“An evil exists that threatens every man, woman and child of this great nation. We must take steps to insure our domestic security and protect our Homeland.”
This quote, according to hundreds of pages on the web, is by Adolf Hitler from a 1933 (or 1932 or 1922 on some pages) announcement of the creation of the Gestapo. These pages all have two things in common:
- They all compare Bush to Hitler
- They never cite their source
As a geeky historian, I find the second more troubling than the first. In fact, the creation of the Gestapo (note the presence of uncited quotes in this article), which began piecemeal around Germany, culminated in the so-called Reichstag Fire Decree, which among other things
placed severe limitations on personal freedom, the right of free expression, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of assembly; it permitted the authorities to spy on people’s private communications through the post, telegraph, and telephone; it allowed the police to conduct search and seizure operations in private homes; andit enabled the police to arrest people and put them in protective custody without charging them with a specific offense
It is, indeed, hard to avoid seeing the parallels with our government’s behavior since September 11. We have allowed our government to eavesdrop on phone conversations. We have permitted our elected officials to pass laws permitting the government to demand our purchasing records from bookstores (illegal search and seizure), which was largely solved by the bookstores refusing to make the information available, but the parallel is significant. We have also arrested people without charging them with a specific offense and we have allowed them to be tortured even if not guilty of a specific offense, because they might spill the beans about other threats to public security.
So it is not amiss to compare the Gestapo to measures by the Bush administration. Obviously, one should not belabor the comparison: Bush is no Hitler. Bad as he is, Bush is nevertheless closer to Roosevelt than he is to Hitler.
However, the point of the comparison is not to paint Bush as a modern Hitler, which is ridiculous, but to point out how willing he is as a president and we are as a people to go down the same road that the Germans went down in return for a little security. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so it behooves us to make sure that the first step is in the direction of freedom, not totalitarianism. It is most certainly useful to see how dictators have taken control in the past so we can guard against it in the present, and in that light, Bush should make us afraid.
But what about the quote? It isn’t so far from the text of the special law of 26 April 1933 for the creation of the Secret State Police Office (Gestapo) that said it was necessary to create such a police force “In order to assure the effective struggle against all the efforts directed against the existence and security of the state.” That gets at the essence of the quote, but it comes up short of being a parallel with the supposed Bush quote and it is the text of the law, not a quote from Hitler.
It may well be that the quote that is all over the net is accurate, but I would like to see one citation. Just one.
At this point, most people object to my historian geekiness and say that the special law is “close enough” to the version on the net. But when we let the accuracy of our facts slide, we are also taking one step in the wrong direction. That journey of 1000 miles also ends in totalitarianism.
The most important bulwarks we have against tyrants is that we do not let them control history. Stalin tried to control history by airbrushing cosmonauts in and out of photos. The Roman Inquisition tried it by burning books. Open discourse based on verifiable facts is the bane of tyrants. Ultimately, it is more important than force of arms, because if you can twist history so that the people believe the Big Lie, you have no need of arms, but when the illusion of the Big Lie is broken on a broad enough scale, no amount of arms can restore the illusion.
When we parrot quotes that are parroted on the web by authors who are parroting others who can never cite their actual source, we go down that slope where we leave the realm of facts and enter the realm of myth. The realm of myth is the favorite homeland of tyrants and demagogues everywhere. The land of myth is the one where we have a virtual paradise on earth if we could just get rid of the Jews. The land of myth is the one where Chinese peasants under Mao were living in a workers’ paradise and, as Jung Chang talks about in her wonderful memoir Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China, ended with Chinese children saving their pennies to send to the poor starving children in capitalist countries.
The realm of fact is the one where at that very time, Mao was letting over one hundred million peasants starve to death in the name of an ideology. That’s why it matters whether your facts are checked or accepted on faith, whether your history is accurate and documented, or just “close enough”.
1. Eric A. Johnson, Nazi Terror : The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans, p. 87. This is more or less a paraphrase of the decree itself, the text of which and translation is on the Wikipedia.
2.Robert Gellately, The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy 1933-1945 (Clarendon Paperbacks), p. 29