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Frightening Comparisons: Democracy Cannot Withstand Another 9/11

March 1, 2008

The Reichstag fire helped transform Germany from a democracy to a dictatorship. What can we do to avoid a similar outcome?

On a cold January morning in 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of one of the world’s great democracies. While the world has duly noted its 75th anniversary last month, it is not the cold January morning but a hot February night that should command our greatest attention. It was 75 years ago this week that the parliament building, the Reichstag, was set ablaze. As the Reichstag burned, Hitler was busy converting the chancellorship into a dictatorship.

As we engage in the democratic process of picking a new president, a look back at Hitler’s dizzying rise is an instructive reminder of the fragility of democracy, then and now.

During the period of long simmering fears over an amorphous international threat — communism — German opposition forces were willing to give Hitler the chancellorship despite his capturing only a minority of votes during the recent election. But it was the Feb. 27 Reichstag fire, a fire that the Nazis accused a Dutch Communist of setting, that sent the country on a quick road to fascism. Within 60 days, Hitler had begun the process of arbitrary arrests, warrantless surveillance and searches, incarceration without charges, suspension of habeas corpus, the implementation of torture, the mustering of a private army, and was pushing through the passage of the “Enabling Act,” which gave Hitler and his henchmen the power to ignore the legislative branch and write laws themselves.

… the parallels are worth noting. As the fire raged in the Reichstag, and Hitler was fanning the flames of fear, Germans made a decision that can be summed up by words from Benjamin Franklin’s 18th century aphorism: they chose to “give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety” and they received neither. What the Reichstag fire reminds us is how tenuous democracy can be. Today, we still live in a democracy, and we still live freely, as the Germans did before the Reichstag fire. But what will America look like after — God forbid — another 9/11 or the equivalent of the Reichstag fire?

Sandra Day O’Connor once said, “It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship. But we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.” Marc vander Heyden, the former president of my college, a man whose Belgian family hid another family from the Nazis, used to warn students and faculty that “we are always one generation away from barbarism.” In Germany, it took less than a generation; it took a maniac, a fire, and terrified country to tip a democracy into dictatorship

These parallels are worth paying attention to. It is a short road to Oligarcy. If Freedom were Dollars, would you be so casual spending it?

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