If something can happen once, it can happen again. This is the oft-ignored first lesson of history. The second lesson is that humans usually forget lesson number one. Watching the attempted coup unfold at the Capitol building, those two lessons kept working through my mind. Never have I felt like I was living so intensely in history. Maybe you did too.
In 1923, after almost a decade of economic suffering caused by the First World War, Germany was hit by an intense economic shock – hyperinflation, which destroyed middle class savings and raised the cost of a simple loaf of bread to several billion marks. Into this turmoil stepped a little known agitator named Adolf Hitler – a man considered an embarrassment to his establishment backers but who had a gift for speaking to the people. On the night of 8 November, in a Munich beer hall, Hitler assembled a ramshackle collection of his followers – angry extremists dismissed as uneducated buffoons, and right-wing establishment figures who thought they could easily control him – and convinced them to take over the Bavarian state government and march on to Berlin to seize power. In a confused, pathetic fiasco, four policemen and 14 others were killed and Hitler slinked away to later be arrested.
At the time it was easy to dismiss this Beer Hall Putsch as a mad failure. And it would have been had authorities responded better. Hitler and his supporters were arrested and charged with high treason, but instead of being given life sentences or executed, were let off. A biased judge sentenced Hitler to just five years in gaol and a modest fine. He served only 10 months in luxurious detention, during which he wrote a book setting out his intention to take power, murder the Jews and revenge Germany’s defeat in 1918 – Mein Kampf. Soon after his release, his party, the Nazi Party, was allowed to re-form, and ten years later took power legally – having accepted the lesson of the failed coup that power had to be sought constitutionally. Within weeks of becoming Reich Chancellor, he arrested and murdered his major opponents and abolished democracy – just as he had first planned to do back in 1923.
By now, you’ve probably figured out where this lesson is heading. Donald Trump’s attempted coup of last week has so many obvious similarities: the ranting leader, the ludicrous-looking followers, the hastily planned insurrection that was countered weakly by the state and could have ended up much worse. If history can ever repeat, it did on 6 January. Will the second half of the story repeat also?
To ensure it doesn’t, democracies everywhere now need to heed the lessons. I believe there are at least four. You can probably think of more.
First, there must be no leniency. Had Hitler faced the full force of the law, he would not have been around to take power when the German state was once again shaken by the Great Depression of 1929. He could not have successfully exploited the crisis from gaol or the grave. Or to put this lesson in the positive: democracy must defend itself without reservations. Calls by some to simply ignore Trump in his last two weeks of office are historically illiterate. History backs the calls for Trump and his followers to be removed, impeached and prosecuted.
Second, the conditions in which extremists flourish must be addressed. As happened in Germany between 1914 and 1933, democracy is most at risk when prolonged periods of inequality and economic discontent are followed by sudden and devastating shocks. In an America in which blue-collar living standards have been declining for decades, creating the discontented army that now worships Trump, how well can democracy negotiate yet another Global Financial Crisis? Those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the remorseless amoral direction of the economy cannot continue to be ignored. The redistribution of income is no longer a left-wing cause, it is a democratic imperative. So is finding new ways of connecting emotionally with everyday people’s sense of economic and cultural loss. January 6 was surely is the ultimate wake-up call.
Third, read the signs early, because they are everywhere. During the election campaign and after, armed militias appeared openly on the streets, brought their ‘long guns’ into state legislatures, and even threatened to kidnap a state governor – and yet the threat was underplayed. This happened in pre-Nazi Germany too, and the tendency now as then was to ignore it. This behaviour cannot be allowed to be normalised.
And fourth, rid yourself of the idea that it can’t all happen again. If ten years ago someone had told you that an armed mob would take over the Congress on the day it was due to ratify a presidential election and demand that a right-wing populist demagogue be kept in the White House after losing by seven million votes, you wouldn’t have believed it, would you? Last week told us that such things can and do happen. We have now been warned, twice. What might happen next time? As Donald Trump said to his followers on the day of the failed coup attempt, ‘our incredible journey is only just beginning.’ Hitler couldn’t have put it better himself.
Dennis Glover is a Labor speechwriter and novelist. His latest novel is Factory 19, published by Black Inc.