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Germany’s 1932 “Constitutional Crisis” and Trump’s 2017 problem

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Historical comparisons are odious; no two situations are ever exactly alike. But Santayana’s dictum suggests that some patterns repeat themselves, and that we can learn from studying them.

Yesterday I blogged about Trump’s dog whistle to his base: to prepare for the possibility of internal revolt. Along these lines I would recommend for reading Chapter 12 of Franz von Papen’s “Memoirs,” his 1952 account of his career. Von Papen was Germany’s Chancellor until forced to resign, late in 1932: barely two months later, Hitler became Chancellor, and the rest, as they say, is written in blood.

Chapter 12 is called, fittingly enough, “Constitutional Crisis.” In it, von Papen describes how Germany’s left-wing parties, notably the Communists, engaged in incessant and increasingly violent street fighting with the right, mainly the Nazis. The center parties—what we would call moderates—ran the Weimar government; von Papen was a conservative centrist, who hoped Germany’s Constitution and parliamentary structure could provide solutions to the growing crisis. But he was a realist. “The tense situation,” he wrote of that period, “must deteriorate into civil war.” Both sides were growling at each other: parliament (in the form of the Reichstag) and the feeble President Hindenburg were increasingly incompetent. “The police forces were not in a position to keep the peace,” Von Papen wrote. He thus could see only one solution to societal breakdown: “This would oblige the Reichswehr [Germany’s military, its ‘Pentagon’] to intervene for the purpose of upholding the authority of the State.”

This was a radical thing for the leader of a Constitutional democracy to consider, and von Papen did not do so lightly. In “Memoires” he quotes from a study made at the time by a top Reichswehr officlal: “With the increasing deterioration in the internal political situation, the High Command [has] conducted an enquiry into the capacity of the armed forces to carry out their duties against right and left wing extremists in the event of a state of emergency.” However, several major problems presented themselves.

For one, upholding internal order was “a task for which the Army was not organized and which would overtax its strength.” For another, there were political splits within the Army itself. “[T]he younger officers were known to sympathize with the National Socialists [i.e., Nazis],” while the highest ranking general, Kurt Schleicher, the Minister of Defense, “considered it his duty to keep the Army out of internal political conflicts. It did not exist in order to take part in a civil war.”

The nation thus in deadlock, there was no solution. The street fighting increased, and von Papen was forced to resign when he proved entirely unable to resolve the crisis. Schleicher took his place, as a sort of military dictator, for less than two months, before he, too, was forced to resign. Hitler assumed the Chancellorship on Jan. 30, 1933. After that, the Reichstag was more or less permanently dissolved. Hitler was Germany’s dictator.

Are there parallels between the Germany of 1932 and the America of today? Yes. Both nations were modern, western, industrial powers, with great achievements both technical and intellectual. Both had been through wrenching experiences: Germany lost World War I and had the unjust Treaty of Versailles imposed upon it, which alienated most of its citizens, left and right alike. In America, we’ve seen the emasculation of the middle classes, a devastating Great Recession, and endless wars that drain our treasury with no seeming resolutions. In America, as in 1932 Germany, we have the population split into opposite camps, while the middle-moderates become increasingly squeezed and enfeebled. If push does come to shove, and there is great internal strife, America will look towards its security forces to maintain order: local police and Federal troops.

Go back to the quote from a white supremacist Breitbarter I cited in yesterday’s post: “We have cops on our side, the army on our side…”. Is this true? Local police forces will no doubt prove unable to muster the strength, not to mention the will, to fight armed mobs. (They can’t even handle Occupy protesters.) That will leave Federal troops—the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and the various national guards and reserves—to maintain the peace. Is the Army really on the “side” of rightwing insurrectionists? It’s not at all clear that it is. Today’s American Army is considerably more ethnically and racially diverse than the Reichswehr of 1932. I can’t see them uniformly taking the rightwing side; individual soldiers and platoons would be as likely to support leftwing, liberal forces. And the generals? Like Schleicher, they’ve been brought up to “keep the Army out of internal political conflicts.” To become otherwise engaged in domestic upheaval is anathema to their training and instincts. But generals are trained to act decisively, if the need arises; they are unlikely to sit back and watch their country disintegrate. Of course, the President is nominally their commander-in-chief. But when a nation is fracturing, some generals might put country first, the President second, and err on the side of Constitutional liberties.

It should be of some concern that Donald J. Trump is stacking his senior administration and advisors with generals: his “fondness” for what he calls “my Generals” is increasingly stark. My congressional representative, Barbara Lee, has suggested that Trump is “militarizing the White House.” Is Trump looking 14 chess moves ahead and foreseeing a time when his very survival in office is threatened? Does he envision 1932 Germany-style chaos overwhelming America? If he does, he must understand that local police forces will not be able to deal with the emergency; it will require the armed might of the Pentagon to keep him in office, possibly beyond the two-term limit imposed by the Constitution. By surrounding himself with “his” Generals now, Trump may be consciously putting into place the pieces he needs to gain the upper hand, and rule with an iron fist wherever in America he perceives his “enemies” to threaten him.

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