Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stop the train, we want to get off.

It takes no more than a passing interest in history to recognise that Adolf Hitler had a real talent for harnessing public mistrust and dissatisfaction, and using that to cultivate the Nazi brand through the first third of the last century. As a result the so-called ‘War to end all Wars' was followed by an even more devastating global conflict barely two decades later. Or to put that into a timeline with some contemporary context, if the first World War ended when John Howard came to power, the second would be kicking off… oh, about now. 

A brief glimmer of hope shone on Germany during the period between the end of WW1 and WW2. In the 1920s, she shook off some of the deep shame and humiliation of losing the Great War and the pain of reparations and treaties subsequently imposed upon it to enter a period of relative stability known as Goldene Zwanziger, or literally 'The Golden Twenties'. This period lasted from around 1924 to 1929, in which time the economy grew, civil unrest began to settle and, remarkably, Germany started to find her feet.

But in late 1938 came Kristalnacht - the 'Night of Broken Glass' - during which German paramilitaries and sympathetic civilians destroyed Jewish businesses and homes, killed around one hundred Jews, and arrested thirty thousand Jews who were placed in ‘internment camps'.

And we know where those actions ultimately led - to the second global war, and the Final Solution, and of course what is now known as the Holocaust, with those ‘internment camps’ rebadged as ‘concentration camps’, ‘extermination camps’ and ‘death camps’.

So far this is all old news, and mostly common knowledge. Sobering, troubling, even distressing old news, naturally, yet it is somewhat tempered by frequent retelling. Plus there’s the feeling that all of this horror ostensibly took place in the grainy black-and-white of newsreels rather than in the vivid, living colour of HDTV.

So with that said, here’s a thought to ponder: somewhere between Goldene Zwanziger and Kristalnacht, Germany society was in the same place as Australia finds itself today. 

Too much? In my lefty hysteria, have I overstepped some line? Perhaps, but let me finish.

Somewhere on the continuum which features peace, recovery and growing prosperity at one end and murderous fascism, summary executions and gas chambers at the other, there must have been a comparable point to the one on which Australia currently stands as a society. Without wanting to attract accusations of hyperbole, it seems clear to many that we’re heading in the wrong direction along that continuum. We’ve found ourselves on the wrong line, and one of the next stations we pull into will be Press Gagging, followed shortly after by Kangaroo Court. We didn’t spend very long at the last station, but the stench of Mandatory Detention is still funking up the carriage. We can’t get into the cabin or the guard’s compartment to raise the alarm, and the emergency brake isn’t working. But we are being told that everything’s under control.

Many will argue that in young, naive, lackadaisical, larrikin Australia, with our famous ‘fair go for all’ ethos, we don’t need to worry. We’d never let it reach that point, would we? After all, it’s 2014, not 1934! Plus we’ve got all of that history to inform us, and to view as a cautionary tale. It might have happened in another hemisphere, but we’re not idiots. I mean, we can read. And we wouldn’t let that happen here. Not in Australia. No way!

Ah, complacency, tyranny's best friend.

One of the quotes doing the rounds on Twitter of late is by one Hermann Goering - you might have heard of him. At the Nuremburg Trials he said the following:
"Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
I think it’s rather appropriate that this quote is getting such a run on Twitter in particular. In the world of the early 21st century, social media is playing an increasingly important role in political dissent. This is no less true in Australia. The Marches in March and subsequent associated protests such as the 'Bust the Budget’ rallies all around the country were organised and their details disseminated almost entirely through social media. (Sidebar: It also seems likely that the conservative side of the debate has not embraced these techs as well as the left, judging by the fudged numbers on internet polls and the army of troll-bots that emerge whenever Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin get jumpy. Shhh - don’t tell them that we’re onto ‘em...)

At this point I feel slightly hesitant in my convictions, since I am mindful of Godwin’s Law which, in one of its forms, states that in any heated internet debate, eventually someone will accuse the other of being a Nazi. Or of being like Hitler. Sometimes it’s as simple as 'You know, this is exactly how Nazi Germany started.' But you get the idea.

The problem with Godwin’s Law is that by its very nature it can often shame us from making those comparisons. It makes us queasy about drawing those parallels. But here’s something else to think upon: Nazi Germany wasn’t a fictional place, like Westeros or Middle Earth or Narnia. It was real. It happened. Which means there was a time when it was exactly how Nazi Germany started. Which presumably - and tragically - means it could happen again.

Now that I’ve invoked the dreaded Godwin’s Law, I figure in for a penny, in for a pound. So check this… 

Hitler achieved power by infiltrating the legislature and then, bit by bit, persuading that legislature to change the laws to grant him additional powers and, in the end, ultimate power. He also did what Goerring articulated above - he identified a cultural scapegoat to blame for the parlous state of the nation, and denounced anyone who spoke out against said blame-shifting. Meanwhile he encouraged the people to carry on, go about their normal lives, let him get on with fixing the mess. Hitler cosied up to like-minded leaders of like-minded countries. Driven by braggadocio, he engaged in mission-creep. He almost certainly burnt down the Reichstag and blamed the Communist Party so he could crush the Communist Party with full approval of the people who democratically elected him. And perhaps most relevant to the events of the last week, Hitler controlled information, both in terms of using flagrant propaganda through sympathetic news outlets, and by directly threatening the press. 

A few years ago I visited Dachau, and was surprised (and slightly embarrassed) to learn that that camp was never an extermination camp in the style of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. It was initially set up in 1933 to hold political prisoners - journalists, academics, rabble-rousers, union leaders. By 1945, around 3.5 million such prisoners had been locked up in the 1,500 Nazi camps.* 

Of course you can see the comparison I’m making. And it’s an uncomfortable comparison, isn’t it?

Yet the point does bear consideration, especially in light of George Brandis' recent knee-jerk (or opportunistic, if you prefer) amendments to our surveillance laws. If, on first viewing, the outstanding German film The Lives of Others seemed to be an earnest yet quaint examination of another, simpler time, then I urge you to watch it again without the popcorn. Or if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in the German capital, visit the Hohenschonhausen Stasi Memorial Centre in the back blocks of old East Berlin. Or, at the very least, read Anna Funder’s Stasiland. Any of these experiences should remind us of what happens when secret police, spy agencies and, by extension, the government overseeing these bodies can watch, report and detain their citizenry with what amounts to impunity. Of course, we are a very long way from Kristalnacht. Except we’re not really. An excellent, savagely beautiful piece by Alex McKinnon over at Junkee lists just a handful of the multiple attacks on unrelated Muslim Australians by non-Muslim Australians in just one week by the press, politicians and, yes, civilian Australians in the wake of the terrible events outside Endeavour Hill police station.

It can happen again. It shouldn't, but it can. Perhaps the case can be made that Hitler and the Nazis would never have gained the traction they did had Twitter and Facebook been around to help inform and forewarn the people in the absence of a free and balanced media. But that such a case need even be considered should be alarming in itself.

Earlier, I alluded to a train. I should tidy up that metaphor. This ‘train' isn’t charging along apace. It’s not a runaway train full of passengers holding one another and mouthing silent prayers as they brace for the impact. No, this train has a driver, and he is being very careful to keep it rolling along smoothly. After all, gently rocking trains can have a profoundly soporific effect, and who doesn’t like to snooze on a train? The driver is also being very considerate of his passengers. He’s frequently on the PA, telling us all that he’s got everything under control. 

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers helpfully suggesting that if we don’t like where the train is going, we should get off. And maybe that’s it. Perhaps for those of us who don't like the scenery or the destination, our best choice is to leap bodily from the doors and windows and take our chances ‘out there’. 

Except most of us don’t want to leave the train. Many of us have been on this train all our lives, others joined at an earlier station. This used to be a nice carriage going to a nice place. With each passing day it becomes incumbent on those who can still see out the windows to wake up the rest of the passengers and find that damned emergency brake. Maybe then it won’t be too late to get things back on the right track. 

 *Yes, you read those numbers correctly.

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