A Poisonous Myth and the End of Democracy

Generalfeldmarschall Göring presenting Colonel Lindbergh with a medal on behalf of Adolf Hitler in October 1938

‘‘The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
’’

— W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming

History is full of resonances. Some are louder than others. Some are quietly interesting and some are so loud in their relevance to the events that are now shaping a political future, that they deafen us. Or at least they should be. The poisonous myth of the ‘stab in the back’ or in its original German Dolchstosslegende promulgated at the end of the First World War and then by Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine is finding its echo in the myth being propagated by post-President Trump and his followers, that he won the Presidency, and, the American Presidential Election of 2020 was stolen by the Democratic Party.

At the CPAC conference the myth was again stated by the former President. This was endorsed by the attendees and reinforced during his speech to the conference. Furthermore the date of the Trump-inspired Insurrection on Capitol Hill — January 6th — was widely disseminated in billboards and placards. It is being glorified as a date of major significance for this transformed and ultra-nationalistic cadre within the Movement— which is now to all intents and purposes the GOP. This Trump-led Party is in democratic reality, an American Fascist Movement.

Holidays in Nazi Germany were primarily centered on important political events, serving as a form of political education and reinforcing propaganda themes. Major national holidays were therefore controlled by Goebbels at the Reich Propaganda Ministry, and were often accompanied by mass meetings, parades, speeches and radio broadcasts.

Many of the official national holidays in the Third Reich were anniversaries of political events, namely the seizure of power (January 30), the announcement of the Party program in 1920 (24 February), Hitler’s birthday (20 April) and the Beer Hall Putsch (9 November). This is undoubtedly how January 6th feels to me. Like a fascist celebration just waiting for its moment and opportunity: the Washington March for Democracy.

But January 6th 2021 should be another date in infamy like December 7th 1941, November 22nd 1963 and September 11th 2001. However, for former President Trump and his supporters it is a date now imbued with patriotic significance for those fighting not a foreign external enemy, but an internal political enemy. The ghosts of the Civil War dead are stirring loudly and the ghosts of a fascist past are returning.

‘‘The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models. They would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans, as Orwell suggested. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens. No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.’’

— Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

The mythic resonances are loud with the Munich Putsch in Berlin in 1923. A failed coup d’etat instigated and led by Adolf Hitler but with General Ludendorff also involved. Hitler was tried for treason for his part but spared the death penalty and instead sentenced to prison-time where he wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ and where the myth of Dolchstosslegende became central to his rise to power in Germany. The shame of weakness and the alleged (and utterly groundless) antisemitic conspiracy against Germany combined to form the ideological cement of Hitler’s dictatorship.

President Trump faced his own trial and was Impeached but the votes were not enough to carry the House and obtain the two-thirds majority of votes necessary to convict. That he was instrumental in the Washington Putsch is not in doubt. And now, so like Hitler, he has the opportunity to repeat a poisonous myth of the Presidential Election being stolen by a similar ‘stab in the back’ from the Democratic Party. Both myths were and are based upon cognitive dissonance. In Germany it was the ‘repressed defeat’ where the German people had no proof of the devastating defeat of their military as the war was fought not upon German soil. The majority of the German population were therefore spared the violence and the horror and the knowledge of their real military situation: ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.

Strict censorship and the army’s daily false news bulletins meant that news of the armistice came as a shock. General Eric Ludendorff, kept lying to the civilian government about non-existent victories, masses of reserves, and the great losses of the enemy. Only on September 29th did Ludendorff finally admit to the army leadership that the war was lost. He demanded the formation of a new democratically-based government that must call for an “armistice”. If not the army would completely collapse.

Ludendorff was insistent that there must be a new government in Germany to take responsibility for the armistice so as to leave the army with the unsullied reputation that it had not been defeated but rather ‘stabbed in the back’ by civilian politicians. Ludendorff advised the Kaiser,

‘‘to bring those circles into government (meaning the Liberals and the Socialists) to whom we mainly owe it that we are in this position. They are now to make the peace which must now be made. They shall now eat the soup they have brewed for us.’’

Herein lies the origins of the potent and poisonous myth of the ‘Dolchstosslegende‘ (‘the stab in the back‘) assiduously propagated by right- wing circles in the inter-war years. The German army, according to extreme nationalists, did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians. They denounced the politicians such as Friedrich Ebert the provisional president of the Weimar Republic who signed the Armistice as the ‘November criminals’.

Against their better knowledge German politicians had colluded in the foundation of this poisonous myth when they had greeted troops returning to Berlin with the words,

No enemy has vanquished you.”

The truth of course was the polar opposite to the false narrative created by the Nazis that the ‘‘November Criminals’’ had betrayed the military and their resolve to win, to gain power and overthrow the Hohenzollern monarchy in a Republic. The German army had run out of reserves and was being overwhelmed by the Allies after the strategic failure of Ludendorff’s offensives between March and July 1918. American entry into the war had tipped the balance in this horrific war of human attrition.

When Hitler achieved power in 1933 the Nazi propaganda depicted Weimar as,

a morass of corruption, degeneracy, national humiliation, ruthless persecution of the honest ‘national opposition’ — fourteen years of rule by Jews, Marxists, and ‘cultural Bolsheviks’,

who had at last been swept away by the National Socialist movement under Hitler and the victory of the ‘national revolution’ of 1933. This language is familiar. It is the language of Trump and his followers during his Presidency. And now he has positioned himself as the victim and his followers as victim and as America as a victim, this language of a stab in the back/stolen election will only continue and be reinforced by the telling of the new American myth. Just change the ‘fourteen’ to four and the Nazi propaganda returns with an existential threat this time to American democracy.

A Nazi attempt to mobilise public hatred of Versailles and Weimar democracy in a plebiscite against the Young Plan (which aimed to reschedule reparations) failed miserably in 1929, with 85 per cent of Germans showing no interest. Yet only 4 years later and Hitler was in power and the dismantling of German democracy would proceed with little opposition. What opposition there was was soon silenced.

There is a warning here. As the various opposition groups which could have unified into a force potentially capable of stopping the rise of Fascism and its eventual totalitarian grip on power only dissipated their power in fighting each other. The opposition to American fascism with Trump as its figurehead and nominal Leader must take the poisonous myth seriously and counter the fascism-heavy narrative, unceasingly.

To counter the Nazi myth the Allied powers invoked in January 1943 as Allied policy the demand for ‘unconditional surrender’. They were determined to stop the stab in the back myth from rearing its ugly head again. Once had been enough for humanity. But now in America because Republicans would not, in the numbers necessary, vote to Impeach Trump, this iteration of the myth is now free to be repeated ad nauseum by a Fascist movement now taking the place of the Republican Party. The coup may have failed on January 6th 2021 but the takeover of the Republican Party is now to all intents and purposes a fait accompli.

The resonances just get louder and louder. And of course as Goebbels pointed out after witnessing and creating such mythic propaganda, a lie, when told enough times, becomes a truth. And in America the dissemination of such lies and myths has only recently been attended to and censored by the media. But not by all the media. But that in itself just provides heavy ammunition to those in the Fascist movement who decry the attack upon free speech. Oh the irony. Yet this does only serve their purposes and provides valuable ‘evidence’ for their assertions of a conspiracy against the ‘honest ‘‘national opposition’’’. We know full well that when fascists and autocrats have power the media is under threat and so is free speech.

America was forged in a blood sacrifice and built upon The Original Sin of genocide: the dispossession of land and murder of the Native Americans and the brutal enslavement of millions. Hitler admired the South. The continuous and ongoing battle between fascism and liberalism is the central dialectic of American democracy. Fascism in America cannot now be defeated but it can be repressed. But if the nominal ‘liberal’ President indulges in fascist acts then American Democracy is finished and that ‘rough beast’ will be born, once more.

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