Mayer: Troubling Echoes

Jan 29, 2018

We’re in the middle of a national flu epidemic. And it’s sobering to remember that fully half of those who died during the great Flu Pandemic of 1918, one hundred years ago, were both young and healthy.

Spanish writer George Santayana has warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think history doesn’t so much repeat itself as mutate and recur in new and unpredictable forms – much like a virus. And this leads me to the bleak aftermath of the First World War and the rise of Nazism during the Weimar Republic - a constitutional democracy with free elections and the rule of law.

It was during this time of economic anxiety, cultural quarrels, and political polarization that a plurality of Germans voted for the Nazi party and Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 through a legal parliamentary process. Germans hoped, and Hitler promised, to return Germany to its former “greatness.” He declared that his law and order, authoritarian ideology would save Germany from certain decline at the hands of a shadowy “other.”

But his campaign depended on lies. He threatened the judiciary and demonized the press. A propaganda campaign of savage efficacy flourished, in part, thanks to cheap radios, a new technology rather like a 1930s version of Twitter.

Before the Great Depression, the Nazis were marginal extremists. In the 1928 elections, they won only 2.6 % of the vote. Then the economy tanked and Hitler capitalized on Germans’ fears and frustration with a supposed betrayal by the elite and politicians, Communists, Jews, immigrants, and a so-called degenerate culture.

And when Hitler promoted Aryan supremacy, enough Germans approved for the civil passivity of the rest to allow the Nazis to flourish, and the Holocaust to begin.

Today we have a far more active and aware electorate, but there are still troubling echoes of that history. And we can’t assume we’re invulnerable to fear and intolerance, since it’s an unfortunate part of human nature to project evil onto others as if we’re not somehow capable of it ourselves.

To be sure, Weimar was Germany’s first attempt at democracy – a fragile newborn – while our 242 year old democracy is strong.

But we should never depend on good health alone to immunize us against catastrophe.