David Crane, Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, analyses the parallels between the rise of authoritarianism in Nazi Germany with that of the decline of American democracy under President Trump...
In the early 1930s, a newly installed Chancellor Adolf Hitler, holding on to a shaky majority in the German parliament, the Reichstag, sensed a weakened hold on power. Just four weeks after he was sworn in as Chancellor, a mysterious fire occurred in the Reichstag on 27th February, 1933. Sensing a moment, Hitler quickly accused the Jews of starting the fire in hopes of rallying his base around him to maintain and gain further political power. It worked, and Germany’s long slide into the abyss began.
Today, the United States struggles with a post-election drama watching a defeated President flail about, seeking in any way to overturn the election results in order to maintain his grip on power; his begrudging nod preventing a transition to start. It is a tragedy in the making and it weakens American democracy, maybe for years to come.
This year we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the events that saw the end of World War II, which includes the 75th anniversary of the opening of the world’s first international military tribunal at Nuremberg to prosecute the Nazi tyrants that destroyed all of Europe. The opening speech given by Justice Robert H. Jackson on 20th November, 1945, outlined among many facts, how the Nazi party gained control of a once liberal democracy that was Germany. It is chilling in its delivery and truths.
When one reads Justice Jackson’s opening statement on how Hitler and his henchmen rose to power and gained complete control over the German populace, one can almost feel, at first, the incredulity of the German citizen that their country could become a living horror in just a short period of time. But adding up all of the events that saw Hitler’s rise to power, denial was a bright red thread.
The parallels comparing the rise of authoritarianism in a liberal democracy such as Germany in the 1930s and the same scenario, in somewhat more muted terms, in the United States over the past four years, are present. Now that the American people have spoken and their vote certified showing that a new President has been selected, a desperate “despot-wannabe”, drunk on power, fighting his inner demons, looks for ways, any way, to stay in power. The remaining several weeks may be some of the most dangerous this country has ever faced.
A “Reichstag fire” may just be the scenario that a desperate Trump and his handlers would consider, blaming socialists and others for the event in an attempt to rally millions around his cause of making “America Great Again”. This is almost unnerving in contemplation, but one is struck that reality may just cause such an event to occur. This disturbed outgoing President, without concession, might just try and pull off “an event” doing the very same thing another power-hungry demagogue did many decades ago.
As we watch the next two months unfold, and our mentally unstable President seeks ways to stay in power, as citizens, we must be aware of history, take faith in the process and use the law to prevent any attempts to subvert our democracy to include some type of event that would galvanize his followers to take control of our Republic. This is fantastic thinking, but remember the normal German citizen thought the same thing in the early 1930’s.
At the end of the day, this Republic will stand. The backbone of this great democracy, this grand and evolving experiment of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, will endure the dying gasp of this defeated and outgoing President. Again this admonition, beware a Reichstag fire!
I will close with commentary by Justice Robert H. Jackson in his opening statement in the international criminal case against the Nazi regime 75 years ago:
The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.
David Crane is the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal for West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the first American since Robert H. Jackson at Nuremberg to be a chief prosecutor of a war crimes tribunal.
Suggested citation: David Crane, Beware a Reichstag Fire!, JURIST – Professional Commentary, December 7, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/12/david-crane-beware-a-reichstag-fire/.
This article was prepared for publication by Akshita Tiwary, JURIST’s Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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