Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Coercive Legality

A popular misconception about Hitler is that he obtained power illegally. Indeed, he had tried unsuccessfully to take over the government in the Munich Putsch of 1923. But while he sat comfortably in prison writing Mein Kampf, he determined to seize power through the parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic. Once he took over Germany, he would then dismantle the very system that placed him in power. Hitler did just that. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels stated his view of the matter in 1935: “The stupidity of democracy. It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.”

Yet another misconception about Hitler is that he assumed power legally. I think that “coercive legality” is a useful way of thinking about the Nazi party’s political successes of the early 1930s. Brownshirt thugs did their part in intimidating voters on the streets. At a higher level, Goebbels organized a massive propaganda assault on the minds of voters via loudspeakers, posters, speeches, door-to-door canvassing, pamphlets, and films. Violence and intimidation were core components of Nazi campaigning and ultimately paved the way for victory in 1933. Technically, the German people did not vote for Hitler, nor did they have a say in the creation of a one-party state. True, we can’t ascribe the astounding parliamentary victory of the Nazi party in 1930 entirely to fear tactics. A great portion of the German electorate thought that Hitler had the answer for Germany’s problems. Voters winced at Nazi tactics, but they hoped that the crude SA bullying would dissipate; the responsibilities of governance would moderate Hitler and his minions. Au contraire! The F├╝hrer did not wait long to implement his radical plans.