Mark Twain is credited with saying that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Today’s United States is often compared to other historic nations, whether at their prime or about to decline and fall depending on one’s own political perspective. Neoconservatives frequently eulogize Washington as a new Rome, promising a worldwide empire without end carried on the back of a Pentagon bristling with advanced weaponry. Other observers also cite Rome but are rather more sanguine, recalling how in the 5th century the empire failed dramatically and fell to barbarian hordes. Still others note the fate of the British Empire, which came apart in the wake of the Second World War, or the Soviets, whose collapse was brought about by 50 years of unsustainable military spending.
But the historical analogy that appears to be most apposite for post-9/11 Washington is that of the Weimar Republic. To be sure, any suggestion that the United States might be following the same course as Germany in the years that led to Nazism must be pursued with caution because few Americans want to believe that the descent into such extremism is even possible in the world’s most venerable constitutional republic. But consider the following: both the United States and Weimar Germany had constitutions in which checks and balances were integrated to maintain a multi-party system, the rule of law, and individual liberties. Both countries were on the receiving end of acts of terrorism that produced a dramatic and violent reaction against the presumed perpetrators of the crimes, so both quickly adopted legislation that abridged many constitutional rights and empowered the head of state to react decisively to further threats. The media fell in line, concerned that criticism would be unpatriotic.
Both the U.S. and Germany possessed politically powerful military-industrial complexes that had a vested interest in encouraging a militarized response to the threats and highly polarized internal politics that enabled politicians to obtain advantage by exploiting national security concerns. Both countries experienced severe financial crises and printed fiat currency to pay the bills, and both had jurists and political supporters who argued that in time of crisis the head of state must be granted special executive authority that transcends the limits placed by the constitution.
The Weimar Republic, which replaced rule by the German emperor in the aftermath of World War I, was a liberal democracy in the 19th-century sense, which means it had a constitution that guaranteed individual and group rights, multi-party systems, and free elections at regular intervals. It took its name from the city of Weimar, where the constitution was drawn up in a national assembly convened in 1919. From the start, Weimar was plagued by a failure to create a sustainable political culture because of the high level of polarization and violence instigated by both the major and fringe parties, even though the relatively moderate Social Democrats were normally dominant.
Adolph Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933. The chancellor was the head of government, but the head of state was President and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg was a hero of the First World War, and he despised the dangerous parvenu Hitler but foolishly thought he could control him. The National Socialist Party was, however, still a minority party in parliament with 33% of the popular vote when Hitler took charge, holding only three out of 11 cabinet positions. Strong socialist, Catholic, and communist parties actively contested the Nazis’ agenda. The media reflected the political divisions, with many papers opposing Hitler and his government.
Hitler benefited from the political paralysis of Weimar, which had forced his Reich chancellor predecessors to rule by presidential decree to bypass the logjam in parliament, but he could not actually legislate in that fashion and did not have a free ride. There was considerable resistance to his policies. All of that changed, however, when the seat of parliament in Berlin, the Reichstag, was burned down on Feb. 27, 1933. It was an act of terrorism that shocked the nation, and it was eventually attributed to an addled Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, though it was almost certainly carried out by the Nazis themselves. Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to sign a “Reichstag Fire Decree” on the following day, canceling the constitutional guarantees of habeas corpus and freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, and the privacy of communications. It authorized police search and seizure without any judicial warrant. It was no coincidence that the fire took place two weeks before parliamentary elections in which the Nazis, who beat and otherwise intimidated opponents and “monitored” the polling stations, won nearly 44% of the votes. The opposition, including the technically illegal communists, took 42% and Hitler was denied his majority, but he arrested socialist opponents, barred the communists, and was eventually able to form a government with his parliamentary allies.
Cajoling the Catholic parties to vote with him, Hitler subsequently passed the Enabling Act, which gave him the authority to ignore parliament and pass laws by decree. The full name of the Enabling Act was, in English, the “Act for the Removal of Distress from People and Reich.” Aided by leading jurists like Carl Schmitt, who argued that a powerful executive could ignore restraints imposed by bureaucrats and constitutions when required to cope with a “crisis,” and supported by conservatives and the army, Hitler quickly moved to consolidate power. The communist and socialist parties as well as any “new” parties were made illegal. In 1934, upon the death of Hindenburg, Hitler assumed the powers of the presidency, and the army began to swear allegiance to him rather than to the constitution. Germany became a dictatorship, and the rest is history. The March 1933 election was the last free election in Germany until the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949.
Fast forward 68 years. George W. Bush was president in 2001, a year after one of the most polarizing elections in U.S. history. There had been a gradual aggrandizement of the power of the U.S. presidency relative to the other branches of government since the Civil War, but most observers would have conceded that the constitutional separation of executive from legislative from judiciary remained largely intact. All of that was to change when the Twin Towers went down and the Pentagon was struck on 9/11. Though the Bush administration apparently had no hand in those events, the result was not too dissimilar to the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. A number of Bush Pentagon appointees, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, quickly mobilized to exploit the terror attack and pass legislation that would empower the White House and permit a massive military campaign directed against a number of countries that had been targeted for “regime change,” mostly in the Middle East. As a result, Iraq was eventually bombed and invaded even though it did not threaten the United States.
The first anti-terror legislation to pass was the USA PATRIOT Act, the full title of which is the “The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” a euphemism oddly reminiscent of Hitler’s Enabling Act. The PATRIOT Act became law six weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers and was followed by the PATRIOT Act II of 2006. Together, the two laws diminished constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association, freedom from illegal search, habeas corpus, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom from the illegal seizure of private property. The First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments in the Bill of Rights were all discarded or abridged in the rush to make it easier to investigate, sometimes torture, and jail both foreigners and American citizens.
The Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) followed, creating military tribunals for the trying of “unlawful enemy combatants,” including American citizens. Unlike in a civil or criminal court, the accused needs only a two-thirds vote by the commission members present to be convicted, resulting in a much higher conviction rate. The act suspends habeas corpus and Geneva Convention protections and permits the indefinite jailing of suspects in a military prison without charges or access to a lawyer. Hearsay or even information obtained overseas during torture can be used to obtain the conviction, while detainees do not have access to any classified information being used against them and cannot cross examine or even know the identity of witnesses.
Concurrent with the PATRIOT and Military Commission Acts, advocates of torture also emerged in Washington, not unlike the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s justification of the essentially lawless “Fuhrer State.” Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee declared torture legal because the president has the authority to do anything he deems necessary in time of crisis, the same argument that Hitler’s apologists made in discarding Weimar’s rule of law.
President Barack Obama has expanded the Bush portfolio, repeatedly citing state-secrets privileges to prevent any legal challenges while authorizing the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas based on suspicion, carrying out acts of war against countries with which Washington is not at war, and now, finally, signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which provides for indefinite military detention of anyone anywhere for any reason, including U.S. citizens in the United States, because the “whole world is the battlefield.” Did Hitler behave similarly in contravention of the Weimar constitution? He sure did. And if the expression “global war on terror” had been around in 1933, he likely would have used it auf Deutsch.
Sadly, on the verge of a new year, it is hard to argue that Washington in 2011 is much different from Weimar and Berlin in 1933. Last week, a man in Boston was convicted and sent to prison because he had traveled to Yemen and apparently wanted to join a terrorist group. He didn’t actually join the group; he just wanted to do it. So the age of the thought crime has arrived, something that even Hitler’s house jurist might have thought preposterous. Though we are not yet at the point where the president can declare opposition political parties illegal, Newt Gingrich might entertain the possibility if he were in charge. Pledges of personal loyalty to the leader, disenfranchisement of ethnic and religious minorities, and the burning of books by government fiat have not yet occurred either, but if one parses some of the rhetoric coming out of leading Republican presidential aspirants it is not inconceivable Muslim citizens will be subject to special security monitoring while a bonfire day featuring tracts on global warming and Darwinism might join Dixie Chicks CDs and french fries on the destroy-on-sight list.
While I jest to a certain extent, the power coupled with lack of accountability that has been assumed by the White House should be regarded as a deadly serious matter by every American citizen. If you think Weimar Republic Germany is a long time ago and far away so it can’t happen here, you are wrong. It can happen here, and unless something is done to stop it, it almost surely will happen here. It is happening already.