Bulwark against tyranny
Marking the 80th anniversary of Adolf Hitlers rise to power this week, German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that democracy and freedom could not be taken for granted, noting that it took Hitler just six months to “wipe out all the diversity” in German society.
When Germany’s feeble, octogenarian President Paul von Hindenburg named Hitler as chancellor on January 30th. 1933, many political insiders believed it was a clever move that would have the effect of reining in the National Socialists. Within a month of taking power, Hitler used the burning of the Reichstag as a pretext to suspend many civil rights. Social Democratic and Communist politicians were arrested and the first concentration camps were built. The persecution of the Jews began with boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses and the dismissal of Jews from the public service. In May, the Nazis burned tens of thousands of “un-German” books by authors including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.
Dr Merkel stressed the role of ordinary citizens in enabling Hitler’s 12 years in power, culminating in the second World War and the Holocaust, leaving tens of millions dead, including six million Jews. “The rise of the Nazis was made possible because the elite of German society worked with them, but also, above all else, because most in Germany at least tolerated this rise,” she said. Germany has worked hard to ensure that its citizens do not forget the crimes committed by the Nazis in their name and Dr Merkel declared that the country has “an everlasting responsibility” for those horrors. Her warning about the dangers of political apathy resonate well beyond Germany’s borders, however, as chauvinistic populism gains ground across Europe. “Human rights do not assert themselves on their own; freedom does not emerge on its own; and democracy does not succeed on its own,” she said. The key lesson from this week’s anniversary is that active, engaged citizenship is the strongest bulwark against tyranny.