July 29, 2016
In the immediate wake of an event like the Reichstag fire or the Turkish coup, repression of “subversive” individuals or organizations may well be popular. The opposition parties in Turkey rallied to Erdogan in denouncing the coup, and in Germany in the spring of 1933, the SA’s ruthless suppression of the Communists was popular with many of the middle classes. Volker Ullrich, in his masterly biography of Hitler, quotes the wife of a town’s deputy mayor, who wrote: “The ruthless intervention of the national government may be alienating for many people, but there needs to be a thorough cleansing and clearing up. The anti-national forces must be rendered harmless. Otherwise no recovery will be possible.” No doubt there are many decent people in Turkey offering similar judgments today; the enemies of the president, of the state, and of true Islam must be rooted out. In Nazi Germany that “thorough cleansing and clearing up” proceeded apace: On March 20, only three weeks after the Reichstag fire, Heinrich Himmler gave a press conference in Munich where he announced the establishment of a concentration camp in a former munitions factory near the Bavarian town of Dachau. Street violence would begin to give way to the even more terrifying organized violence of the bureaucratic Nazi state. Dissidents could be swept into concentration camps, out of sight but not out of mind. The camps served as a warning and acted as a powerful deterrent to opposition to the emerging Nazi regime. There are comparable deterrents to Erdogan’s opponents in Turkey now.
Only a minority of Germans supported Hitler before 1933. A year later he enjoyed the support of a majority”just as Erdogan does in Turkey. When people are anxious and fear instability, any sort of stability may be welcome, at first anyway. George S. Messersmith, the American consul general in Berlin, remarked in April, two months after the Reichstag fire, on the number of “clear-thinking and really well-informed persons” who “appear to have lost their balance and are actively approving of measures and policies which they had previously condemned as fundamentally dangerous and unsound.” There will be numerous similarly “clear-minded and well-informed” people in Ankara and Istanbul today who, fearful of what might have been the consequences of a successful military coup and the overthrow of Erdogan, will now be expressing their support for the president’s brutal response and their approval of “the smack of firm government.”
It’s understandable, but like so many Germans who flocked to join the Nazi Party in 1933, and the millions who soon came spontaneously to applaud Hitler with great enthusiasm, they may come to regret it. The Nazis may have seemed to many the lesser of two evils if the alternative was a Communist regime, but the lesser of two evils is still evil. Turks may come to the same sad conclusion.