NOT ALL DICTATORSHIPS look like Burma. When the troops are out on the streets firing rubber bullets at high-school students and shutting down the Internet for the second day in a row, what are you looking at? Effectively, you’re watching a dictatorship that is failing. No matter how you measure it: economically, socially or politically; the price of ruling by terror is enormous and irrecoverable. Which is why a truly successful dictatorship doesn’t look anything like a dictatorship – until you cross it.
Knowing how the fascist story ended, it is very hard to grasp how many people came away from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany full of admiration. Before the invasions, before the Holocaust, when Germany’s economy was booming and Italy’s trains were running on time, it seemed to many people – Winston Churchill, Henry Ford and King Edward VIII among them – that the fascists had much to teach the world about the best ways to go about restoring economic prosperity and fostering national unity.
Hitler’s regime, in particular, left a great many of the world’s politicians and journalists ideologically mystified. Germany, after all, had boasted the largest and most energetic communist movement in Europe. It’s Social Democratic Party was similarly imposing. How, then, had Hitler and his Nazi Party subdued both parties so quickly and so easily? By 1935, two years into the Nazi regime, it was as if Germany’s fifty years of continuous left-wing progress had been an historical mirage. Could it really be true that, as Hitler had argued all along (and as the name of his party emphatically confirmed) socialism would always come second to nationalism?
The explanation for Hitler’s success begins and ends with the Great Depression. That global economic catastrophe hit Germany harder than any of the other major industrial powers. With millions of men and women out of work, the burden of popular expectations fell upon the parties of the left and their powerful trade union allies. These were the politicians who would rescue the fatherland. Except, they didn’t. Indeed, the Left proved singularly unequal to the task of saving Germany. This historic failure left the socialists’ working-class supporters feeling bitterly disillusioned and betrayed – many beyond recall.
Which left Hitler as the last man standing, and his Nazis as the only party Germany had yet to try. It was ever thus. Dictators and dictatorships succeed by being the only medicine a desperately sick nation hasn’t swallowed; the only strength that hasn’t failed.
Later this year (maybe) the world’s athletes will gather in Tokyo for the XXXII Olympiad. Once again the world will thrill to the potent symbolism of the Olympic torchbearer running up the steps of the grand stadium to ignite the Olympic flame. Thousands of doves will be released in the name of international peace and amity. The world will cheer.
That every one of those “traditions” emerged from the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Hitler’s Berlin, is a deeply troubling historical detail. That the world’s admiration for Nazi Germany peaked that same year owes much to the huge success of the Nazis’ Olympic spectacle. Nor can there be much doubt that if Hitler had been assassinated in the months between the unification of Germany and Austria in March of 1938, and the onset of the Munich Crisis in September, then he would have been remembered as one of Germany’s greatest leaders.
Those observers around the world celebrating the political demise of Donald Trump would do well to contemplate the extraordinary contingencies of history. That so many Americans still believe in his star bears witness to the enduring power of the last-possible-saviour myth.
Nor should Trump’s opponents assume that the events of the past twelve months have discredited Trump. Hard though it may be to accept, the former President’s red-capped followers read these events through a radically different lens. What they believe they saw was their hero ambushed by a global pandemic cooked up by America’s enemies abroad, and then robbed of his presidency by the corrupt machinations of America’s enemies within.
If Americans are not to elect their own dictator to power in 2024, then Joe Biden and his Democrats will have to do what the German Left so tragically failed to do in 1932. They will have to give America a medicine that works – and a strength that does not fail.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 February 2021.