July 29, 2016

Reichstag, Berlin

Reichstag, Berlin

Source: Bigstock

I”€™m not the first to remark that the failed “€œcoup”€ in Turkey is as useful to President Erdogan as the Reichstag fire was to Hitler, but it is worth looking at the two events in more detail, for the comparison between them is striking.

Erdogan has, of course, been in power for years and has been gradually”€”carefully”€”consolidating his regime, eliminating his opponents in the army and the judiciary, and restricting the freedom of the press and civil liberties in general. Hitler, in contrast, had been in office for only a few weeks before the Reichstag went up in flames on the evening of Feb. 27, 1933. But he was already tightening his grip on Germany, even though, as chancellor, he was the leader only of a coalition government. Goering, for instance, in his capacity as Prussian interior minister, had already started purging the Prussian police, and instructed officers to have “€œno qualms about using firearms.”€ Attacks on political opponents”€”the enemy within”€”and on the offices of opposition parties were already not only permitted but encouraged. Similar things were happening in Turkey long before the failed coup.

For years many believed that the Nazis themselves were responsible for the burning of the Reichstag, just as some people’s response to the Turkish “€œcoup”€ was that Erdogan had organized it, or encouraged it, himself. It’s more likely the coup was a genuine, but botched, attempt to get rid of the increasingly dictatorial president. Likewise it’s now well established that the Reichstag fire took the Nazis by surprise. There was a brief panic, Goering telling Hitler that “€œthis is the beginning of the Communist uprising.”€ One eyewitness, Rudolf Diels (later the head of the Gestapo), remembered that Hitler was in a state of extreme agitation, “€œcompletely out of control.”€ When Diels said he thought the man arrested at the scene of the crime”€”a young Dutchman called Marius van der Lubbe”€”was a lunatic, Hitler would have none of it. “€œThis is a very carefully planned matter,”€ he said; this is just what Erdogan said of the failed Turkish coup.

“€œThere is nothing better than a national emergency”€”or what can be presented as a national emergency”€”for an elected politician.”€

Nevertheless Hitler, Goering, and propaganda minister Goebbels almost immediately realized that the fire could be used to their advantage. (The speed of this realization was one reason why so many believed the Nazis had staged it.) When Franz von Papen, the conservative leader and vice-chancellor, hurried to the Reichstag from the gentlemen’s club where he had been dining with President Hindenburg, Hitler greeted him with the words “€œThis is a sign from God, Herr Vice-Chancellor. If this fire is, as I believe, the work of Communists, we will have to crush this deadly pestilence with an iron fist.”€ Hitler’s “€œsign from God”€ is not very different from Erdogan’s judgment that the failed coup was a “€œgift from God.”€ For Hitler and Erdogan alike, events had played into their hands.

The Nazi response was prompt and ruthless. Communist Party functionaries and almost all the party’s Reichstag deputies were immediately arrested and the party offices closed. Within a fortnight more than 10,000 political opponents had been taken into “€œprotective custody”€ in Prussia alone. Goering announced that documents found in Karl Liebknecht House (the Communist Party headquarters) proved that the Communists intended to form “€œterrorist groups,”€ set fire to other public buildings, poison the food served in soup kitchens for the unemployed, and even take the wives and children of Nazi leaders hostage. This was black propaganda intended to inflame the public mood and make any repressive measures appear justified in such a national emergency.

Erdogan has seized the opportunity given him by the coup in the same way. He has declared a state of emergency. Some 60,000 have been detained, dismissed, or suspended from their jobs. A third of top-ranking military officers are in custody. Newspapers have been closed or taken over by the government, internet sites blocked. Turkey has suspended its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. Gangs of Erdogan’s thugs roam the streets intimidating and beating up anyone suspected of opposition or dissidence”€”just as the Stormtroopers of the SA did in Germany in the days and weeks after the Reichstag fire.

In Berlin, on Feb. 28″€”that is, within a few hours of the fire”€”the Nazis rushed out a “€œDecree for the Protection of the People and the State.”€ The first paragraph suspended “€œtill further notice”€ such fundamental civil rights as personal liberty, freedom of speech and of the press, the right to assemble, the privacy of letters and telephone conversations, and the right to refuse entry to property without legal cause. A later paragraph authorized the national government “€œtemporarily”€”€”again”€”to take over responsibilities reserved by the federal constitution to the states in order to “€œrestore public security and order.”€ This gave the Nazis authority over state governments that they did not previously control.

This decree of Feb. 28 was to be, in the words of one German historian, “€œthe emergency law upon which the National Socialist dictatorship based its rule until it itself collapsed”€ in 1945. Goering put it with characteristic bluntness. His measures of repression would not be moderated by any legal requirements: “€œIn this regard I am not required to establish justice. In this regard, I am required to eradicate and eliminate, and nothing more.”€

Erdogan has not put it so bluntly. He speaks of observing the rule of law and says that all repression will be effected by legal means. His actions contradict his words. People have been arrested and detained without charge. Others have been dismissed from their posts in schools, universities, the media, and the civil service by arbitrary decision, with no respect for contract. But if his language is more circumspect than Goering’s, the meaning is the same: He is not required to establish justice, only to eradicate and eliminate any suspected of opposition to the regime.

There is nothing better than a national emergency”€”or what can be presented as a national emergency”€”for an elected politician. It grants him an authority that he may not previously have enjoyed, and indeed has not earned. But for a politician who seeks to transform a democracy into a dictatorship, a national emergency is indeed “€œa gift from God.”€


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