They say that you always know when a political discussion or argument is degenerating — and quickly. It’s when your opponent (or perhaps you have done so on some occasions yourself?) sinks to invoking the name of ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazis’ to discredit some left- or right-wing political leader, group or party (depending on your political leanings). These over-the-top comparisons are a sign that there is probably little point in continuing to engage in a debate with such an individual.
Equally, in the USA during the 1960s the hippies and anti-war protestors were apparently fond of using the term ‘fascist’ to refer to the establishment, the Democratic Party, the police and so on. Later, when people used the term to refer to leaders like Thatcher or Reagan or Mulroney, I always objected pointing out the historical meanings associated with the term that had represented a particular political movement (and moment) of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Nazi-ism was but one permutation.
(Of course, there has been a rise of neo-fascist movements and parties since the Second World War, and these have organisations have invoked or acknowledged their historical predecessors or identified with them in some way.)
Yet, there is a danger in throwing out the lessons of the Weimar Republic when we avoid mentioning Hitler’s name. It’s not that I think calling one’s opponent or their hero(es) Hitler or similar names is a useful tactic — I don’t — but that this attitude has meant that it is almost impossible to get beyond the detritus that exists about Hitler and his henchmen.
There were lessons that Weimar has for democratic societies that remain unlearnt, for the most part. First of all, there is confusion about how Hitler came to power in January 1933. The most frequent question that I remember from my undergraduate course on ‘inter-war Germany’, which frequently evolved into debates with my classmates, was whether the Nazis ‘seized’ power or used the system against itself? (I assume that it remains a question in history classes that focus on the Weimar Republic to this day.)
From what I could determine from my readings (and what I believe I argued for) was that they had used the system against itself, passing laws forbidding demonstrations, restricting rights and freedoms, establishing the first concentration camps (but for political prisoners first, before Jews and other so-called ‘sub-humans’) and so on.
That, in essence, the Nazi Party used ‘legal’ means to undermine the Weimar Republic, turning the democratic state into the authoritarian (or totalitarian) state.
I also remember being introduced to articles that argued that had the Weimar Republic had the same system of first-past-the-post governance as Canada/UK/Australia/New Zealand/USA, Hitler would have actually come to power one to two years earlier than he did. This argument clearly contrasted with the Allied re-organisation of West Germany after the war in which Parliament was restricted to political parties that obtained at least five percent of the popular vote before they would get representation. The argument by the Allies was that all those small parties, of which the Nazis (NSDAP) had been only one, had been a threat to the stability and longevity of Weimar.
Yet, what the Allies (and others) did not recognize, or at least did not take into account, in their reshaping of the political structure of West Germany, was that all kinds of local, regional and national elites (political, business, cultural), the judiciary (for the most part), elements of the military and police (although there were exceptions to the rule, such as Berlin, where the police force had not been supportive of the Nazis) as well as the suburban and rural middle classes had supported the Nazis. Many of those who supported the Nazis did so for reasons of ‘security’: that is, they feared ‘democracy’ more than they did fascism or Nazi-ism. Indeed, it was the SPD, the German socialists, who were the only force that fought to defend the Republic from the Nazis and the German Communist Party (KPD), which attacked both the SPD and the Nazis (but that is another story).
Democracy is a ‘messy’ form of governance but the rise of forms of ‘fascism’ or authoritarianism, which exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of democracy have to be opposed. It’s not encouraging in a democracy when we are expected to bow down to ‘bureaucratic correctness’ rather than encouraged to stand up and speak for ourselves and for others who are disadvantaged under the system. See, for example, the kind of twaddle peddled by critics of Idle No More or Occupy Wall Street about the ‘correct’ way to protest or ‘register’ disagreements with the system. What I remember from my courses and from my own studies of this era, and which I think is important to be aware of, is how a democratic system was used against itself.
Are those who undermine or exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of the Parliamentary system, and/or use exploit the ‘letter of the law’ (rather than keep to its ‘spirit’), to advance their own political party and/or corporate power, against the public interest and the public generally, guilty of a form of authoritarianism? Or of usurpation of power won at the ballot box? Fascism was one historical form of authoritarian or totalitarian power, which exploited the weaknesses of representative democracy. When fascism comes again, it won’t necessarily be dressed in black or brown shirts and hob-nailed boots. It could quite easily come dressed in expensive suits, sipping Chardonnay and beaming with a big friendly smile.
Postscript: I forgot to add that we shouldn’t forget about the judiciary’s collusion with the Nazis, as well as the military’s and support from the academy.