Saturday, June 30, 2018

Democracy in Decline

The Weimer Republic forms the backdrop to the rewarding television series Babylon Berlin. Based on the novels by Volker Kutcher and brilliantly imagined for the screen by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, the Netflix series takes place in 1929 Berlin. As we journey with its protagonists, a male inspector and a female aspiring detective, the show weaves an epic tapestry of what life was like at this moment in history with immaculate attention to detail. What drew me in and got me hooked, were the eerie parallels between then and the present times we live in.

The period in Germany soon after the First World War, from 1919 through 1933, is broadly referred to as the Weimer Republic. It is during this time, conditions were created for the Nazi party to rise to power with Hitler at its helm. It was a renaissance period of sorts, where Germany experienced a sexual and social revolution that saw prosperity for some and abject poverty for a vast majority. It was also a time of great political upheaval.

The rise of the Nazi party was in direct response to the crisis that brew and then spilt over during this period. Hyperinflation and a great depression tore German society at its core. The middle class bore the brunt of it. Unemployment skyrocketed, food became scarce, affording any healthcare became a luxury. Virtually the entire youth was unemployed. Spending hours in soup kitchen lines became the norm.

The Nazi party received only 2.8 percent of the votes in the 1928 federal elections. Tapping into extreme societal discontent, by September 1930, they had won 18.3 percent of the vote. And by July 1932 they had increased it to 37.4 percent. In four years they had increased their support by 13 million votes. Their membership rose from under 100,000 in 1928 to 850,000 in 1933. The Nazi paramilitary wing grew from 60,000 to 400,000.

The crisis in German society and the rise of the Nazis caused more and more capitalists and the elite to take notice of them. The businessmen feared a social revolution and hoped the Nazis would break the labor movement and the communists. They were also interested in starting a war to avenge their defeat and thereby increase their profits. This is where their interests converged with the Nazis. Many Germans perceived their loss in the war a grave humiliation and blamed the Social Democrats for it. The Nazis along with their bourgeois party supporters used this anger and resentment and deflected it towards foreign enemies and groups within the country they despised and wanted to eliminate.

In 1933, an aging President Hindenberg, appointed Adolph Hitler as chancellor with the Nazi party becoming a part of a coalition government. The hope was to quell the mass protests spreading through society with a stern hand. Within months, the Reichstag fire allowed Hitler to pass the Enabling Act which brought about a state of emergency and the suspension of all civil liberties and democratic institutions. These events brought the Weimer Republic to an end. The slow moving coup was complete and Hitler assumed the previously non existent title of F├╝hrer, heralding the most diabolical period in human history known as the Third Reich.

It was not just shrewdness, political savvy and socio/economic discontent that aided Hitler's rise. It was also disunity and divisiveness. The two large political parties in the Reichstag, the Social Democrats and Communists were deeply divided to the point of blindness. The judiciary was also compromised and eventually moved to prop up a dictator. The armed forces pledged their allegiance after being cultivated over a long period of time under Joseph Goebbels at the helm. Hitler in essence rose to power with sizable support from all corners of a civil democratic society.

Though the end of the Third Reich and colonialism sparked a resurgence of democracy around the globe, it certainly did not extinguish authoritarianism. Communist China and Russia stayed authoritarian, and other smaller nations under their patronage followed suit. In the 1990s there was another surge in democracy when the Soviet Union collapsed and Apartheid ended in South Africa and China made a shift towards capitalism with the communist party still in control.

Now it seems authoritarianism is back in fashion. From the tiny island nation of Philippines to Turkey, Russia, China, Poland and Venezuela, dictators in suits are ruling with an iron fist. In the meantime, in the United States, a nation popularly known as the beacon of democracy, a leader has risen to power who openly shares authoritarian aspirations. By applauding and flirting with murderous world leaders, he diminishes America's long and hard won democratic values. By calling the press that does not praise him the "enemy of the state" and speaking directly to his supporters via Twitter, he does what most dictators do to sway and control public opinion away from fact. By withdrawing from the UN Human Rights commission and not holding draconian leaders accountable for their crimes, but instead parading with them in photo-ops, he hopes to win twisted glory. Yet, just like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jin Ping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump enjoys support that boosts his confidence to openly say, he wished the people in America were more like the people of North Korea and listened to their leader in complete devotion.

Some might say it is an overblown, misguided, alarmist fantasy to imagine that fascism could one day take root in America. The Weimer Republic showed us that the rise of fascism is a slow moving phenomenon that took more than a decade to bear fruit. The conditions that incubated its rise then, seem to be resurfacing now. The road to fascism runs through nationalism, populism, racism, bigotry, parochialism and tribalism. These elements are very present in Donald Trump's America, coming right from his mind and mouth. They are also on the rise in other parts of the world.

Differences over policy and a vigorous debate on ideas and points of view, liberal and conservative, without fear, are signs of a healthy democracy. But this can only happen, when there is a consensus and agreement on all sides, on what one defines as baseline decent and dignified behavior in a civil society. When that common contract of decency shatters, civilization built over a period of time begins to erode. Those who enable and support leaders who make a mockery of humanity and all that is sacred, stand to lose all moral authority. Those judges, businessmen, congressmen, senators, media pundits and nations who enable any leader with dictatorial aspirations, will find history judging them with utter disdain as it did to those who came before them.

In the sixth episode of Babylon Berlin, two minor supporting characters are having an exchange while standing in a lake on a sunny summer day.
One says to the other
"Mass executions are a legitimate tool of the revolution".
The other responds
"Says who? Hitler?"
The friend says.
The other concludes
"Expropriation too, by the way".

In an ominous way this short conversation foreshadows what is to come for the German people and the world.

This short conversation could might as well been a Donald Trump tweet.

It is what it is.