Yesterday, while pondering on the ongoing coronadebacle and how we got to where we are, I recalled Hitler’s Enabling Law (Ermächtigungsgesetz) of 1933 which carried a formal title of Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich).
It’s the kind of historical snippet that is never far from my mind. Mainly because our lessons from it will always remain one of the essential pillars of democracy. As a professional wordsmith, I do find Nazi propaganda fascinating. They were masters of language and its application. You can feel the curative necessity in those words. The doctor – patient sense of ‘We can cure you. You’ll just need sign here, and here’.
It wasn’t a forcible coup, but coups frequently occur when power and authority are readily delegated to those who are prepared to take what they seem to be necessary action. Or when that power is attained via sleight of hand. Hitler and his chums worked it both ways.
The primary catalytic agents are fear and panic; you whip those up and then present yourself as the saviour. After all, nobody’s going to willingly stump up for your medicine unless they strongly believe that they’re ill. It’s a similar methodology that most salesmen employ. They set the scene and ratchet up a sense of need through questioning centred on problems and implications. Once the need has been established in your mind, they step forward with the pay-off, namely their solution.
By this stage, the punters lap it up unreservedly without any further contemplation.
Politicians use this method all the time, but it’s usually in exchange for your vote for 5 years in power with an opposition backstop. It’s a lot more insidious when politicians manage to circumvent the final parliamentarian checks and balances because that’s the last line of democratic defence. That’s what Hitler achieved with his Enabling Act: the legitimisation of autocracy.
Bloodless coups are so much more effective. Dictators don’t have their resources and attention bifurcated between the revolution and the quell of rebellion. They can focus on dishing up wholesome servings of oppression once they’ve bedded in a solid structure to support it.
A Hitler comparison usually evokes Godwin’s Law which states that if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds. At this juncture, it is held that the discussion or thread often ends.
My interest is not in comparing circumstances but underlying processes, and the pertinent comparison lies in the removal of effective democratic opposition through stealth or trickery. You then change the law, so that what follows is technically legal.
So, please place Godwin on hold for the moment.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban has now boldly bestowed upon himself extraordinary powers to rule by decree, ostensibly in order to battle the contagion. To date he has used them to pass edicts on museum construction, theatre management and sex-change operations. I guess the salient question is what Orban holds to be the most damaging contagion in Hungarian life because that doesn’t appear to be coronavirus. It’s democratic opposition.
At the same time, his administration has classified documents on a major Chinese investment, so that voters won’t learn how much any of his acolytes will benefit from his power-grab. You can join the dots on the Chinese investment piece to whichever of the most disturbing or distasteful pictures emerges.
For many, coronavirus has always been primarily about deflection. It was never going to be apocalyptic, but the self-administered shoves towards the precipice of economic oblivion have carved out political opportunity for others. Countries that have allowed themselves to panic will simply not have the political capital at their disposal to expend on opposing wannabe dictators. They’re too busy chasing coronashadows.
Does that ring a bell? In the UK it certainly won’t be the division bell, because Parliament hasn’t sat since the coronachaos kicked off. And it’s not even as if our political opposition is overstretched – we haven’t had one since mid-December 2019, and they’ve spent the last 3 months focused on their internal leadership contest. You could scarcely imagine a more pointed dereliction of public duty.
Given recent history, you’ll probably see shenanigans in neighbouring Poland too. They’ve started already by fast-tracking changes to the electoral code in order to facilitate postal voting in elections while the country is frozen in self-inflicted coronaparalysis.
But what you won’t see is any meaningful action from the EU. They’re still working on a way to help the wealthier countries avoid any obligation to the weaker ones who are folding under the weight of mass infection and the overflow of poorly equipped public services. As a result, countries like Hungary and Poland have a clear path to EU money without having to adhere to the purported EU shared values. All this used to be termed the unity of the EU-27.
You can imagine Mr Farage vociferously relating these points in his current state of perfect self-isolation.
But, back to Adolf and his machinations. In 1933, he and his crew tweaked processes and rules to force the new law through. Poland and Hungary are taking advantage of stretched resource to push through statutes that will confer monster powers on its ruling cabals. In the UK, nobody even voted on the Coronavirus Act – the Government created a statutory instrument, so the whole ticket was never even laid before the House.
You can fight attempts to impose a policy with a counter-argument, but when you give up your rights, you take democratic challenge out of the game. Regrettably, the general disregard for facts and evidence in the UK has effectively paved the way for this as a course of natural progression. After the Enabling jiggery-pokery, the Reichstag was transformed from a seat of a parliamentary democracy to a meeting hall for Hitler’s speeches to the party faithful.
Take a deep breath and let it sink in that the Houses of Parliament stand empty and have done for some time. Different means, similar end.
So, what is about to unfold? Well, once the fixes are in, the really nasty stuff tends to start. Let’s hope that the slide stops there.
Fasten your ammunition belts.unsplash-logoJeremy Lishner