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“You Can Take Our Lives and Freedom, but You Cannot Take Our Honor” Life is Not a Cabaret

Otto Wels

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am going to address something of critical importance today, even though it occurred over 87 years ago, which in the scope of history is not that long, despite the fact that the average American, regardless of their political beliefs and ideology are ignorant of past events, even those of just a few years ago. Thus, when one discusses events of 20, 40, 60, 80, or 100 years ago, one typically receives blank stares, or appeals to historical myths and fabrications that they learned in school, church, or from the media, both news and entertainment. As a historian it drives me crazy, our society, including our political, business, and media elites, has become a new generation of Know Nothings, of whom none other than the President and cult like followers supply some of the worst, but certainly not the only examples.

in 1932 the Communist Party of Germany KPD, refused to ally itself with the Social Democratic Party, SDP because they viewed the Socialists as sell-outs who refused to embrace a Soviet State in 1918 and 1919. At that time they called themselves Independent Socialists, but though a minority unleashed a left wing reign of terror that pushed German Conservatives further to the extreme right, and left the Social Democrats working with the German Army to try to hold the center. In the end, it was the extreme right that finally won a thirteen year struggle to overthrow the Weimar Republic, and after abortive coup attempts, including the Kapp Putsch in Berlin, which was crushed by a nationwide strike of labor groups, and the Nazi led Bier Hall Putsch, which was crushed due to the duplicity of Hitler’s coerced allies, and the refusal of Munich’s police to withdraw in the face of the Nazi advance at Odeonsplatz.

However, the Nazis learned from their failures at violent revolution, and instead, despite being outlawed for a number of years, worked within the democratic model to slowly gain regional, and eventually a national following. By 1932 the Nazi Party, as well as the KPD were at the height of their support. The traditional conservative German right was divided and its leaders thought they could control the Nazi movement. The left was divided between the moderate SPD and the militant KPD. An alliance of the two left parties in 1932 and 1933 would have created a parliamentary majority and stopped the Nazi movement in its tracks, but the KPD, which had split from the SPD in 1919 hated the SPD more than they did the Nazis, even though the Nazis were an existential threat to the German left. 

As a historian I think that this is one of the of the most relevant examples as the United States and other democratic nations lurch toward legally elected right wing authoritarian governments.

A few months after he gained power, Hitler’s Nazi majority Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, or by its full title Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (“Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich”). The came on the heels of the Reichstag Fire Decree and had tremendous repercussions for the German Republic and in effect made Hitler and his administration a dictatorship. The legislative branch, the Reichstag was limited to nothing more than a rubber stamp for the executive, as was the judicial branch, the Reichsrat. It supposedly protected the rights of the President, the Reichstag, and judiciary, but it made Hitler the the sole decider of domestic and social laws, as well as all foreign policy decisions.

The law stated:

The Reichstag has enacted the following law, which is hereby proclaimed with the assent of the Reichsrat, it having been established that the requirements for a constitutional amendment have been fulfilled:

Article One

In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution. (Article 85 and 87 dealt with the budgetary process and allocation of funds for advertisement.)

Article Two

Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain unaffected.

Article Three:

Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date. Articles 68 to 77 of the Constitution do not apply to laws enacted by the Reich government. (These Articles dealt with the legislative process in which the Reichstag, Government, Reichsrat, and President all had specific responsibilities which limited the power of the government to rush laws into force without due process and deliberation, and if needed the approval of the electorate)

Article Four

Treaties of the Reich with foreign states, which relate to matters of Reich legislation, shall for the duration of the validity of these laws not require the consent of the legislative authorities. The Reich government shall enact the legislation necessary to implement these agreements. (This removed the requirement of the Reichstag to approve treaties)

Article Five

This law enters into force on the day of its proclamation. It expires on April 1, 1937; it expires furthermore if the present Reich government is replaced by another.

When the legislation was introduced the debate was muted. While the Communist Party was yet to be banned, deputies of the Communist Party could not attend the session, many had already been arrested and many more were in hiding or had fled the country. Hermann Goering adjusted the rules for a quorum in order to compensate for the lack of members in attendance. Deputies of the Social Democratic Party were also terrorized, hounded, and some arrested, but 94 attended, outnumbered they did not buckle under the Nazi threats, which included the chamber being ringed by armed members of the SA and SS.

The non-Nazi Protestant based conservative parties provided no resistance, but the Catholic Center Party was torn by concerns that the legislation could limit the rights of the Catholic Church. However, they had been outmaneuvered by Hitler who had already negotiated a Concordant with the Vatican. The result was to ensure that the Catholic Center Party would vote for the measure, which passed with a mere 94 deputies opposing it, all members of the Social Democratic Party.

The only member of the Reichstag to speak against the measure was the head of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels. In defiance of Hitler, Goering, the Nazi Deputies, and the threatening SA and SS men uttered words that every resistor in every country threatened by authoritarian leaders who despise the rule of law and the Constitutions that they used to gain power need to hear and proclaim, because the truth can never be silenced:

“You can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honour. We are defenseless but not honourless.”

Shortly after the Enabling Act, every non-Nazi Conservative party voluntarily dissolved, their organizations, youth, and veterans organizations being absorbed into the SA or Hitlerjugend. Many rank and file KPD members readily embraced the Nazis, even if their leaders were killed, jailed, or exiled. That was not the case with the SPD. Because of their stance and the courage of Otto Wels, they became the most hated and persecuted German political parties.

Otto Wels died as an exile in France. Many Social Democrats were placed in Concentration Camps and died, likewise some Communists. The Catholic Center Party would find itself betrayed, and many of its leaders would be killed, jailed, or placed in Concentration Camps, and Hitler would persecute opposition members of the Catholic Church as if no Concordat had ever been negotiated. A few members of the Protestant conservative parties, would join the German resistance, and some would be jailed, placed in Concentration Camps, or after the failed Military Coup of July 20th 1944, would be executed for their resistance, but they were a distinct minority, and few had any misgivings as long as it looked like Germany would win the war.

But eventually the Nazis would be driven from power. Their descendants today, whether in Germany, the United States, or other countries must be confronted at all costs. Democracy, and the American Constitutional Democracy, based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes that all men are created equal, and the Constitution of the United States which was the first to checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government, must be upheld. The Executive Branch, cannot, regardless of which party is in power be allowed to overthrow that democracy.

We have reached a point in the history of the United States where the Executive Branch, over a period of decades has assumed the powers of dictatorship as the Legislative branch over the corresponding time has surrendered its prerogatives and powers, while the judicial branch had become the domain of politically appointed judges and justices. Donald Trump and the GOP Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, have been the leaders of that, but should by some chance Bernie win, I have no doubt that some of his supporters secure his power by similar means. Yesterday, the President declared himself to be the Chief Law Enforcement Official in the country, in effect above all law. The Founders attempted to ensure that would not happen by placing Congress above the Executive Branch in the Constitution, but they assumed that no Chief Executive would do such a thing.

One does not know what will happen next, especially after the Senate acquitted the President in his impeachment trial, and the President’s subsequent retribution on those whose did not support him completely, or obeyed their oaths of office.

However, it is my opinion, that anyone who truly values the primary principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, and not just be a compliant tool of any political leader, must ne willing to take a stand; like the one Otto Wels made when confronted with a dictatorship in the making. Even if the President unleashes the power of the police and his own heavily armed supporters against opponents, we must remember like Otto Wels, they can “take our lives and freedom, but they cannot take our honor…”

This is something that anyone committed to the principles of the Declaration and Constitution must take seriously over the next eight and a half months leading to the next Presidential election. If we fail, the effects will be felt for at least a generation, and the institutions of our government will be transformed in ways that the founders could only imagine in their worst dreams.

Democrats and Never Trump conservatives must keep this in mind. Nothing is guaranteed right now, it is quite possible that Trump and his cult like supporters in Congress, before the election, or if he is re-elected, with their now majority in the courts could enact something like the Enabling Act if we are not careful. We must be careful to watch for the major terrorist attack, or war that could lead to the implementation of already legislated laws, such as the Patriot Act, or executive orders that give near dictatorial powers to the executive, and which would, if they occurred, be supported by a majority of Americans.

Historian Timothy Snyder wrote:

”The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”

Trump has said he would do that and his supporters are committed to what he says, but until now most Americans have refused to believe him, and them. Sadly, most still don’t. After all, once one ceases to resist what more is there to do, just go to the Cabaret.

As Joel Gray, the Master of Ceremonies in the musical and film Cabartet sang:

Where are your troubles now?
Forgotten? I told you so!
We have no troubles here
Here, life is beautiful.
The girls are beautiful.
Even the orchestra is beautiful.

Yes, ignore everything and immerse yourself in our entertainment and sports culture, as if nothing else matters. What does freedom matter if you have no troubles?

So until tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Survival as What? Truth, Justice, and the Value of a Single Human Life in the Age of Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I wrote about the rise in Anti-Semitism as reflected in an email sent to me by a Jewish friend and champion of religious liberty. With that rise rise in Anti-Semitism the film Judgment at Nuremberg, came to my mind today. So I am following that up that post with an, albeit, short post regarding one of the most riveting monologues in film from that film, which is a factionalized account of the Nuremberg Judge’s Trial.

 Since yesterday marked the beginning Holocaust Remembrances, which cumulated on the 27th with the actual Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the liberation of Auschwitz, it is appropriate to take the time to never forget. For while we may not want to admit it, as human beings we are all capable of the same inhumanity. Yesterday, one of the President’s aids was quoted as saying “I can’t wait until the revenge (for impeachment) begins” If that doesn’t make make you tremble, in combination with a threat from the President to GOP Senators who vote for witnesses and the introduction of documents and other evidence; one has to take it seriously. As a historian I cannot ignore the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler, Himmler, and Goering joined forces with the Army to exact vengeance on some of Hitler’s longest, and closest supporters in the Nazi Party, German conservative parties, and even Army generals.

The segment of the film, in which Spencer Tracy plays the role of Chief Judge Dan Heywood gives his verdict is one of the most telling sequences in cinema regarding what it is to be an American. I always showed it in the first session of my military ethics class at the Staff College and since the majority of my students had never seen the film, and it usually left them in silence. So I am just going to leave it with you to watch, read, and contemplate. Who are we, and what do we stand for?

This is especially true when the President, politicians of the majority party in the legislature, pundits, and politically minded preachers make no bones that they have every intent of persecuting those who are of certain races, religions, or political beliefs that they abhor, often using the most scurrilous charges, and outright lies in order to demonize them, dehumanize them, and  open the door for normal, decent, and even brilliant people to justify government sponsored cruelty and injustice that defies the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution itself, even in the midst of an impeachment trial.

Please, watch the video and read the text. Ponder it in your heart, because it speaks to something that is not a historical aberration, not just a dramatic film, but something that affects the human condition and is present right here and right now in our own country.

“The trial conducted before this Tribunal began over eight months ago. The record of evidence is more than ten thousand pages long, and final arguments of counsel have been concluded.

Simple murders and atrocities do not constitute the gravamen of the charges in this indictment. Rather, the charge is that of conscious participation in a nationwide, government organized system of cruelty and injustice in violation of every moral and legal principle known to all civilized nations. The Tribunal has carefully studied the record and found therein abundant evidence to support beyond a reasonable doubt the charges against these defendants.

Herr Rolfe, in his very skillful defense, has asserted that there are others who must share the ultimate responsibility for what happened here in Germany. There is truth in this. The real complaining party at the bar in this courtroom is civilization. But the Tribunal does say that the men in the dock are responsible for their actions, men who sat in black robes in judgment on other men, men who took part in the enactment of laws and decrees, the purpose of which was the extermination of humans beings, men who in executive positions actively participated in the enforcement of these laws — illegal even under German law. The principle of criminal law in every civilized society has this in common: Any person who sways another to commit murder, any person who furnishes the lethal weapon for the purpose of the crime, any person who is an accessory to the crime — is guilty.

Herr Rolfe further asserts that the defendant, Janning, was an extraordinary jurist and acted in what he thought was the best interest of this country. There is truth in this also. Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary — even able and extraordinary — men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat at through trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen.

There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” — of “survival.” A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient — to look the other way.

Well, the answer to that is “survival as what?” A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult!

Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

Think about it, Justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.” 

This is something for every American; Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green, Libertarian, True Believer, or Atheist to think about. No one is safe when the President; be it Trump, or any future President of any party, as well as his or her officials threaten anyone they believe to be opponents regardless of political party, religion, or place in society.

I am concerned, but Judy and I got to see Three Dog Night in concert yesterday evening. I will have to write about that later.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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