(RNS) As latter-day partisans fling terms like “dictator” and “Nazi,” I decided to read William Shirer’s classic book about the real thing.

In “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man — a layabout and chronic failure — who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany’s woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.

This image of Adolf Hitler was featured in an exhibit titled "His Majesty Adolf" at New York's Jewish Museum in 1980. The montage was created by John Hearfield, and included black and white images designed during the 1930's mainly for the covers of 'Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung,' a leftist newspaper. Religion News Service file photo

This image of Adolf Hitler was featured in an exhibit titled “His Majesty Adolf” at New York’s Jewish Museum in 1980. The montage was created by John Hearfield and included black-and-white images designed during the 1930s mainly for the covers of Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, a leftist newspaper. Religion News Service file photo

Mocked as clownish at first and imprisoned for a foolhardy putsch, Hitler kept honing his message, created a strong organizational structure, unleashed a cadre of brown-shirted bullies to attack dissenting voices and waited patiently for collapsing national fortunes to make his vision of national purpose appealing.

In time, desperate people rallied to his rhetoric and, without truly understanding the aims he clearly spelled out in “Mein Kampf,” set about giving all power to the once laughable “Austrian corporal.” It took about two years for a “constitutional” transfer of power to become a dictatorship and police state. All of Germany’s political parties proved too weak, self-serving and corrupt to resist Hitler’s relentless use of bullying, phony crises, lies, scapegoating and national-pride rhetoric.

I have much more of Shirer’s book to read. But I find it fascinating to read about the early years, when the vision was forming, the calculated scapegoating found its voice and a demented genius patiently waited for a crumbling world to sink to his level, then struck hard and fast with merciless violence.

We seem a long way from the conditions that spawned Hitler and Nazism. The mega-wealthy venture capitalist who recently likened his opponents to “Nazis” found his whining greeted with derision. Fred Phelps’ maniacal targeting of gays was a mild snarl compared with brown-shirt bullies who did more than carry nasty signs. Our entitled 1 percent don’t yet come close to the delusional Prussians, rapacious Junkers and self-serving monarchists who turned Germany into the shambles that Hitler could exploit.

Even the sturdiest democracy, however, can lose its footing. If enough people feel put upon and decide their hope lies in giving up freedom, a free nation can turn quickly sour. Would-be saviors wait in the wings, stirring fear, stoking hatred.

A democracy’s contest of ideas will never be a pretty one. Even a modern economy will never seem fair to all people. Freedom includes opportunity for cheating, grasping and coarsening.

But worrisome moves are afoot. States are taking steps to deny votes to certain categories, as if their citizenship was a trial run, not a bedrock right. Wealth-hungry politicians are awarding outsized political benefits to the wealthy. Hyperpartisan officeholders refuse to govern. Relentless opposition bolstered by distorted information claims public attention and undermines public confidence. Religious fundamentalism serves itself and provides talking points to bullies.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich


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These paths — declaring some people expendable, fawning over wealth, encouraging bullies, deliberately undermining the nation — are dangerous for any nation, especially for one that dares to celebrate diversity and to protect the vulnerable.

Where the latest developments lead remains to be seen. But now isn’t the time to assume our hyperpartisan politicians have the nation’s best interests at heart.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

YS/MG END EHRICH

2 Comments

  1. The closest time the US ever came to embracing dictatorship was the Great Depression. Fascism and Communism both appeared to offer alternatives to the economic woes of the world (Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR did a lot to hide their weakness in this department). Military expansion was giving new jobs to people.

    The system has always been messy, prone to corruption and not as free as it should be. Politics of the previous 2 centuries were a helluva lot nastier, divisive and corrupt than they are today. There is a greater awareness of this sort of thing nowadays. It is far easier to organize, disseminate information and get one’s views expressed than it has in the past. The more we are connected to one another, the harder it is for information to be restricted by a single source. Its harder to be a dictator these days than it ever was.

    The US toys with autocratic policies now and then like a pendulum but one rather limited in its movements. For ex. Alien and Sedition Acts, political censorship of Socialism during WWI, Internment of Japanese Americans, J Edgar Hoover’s secret files, Watergate…but it always swings back eventually. We have a system which is remarkably resilient.

    Germany never had much faith in its democratic system under Weimar. They were quick to betray such principles when the Spartacist Revolt was put down by proro-fascist Freikorps.

    Not having a distinct military social class helps the US a lot. It prevents coups and creating a group of politicized well armed cadres which can be thrown into support of a given dictator. Germany had an aristocratic military class from the nation’s inception until the beginning of WWII. They had no problem climbing into bed with anyone who promised rearmament and a new war settle scores from the previous one.

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