A while back, my friend Brian McLaughlin (photographer and inventor), sent me a link to an excerpt from "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45" by Milton Mayer. The excerpt is a recounting of the transition that occurred in Germany, from a dysfunctional republic to a totalitarian fascist state, as told by a philologist who experienced the transition first-hand.
The account chronicles how the German people were slowly habituated to radical changes, like the proverbial frog in the pan of water, until, by the time they began to be alarmed, it was too late: they had lost their ability to stop, or even protest, the actions of the Nazis as they cut their murderous path across the world.
Check out this quote from the excerpt:
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.Now, consider how we, the American public, have learned, incrementally and after-the-fact, about various constitutional transgressions and questionable expansions of executive power:
- The use of torture to interrogate detainees is now the subject of legitimate debate
- The federal government has been tapping and continues to tap the phone conversations and review the banking records of American citizens without a court order
- Private armies are being used to kill, torture, and enforce order in Iraq and in the United States
And why do we, the public, come to accept these things? Well, referring again to the excerpt:
You see...one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.And here we are today, with a majority of the public aware that this administration has gone farther than any before it in seizing illegitimate power. But all eyes are now focused on the 2008 national election which, we imagine, will deliver us from the grip of tyranny. Everyone is waiting for the system, in which we have placed all our faith, to flush out the evil that has grown within it.
But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
The Bush administration never fails to remind us that we are at war. Conveniently for them, the war is not against an easily-identifiable nation-state, but against a nebulous enemy that seems to be everywhere at once. And, there is also the pending war with Iran, which Junior seems determined to revive despite the lack of intelligence supporting his outlandish claims. If things ever get hot for Junior and the gang, the folks in Teheran had better head for the bomb shelters.
Well, people, the time is coming when we will have to choose how history will view us. Let me close with one last paragraph from the excerpt:
Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany’s losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it.Viel Glück, Kameraden!