Monday, May 11, 2020

Reichstag Events, Pandemics, and Normality

William E. Connolly
author, Aspirational Fascism (2017) and Climate Machines, Fascist Drives and Truth (2019)


Time accelerated in 1933. After a fraught meeting, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Hitler had only secured a minority of the vote in the recent election. But the Communists and Social Democrats, who shared much of the rest of the vote, bitterly opposed each other; the non-fascist right wing--aligned with Hindenburg--sought to bring the Weimar Republic to an end; and a cast of big industrialists thought they could use Hitler to defeat the Communists, weaken labor unions and Social Democrats, and keep Hitler himself under control. The Social Democrats, as Peter Fritzsche says in HItler's First Hundred Days, "never imagined how ruthless their Nazi opponents in fact were," (p. 126). They regularly underplayed their ferocity and relentlessness.
Many industrialists, similarly, were confident Hitler would become their pawn, as the rich lover of Sally Bowles (Lisa Minelli) announced to her casually in Caberet when she asked him whether the street beating they saw by brownshirts worried him. "First we will let them destroy the Communists and Social Democrats, and then we will control them." We have seen both types of fantasy in play here, too.
Immediately after Hitler became Chancellor, Nazi use of the radio for national rallies accelerated, street violence increased, and defilement of opponents intensified. A three ring circus. The idea was to link all opponents together, above all to identify Social Democrats with Communists through invective and to treat Jews as the "red thread" tying both movements together. Hitler had insisted for years that "no half measures" can be tolerated. "It is a half measure to let incurably sick people steadily contaminate the remaining healthy ones." (Mein Kampf, 255) Here are merely a few regime actions spiraling into each other over a few short months.

---on February 27, the Reichstag parliamentary building in Berlin was burned down. A Dutch Communist was immediately blamed, though later evidence suggests that Hermann Goring started it himself.

---Hitler used the fire to declare a state of emergency and consolidate one party rule. Open opposition to him now became dangerous.

---the Communists became the first objects of systematic oppression, with numerous arrests, and their legality as a political party was soon rescinded.

---After January 30th, "the Prussian government deputized the SA as auxiliary police, and other German states followed suit." (162). So now the SA could first attack Social Democrats and Communists on the street and then imprison them for resisting arrest.

---on March 5th Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to call new elections. His mammoth rally in Berlin was broadcast by radio throughout the nation, with millions of people gathering in homes and bars to hear the speech. The theme was "Germany Wake Up!", with the crowd regularly roaring Seig Heil in response to his calls. The Nazis won 52% of the vote, with the other 48% divided between parties implacably divided against each other.

---In Hamburg, shortly after the election, 20,000 brownshirts appeared in a tumultuous torchlight parade, This event spread to other cities in waves.

---Communists elected to Parliament were "annulled", increasing the Nazi margin.

---In Dresden, after the election, Social Democrats and Communists were forced to get on hands and knees and "scrub" the streets clean of the election slogans they had painted on the streets. (152)

---In February, the "Law for Restoration of the German People" banned Communists from holding open air meetings and authorized newspaper censorship.

---The seeds of surveillance and citizen denunciations of non-Nazis were sown during the election and escalated after it; soon people were denounced for not returning the Hitler greeting.

---By late March newspapers were pressed hard to coordinate their reporting and editorials with the state line on all topics. The"Fake media"--not Hitler's term, merely his idea--was soon brought under official control. That control provided cover for more street violence, which was often said to occur in response to a terror threat. So the media, non Nazi parties, and diffident citizens were pressed on two fronts at once: the state and the street. ---In April of 33, a national boycott of Jewish shops was launched, with shout outs and beatings of Jews now becoming much more common.

---Concentration camps for Communists were opened in May of 1933, with Jews, Social Democrats and other "degenerates" and "scum" rounded up later.

---By May of 1933, most Germans raised their hands in the Hitler salute on the street, including workers, teachers, civil servants, and train passengers. Rationalists take note: Do not underestimate the extent to which repeated repetition of a salute and rhythmic responses at rallies slip into the cultural unconscious, spawning prompts to actions and tolerances. According to testimony, many who did not participate in such rituals found their dream lives transformed, with these anxieties percolating into into their daily lives.

---May Day now became a celebration of National Socialism.


The marches, street beatings, nationally broadcast tirades, arrests, accusations of terrorism, closures, concentration camps, attacks on "interracial" couples, dismantling of unions and political parties, interminable salutes, suspension of elections, and racial nationalism accumulated to change the public ethos of a regime over a few months. The future horrors of Nazism crystallized out of this stew of intimidations, accusations, violences, flattery of "Aryans", intimidation of the Press, and destruction of unions and political parties.
Did the new regime, installed so rapidly, mean that most of the German populace, previously divided, now consented to aggressive, exclusionary, racial nationalism? It seems wiser to say that, for many, consent was manufactured out of fear, flattery, street beatings, arrests, pre-existing prejudices, destruction of unions, derailment of opposition parties, brilliant use of the radio, and Hitler's ruthless capacity to deploy these resources in varied mixtures.
Sometimes the center of gravity of a regime changes fast; institutions counted upon to hold things together are undermined, demeaned, and overridden by staccato repetition of multiple acts by aggressive leaders and ferocious followers. The ways such a disturbing dynamic can slide into nightly dreams and day time anxieties to prime public behavior is grasped superbly by Klaus Theweleit in Male Fantasies.


What about here and now? The differences between Germany then and America now are multiple and significant. We have reviewed some of them elsewhere. But there are affinities that must not be brushed aside either. Trump regularly encourages armed street demonstrations by the racist, extreme right; his speeches are peppered with phrases such as "scum", "fake news", and "deep state" to characterize critics or those who do not do his bidding; he falsifies the views of his election adversaries everyday; he is tightly aligned with Fox News and blogs that amplify his messages; he uses relentless repetition of Big Lies to create and sustain a militant, racist, nationalistic base; he colludes with Russia to shape election campaigns; he withdrew Congressionally mandated aid to beleaguered Ukraine to press it to announce a public investigation for corruption of his 2020 electoral opponent; his Attorney General overrides the rule of law and has converted the Justice Department into Trump's Roy Cohn Machine; Trump refuses to acknowledge Congressional rights to investigate his actions; and he and Republicans in several key states suppress the voting turnout of minorities.
Very recently his Attorney General asked a court to reverse the case against Michael Flynn, even though Flynn, with excellent legal representation, had pled guilty twice.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which he downplayed at the most critical period of its onset, he has constructed a series of scapegoats to hold responsible for its spread: China, democratic governors, the previous administration, etc.

The refusal to use the National Defense Act to procure multiple testing kits early was a ruthless attempt to keep official Covid-19 infection and death rates down. That killer strategy shows just how ferocious and relentless this President will be under duress. That is what he and Hitler share most: a narcissism and brutality ready to be put into motion when a new threat or opportunity arises. Trump's threats against those opposed to him have escalated radically in recent weeks.
Do not believe Trump's lies about his policies and achievements: Do take very seriously everything he says about his plans for revenge, particularly against those who exposed the Russian collusion. Numerous tells expose the flimsiness of the first set of Big Lies; the intensity and decibel level of his voice disclose how deadly serious he is on the second front.


Some connections between accelerated climate change and the pandemic in capitalist states are perhaps these:

a) both excite intense denialism among greedy elites because confronting them honestly would mean accepting significant social change;

b) rapid car, plane, and truck travel contribute to both through CO2 emissions in the first instance and by becoming vectors of spiraling infections in the second;

c) extreme squeezes on numerous habitat sites promoted by rapid climate change and other capitalist pressures spawn sites for new viral crossings from bats, snakes, chimps to humans and back again;

d) the Republican Party is certain to use the infections, deaths and unemployment dragged out by incompetence during the pandemic to insist, falsely, that this is exactly what would happen if a Green New Deal were enacted;

e) extreme inequality of income and insecurity, sharpened by neoliberalism, fosters living circumstances in which a pandemic can easily spread, as it also make it more difficult for those in the most dire circumstances to focus on the looming consequences of galloping climate change.

One vexing problem is that the pandemic itself intensifies desires in several sectors of the populace to return to "normality". That indeed is one reason so many Democrats settled for Biden. Many people desire desperately to return to what was, and who could blame them. But normality is not the answer. It is not, first, because a set of disaffections churning inside the normality of 2016 set the stage for emergence of Trump, and, second, because normality secretes modes of denialism and casualism with respect to structural inequality and the future profoundly at odds with the radical challenges posed by rapid climate change and viral pandemics. 


What is next? If the pandemic continues to race out of control--amplified by Trump's early neglect and his recent demands to reopen the economy as the virus continues to spread--we may face a new Reichstag event here. For Trump, when cornered, is extremely dangerous, as we have already seen. He and Barr might charge or arrest some of the opponents he daily smears and defames, starting with those who exposed the Russian collusion that helped to secure his narrow victory. People on Fox News are already calling for the arrest of members of the Obama administration. Such actions might both divert his base from the pandemic disaster and set him up to profit even more from the new round of collusion with Russia in the next election. He knows he needs collusion to win again, as he needed it the first time. That is why he keeps making those top secret calls to Putin. Or, citing a new wave of infections, Trump might delay the fall election until the pandemic ends, while refusing to accept mail voting. Or, he might incite storm troopers to scale up violence and social disturbance, so that he can then step in to restore the peace on terms he sets. Or, he might pretend there are imminent threats of violent protest from the Left, using the threat to enact tough guy powers as a "unitary President" he already claims to possess.
Trump now has very good reason to conclude he has the Justice Department, Fox News, right wing vigilantes, fascist blogs, numerous big donors, many courts, a majority on the Supreme Court, and the Republican Party in his back pocket, ready to support emergency actions to protect and extend his power under any pretext, however thin. He thinks the rest of us are too uncertain, demoralized and/or disconnected to mobilize effective action against him.


I do not know what will happen over the next few months. We may or may not face a Reichstag event. We may--and must--struggle to ensure that Trump faces a massive electoral defeat, while remaining highly vigilant about his fascist drives and ambitions. I do know that he now presides over a regime capable of staging a new variant of Reichstag. His major dress rehearsals have been the 2016 Russian collusion, the Barr cover up of the Mueller Report, and secret pressure to force Ukraine to announce a public investigation into Biden corruption. He got away with them! The new Justice Department request to repeal Flynn's confessions and drop charges against him is another move in the larger Trump strategy, again, to clear the air for unfettered Russian interference in the next election. If that happens watch out. Hitler's first Putsch attempt failed. The Reichstag event became a screaming success.


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