In these dark days, an intergenerational warning is in order: Antifa folks, be wary. They are coming for you.
Some of us have seen this movie before. In my generation, when I was a teenage member of MSU’s SDS in the late 1960s, I remember the guy who was always yelling, “Kill the pigs,” and encouraging us to burn down the ROTC building on campus. In later years, I heard from old SDS colleagues that when they sued the police, they learned that the outspoken guy was a police officer and his friends were informants.
For my dad’s generation, the right-wing takeover of a protest movement happened in Germany generations ago, so most Americans don’t even recognize Marinus van der Lubbe’s name. But the Germans remember well that fateful day 84 years ago: Feb. 27, 1933. And many of them are looking at the confrontations in our streets and worrying.
It started when the government, struggling with questions of its own legitimacy and the instability of its leader, received reports of an imminent terrorist attack. Historians are still debating whether the “terrorist” was a mentally incompetent young man maneuvered into place to take the fall for the crime, or was an actual communist ideologue (of limited intellectual means and probably schizophrenic; that seems to be one thing most agree on).
But the warnings of investigators were ignored at the highest levels, in part because the government was distracted; the man who claimed to be the nation's leader had not been elected by a majority vote and the people claimed he had no right to the powers he coveted.
He was a simpleton, some said, a cartoon character of a man who saw things in black-and-white terms and didn't have the intellect to understand the subtleties of running a nation in a complex and internationalist world. His coarse use of language, reflecting his background of hanging out with disreputable sorts, and his simplistic and often-inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric offended the aristocrats, foreign leaders, and the well-educated elite in the government and media.
He desperately wanted to be appreciated and loved by the “old money” crowd, but he also hated them because they had never accepted him and, deep down inside, he knew they never would.
Nonetheless, he knew the terrorist was going to strike, and he had already considered his response. When an aide brought him word that the nation's most prestigious building was ablaze, he rushed to the scene and called a press conference.
"You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in history," Hitler proclaimed, standing in front of the burned-out German Parliament building, surrounded by national media.
"This fire," he said, his voice trembling with emotion, "is the beginning." He used the occasion—"a sign from God," he called it—to declare an “all-out war on terrorism” and its ideological sponsors, a people, he said, who traced their origins to the Middle East and found motivation for their evil deeds in their religion.
And, he said, their fellow travelers —"communists” like the man who’d set the Reichstag on fire—needed to be tracked down and utterly destroyed.
Two weeks later, the first detention center for terrorists was built in Oranianburg to hold the first suspected allies of the infamous terrorist. In a national outburst of patriotism, the leader's flag was everywhere, even printed large in newspapers suitable for window display.
Within four weeks of the terrorist attack, the nation's now-popular leader had pushed through legislation, in the name of combating terrorism and fighting the philosophy he said spawned it, that suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus.
Police could now intercept mail and wiretap phones; suspected terrorists could be imprisoned without specific charges and without access to their lawyers; police could sneak into people's homes without warrants and peek around without homeowners know it, if the cases involved terrorism.
To get his patriotic "Decree on the Protection of People and State" passed over the objections of concerned legislators and civil libertarians, he agreed to put a four-year sunset provision on it: if the national emergency provoked by the terrorist attack was over by then, the freedoms and rights would be returned to the people, and the police agencies would be re-restrained. Just like with America’s recent Patriot Act, the first version of which had sunset provisions, legislators would later say they hadn't had time to read the bill before voting on it.
Immediately after passage of the anti-terrorism act, his federal police agencies stepped up their program of arresting suspicious persons and holding them without access to lawyers or courts. In the first year only a few hundred were interred, and those who objected were largely ignored by the mainstream press, which was afraid to offend and thus lose access to a leader who was so newsworthy.
Citizens who protested the leader in public— and there were many—quickly found themselves confronting the newly empowered police's batons, gas, and jail cells, or fenced off in protest zones safely out of earshot of the leader's public speeches. (In the meantime, he was constantly talking up the threat of these “other people” among the German people, while armed gangs terrorized minorities and smashed windows in Jewish-owned businesses.)
Within the first months after that terrorist attack, at the suggestion of a political adviser, he brought a formerly obscure word into common usage. He wanted to stir a "racial pride" among his white countrymen, so instead of referring to the nation by its name, he began to refer to it as the "Homeland," a phrase publicly promoted in the introduction to a 1934 speech recorded in Leni Riefenstahl's famous propaganda movie "Triumph of the Will."
As hoped, people's hearts swelled with pride, and the beginning of an us-versus-them mentality was sewn. Our land was the homeland, citizens thought: all others were simply foreign lands. We are the "true people," he suggested, the only ones worthy of our nation's concern; if bombs fall on others, or human rights are violated in other nations and it makes our lives better, it's of little concern to us.
Playing on this new nationalism, and exploiting a disagreement with the French over his increasing militarism, he argued that any international body that didn't put Germany first was neither relevant nor useful. He thus withdrew his country from the League of Nations in October, 1933, and then negotiated a separate naval armaments agreement with Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom.
His propaganda minister orchestrated a campaign to ensure the people that he was supported by the power brokers of the most fervent of Germany’s Christian sects. He even proclaimed the need for a revival of the Christian faith across his nation, what he called a "New Christianity." Every man in his rapidly growing army wore a belt buckle that declared "Gott mit uns" (God is with us) and most of them fervently believed it was true.
Within a year of the terrorist attack, the nation's leader determined that the various local police and federal agencies around the nation were lacking the clear communication and overall coordinated administration necessary to deal with the terrorist threat facing the nation, particularly the troublesome "intellectuals" and "liberals."
He proposed a single new national agency to protect the security of the Homeland, consolidating the actions of dozens of previously independent police, border, and investigative agencies under a single leader. He appointed one of his most trusted associates to be leader of this new agency, the Central Security Office for the Homeland, and gave it a role in the government equal to the other major departments.
His assistant who dealt with the press noted that, since the terrorist attack, "Radio and press are at our disposal." Those voices questioning the legitimacy of their nation's leader, or raising questions about his checkered past, had by now faded from the public's recollection, as his central security office began advertising a “See Something, Say Something” program encouraging people to phone in tips about suspicious neighbors.
Those denounced often included opposition politicians and celebrities who dared speak out—a favorite target of his regime. He began a campaign to discredit the press; he called them the Lügenpresse, or "lying press" (“fake news” in today’s vernacular). The phrase was repeated endlessly until all the free press was shut down in 1934. By 1935, all the radio stations and newspapers were owned by wealthy, hard-right friends of his regime.
To consolidate his power, he concluded that government alone wasn't enough. He reached out to industry and forged an alliance, bringing former executives of the nation's largest corporations into high government positions. A flood of government money poured into corporate coffers to fight the war against the “leftist terrorists” lurking within the Homeland, and to prepare for wars overseas.
He encouraged large corporations friendly to him to acquire media outlets and other industrial concerns across the nation, particularly those previously owned by liberals or Jews. He built powerful alliances with industry; one corporate ally got the lucrative contract worth millions to build the first large-scale detention center for enemies of the state. Soon more would follow. Industry flourished.
But after an interval of peace following the terrorist attack, voices of dissent again arose within and without the government. Students had started an active program opposing him (known as the White Rose Society), and leaders of nearby nations were speaking out against his bellicose rhetoric. He needed a diversion, something to direct people away from the corporate cronyism being exposed in his own government, and away from questions of his illegitimate rise to power.
To deal with those who dissented from his policies, at the advice of his politically savvy advisors, he and his handmaidens in the press began a campaign to equate him and his policies with patriotism and the nation itself. National unity was essential, they said, to ensure that the terrorists or their sponsors didn't think they'd succeeded in splitting the nation or weakening its will.
In times of war, they said, there could be only "one people, one nation, and one commander-in-chief" ("Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"), and so his advocates in the media began a nationwide campaign charging that critics of his policies were attacking the nation itself.
Hitler and his friends in the right-wing press repeatedly told the people that the majority, the “silent majority” of good Germans, hated the leftists.
Those questioning him were labeled “communists,” "anti-German" or "not good Germans," and it was suggested they were aiding the enemies of the state by failing in the patriotic necessity of supporting the nation's valiant men in uniform. It was one of his most effective ways to stifle dissent and pit wage-earning people (from whom most of the police and army came) against the "intellectuals and liberals" who were critical of his policies.
He spoke openly of his “love” for police and the military, and they in turn embraced him with fervor, redoubling the violence they wrought against peaceful protestors.
Hitler’s rise to power was largely on the backs of the labor and communist movements. They were his “enemies” first and foremost (although anti-Semitism had been part of his shtick from the beginning: his main attack was that the labor and communist movements were filled with Jews). And he largely destroyed them when he successfully sold the German people on the idea that the "left” was responsible for burning down the Parliament building, the 9/11 event of that day.
There’s little doubt in my mind, having lived through the era of COINTELPRO and the Patriot Act, that somewhere out there is a person who’s planning to commit an act of terrorism. It may be a dedicated but deluded left-winger, or more likely, a right-winger hoping to stir things up by pretending to be a left-winger. And Trump and his friendly “news” outlets are ready to use it.
Perhaps apocryphally, Mark Twain once noted that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
There’s no shortage of examples of that rhyme, and given all the “mainstream” press now being thrown at the Antifa movement, it’s a sure thing that they’re going to be the administration’s and the media’s next big boogeyman.
Somewhere out there is the next Marinus van der Lubbe, and Trump and his press are ready.