At a recent dinner party I had the opportunity to ask an elderly acquaintance a question I thought she was uniquely qualified to answer. You see, she grew up in Germany in the 1930’s just as Adolph Hitler came to power. She was injured during the Allied bombing of her home and then married an American soldier whereupon she settled in America.
I asked her, “Katherine, do you see any similarities between Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s and America today?” My question prompted a swift, if not indelicate, kick under the table from the hostess, a dear friend. Fortunately, Katherine is a bit hard of hearing so my gaffe went unanswered, or at least ignored. The hostess then pulled me aside and began to explain the ‘delicacies’ to me.
You see, to this day Katherine adores Adolph Hitler. Furthermore, many if not most Germans of her vintage do so as well. I was shocked! Didn’t Katherine and her fellow German octogenarians understand that everyone is supposed to hate Hitler… everyone?!
My hostess, now flanked by her husband, explained further. Hitler in the 1930’s, and even after his death, was extremely popular. He did many great and good things for a nation suffering terribly and needlessly under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He built roads, bridges and hospitals. He put people back to work while he rebuilt the economy. In less than ten years he accomplished the miraculous … even while he began to commit the unspeakable.
With my indiscretion now mercifully behind me I realized I had just experienced a teachable moment. That is, a tyrant so universally reviled for committing such horrific acts could actually be revered by the kind, decent, and normal man or woman next door. But how could they be so fooled? How could they witness such evil and still admire the author of it? Especially with over sixty years of hindsight.
The answer is remarkably simple; Adolph Hitler was not always a tyrant. As he rose to political power his vision for a better Germany lifted his nation from the depths of a severe depression and the humiliation of defeat. But more importantly, he gave his countrymen hope for better future while he returned to them their pride in their homeland, the pride they so passionately desired.
Tyrants are not uniformly evil. They are capable of great good and small kindnesses. They smile, they laugh and they love their children. But eventually they embrace the evil which defines their tyranny, and then those who gave them their power begin to pay a terrible price.
First a tyrant tells you he cares for you, then he presumes to think for you, then he simply tells you what to do. This is the essence of tyranny.
Then, those who presume to question his methods are ridiculed and then silenced. Those who resist his usurpations are imprisoned and finally eliminated… and all for the expressed good of society. Mankind has witnessed this progression time and again since the beginning of time.
No nation, no people are immune to the temptations which empower a tyrant and blind them to his evils. When conditions are ripe the right man with the right image saying just the right things can sweep to power with surprisingly little effort… and even less scrutiny. Indeed, America itself is not immune to the Siren’s call of the ‘Great Man’ promising prosperity ahead in exchange for more power… his power. If Germany, which gave the world Luther, Bach and the most educated citizenry in the world can succumb to the wiles of a Hitler, so too can Americans relinquish just a bit more liberty for the mere promise of security and prosperity.
I believe the potential for tyranny lives in each of us, waiting for opportunity to beckon. That is why it is so necessary for each of us to remain vigilant for the tyrant-to-be walking amongst us. He won’t be sporting horns or a long red tail. He will be handsome to most and charming to the rest. He will be articulate in speech and well dressed. He will always be pleasant to the eye and ear.
And he will be recognized for what he truly is early on by only those few who are inclined to remember history so as not to relive it. Others, less wise, will be deceived immediately and perpetually. They will disregard the harsh lessons of history and cling to the vague promises of the here-and-now.
Now to the question before us. Do I believe President Obama has the capacity to be a tyrant? Most certainly. He is no more immune to the temptations of ultimate power than the rest of us. And as he seeks to find “reasonable” steps to address the ills of our nation, the concerns about his understanding of the Founder’s intent begin to pile up.
This brings me to my conclusion. I am not so concerned here with tyrants themselves but with how they come to be. How did China, with more centuries as an advanced civilization than any other, inflict upon itself, and the world, Chairman Mao? How did Russia permit Stalin as its brutal leader? And Germany… Hitler? Italy, Mussolini?
I believe that a tyrant must have four conditions extant for him to fulfill his ruinous destiny. One, a compliant and sympathetic press. Two, a supportive or subjugated legislative branch. Three, a powerful police force which swears fealty to the tyrant himself. And four, an unarmed or significantly under armed citizenry. Of course, it is critical to note that if the press were to operate unencumbered by its own biased ideology or by the tyrant himself, conditions two through four simply could not survive. Nonetheless, at the end of the the day the tyrant can, and will, permit no meaningful opposition. Thankfully, not all four of these conditions currently exist in America… not yet.
As America struggles through its current crisis the very human hope for a better future becomes overwhelming, sometimes clouding judgment. And it is in this hope that danger for our republic lurks. For when a nation puts its hope in nothing greater than a man that nation stands on the precipice, blind to the danger just one step ahead. That is why America was built not on the personality of men but on the principles good men and women ponder and articulate… principles free men and women cherish and contend for.
America has survived some 240 years through great tragedy and trauma but it has always rested on those principles. But today I worry whether those principles are even recognized let alone exercised, as we sacrifice our citizenship to the lust for cheap labor, our sovereignty on the altar of climate change and our prosperity to our own greed and ignorance.
So then, absent a return to the principles upon which the American experiment was founded, and by which it once flourished, it will continue to flounder and eventually fail, both as a nation and as a people. Then, we Americans will elect a tyrant who promises prosperity even while his tyranny consumes us… and we will have only ourselves to blame.