This question is often asked by historians, and others who take an interest in such things:
How did one of the most civilized, cultured nations on earth fall victim to takeover by a ruthless, mass-murdering, dictatorial tyranny? How was the nation that gave the world the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart led into a world war that killed many millions of people and left much of Europe in ruins, including Germany itself?
I recall as a young man years ago having seen an immediate, post-Second World War film, taken by an Allied warplane flying over what was left of Berlin and other German cities, that showed their utter devastation.
I remember the music that accompanied the film, a mournful, orchestral work titled Metamorphosen by the great 20th Century composer Richard Strauss. It was composed in 1945 as the war neared its end. A few days after he finished it Strauss entered the following entry in his private diary.
“The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”
Other thoughtful, principled people in Germany before the war foresaw the danger the results of two elections in quick succession in early 1933 posed for the future of their country. Some, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, predicted it would lead to “the end of Germany.”
The results of the March 6 election left the National Socialist Party and its Fuhrer (leader) Adolf Hitler with 43.9 percent of the popular vote; but as the largest party in the German Reichstag, or parliament, it was able to form a government with Hitler again as Chancellor. He was initially appointed to that position on January 30 by President Paul von Hindenburg after the first election that year.
The following day, Bonhoeffer, a young professor just beginning to make a name for himself as a wise and thoughtful theologian, was coincidentally on the radio speaking in opposition to the “Fuhrer principle.” That was the idea that one man who supposedly knows best should lead a country, in that case Germany.
But anyone who happened to be listening suddenly heard silence. Whether because of technical problems, or deliberate action of the new National Socialist (NAZI) regime, Bonhoeffer was silenced, as were many others. The free press, for example, soon ceased to exist as the Nazis and their Fuhrer, seized dictatorial power with the help of “The Enabling Act,” after the Reichstag building conveniently burned.
The rise of dictatorial regimes, such as the trend in that direction the world is now seeing in places like Turkey is, of course, complicated by issues specific to each place it happens. Germany did not have a long tradition of democratic government, unlike the present-day United States, the world’s first liberal democracy. If one counts its birth from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. is 241 years old, and will presumably reach its 250th birthday as a democracy soon after President Donald Trump ends his second term in office. He’s already campaigning for it.
Ancient Rome was a republic with a democratic government of sorts for close to 500 years before it officially became an Empire ruled by an all-powerful emperor. Despite the historic fame of the great conqueror, Julius Ceasar, who was assassinated in the Roman Senate in 44 B.C., the first official Emperor was Ceasar’s adopted son, Augustus, in 27 B.C.
As the Roman Empire continued to expand its borders, from as far west as Britain, to as far east as the modern-day Middle East, north into central Europe, and south into North Africa, it enjoyed two centuries of peace, political stability, and prosperity, known as the Pax Romana (Roman peace).
The empire’s borders were protected by military garrisons at critical points to keep “barbarians” out, or if necessary let in under careful and orderly control. A well-constructed and engineered system of Roman roads, allowed Roman armies, with many Legions, to move relatively quickly throughout the Empire.
But from the vantage point of 2,000 years of history it’s possible to see that Rome’s greatest days were passed and its fate sealed when it put its fate in the hands of one man. It got lucky for a while, with “five good emperors,” including the last of them, the emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius, in the late 2nd Century. But then the decline set in with a vengeance, and 200 years later the empire was in full collapse mode.
At their formative best the Romans were nothing if not orderly, determined to survive, and supremely confident in their ability to rule. It was bred into the Roman character, a response to the challenges and adversities the small, upstart city on the Tiber experienced in its early history: hence, the founding myth of Rome, two orphaned infants, Romulus and Remus, adopted and suckled by a she-wolf.
There’s something else in that image that speaks to a dark side of the Roman character, and, more to the point here, the dark side of human nature.
No offence to animals, but the Romans knew humans were irrational beings. The iconic, central building of the great city itself was the Colosseum, where thousands, perhaps millions died to appease the blood-lust of the masses. Every city in the empire had its Colosseum facsimile.
I note in passing here I’ve sometimes used the metaphor of an axe to describe how so-called populist tyranny works, or doesn’t: Without the weight of the dull mass of the axe behind it the cutting edge is powerless, or conversely, deadly dangerous.
Nowadays we don’t go as far as the Romans did with public exhibitions of death. Modern, Western civilization is seemingly more civilized. Or is it? Our entertainment media – highly graphic movies and computer “games” – leave nothing to the imagination.
Modern, “contact” sports, like hockey and football, rarely kill on the ice or the field, but we now know the physical and mental health-damage done by repeated concussions, for example.
The much-viewed image of the current world’s greates hockey player, Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby, laid out on the ice with yet another concussion is shocking because it pulls aside the curtain to reveal the terrible reality.
Civilization is like that, though more like a thin, fragile veneer easily broken when the orderly processes that built and maintained it fall into the wrong hands.
And yet when that time comes we will stand on the edge, already in the midst of chaos, and ask ourselves, “How did this happen?”
It happened, it’s happening, because we let it. Like The Man said 2,000 years ago: “Forgive them Father for they are stupid.”
Setting aside the violent aspect of certain modern sports for a moment, is there anything more tribal and irrational than fandom, and the emotional joy or angst that comes with it? Been there, done that.
So, getting back to my original question: if you’re an unscrupulous, political demagogue who somehow instinctively understands the existential truth that humans are irrational beings, and if you’re willing to exploit that to gain absolute power, it’s really not that hard to do.
A very long time ago our earliest ancestors got through a very difficult time by realizing that their chances of survival were much better when they functioned as a community in which everyone had value, each according to their offerings.
And here we are, millions of years later, remarkable beings in all our wonderful imperfection.
We know in our bones we are survivors. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.
But there’s more to us than survival. We have reason enough to believe we are blessed, judged by the Great Spirit of Mystery and Creation to be worthy of being and the great responsibility that comes with it on this beautiful, little blue-green jewel of a planet.
We can, and must, live and finally do justice to that responsibility.
We are being called to do that.