Phony Elections, Then and Now

Wow! Over 93 percent of Crimeans, now occupied by Russians for their own good, voted to leave Ukraine in favor of joining the burgeoning empire of Tsar Putin I. Some surprise. And yet coincidentally, as the Crimea results became known, I was reading about an almost identical situation.

Belatedly I have been enjoying the terrific 2011 book by Eric Larson, “In the Garden of Beasts.” It tells the story of early days of the Third Reich as seen from the perspective of the new U.S. ambassador to Hitler’s Berlin. It is the best ground level description I know, since William Shirer’s “ Berlin Diary,” of what it was like to live under the growing power of the Nazis

The National Socialists first won power in a legitimate election in July 1932 with less than half of seats in the Reichstag. Even in that election Storm Troopers on the street intimidated many voters and kept others from the polls. It was to be the last such election. By January 1933 Hitler was Chancellor and by November 12, 1933 had so far consolidated power as to sponsor a phony election in which he asked voters to endorse “peace with honor” and the right to self-determination.

In practice that meant giving Hitler dictatorial power over the government, voting for a new Reichstag in which the only candidates on the ballot were members of the Nazi party and repudiating the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations and restrictions on Germany’s armaments. This time the Storm Troopers, Gestapo spies and police were out in force and everyone who voted got a white lapel button that said: I voted yes. Those on the street without such a button were easily identified and “encouraged” to go to the polls. Or else.

Lo and behold, the turnout was a little more than 96 percent with the Nazis garnering 95 percent, even better than Putin’s rigged game. Larson adds this especially piquant detail. The vote in Dachau, not yet a death camp but a reeducation camp for political dissidents, was also 95 percent in favor of the man who locked them up. See, reeducation works.

This is not quite the same as the case of the Crimea, but close enough to seem almost comic unless you are in Ukraine or the Baltics or whichever former Soviet falls under Putin’s beady eyes next. But as the familiar remark of Mark Twain has it, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And one of the rhymes in this case is hard times.

The last six years of economic dislocation, in common with the 1930s, have given rise to extremists of all stripes who conclude the old regime caused the collapse, has failed to fix it or both. In some quarters of Europe there has been a surge of neo-Nazi sentiment. Putin seeks to put the Humpty Dumpty Russian empire back together again.

Even in our country we’ve seen fringe factions and extremists on the rise including Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, nativists who want to go back to an imagined racial purity, activist religious zealots uninterested in turning the other cheek or rendering unto Caesar, isolationists, interventionists, you name it. This has been accompanied by a marked rise in polarization and decline in comity. But it no one believes “we’re all in this together,” if everyone believes it is us against them, it’s hard to see how the work of solving real problems by cooperation and compromise can be achieved.

How does the gridlock get broken? In the 1930s Sinclair Lewis wrote a worst case scenario about the rise of a homegrown demagogue modeled on what was happening in Europe. It was called “It Can’t Happen Here” Its message is always timely: It can happen here.

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