A Burning Desire

President Bush signed the Military Commission Act of 2006 on Tuesday. Among other things, this removes the right of Habeus Corpus.

Thus restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, on the right of assembly and association, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house-searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property rights are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

If you just got cold shivers reading the above passage, good. I didn’t quote the newest move toward an American dictatorship; rather it is the first paragraph of the decree signed by Hindenburg in February 1933, just after the Reichstag burned . It effectively ended the Weimar Republic and signalled the start of the Nazi regime. The next paragraph allowed the federal government, in case of danger to the public, the right to take over the state governments. Both of these provisions were enacted permanently or ‘until further notice.’ But for just a moment, an instant, you might have imagined an American Congress and an American Senate passing legislation with that language. The leap isn’t quite as far to see George W. Bush signing it. Doesn’t that give you pause to think?

I am currently reading Richard J. Evans’ ‘The Coming of the Third Reich,’ the source for the text I used above. On Tuesday, I reached the part of the book where the Reichstag is burned by the Dutch social malcontent and arsonist Marinus van der Lubbe. This happened about a week before federal elections and was used by the Nazis to ban the Communist party, the third strongest political power in pre-WWII Germany. Goebbels used the fire to whip up a feeling of fear, suggesting that the communist party was posed to overthrow the government and install a godless, evil regime.

If you have never heard of Richard Evans, he is one of the premier historians of the Third Reich. His fifteen minutes of fame outside academia came during the Irving vs. Lipstadt libel trial in 2000. David Irving sued Professor Lipstadt over her representation of him in her book ‘Denying the Holocaust’, a discussion of Holocaust ‘revisionists.’ The full transcripts and many of the expert reports can be found at Holocaust Denial on Trial. Evans wrote the expert witness report examining Irving’s validity as a historian. 

Very soon after we had begun our examination of Irving’s work along the lines sketched out above, it became clear that Irving did all of these things [i.e. deliberately manipulate and distort documents, suppress evidence, wilfully mistranslate documents , consciously use unreliable or discredited testimony, falsify historical statistics, or apply one standard of criticism to sources which undermine their views and another to those which support them]. Penetrating beneath the confident surface of his prose quickly revealed a mass of distortion and manipulation in every issue we tackled that was so tangled that detailing it sometimes took up many more words than had been devoted to it in Irving’s original account. […] A similar knotted web of distortions, suppressions and manipulations became evident in every single instance which we examined. We have not suppressed any occasion on which Irving has used accepted and legitimate methods of historical research, exposition and interpretation: there were none.

Needless to say, Irving lost the trial. In a judgement almost as entertaining and educational as the Dover ruling, Justice Gray blasts Irving, basically discrediting him as a historian or anything but an extremist, right-wing talking head. Irving now languishes in an Austrian prison for entering the country despite a court order denying his entry. This order came a direct result of Irving’s attacks on the reality of the holocaust. Naturally, I could have used the above quote to describe the distortions used by the current administration to justify the Iraq war; but that would be hyperbole.

Returning to 1933, in what would now be considered a terrorist act, an unemployed Dutch construction worker set fire to the seat of the much weakened Weimar government. Even though all evidence pointed to an isolated incident perpetrated by a deranged individual, Hitler and the Nazi government used this act as a pretext to claim that the fire had been a communist plot, a prequel to the overthrow of the government. The Nazis spread a feeling of fear and terror, projecting a threat to the country and stability in every socialist nuance.

The Stormtroopers were unleashed, smashing and destroying the offices of the communist party and the homes of the party members, who were arrested and taken to the precursors of concentration camps. While many of these people were no friends of democracy or the republic, the arrest was not for any specific crime, it was enough to be in the wrong party, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. These detainees had no right to counsel; some were tortured; some were killed. They had no recourse to justice and no possibility for appeal. Often tried under any pretext, the verdict and the penalty were clear before the trial started.

Seven years later, the first buildings in Auschwitz were being erected. Few could have foreseen the impending dangers.

To complete my nightmare, I would reach even farther back into history. The Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the two greatest periods of democracy the world has ever known, democratic Athens and republican Rome. Both of these nations (OK, one was a nation-state – picky, picky, picky) were the most powerful entity in the areas they occupied at the time they existed, both had elections and were highly advanced technologically. One minor point is often overlooked though. Both of these experiments failed. Let’s hope that bad things don’t come in threes.

I, for one, have a burning desire not to see the Capital building set on fire in two weeks.


1 comment so far

  1. vijtable on


    I have very little to add except that the so-called lawmakers failed in protecting “We the people.” If they have no regard for the central reason for American independence, then we have ALREADY lost the third experiment. To my mind, the experiment might have already failed in 1972, but, like the Romans, we haven’t realized it yet.

    That Congress keeps giving power to the executive branch is not only scary, it’s absurd to the point of Orwell. Perpetual war against a perpetual enemy? Check. Ineffectual “outer party”? Check. Increasing power given over by those in the elected bodies to a single figurehead? Check. Linguistic gymnastics? Check.


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