Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sinclair Lewis

Can It Happen There? Part Two.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 23 2016


Colman's Column3





In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published his dystopian satire It Can’t Happen Here! The novel imagines a charismatic leader winning the presidency and establishing a Fascist dictatorship in the US. Influential American journalist Josh Marshall wrote of Donald Trump: “His public appearances are like a fugue of impulse and aggression, overlapped with charisma and humour and a searching for the spirit of the crowd, a sometimes frantic, sometimes slow mix of neediness, divination and dominance.”


Trump said President Obama should “resign in disgrace” for failing to call the Orlando massacre “Islamic terrorism”. Obama was circumspect in his statement expressing sympathy and solidarity with “the LGBT community” and with the people of Orlando. The president expressed inclusiveness while the Republican contender sought to make political capital from divisiveness.

The rifle Omar Mateen used was a Sig Sauer MCX, sometimes known to gun fetishists as the “Black Mamba”. Sig Sauer makes most of its 74,000 semi-automatic rifles sold in the US market at its factory in New Hampshire. In February 2016, Trump toured the factory with his two sons and Trump addressed a crowd at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual trade show where his sons posed for photo opps with Sig Sauer representatives.

Trump has said the existing background check system should be improved, not expanded, and that assault-weapons bans do not work.

Trump on LGBT

Following the Orlando massacre, Trump claimed to be a champion and friend of the LGBT community.  “Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone else who doesn’t share their views or values.”

In reality, Trump must bow to anti-LGBT forces if he wants to win the presidency and is making pacts with them. On 10 June 2016, Trump addressed a meeting of the Road to Majority Summit. Ben Carson, who compared homosexuality to bestiality and paedophilia, moderated the discussion, which was closed to the media, between Trump and hundreds of anti-LGBT activists,.  Trump met major evangelical leaders in New York City on June 21.

American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted back in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”


During a Trump presidency, a number of Supreme Court vacancies will give him the opportunity to shape the judiciary. His Supreme Court appointments will need to please the evangelicals.  In May, Trump released a list of 11 potential replacements for Antonin Scalia which were alarming for LGBT people and feminists. One of Trump’s choices is Joan Larsen, who worked for Scalia. She served in the Justice Department office that produced the legal justifications for torture. The nomination of President Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, is being blocked by the Senate, so the next president could have a Supreme Court appointment waiting in January 2017.

Trump’s Policies

Trump makes his lack of fixed policy positions a positive virtue: “A lot of times when I speak, people say that I don’t provide specific policies that some pollster has determined are what people want to hear”

We can confidently predict that a Clinton presidency would not be good for this island nation because we can examine her record as Secretary of State. We have very little to go on with Trump. Mark Danner wrote: “What gives a man who knows little or nothing of foreign policy the unsullied conviction to announce to the world that only he can solve, well, Pakistan? Or terrorism?” One cannot imagine that Trump would help Sri Lanka’s delicate balancing act between India, Pakistan, China and the US or help it deal with the legacy of its defeat of terrorism.

Trump does not make any clear foreign policy statements and what does say often turns out to be a lie. He promised to put together a team of experts to help him with foreign policy but the names he announced puzzled many people. He shared the names with the Washington Post. He said five advisers had signed up to be on his team: Joseph E Schmitz, General Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Walid Phares. The team includes two people who played active roles in Iraq. Trump claims to have been against the invasion (a lie) and has accused GW Bush of lying about WMD.

Schmitz left his job as the Pentagon’s inspector general eleven years ago following allegations that he protected top officials in the GW Bush administration suspected of wrongdoing. Senator Grassley, then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, accused Schmitz of blocking investigations of Bush administration officials tied to Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts and questioned his ties to lobbyists. On leaving the Pentagon took a job with the Prince Group, the parent company of Blackwater USA, the controversial defense contractor whose operatives killed 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

General Joseph “Keith” Kellogg was among the first US personnel sent in to try and govern Iraq after the US removed Saddam Hussein. Kellogg had been employed by US government contractor Oracle Corp. in November 2003 when he went to Baghdad to serve as the Chief Operating Officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a position he held for five months. During his time in Iraq, the Iraqi army was disbanded which helped to plunge the country into chaos. He was responsible for poorly managed contracts that led to audits and inspectors general investigations.

Walid Phares is an anti-Muslim Lebanese Christian, who served as a top adviser to a Christian militia blamed for atrocities during the Lebanese Civil War. He was a close adviser to Samir Geagea, a Lebanese warlord whose career developed from leading hit squads to running the Lebanese Forces.

Carter Page was an investment banker with Merrill-Lynch who has close ties with Gazprom and Putin’s Kremlin. Sergey Aleksashenko, a top Merrill executive in Russia at one time and now an outspoken Kremlin critic, described Page as a junior banker with little understanding of Russia. “I could not imagine Carter as an adviser on foreign policy. It’s really surprising.”

George Papadopoulos, a 2009 graduate of DePaul University, is said to direct an international energy center at the London Centre of International Law Practice. He obtained a master’s degree from the University of London in 2010. Almost all his work appears to have revolved around the role of Greece, Cyprus and an Israeli natural gas discovery in the eastern Mediterranean.  Several people in energy policy circles in London, Washington and New York said they knew nothing of him. Papadopoulos served as an adviser to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

There are those who believe that Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination was initially merely a publicity stunt to boost his business. Now he has got this far, there is a fear that he will use the White House as a business opportunity, and, with his financial interests all over the world, foreign policy would be a prime area. John Wonderlich, of the Sunlight Foundation said that complex diplomacy would be further “complicated and altered by massive personal financial conflicts of interests being present at the same time?”

Ethical Problems

Donald Trump could be president without selling his businesses. Restrictions that prohibit executive branch officials from earning income from their businesses do not apply to the president or vice president. Trump has not committed himself to selling his businesses, and instead he has said that his children and executives would manage them. Kenneth Gross who provided legal assistance to several presidential candidates, said, “He can’t just get amnesia. He’s stuck with the knowledge of what he owns.”

Trump has filed a mandatory personal financial disclosure statement – 104-pages listing his current holdings and their value. With the power of the presidency, Trump could manipulate policy and enforcement to directly benefit his own financial holdings. Trump does a lot of business with the federal government and holds stock in companies, like Boeing, which receive billions of dollars in government contracts.

The commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service is appointed by the president and serves at the pleasure of the president. In his campaign, Trump has been strongly critical of the IRS and has bragged that he pays “as little in taxes as possible”. A Trump-appointed IRS commissioner could allow him to avoid any scrutiny at all for his tax compliance. Trump has not released his tax returns since 1981.

Trump could also use the power of the presidency to intimidate banks into making riskier investments for his companies. Trump has huge debts to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity that was recently caught manipulating markets around the world. What are the implications of the chief executive of the US government owing such a foreign  entity over $100 million?

Loss Aversion Trumps Risk Aversion

Why do people support Trump? Behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered the idea of loss aversion – people feel the pain of losses more than they feel the pleasure of gains. Trump harps on loss. In Trump’s world, things are much worse than they seem: “We’re losing everything.” Trump appeals to a kind of masochism – the median Trump voter is, in reality, better educated and richer than the average American but even people who are not doing as well as they expected feel a sense of loss.

His supporters are willing to take a risk – his unpredictability is a positive. To them he looks like a strong leader – is he a Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Chavez? Is American democracy strong enough to survive four or eight years of a Trump presidency? Adam Gopnik thinks not: “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right…. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak.”


Can It Happen There? Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 16 2016.


Colman's Column3



We hacks are very nervous about Godwin’s Law, which was promulgated by American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990. The law states that if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will bring up Hitler or Nazism. One needs to be wary offline also. Godwin was not around in 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published his novel It Can’t Happen Here. I have been looking again at that book as I watch, horrified, the rise of Donald Trump. Some commentators have suggested that Godwin’s Law should be put in abeyance during the course of the 2016 US presidential election. In December 2015, Godwin himself commented on the Nazi and fascist comparisons being made by several articles about The Donald, saying that, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”

Let us not forget that Hitler, like Trump, was a demagogue with no experience of governing. It is a fallacy to claim that Hitler was democratically elected Chancellor in 1933 by an overwhelming popular vote. The National Socialist Party was indeed the largest party in the Reichstag having won 37% of the vote in a general election but, not having a working majority, were members of a coalition. Hitler became all-powerful because von Papen and other conservatives disastrously thought they could control him.

Trump uses patriotism as a weapon but also points out how the USA is failing – an empire in decline – and he is the one to Make America Great Again. This echoes the masochistic paranoid victimhood of Germany after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles

Not Hitler

Adam Gopnik commented recently in the New Yorker on Mrs Trump’s remark that her husband was not Hitler, “Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance.”

The phrase, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is often attributed to Edmund Burke (although no-one has been able to find it in any of his writings). Trump has got this far because many not so good men have done worse than nothing.

Senior Republican figures tolerated Trump’s excesses because he seemed popular and they thought all the outrageous Trumpery was showboating. Their fantasy was that if he won the nomination he would take on the aura of a plausible president. Trump makes a big thing of Clinton using speechwriters and keeps pointing out that he has no teleprompter. An NBC News reporter described a speech at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York as ‘presidential’ merely because he had a prepared text and managed to speak for fifteen minutes without being too offensive. Generally speaking, he has continually ramped up the Trumpery and other Republicans cannot control him.

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first US writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader.

From Buzz to the Donald

In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip promises to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.

Windrip is a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm (Lewis covers this theme in Elmer Gantry) and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business.  He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.

Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media, the desire for security and comfort, and endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.

As Goering said: “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 in any country.”


Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide, just as American doctors did in Iraq. Ordinary German policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.

Unsavoury Supporters

Trump’s anti-government rhetoric goes beyond tea party fulminations but some of his supporters go even further and may not be controllable by Trump. His campaign approved David Riden to go to the Republican National Convention. Riden is one of many Trump supporters with ties to the Patriot Movement, a loose-knit conglomeration of right-wing militias. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, nearly 1,000 anti-government groups now operate in the United States, including as many as 276 armed militias. Riden asserts that all three branches of the US government are “way off away from the Constitution right now.” Riden warns that Americans may need to attack with assault weapons and bombs in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. US leaders who violate the Constitution may have to be done away with: “The polite word is ‘eliminated’,'” he said. “The harsh word is ‘killed.'”

Caleb A Bailey, whom the Trump campaign approved to be a Maryland delegate to the Republican National Convention, was indicted on weapons and child pornography charges. Federal investigators found a fortified subterranean room under his 75-acre gated compound stocked with grenades, tear gas, and illegal machine guns.

Establishment Failure

As well as those psychopaths who are prepared to take up arms against  the government there are many people who have more rational reasons to believe they have been betrayed. As long ago as 1997, the American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that “something would crack” when the nonsuburban electorate come to the realisation that “the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….”

The Democratic Party used to represent the working and middle classes but now prefers to court the professional classes and those who produce no value, those, like hedge-fund managers, who contributed mightily to the financial crisis, or real estate merchants peddling toxic mortgages. The Democrats thought its natural constituents had nowhere else to go. Then along comes Trump – who made his fortune in real estate and reality TV. If he wins the presidency, it is unlikely that he will have the will or the competence to give the betrayed what they want. The consequences of leaving millions of people feeling abandoned yet again will be the stuff of nightmares, especially when many of the disappointed have been stockpiling weaponry.





Next week – what a Trump presidency would mean for the rest of the world, including Sri Lanka.

Complicity Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 24 2015

Colman's Column3

It Can’t Happen Here


Here, There or Anywhere?

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader. Although the book is out-of-print (I am working from a Kindle edition downloaded for $3.99) and hard to find, its themes will be quite familiar to Americans (and other nationalities)


Contemporary readers would have seen the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long who was preparing to run for president in 1936 elections when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the appearance of Lewis’s novel. Long’s career was used by Robert Penn Warren in his 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Later readers have noted resonances with the regime of GW Bush and Dick Cheney.


In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is going to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.


Windrip is a charismatic politician: a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is  swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business.  He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.


Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an  implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media,  the desire for security and comfort, and  endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.


Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. The message is that such an ideology is not necessary and besides, the USA has its own ideology that already dominates the world.


It Happened in Germany


Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide. Ordinary policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.

Britain’s Imperial Image


I was a child in Britain in the 1950s. Much of the literature I was encouraged to read in my pre-teens was about the benevolence of the British Empire. The Boys’ Own Paper gave us tales of adventure in Africa. The Children’s Newspaper was a successful publication which ran for 46 years. During half  of that run of over 2,000 issues it was edited by Arthur Mee, a patriot and devout Christian whose Children’s Encyclopaedia also indoctrinated us with British Imperial values. Lord Baden-Powell was regular contributor. How different were the boy scouts from the Hitler Youth which counted Pope Benedict and UN General Secretary  Kurt Waldheim among its members.

I once asked a friend (we must have been about eight years old) what he would like as a career. I was thinking about being a footballer or a comedian (Max Bygraves was my idol at the time). My friend said he wanted to be a District Commissioner. I had a vague idea from BOP that this was a commendable vocation, which involved civilising savages.


The British Imperial brand had been burnished over many decades. The PR set the British brand apart from the brutal behavior of other European empires in Africa: King Leopold’s bloody rule in the Congo, the German genocide of the Herero in South-West Africa, and France’s disgrace in Algeria. The British were, quite simply, different.


Despite that, we have seen how British soldiers and police behaved in an inhumane fashion during the British Mandate in Palestine, participating joyfully in torture, summary executions and generalised thuggery. British “exceptionalism”’,   “the British way”,  is clearly a delusion. Chelsea fans continue to behave like British soldiers in Palestine. British soldiers in Iraq continued to behave like thugs.

Neil Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, described an encounter he had in Cyprus in the late 1950s with a man called Pordy Laneford from Kenya. Who had been a member of the Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. “He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the ‘red tape’ of trials and witness statements. ‘Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.’”

Ascherson wrote, “I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season.”

“The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

Many civilians took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects and settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Katharine Warren-Gash ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There, suspects were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labour, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many Kenyan women gave birth at Kamiti and buried their babies in bundles of six at a time.

The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan history. On March 3, 1959, 100 detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured.

Can It Happen?

We are shocked to read that doctors in Nazi Germany could participate in experiments on living human beings and wholeheartedly carry out torture, sterilisation, euthanasia, and mass extermination.

The recently published US Senate report on CIA torture makes it clear that American doctors were enthusiastic participants happy to make a profit from inflicting pain. Two psychologists, Dr James Mitchell and Dr Bruce Jessen, were paid $81 million to design the torture programme, and medical officers and physicians’ assistants are cited throughout the report as consultants who advised on things like forcing detainees to stand on broken limbs and “rehydrating” via a rectal tube rather than a standard IV infusion.

Dr  Steven Miles is a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, a board member of the Center for Victims of Torture, and author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors. He has been studying doctors’ involvement in torture programmes since photos of the human rights violations at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in 2003. He maintains the website, which tracks physician standards of conduct and punishments for doctors who aid torture around the world.

“The docs who get involved in this, number one, are careerists. They get involved for rank and career, and the regimes … extremely rarely coerce them. Instead, what happens is the regimes treat them as some kind of elite. The docs are generally not sadists. … docs seem to be entirely unaware, not only of the ethics codes, but also of the ineffectiveness of these interrogation strategies, that they never mount a protest.”

Public Complicity

During GW Bush’s presidency, Americans increasingly said they favored torture tactics, especially when they believed it would lead to vital information or save lives. Surveys showed that 47%   said the use of harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding was “sometimes” or “always” justified, while only 22% said such torture tactics were “never” justified. Non-religious Americans were more easily convinced that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were, in fact, torture. Most Christians were in favour of torture. Non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques – and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines.

The researchers said. “We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime”.

Goebbels successfully used media, that might seem primitive to us in 2015, to ensure complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi project. TV shows like 24 and Homeland serve a similar function. Stephen King, an admitted fan of 24, wrote, “There’s also a queasily gleeful subtext to 24 that suggests, ‘If things are this bad, why, I guess we can torture anybody we want! In fact, we have an obligation to torture in order to protect the country! Hooray!’ “

Well that’s OK then.

Brigadier General Finnegan believed the show had an adverse effect on the training of American soldiers because it advocated unethical and illegal behavior. In his words: “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’ The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”


Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were enthusiastic fans of 24.



More on torture next week


Complicity Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 10 2015.

Colman's Column3

Willing executioners?


A number of historians have asked, “How did ordinary people bring themselves to participate in torture and euthanasia in Nazi Germany?” Was this something particular to the Germans or could people of other nations be complicit in similar atrocities? Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the USA.



In Death and Deliverance, Michael Burleigh studies the character, background and motives of those who carried out the mass sterilisation and euthanasia of German mental patients in the 1930s. In 1920, Karl Bonhoeffer, chairman of the German Psychiatric Association, acknowledged that the exigencies of war had meant that the profession “had to get used to watching our patients die of malnutrition in vast numbers, almost approving of this, in the knowledge that perhaps the healthy could be kept alive through these sacrifices”. This was a thin end of an evil wedge.

During the 1930s, Bonheoffer gave lecture courses to those charged with implementing the compulsory sterilisation policies introduced by the National Socialists. These policies were no secret. The Nazi government sought to involve the wider public in their eugenic measures by opening the asylums to public inspection. In 1935, over 2,000 tourists marched through one of the asylums in the Rhineland. From 1934, parties of a hundred or more regularly visited Eglfing-Maar in Munich.

Hermann Pfannmüller, director of Eglfing-Maar, was a fanatical Nazi and an advocate of “racial and genetic biology. He was amused when one visitor recommended setting up a machine gun in the asylum entrance to clear away the inmates. In 1989 in Potsdam, Burleigh himself watched propaganda films produced to promote euthanasia. The films educated audiences in the cost of caring for the mentally ill. These funds would be better spent on housing or food for normal people.

Sterilisation evolved into euthanasia. However, it is clear that mercy played no part in the killing. Between 1934 and 1945, 400,000 people were sterilised in the cause of eradicating “degenerative heredity”. Under the programme known as T4, daily murders became a matter of routine, with doctors falsifying death certificates to cover up lethal injections and starvation. The Nazis extended the concept of a “life unworthy of life” to include mentally and physically disabled people, Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals. Up to 350,000 were killed. The gas chamber technology used by the Nazis was developed when the large number of adult and child euthanasia cases required more efficient means than lethal injections and starvation.

What kind of people could do this kind of thing? The asylum administrators’ annual reports demonstrate what Burleigh describes as “a high degree of enthusiastic complicity”. The psychiatrists themselves were not noted for their intellect or ethics.

Even bureaucrats were not remote from the killing. Secretaries shared their offices with jars of gold teeth extracted from the slaughtered. All T4 employees were entitled to cut price dental treatment, which used gold from the mouths of their victims.  Most of the personnel engaged in asylum work did not have vocations as carers. Many of the murderers were women – doctors such as Mathilde Weber, who ran a “special” paediatric ward at the Kalmenhof, and hundreds of nurses. Burleigh writes that once one has abandoned stereotypes about medical professionals one finds “that these people were often bitter, frustrated, disillusioned, tired, underpaid and undervalued”. The long years they had spent in nursing inured them to suffering of others. Burleigh gives pen portraits of a few of these women, pointing out that it “was possible to refuse to carry out these policies; the only sanctions that existed concerned breaking the code of secrecy”.

Male orderlies tended to be from a lower social class and showed no evidence of a vocation for caring for the sick. They were labourers or drivers who had been made unemployed by the depression. Party membership and asylum employment provided social mobility, enabling minor functionaries to become camp commandants.

After the war, some of the Nazi eugenicists were executed. Many of those who did the hands-on killing  received light sentences. Most melted into the general population under new identities.


In Ordinary Men, published in 1992, American historian Christopher Browning looks through the archives and analyses interviews carried out in the 1960s with policemen who had the job of shooting Jews en masse. The Order Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a unit of just over 450 men from Hamburg, which had been used in 1942 to round up Jews from Russian and Polish ghettoes.


As well as collecting Jews for transportation to death camps, the reserve policemen also carried out massacres themselves. The battalion was responsible in Poland for the shooting of 39,000 Jews and the deportation to Treblinka of 44,000 more. In March 1942, some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive. Eleven months later, 75 to 80 percent were dead–the result, Browning says, of “a short, intense wave of mass murder,” in Poland.

Browning concludes that these killers were not devils or Nazi fanatics or even virulent anti-Semites. These were ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background – 63% were working class but few were skilled workers. They were mostly dockworkers, truck drivers, warehouse or construction workers, machine operators, seamen, waiters. The majority were from a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture.

These men were ordered to round up Jews, and if there was not enough room for them on the trains, or if they were unable to walk, to shoot them. Sometimes, they were ordered simply to kill a specified number of Jews in a given town or area. On July 13, 1942, the unit’s commander, Major Trapp, ordered his men to round up 1,800 Jews from the Polish village of Józefów and  to select several hundred as “work Jews,” and to shoot the rest- men, women, and children. Trapp told them that if any did not feel up to the task they could step forward and be excused. He wept as he gave the orders. Only a dozen men took the opportunity to hand in their rifles.

As the assignment continued, more found that they could not shoot women and children and they were released to  other duties. One said: “I myself took part in some ten shootings, in which I had to shoot men and women. I simply could not shoot at people anymore.” It was a dirty job. “The shooters were gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bone splinters. It hung on their clothing”. The usual technique was to shoot the victim in the back of the neck. One man reported how “the back of the skull of my Jew was torn off and the brain exposed. Parts of the skull flew into Sergeant Steinmetz’s face. This was grounds for me to, after returning to the truck, to go to the first sergeant and ask for my release. I had become so sick that I simply couldn’t anymore”.

There was peer pressure – one who opted out said his comrades called him “shithead” and ‘weakling’- but there were no serious consequences for opting out. Browning argued that the men of Unit 101 agreed willingly to participate in massacres out of a basic obedience to authority, not blood-lust or primal hatred.

Browning wrote: “These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance, routine and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder. These men saw their victims face-to-face. Their comrades had already shot all the Jews deemed too weak to be deported, and they subsequently worked viciously for hours to prevent their victims from escaping from the train and hence the gas chambers awaiting them in Běžec.“
Critics of alltagsgeschhte – the history of everyday life- say that it draws attention away from the horrors of the Nazi genocide by normalizing the perpetrators. On the other hand, it can show the degree to which the criminal policies of the regime permeated everyday life. How would you or I have behaved in a similar situation – would you be a killer or an evader? Browning writes: “Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving”. The Holocaust took place because individual human beings killed other human beings on a large scale. The grass-roots perpetrators became “professional killers” in the sense that killing was their job.


Browning argues that it was not just Nazism or Germans that produced such men. There were American units in the Pacific that boasted of never taking captives. “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances,” he writes, “what group of men cannot?”



Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning have had a running dispute for some time. In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Goldhagen argues that the vast majority were complicit in the Holocaust because German political culture, developing over centuries, imbued in ordinary Germans a unique and virulent “eliminationist anti-Semitism”. According to Goldhagen, Germany had been “pregnant with murder” regarding the Jews since the mid-19th century and that all Hitler did was merely to unleash the deeply rooted murderous impulses that had been festering within the German people since at least Luther’s time. This was unique to Germany  and because of it, ordinary German conscripts killed Jews willingly.


Goldhagen disagreed with Browning’s argument that the killing carried out by Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 was done in the context of the ordinary sociological phenomenon of obedience to authority.  To Goldhagen, they were not “ordinary men”, but “ordinary members of an extraordinary political culture, the culture of Nazi Germany, which was possessed of a hallucinatory, lethal view of the Jews. That view was the mainspring of what was, in essence, voluntary barbarism.”


Goldhagen charged that every other book written on the Holocaust was flawed by the fact that historians had treated Germans in the Third Reich as “more or less like us,” wrongly believing that “their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own.”

The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw wrote, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” Other historians have used the term “passive complicity” but largely agreed with Kershaw that there was a chasm of opinion about the Jews between the Nazi “true believers” and the wider German public.


In Part 2, It Can’t Happen Here, I will examine whether the citizens of Nazi Germany were so different.

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