Translations:  Japanese Hungarian Lithuanian

William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is one of the most subtly horrific pieces of writing ever uttered. The single most chilling paragraph in a book that does not flinch from describing Nazi atrocities is this one:

On August 19, 1934, 95% of the Germans who were registered to vote went to the polls and 90% (38 million) of adult German citizens voted to give Adolf Hitler complete and total authority to rule Germany as he saw fit. Only 4.25 million Germans voted against this transfer of power to a totalitarian regime.

With this vote, the position of Führer as an amalgam of President and Chancellor — the elevation of Adolf Hitler to the status of dictator — was formally and democratically approved by the German people.

Hitler's program was not a secret; nor were the means he proposed to use. 90% of the people voted for Mein Kampf and the Nuremberg rallies and the repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles and Kristallnacht; the mandate was overwhelming.

Since I first published this essay, some people have cited Shirer to different effect, that Hitler actually gained supreme power by an act of the Reichstag on Match 23 1933, and was already dictator at the time of the 1934 elections. This is a quibble. The particular route by which Hitler was able to subvert the Weimar Republic's democracy is far less important than the simple fact that he was able to do so. In fact, accepting the argument that his coup was only supported by a minority of the German people would only make the conclusion of this essay sharper and more painful.

I do not find it surprising that establishment historians and political scientists have largely failed to confront these stark facts. For to do so would be to expose the shakiness of the assumptions that underly our own political system.

The Weimar Republic's 1934 elections wrote a grim and final epitaph for the theory that constitutional democracy is a reliable guardian of individual liberty, or even sufficient to prevent deliberate government genocide of its own citizens. The demonstration is given more point for Americans by the fact that the Weimar Republic's constitution was explicitly modelled on that of the United States.

The American form of constitutional democracy was invented by the founding fathers of the United States because all previous systems had been found wanting. The verdict of history since has agreed with Winston Churchill's epigram that democracy is a terrible form of government, but eight times better than any other.

But constitutional democracy itself is not proof against the short-sightedness and moral blindness of its own people. This is not a new insight; two centuries ago Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the book which effectively founded the modern study of history, found there its major theme.

What the willful self-destruction of Weimar Germany demonstrates is that the terminal instability of democracy is not a marginal or distant phenomenon. A modern, educated, civilized, and cosmopolitan people in the heart of the liberal West can — and will, at the behest of even a single, sufficiently skillful demagogue — surrender their liberty and condemn millions of innocent victims to mass death.

In doing so, it raises a trenchant question. If constitutional democracy has failed so catastrophically to solve the problem of government, what system possibly can?

No one has yet improved on Max Weber's definition of government as an organization claiming a monopoly on the licit first use of force in a specified geographic region. The question of good government reduces to this: who can be trusted to wield the first use of force wisely and morally?

We already knew that kings, priests, emperors, and autocrats of all kinds have failed this test, as have noble classes and other oligarchies. We know from the aftermaths of the French and other revolutions that the sovereign people, unchecked by constitutional restraint on their tribunes' use of force, can be fully as arbitrary and vicious as any tyrant.

The terrible lesson of Weimar Germany is that constitutional restraint doesn't work either. One does not actually need Weimar Germany to make this point; the history of the U.S. itself should be sufficient to demonstrate it, at least to anyone honest enough to admit that the Founding Fathers did not intend for us to suffer under the weight of a stifling regulatory bureacracy, a redistributionist welfare state, and the IRS. But Weimar makes a more persuasive example, because even those willing to defend the U.S. Government's escalating abuses of power will hardly defend Nazi Germany.

I struggled with this question for years after I read Shirer. It's one that throws all the central problems of politics and moral philosophy into simplifying relief. For reasonable men may differ on what positive goods governments should aim to secure for their citizens. Reasonable men may differ even on what sorts of catastrophe and deprivation governments should aim to prevent. But it is hard to see how any political arrangement that can condone the genocidal massacre of its own citizens can be considered acceptable or sane.

If no government is institutionally stable against the folly of its citizens, is ‘no government’ the only answer? Must we give up centralization of power entirely to prevent future Dachaus and Treblinkas? This is the anarchist prescription; if we cannot prevent all violence, at least we can deny would-be Hitlers the mass army, the machinery of state coercion, the social instruments of genocide.

The Founding Fathers of the United States thought they had found a way to successfully head off the degeneration of governments into pathological monstrosities: ensure that the people remain armed, and teach them that it is part of their duty as free citizens to check the arrogance of government — by threat of armed revolt or by actual revolution, if need be. Thomas Jefferson would have asked why the Jews and Gypsies of Germany allowed themselves to be disarmed by Nazi gun-confiscation laws without rising in revolt — and, more pointedly, why the soi-disant civilized nations of the world did not see the confiscation of civilian weapons as a sure harbinger of the Holocaust to come.

But, in the event, they were disarmed, and thus they had no recourse when the stormtroopers came to put them on the death trains. The fatal instability of constitutional democracy killed over twelve million people. And I see nothing intrinsic in the American system to prevent a future Holocaust. Especially not when many Americans seem bent on disarming their neighbors, and dismantling the very check that Jefferson and the other Founders were attempting to build into our system with the plain words of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

I am left with the bleak conclusion that no attempt to hold the arrogance of government in check will work — because a majority of the people themselves are too easily seduced into abandoning their own institutional protections against tyranny by the false promises and poisonous dreams of statist propaganda.

That is why I am an anarchist.