelm II.

Wilhelm II

Politically, Wilhelm II resembled his grandfather, Wilhelm I, rather than his more liberal father. Both Wilhelms prized the conservative Prussian values of autocracy and militarism and had no use for democracy in any form. In personality, however, Wilhelm was very different from his namesake. While Wilhelm I had already gained many years of experience in governing before becoming King of Prussia and later German Emperor, Wilhelm II was young and inexperienced when he ascended the throne. The older Wilhelm was a kindly gentleman who lived a spartan life and left the business of government to Bismarck. Wilhelm II was brash, boisterous, erratic, and impulsive. He tended to be impatient and changed his mind often. He quite likely had some form of attention deficit disorder. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm II insisted on ruling the German Empire himself, and it wasn’t long before Bismarck was obliged to resign as chancellor.

This was not a good idea. Wilhelm II’s aggressive manner and imprudent, saber-rattling public statements tended to frighten the other European powers, already alarmed by Germany’s growing economic and military power. Bismarck had been careful not to give the European powers cause to unite against Germany. Wilhelm II was not so careful and eventually, Germany found itself surrounded by enemies. Bismarck had tried to keep the peace in Europe after winning the Franco-Prussian War. Wilhelm II was more reckless. Kaiser Wilhelm’s impulsive nature and inexperience at statecraft led Germany, and Europe to disaster.

What if Frederick III had lived? He was only fifty-six when he succumbed to cancer. Had he survived he could easily have lived into his eighties. Both his father and son were long-lived. Frederick III could have been Kaiser into the 1920s, giving him plenty of time to turn the German Empire into a more liberal direction. If Kaiser Frederick III had died in 1920, he might have left Germany a constitutional monarchy with a strong emphasis on individual liberty. Germany might have shed its Prussian military culture and been a pillar of stability in the center of Europe. The expensive arms race that preceded the Great War need not have occurred and the War itself might have been avoided. Kaiser Wilhelm II would have ascended the throne as a mature and experienced leader in his sixties, hemmed in by constitutional safeguards and perhaps content to be an elder statesman. Adolf Hitler would be an unknown and forgotten painter. It would be a better world.

So there you have it. If you happen to possess a time machine, here is what you need to do to stop Hitler, without killing anyone. Just go back to Germany around 1887 with a cure for cancer, somehow convince Prince Frederick and his court that you are not crazy, and give the prince your cancer treatment. Easy.

The Lamb and the Fuhrer

Adolf Hitler committed suicide as his Third Reich collapsed around him. He was never tried for his crimes against humanity. The only time Hitler ever was on trial was after his unsuccessful coup in 1923. Then, he managed to beguile the judge and German public opinion and only received a sentence of five years for the minor crime of trying to overthrow the government. Even so, he only served nine months of his sentence.

What if Hitler faced a judge who could not be beguiled by charm, sophistry, or histrionics? What if Hitler had to account for himself before a judge who knew Hitler better than he knew himself and could see through any lies or justifications? What is the man who preached war and genocide had a face-to-face discussion with the Prince of Peace? What would the Lamb of God and the Fuhrer of Nazi Germany have to say to each other?

 

These are the questions that Ravi Zacharias seeks to answer in The Lamb and the Fuhrer. Like his other books, The Lotus and the Cross, and New Birth or Rebirth, Zacharias presents a conversation between representatives of imagesdiffering worldviews. In this case, Jesus Christ questions and ultimately judges Adolf Hitler. It is a short, little book but very profound and I do believe that Zacharias did an excellent job imagining how Hitler might seek to justify himself before Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an appearance as a sort of witness and the discussion between Hitler and Bonhoeffer over the morality of the pacifists’ attempted assassination of Hitler is interesting and illuminating.

 

I do have one or two quibbles. First, this is a very short book, only about 90 pages in print, yet the price is $10.99, which seems a bit steep. Secondly, the end was not as clear as I would have liked. Hitler asks about repentance and whether he would have been forgiven if he had repented just before his death. There seems to be an implication that he would be forgiven but then he is condemned. I think Zacharias ought to have made it clear that Hitler, being the person he was, could not have sincerely repented for his sins and was justly condemned. Despite these minor flaws, I greatly enjoyed reading The Lamb and the Fuhrer.

 

 

 

More on the Cult

 

I read this article in Investor’s Business Daily about the Obama cult after I wrote this post on the subject. There isn’t much in the editorial about the creepiness of the cult that isn’t covered elsewhere but I did think the point at the end was worth noting.

But the question is, why are so many Americans so willing to voluntarily buy into Obama’s personality cult?

Remember that will.i.am video from Obama’s first campaign?

Or the equally creepy video of elementary school students signing Obama’s praises:

“Mmm, mmm, mmm!

Barack Hussein Obama

He said that all must lend a hand

To make this country strong again

Mmm, mmm, mmm!

Barack Hussein Obama.”

Or how about the endless news photos of Obama with his head centered in the middle of a circle in the background, giving him the appearance of being surrounded by a halo.

Anyone want to guess how many times a press photographer decided to snap a picture of Reagan like that?

In totalitarian countries, leaders can force their greatness on unwilling subjects because they own the press, they own the entertainment industry and they own all the schools.

It is true that totalitarian dictators can force public worship in their subjects but one truth that perhaps we don’t want to admit is that their subjects are not always unwilling to support the personality cult. Few, if any, regimes survive solely by the use of force. Most rulers, however tyrannical, do have a certain part of the population who actively support them, whether because they benefit from the regime, or they fear the alternatives, or they believe the propaganda. I have no doubt that if you were to take a public opinion poll of the German population around 1936, you would find Hitler was geniunely popular among the great majority of Germans.

Most people who have seen the videos of North Koreans mourning the death of Kim Il Jong in the most extravagant fashion assume that they are afraid of punishment. That is true, but it is possible that many of these people really did feel grief. After all, if you are told the Dear Leader is the most wonderful person in the world 24 hours a day, you begin to believe it, especially if you have no standards of comparison.

I suppose my point here is that tyrants don’t often force themselves on an unwilling people. Usually, at least some segment of the population welcomes that tyrant and is willing to give up their freedom for some benefit real or imagined. What this might say about the future of out country I am not sure but it isn’t good that a certain number of Americans are willing to subscribe to such a cult.