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In the wake of the Reichtag fire and 9-11

Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 5:27 pm
by Borg

“If this is the work of the Communists, which I do not doubt, may God have mercy on them!” These words were uttered by Hitler when standing in front of the burning Reichtag, the German House of Parliament in Berlin, 27 Feb 1933. This became the justification the Nazi party needed to implement extreme measures against known Communists, and already at midnight the search parties were on their way to get their victims. “Left-wing deputies and literary figures, unpopular doctors, officials and lawyers” were dragged out of bed and the first wave of concentration-camp arrests began.

In the autobiography “Defying Hitler” Sebastian Haffner is telling the story of an individual well-educated German’s effort to keep both his sanity and life while left and right wing extremists stage a battle, neither using more humane or dignified means than the other. “It was only next morning that I read about the fire, and not until midday that I read about the arrests. Around the same time a decree of Hindenburg’s was promulgated. It abolished freedom of speech and confidentiality of mail and telephone for all private individuals, while giving the police unrestricted rights of search an access, confiscation and arrest.

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Reichtag fire is that theĀ  claim that it was the work of the Communists was so widely believed. Even the sceptics did not regard it as entirely incredible.” Everybody expected a Communist retaliation but as it didn’t come people took it as an implicit admission of guilt. “After all that,” Haffner continues, “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichtag fire was the work of the Communist. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character clearly for the first time during the Nazi period, is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution; as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichtag, it was perfectly in order that the Government took ‘decisive measures’!

What struck me personally when reading this passage is the eerie resemblance to current events. One can go over the text and simply substitute the Reichtag for the Twin Towers, the Communists for the Muslim terrorists, the Hindenburg decree for the US Patriot Act, UK Communications Data Bill or the Swedish FRA law. The issue is not whether a democratic government should take actions to protect it citizens against potential threats – that is the essential raison d’etre of a representative government – but whether or not one can trust any government with absolute power.

Las 13 RosasIf one considers even as a remote possibility that the government itself would be a part of that threat against which the public needs to protect itself, the implications of giving them – or any group of people – the right to be both judge and jury are just unimaginably horrific. As it turns out one doesn’t actually need the imaginationĀ  – two brilliant recent movies show how historically those horrors have manifested themselves. I’m thinking about Las 13 rosas and Sofie Scholl, both dramatizing real events in Germany and Spain, where young idealists – mostly minors – were sentenced to death for the crimes of spreading pamphlets. I would imagine one of those pamphlets could have said something akin to this blog post.

But surely we have learnt from past mistakes? The US, UK and Swedish governments embody the ideals of democracy and respect the right to free speech and tolerance of diversity. They have accepted and signed the declarations of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions which in effect make them law in these countries. Or have they? As it turns out at the beginning of May, 2001, the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the first time since the panel’s founding in 1947. The US are not adhering to the Geneva convention as is clear in the US treatment of Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. They are being tortured and some have been killed. Their guilt is not only relative to whoever would be judge and jury – not that they have had a chance to have a fair hearing – but highly questionable from the simple fact that the majority of them were sold to the US army by the Iraqi equivalent of bounty hunters.

At the very least if we were to place trust in the government to have the lawful right to infringe on those human liberties previous generations so painfully struggled to establish, we can demand that they exact extreme caution and vigilance when exercising those rights. If we give them exceptional mandate to protect us from terrorists we do so only in the faith that they must not abuse that mandate by say invading a country quite unrelated to the assumed responsible for the attack. As the Reichtag fire was used to justify Hitler’s invasion of Poland so was 9-11 used to set in motion a plan that the US neoconservatives had long been wanting to realise. All they needed was an excuse, and with a people still sore and with a lust for revenge even a far-fetched one would do.

More recently, on the 8th Oct 2008, the UK the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act of 2001 showed its versatility and was invoked against a whole country that has until then had been considered one of their best friends – Iceland. Until 2006 Reykjavik airport Keflavik was in effect an American airbase. When I lived in London Reykjavik was considered the coolest capital in Europe, and I have many wonderful friends there. As this tiny country of some 300.000 inhabitants have run into grave financial difficulties as of late and is facing nationwide bankruptcy, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has the perfect baton to hit them when they are lying down. Iceland is put on the list of suspected ‘terrorist regimes’ subjected to financial sanctions, along with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, North Korea, Sudan and Iran. Why? To protect UK financial interests or because they did not want to be American underdogs?

The only case in which absolute power can be justified is when it is paralleled by absolute goodness and undepletable resources of patience, tolerance and understanding. That is, omnipotence demands nothing short of divine justice and divine omniscience. What human institution would ever come close to that?

In the case of the Reichtags fire, Hitler and Goering saw it as a sign from heaven, and the staged trial was supposed to give them complete mandate to eradicate their enemies. The 1933 equivalent of the hijackers was a 24 year old psychopathic Dutch homosexual by the name of Van der Lubbe. He had joined the Communist Youth League and spread pamphlets for them. According to Arthur Koestler, he was a tramp and a compulsive liar with ambitions to fame but no trace of qualities that would make it happen. When failing to swim the Channel he set fire to the House of Parliament and became an historic figure. He was captured and under torture confessed and was brought to trial along with the leaders of the opposition Communist Party. He was declared guilty and subsequently guillotined.

If history repeats itself the equivalents of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein perhaps would have been Georgi Dimitrov, the future General Secretary of Communist International and Ernst Torgler, another leaders of the Comintern. Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld would be a suitable candidates for the Goering and Goebbels parts, but who would be Hitler? A tricky one. Or not.

The trial was perceived as a struggle between truth and falsehood, guilt and innocence, whereas in fact both parties were guilty. They were both lying and using propaganda and crime as means to their ends. The irony of the proceedings was that while the Nazis hoped to be able to frame the guilt on the Communists, their utter failure to do so became by implication an indictment of their own guilt in the fire. Both parties agreed that Van der Lubbe was guilty and that there must have been a conspiracy behind him. However since there was no evidence to prove a link between the fire and the Communists and because the Nazis themselves stood to gain more from the arson the plan literally backfired. Turns out that there was an underground tunnel that connected the Reichtag and the palace of Hermann Goering that could have been used by the incendiaries. Instead of enjoying the humiliation of his enemy, Goering found himself busy defending his own honour and innocence.

The Communist leaders were acquitted there and then.

In January 2008, the Federal Court of Justice of Germany overturned the death penalty verdict of Van der Lubbe.

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