For I do not want you, brothers and sisters, to be uninformed … – Romans 11:25
For much of my teaching career since 1987, I have tried to alert my students to the proverbial “frog in the kettle.” You probably know the story: drop a live frog in boiling water and he’ll jump out, but if you gradually increase the water temperature step by step, he’ll get comfortable and by the time his pea-brain registers danger, it’s too late.
Of course that’s a metaphor for life. Few people jump from being choir boy to ax-murderer in one step, but the slow, gradual decline can be deadly. In his 1942 epic The Screwtape Letters, the brilliant C.S. Lewis put it this way:
Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
As I tried to explain in Part 1, Germany in the early 1930s was a tragic, living example of this. Many Americans do not realize it, but when the aging, mentally-infirm German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolph Hitler as Chancellor (leader) of Germany in January 1933, that country actually had a functioning, multi-party democracy with a written constitution and generous civil liberties guaranteed. So, in his early weeks as Chancellor, Hitler and the Nazis had to contend with competing parties and politicians.
On February 27–only four weeks after becoming Chancellor–a fire broke out in the German Parliament building, called The Reichstag. Police arrested an unemployed bricklayer from the Netherlands and charged him with the arson. The Nazis, however, were not content to only arrest those individuals in the arson plot. They used the fire as an opportunity to destroy the entire German Communist Party by arresting all their leaders, shutting down their printing presses, closing their offices, etc. The Nazi public rationale was: Our country and government are under attack! We have to stop the domestic enemies to keep Germany safe!
Terrified, the other, centrist parties quietly sat on the sidelines. However, once the Nazis had eliminated the Communist Party, they easily silenced and eliminated all the other parties too. Within a few short weeks, Germany–the cultured land of high literacy and Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach–had fallen from being a free democracy to becoming a totalitarian dictatorship. Only Soviet tanks around Berlin twelve years later ended the evil Third Reich.
In Part 2 I quoted former Obama aide Rahm Emanuel discussing the 2008 global financial meltdown: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” This shows that people in government or elsewhere can use a crisis to push their agenda in ways unthinkable in normal times.
This brings us to today.
On that fateful day January 6–which some are already calling “the saddest day in America”– I intentionally stayed off the news and media to engage in other pursuits. It was not until that evening when I saw the news of the breach at the US Capitol. Many thoughts and emotions swirled in me, and one was: “God forbid, may this not become America’s Reichstag Fire event.”
As a language and history teacher since 1987, I know that words matter. Also, after all we’ve been going through as a country over the past year or so, I know that many nerves are raw and emotions are on edge.
Because of heightened emotions, and to avoid misunderstandings and be crystal clear, let me state what I am not saying.
- I am not calling anyone a “Nazi.” It has concerned me in recent years to see many in the US accuse people they disagree with as “Nazis.” Such name-calling does not foster dialogue or problem-solving and is actually a form of propaganda.
- I am not claiming there is a perfect, 100% correlation between the Reichstag Fire and Capitol riot. The two are separated by some 90 years, 4,000+ miles, and extremely different circumstances.
- I am not condoning the Capitol breach or violence or lawlessness anywhere.
However, having said these disclaimers, I am deeply concerned by some similar trends and approaches I have observed starting January 6.
At the encouragement of a Jewish friend in the early 2000s, I read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. One of the most alarming chapters for me was “The Nazification of Germany.” Shirer, an American journalist based in Berlin in the 1930s, documents step by step how the Nazis dismantled Germany’s democracy and replaced it with a bloody dictatorship. By totally controlling the press, schools, and virtually every aspect of life–hence the word totalitarianism–the Nazis were able to brainwash most of the well-educated German population and they presented each step they took as being perfectly logical, based on the last steps they had just taken.
Yes, I am observing some disturbing trends and parallels from the Reichstag Fire in US life today. Here are a few.
- Similar icons. The Reichstag building and US Capitol both house their countries’ legislatures (law-making bodies) and are beloved, symbolic, easily-identified icons.
- Perilous backgrounds. Germans by 1933 were disoriented and frightened. The 1918/1919 end of WWI and Versailles Treaty had stripped Germany of its honor, confidence, and much territory. Hyper-inflation in the 1920s destroyed confidence in the currency and the life savings of millions. The 1929 Stock Market Crash and Great Depression soon hurt Germany as severely as it did the USA. When people are already scared, disoriented, and desperate, they are more open to lying and manipulation. Now think of our country: between the virus, quarantines, lockdowns, unemployment, riots, mental health challenges, election conflicts, etc., countless Americans now feel on-edge and off-balance. Is such a mental state normally a good time to be making rational decisions?
Broad brush. After the Reichstag fire, the Nazis not only arrested and prosecuted individuals involved in the arson, they labeled the entire Communist Party–and later all the other parties to–as an enemy to be destroyed.
As I saw news on the evening of January 6, the first outrage was directed at those individuals who broke into the Capitol but it quickly morphed into condemnation of all who attended the Rally in Washington that day. I do not know the exact size of the whole crowd–some claim 500,000–but those who broke the law and trespassed were only a tiny fraction of the crowd.
Since then, the demonization has quickly spread to all Trump supporters and 70+ million voters across the nation. I heard a local news report of one Roanoke Valley female business owner who attended the rally and has since been getting death threats! She explained in her interview that she was at the White House for President Trump’s speech, then she left Washington.
If you know DC at all, the White House and Capitol are far apart–about a mile and a half, or 30 minutes for a fast walker. She had nothing to do with the break-in; why is she being targeted? The First Amendment guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” She and thousands of others were simply exercising their Constitutional rights as free citizens that day.
This is America. We celebrated Martin Luther King Day last Monday, and as I was thinking about these issues on that day, I remembered King’s famous words. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In other words, King’s vision was for his children to be viewed as individuals. Sadly, the demonization since January 6 seeks to do the opposite. Instead of identifying the trespassers as individuals facing legal action, it seeks to condemn, silence, and marginalize millions based on the actions of a few. That is a hallmark of totalitarianism.
- Propagandistic media. Right after becoming Chancellor in 1933, Hitler moved to control all German radio stations and newspapers so his party could control the narrative. Here in the US we are (still) blessed with a diversity of news stations and voices; however, I am concerned by the single “Party line” we hear in much of the mainstream media. For example: when I first tuned in on the evening of January 6, the headlines were along the lines of: “Angry mob storms US Capitol,” but within a few days many media outlets had re-branded the breach as an “insurrection.” The Cambridge dictionary defines “insurrection” as: “an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” Of course the breach was serious, deadly, and a national tragedy, but it seemed more spontaneous than organized. Plus, since many of the trespassers wandered around inside posting selfies, I think the label “insurrection” is misleading and designed to further whip up hysteria.
- Censored voices. Along with silencing non-Nazi media and parties in 1933, Hitler shut down virtually all free speech. Here in the US, in the days after January 6, Facebook eliminated the #walkaway page, silencing over a half million members and hundreds of thousands of testimonials. I heard that Twitter purged some 70,000 users. Are those thousands of people guilty of trespassing on January 6? On the evening of January 8, I read a post on Parler by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). He explained that Apple and Google were set to ban the Parler app and Amazon was planning to close the URL for Parler.com next. If that happened, he explained, “we no longer have a free and open society.” Let that sink in. A sitting US Congressman claims “we no longer have a free and open society.” Sure enough, that next week I tried to visit Parler.com but got a white error screen and “content unavailable” message. I have seen such web censorship in Communist countries before, but it was my first time to see it in America. Let that sink in.
- Double standards. The Nazis deployed thugs called “Brownshirts” to use violence and thuggish intimidation to silence all opposition, yet expressed outrage about the arson in the Reichstag. Likewise, think about our past twelve months. Countless American cities have been wracked by violence since the summer; countless buildings have been burned and looted; businesses and dreams destroyed; innocent people killed. When some leftists declared part of Seattle an “autonomous zone” last June, the Democrat mayor explained it away as a “summer of love.” Portland, Oregon was rocked by riots more than 100 nights in a row! The focus of the riots were at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse–a symbol of government, order, and rule of law. Protestors routinely aimed lasers in the eyes of law enforcement officials, hoping to blind them. And the Democrat and media outrage? All the unrest was legitimate because it was for “social justice.” Again, I am not condoning this in any way, but when protestors stormed the Capitol for a few hours, why didn’t we hear Nancy Pelosi describe it as “an afternoon of love”? Quite the opposite: it’s reported as an insurrection and attempted coup. Trespassers at the Capitol have been identified and “rounded up” by an active FBI. (Why the FBI was not equally active investigating allegations of voter fraud last November and December, I still wonder.) But how about many of the people responsible for looting and arson all last summer? None other than then-Senator Kamala Harris organized bail-raising schemes to defend them and get them out of jail, and now she is our vice president. A cornerstone of the American experiment in liberty is “equal protection under the law.” In other words, the laws and punishments are supposed to apply the same to everyone. Of course, with human failings this is never 100% possible, but it is the standard we are to aim and work for. In recent months and days, however, we are seeing double standards that only serve to undermine confidence in the system and the fabric that holds us together as Americans.
I recognize this column examines disturbing topics. Like probably you, dear reader, I hope and pray that America’s future path has no more parallels with Germany from 1933 and thereafter. Yet, as a history major from William and Mary, a German speaker, former resident of Germany, and as a history teacher since 1987, I believe it is my professional and civic responsibility to share this information with you. May God give us wisdom and guidance in the future; and may we seek it.
– Scott Dreyer
Ironic: this is the link I found two weeks ago of Rahm Emanuel’s “never let a crisis go to waste” remarks. When I tried to open it today, it is “unavailable.”
Here are the Emanuel comments in another video: