A little reminder of recent history. In the German presidential election held on March 13, 1932, there were four candidates: the incumbent, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler, and two minor candidates, Ernst Thaelmann and Theodore Duesterberg. 70 percent of the German people voted against Hitler. The fanatical minority remained on the fringe and there was no indication of the subtle horrors to come.
However, since Hindenburg had not received a majority of the vote a runoff election had to be held among the top three vote-getters. With only three parties to vote for, it was little surprise to see the Nazis gain ground. On April 19, 1932, the runoff results were: Hindenburg 53.0 percent Hitler 36.8 percent Thaelmann 10.2 percent. Thus, even though Hitler’s vote total had risen, he still had been decisively rejected by the German people. When Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen on June 1 as chancellor of Germany, he immediately dissolved the Reichstag and called for new elections, the third legislative election in five months.
The Nazis, determined to bring down the republic, did everything they could to create chaos in the streets, including initiating further class divisions, political violence and murder. The July 31, 1932, election produced a major victory for Hitler’s National Socialist Party. The party won 230 seats in the Reichstag, making it Germany’s largest political party, but it still fell short of a majority in the 608-member body.
On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Although the National Socialists never captured more than 37 percent of the national vote, and even though they still held a minority of cabinet posts, Hitler and the Nazis began to consolidate their power.
For their part, the German people quickly accepted the new order of things. Keep in mind that the average non-Jewish German was largely unaffected by the new laws and decrees. As long as a German citizen kept his head down, worked hard, took care of his family, sent his children to the public schools and the Hitler Youth organization and didn’t involve himself in political dissent, a visit by the Gestapo was very unlikely. Keep in mind also that, while the Nazis established concentration camps in the 1930s, the number of inmates ranged in the thousands. It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that the death camps and the gas chambers that killed millions would be implemented.
The overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of culture had been destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation. The Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being cowed.
Fast forward 79 years. We are seeing a similar pattern develop in the US as Tea Party fanatics consolidate power and force their will on a majority of the population. The likes of Michelle Bachman support what amount to little more than reeducation camps for homosexuals, Rick Perry holds a national day of prayer clearly meant to exclude non-Christians (and Christians that don’t practice their faith according to the far-right ideology of fringe Evangelicals) and the entire Republican party willingly throws the future of the US economy into doubt, all to curry favor with extremists. And sadly, the other side of the aisle buckles like Chamberlain in the misguided belief that the opposition is rational.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that the average German in 1932 did not see the slow chipping away of civil liberties, tolerance and the collective moral structure of the society. The goal of fanatics is to spread discontent and fear. In doing so the bulk of the population is primed to accept anything the regime says in the hope chaos will stop. Even if it means murder and state-sanctioned terror. The Party is secretly thrilled that the US saw a downgrade the other day. They relish the thought of a new recession because it positions them to take control.