Plebiscite ploy

Flag - Rainbow Flying-

Malta last week became the latest in an increasingly long list of countries to legalise marriage equality. Catholic conservativism has been upturned. Malta is 91 percent Catholic. And the parliamentary vote was an overwhelming 66 to 1. Spain has a Catholic population of 77 percent and marriage equality. Ireland has a Catholic population of 88 percent and marriage equality. Australia has a Catholic population of 25 percent and doesn’t have marriage equality. So much for Catholicism as an indicator of conservatism.

But it’s so-called conservatives – some of whom are Catholic and others who subscribe to its ethos – in the federal government who don’t want everyone to have the same rights as they enjoy.

Legislators’ role is to represent people and vote on legislation. Australian legislators have abdicated that responsibility when it comes to marriage equality.

The policy of the Liberal/National Party government is to have a plebiscite. Let the people decide, they say. The people didn’t decide in 2004 that marriage could be only be between a man and a woman. The Liberal/National government did – without a plebiscite.

Plebiscite proponents can’t explain what’s changed. The vote would cost $A160 million ($US125). Worse, marriage equality opponents say they won’t be bound by the decision. In other words, they won’t respect the result of the poll, for which they argue, if it doesn’t produce the result they want. It would be the world’s most expensive plebiscite.

There was a plebiscite in Ireland. Co-leader of the ‘yes’ campaign, Dr Grainne Healy, campaign has warned of damaging consequences. Sure, everyone would be able to have their say, including the haters and the unhinged. We’ve already seen here and here what they have in mind.

The disconnect between the Australian government and the people it purports to represent is clear. Most Australians want marriage equality. And most want the parliament to decide; 41 percent say it should be this year.

The intransigence of so-called misnamed ‘conservatives’ want the plebiscite. They think it wouldn’t be passed and even if it was, the legislation wouldn’t be passed by the two houses of Parliament.

The Alternative Prime Minister, Bill Shorten, says a Labor government would introduce the legislation in the first 100 days. Labor’s no trailblazer on this. A former Labor leader, a ‘left-winger’, Julia Gillard, effectively blocked the proposal when she was Prime Minister. Astonishing really, considering she was in a defacto relationship, an atheist and owed her pre-selection to left-wing members who supported marriage equality.

Despite warnings from discriminators who want to continue to deny the right of everyone who loves each other to marry, the sky hasn’t fallen in, the sun continues to rise and the earth continues to turn. At least that’s what happened in Catholic Malta where marriage equality became law last week, Catholic Spain and Catholic Ireland, to name just three.

Australia has stopped being a lot of things in recent decades, including a fair, equal and respectful society that aspired to the highest common denominator rather than the lowest. But that’s the way the so-called ‘conservatives’ want it and at the moment they have the all-important power in parliament.

Identity created

Gay Berlin - Cover

Germany is known for many achievements. More recently the country has made international headlines for legalising same-sex marriage. Germany was the birthplace of modern gay identity. As in so many things, Germans were at the forefront of thinking. Robert Beachy tells the story of the history and evolution of gay identity in this book.

Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, isn’t just an excellent academic assessment of the effects of the infamous Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code that criminalised homosexuality. It’s an entertaining, enlightening and interesting history of Germany from the late 1880s.

Beachy writes with the fluency of a novelist and the depth of an academic. Germany is known for many achievements. Just last week the country made international headlines for legalising same-sex marriage. Beachy argues Germany was the birthplace of modern gay identity. Germans were at the forefront of sexual thinking, as they are in so many endeavours.

Beachy doesn’t dwell on the persecution of LGBTI people by the Nazis or the horror they endured in concentration camps and death camps. This isn’t a story of victims. It’s an objective account of the development of a sub-culture.

Dr Magnus Hirschfeld had a key role in that story. The man who has been called the Einstein of sex was a pioneer in sexual science and politics who founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, in Berlin in 1897. He founded the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919 – almost 30 years before the famous Dr Alfred Kinsey’s US sex research institute.

Dr Hirschfeld was at the forefront of the push to repeal Paragraph 175 that criminalised homosexuality. The reformers almost succeeded in 1929 before the Wall Street crash wrecked the German economy and paved the way for the Nazis to wreck the country and Europe. Dr Hirschfeld was one of the first to argue sexual orientation is genetic and not a choice. He fled Nazi Germany in 1934.

Berlin in the 1920s was famous for its art, culture and relaxed attitude to sex and sexuality.  Famous people such as Christopher Isherwood helped make the city a gay honeypot. The closet door may have been opened but behind closed doors, plenty had been going on for decades. Many gay men were married and in elite positions. The Kaiser’s court was known, and resented, for its gay influence.

In the first decade of the 20th century there were scandals. Beachy coverage reads like a salacious novel.
 One of those scandals involved one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s closest friends, Philipp Prince zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld. He denied he was gay, twice on oath in court. He was later found guilty of perjury when male lovers testified against him.

One of the book’s themes is the exploration of the origins of sexual orientation. The Einstein of sex, Magnus Hirschfeld, was a pioneer in sexual science and politics who founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, in Berlin in 1897. He founded the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919 – 30 years before the famous Dr Alfred Kinsey’s US sex research institute. Hirschfeld was one of the first to argue sexual orientation is genetic and not a choice. He fled Nazi Germany in 1934.

He was at the forefront of the push to repeal Paragraph 175 that criminalised homosexuality. The reformers almost succeeded in 1929 before the Wall Street crash wrecked the German economy and paved the way for the Nazis to wreck the country and Europe.

Gay Berlin is a valuable addition to the German and gay history canon. It’s a must for anyone interested in Germany from its 1871 formation.


Mission accomplished

NLK - newspaper front pageGermans got a prelude to the madness in store for them on 29 June 1934. Between 6am and 7am that morning, the Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, weapon drawn, charged up the stairs of the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee. His quarry: the head of the Nazi party’s paramilitary storm troopers, Ernst Röhm and his suspected co-conspirators. The Chancellor of Germany is the head of government, the equivalent of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Canada and Australia. An armed Theresa May, Justin Trudeau or Malcolm Turnbull charging up the stairs of a hotel with murder on their mind is incomprehensible.

But it was comprehensible in Germany in the summer of 1934. The tinderbox state of the Germany polity throughout 1932 persisted, despite Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on 30 January 1933. Germany’s transformation from a model democracy to a detestable tyranny happened in three stages. The final – the bloodiest, and a portend of things to come – was what Hitler himself called the Night of the Long Knives. The second stage was the passing of the Enabling Act on 23 March 1933; the first was Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on 30 January 1933.


By the time the Night of the Long Knives – also known as Operation Hummingbird or the Röhm-Putsch – ended, between 150 and 200 people had been murdered. The contributing causal factors:

  1. Hitler’s fear.
  2. Stormtroopers’ power. The stormtroopers, also known as the Sturm Abteilung, SA for short, had three million members in 1934.
  3. Powerful interests.
  4. A speech by the deputy chancellor, Franz von Papen.

Hitler feared he would be overthrown. To prevent it, he divided and ruled. He encouraged his most powerful lieutenants to compete with each other. They were the President of the Reichstag, Minister for Prussia, and Minister for Aviation, Hermann Göring; Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels; head of the paramilitary SS, Heinrich Himmler; and head of the SA, Röhm. Despite the competition among each other, Göring, Goebbels and Himmler were united in their hatred of Röhm. He had a long-standing friendship with Hitler. He had persuaded the army to give money to the Nazis in the party’s early days. It’s unlikely the party would have become established without the money. And Röhm was instrumental in debilitating the opposition in the elections of 1932 and 1933. Besides the personal connection to Hitler, Röhm had the potential to get rid of his opponents and was far more powerful than them by virtue of the three million stormtroopers he commanded.

Göring and Himmler asked one of Himmler’s stooges, Reinhard Heydrich, to assemble a dossier on RöhmHeydrich made up evidence that suggested the French had paid Röhm 12 million marks to overthrow Hitler.

At about this time, the third factor – powerful interests –intensified their efforts. One of those interests was the army, Reichswehr.  The Treaty of Versailles, the settlement that ended the Great War, limited the army to 100,000 men but its leadership, dominated by proud aristocratic Prussians, wanted to expand. Röhm had made it known he thought the Reichswehr was “antiquated”. He talked about the second wave of the Nazi revolution in which the Reichswehr would be absorbed into the SA to become the “people’s army”.

Other powerful interests were industrialists. Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen, and Emile Kirdorf had funded the Nazi victory. They opposed Röhm’s socialist views and his talk of another revolution. And they disapproved of homosexuality. Röhm and many other SA leaders were gay. Gay storm troopers terrorised and arrested gay men. The hypocrisy is stupefying.

The fourth factor was not intentional. The  contribution of hapless diletante deputy Chancellor and confidante of President Hindenburg, Franz von Papen, below,  was unwitting.


Papen warned against revolutionary ferment in a speech at the University of Marburg just 12 days before the Night of the Long Knives. The speech was drafted by one of Papen’s close advisors, Edgar Julius Jung, who was helped by Papen’s secretary Herbert von Bose and another staffer, Erich Klausener. The short-term consequences were fatal, though not for the unprincipled aristocrat; in the long-term it worked in his favour.

Hitler was furious when he heard about the speech and asked Goebbels to suppress it. Despite the propaganda minister’s efforts, the speech was reported by some German and foreign media. Papen told Hitler he was speaking as a “trustee” of President Hindenburg but resigned anyway. The ailing 86-year-old president – who detested Hitler – was enraged when he found out about Papen’s resignation. Hindenburg gave Hitler an ultimatum: end the disorder or be replaced by an army representative.

Blood on KnifeAftermath

Jung, Bose and Klausener were murdered during the Night of the Long Knives. Papen was arrested but released on 3 July. On 26 July, he accepted the appointment by Hitler – his associates’ indirect murderer – of Ambassador to Austria. Papen served in diplomatic positions until Germany’s defeat. He was tried at Nuremberg and found not guilty of war crimes. But the Tribunal’s words are worth quoting: “The Charter does not make criminal such offences against political morality, however bad these may be.”

The Nazis spun the murderous purge as the successful prevention of a coup. In a radio broadcast on 2 July he said Hitler had narrowly prevented Röhm and Schleicher, Hitler’s immediate predecessor as chancellor, from overthrowing the government. Hitler wanted to make sure the purge was legally sanctioned. On 3 July cabinet approved: “The measures taken on June 30, July 1 and 2 to suppress treasonous assaults are legal as acts of self-defence by the State.”

On 13 July, Hitler justified the purge in a nationally broadcast speech to the Reichstag in which he confirmed he was judge, jury and executioner. He said 68 stormtroopers were killed, three suicided.

“If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this. In this hour, I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence – which depends on its internal order and security – cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.”

And so it was.

Hitler’s takeover of the President’s role was a formality after Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934. Nothing stood in his way. Later that year, Hitler’s power was reinforced further. The Defence Minister, Werner von Blomberg, changed the oath of allegiance from country and people to Hitler. The change was apparently not imposed by Hitler who was surprised by it. Blomberg’s intent was to strengthen the bond between Hitler and the military and away from the Nazi Party. Blomberg later admitted that he didn’t consider the oath’s long-term consequences. No doubt people like Papen were thinking the same thing about their actions in 1932 when they failed to stop Hitler gaining power. But it was too late. Hitler’s mission of attaining absolute power was accomplished.



Contemptible ministers


An apology is better late than never. But sometimes the damage done wouldn’t have been as great if the apology had been earlier. Three Australian Government ministers apologised yesterday for egregious comments they made on 13 June about judges of the Australian state of Victoria’s highest court. The trio are the Health Minister, Greg Hunt; the Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge; and the Assistant Treasurer, Michael Sukkar. Hunt accused the Victorian Court of Appeal of  “ideological experimenting”, Tudge, said the judges were  “divorced from reality”, and Sukkar alleged the judges were ”hard-left activists”. So what, you may think.

Politicians make inflammatory statements to get attention, judges are upset, politicians apologise, we move on. And we do. But damage has been done. It is yet another attack on our system of government. These ministers insulted the judges and cast doubt on their integrity. It was yet another denigration of the institutions that underpin our democracy. Yet another blow that provides more proof for disillusioned people’s prejudices. Yet another wedge that widens the gap between “the people” and “elites”.

The story was published in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday, 13 June. The court required the trio or a representative to appear “to make any submissions as to why they should not be referred for prosecution for contempt”. The Australian solicitor general, Dr Stephen Donaghue, QC, represented them at taxpayers’ expense at a hearing on Friday, 16 June. The ministers declared their respect for the court and the independence of the judiciary and “withdrew” the comments. That is disingenuous as there had been three days of widespread media coverage and debate. The ministers didn’t apologise that Friday. It took another week.

There’s a couple of points worthy of note:

  1. None of the ministers’ portfolio responsibilities include terrorism, the judiciary or courts.
  2. The ministers’ comments were unsolicited.

The trio made the most of an opportunity to score political points. Of course, they would; they are politicians and that’s what politicians do. But there are limits. One of them is damaging the system of which they are part. And that’s what troubles me.

Our system of government is based on the United Kingdom’s Westminster system. The Separation of Powers is integral to that system. The legislative branch enacts the laws and decides how public money will be spent; the executive branch implements and administers the public policy enacted and funded by the legislative branch; and the judicial branch interprets the laws. It ensures a check on power. Each component is free to discharge its role.

Our system of government isn’t damaged – yet. But it will be if there are more attacks. Political systems are never overturned by one act or one cause. It’s always the culmination of damaging events. This has been one of them.



Cynical gamble failed


She’s Brenda from Bristol. She became an internet sensation thanks to British Prime Minister Theresa May. “You’re joking, not another one,” she told a BBC TV reporter when asked her reaction on 18 April to the snap election. “There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”

She didn’t. She had a majority of 17. British voters voted to leave the EU less than a year ago. It was a win for the older generation who yearned for a return to the 1950s. But the decision made, people expected the government to get on with leaving Europe.

Calling the election three years early was nothing to do with providing “strong and stable” government and getting a mandate for a strong Brexit. It was everything to do with taking advantage of the opinion polls. May’s cynical gamble gave politically disillusioned voters another reason for their anger.

The opinion polls showed Tory support was maintained up to a few days before the only poll that matters. The Labour Party was in disarray. Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular. The party’s move to the left was considered a vote loser. The Tories hoped it would be 1983 all over again when Labour was led by left-winger Michael Foot. The Tories won an extra 47 seats, giving it a majority of 145.

In 2017, the Tories lost 13 seats, leaving it eight short of a majority. Labour won an extra 30 seats giving it 262. May’s government is looking anything but “strong and stable”. Not so Labour. The party is stronger because of the election and more stable because Corbyn’s critics will be silenced. The critics include former Labour cabinet ministers David Miliband and Ed Balls, and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. One of their main complaints was Labour could not win with Corbyn as leader.

Well, he didn’t win the election but he has proven he is not a vote loser. A swing of 9.5 per cent is significant. And the Labour vote with him as leader was more than in 2015 and 2005 when Ed Miliband and Tony Blair, respectively, were the leaders.

May has created instability within her party and is weak. She hasn’t got the strong hand she wanted to negotiate Britain’s departure from the EU. This time, young people made their voice heard. The turnout for 18- to 24-year-olds was 66.4 percent, up from 43 percent two years ago. And most of them voted Labour.

Theresa May’s cynical gamble has irreparably damaged her. She won’t last in the job.

We don’t know what Brenda thinks of the result. She wasn’t talking to reporters when they called.


New model needed

Fairfax Mastheads

Investigative journalists are justice crusaders. But they’re in danger of becoming victims of traditional media’s decline. And if it happens, one of democracy’s pillars will be weaker. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Kate McClymont is one of those crusaders. Her work led to the jailing of two former New South Wales Labor government ministers.

Ian Macdonald was found guilty in March of misconduct in public office. He was jailed yesterday for 10 years. He cannot apply for parole for seven years. Macdonald’s cabinet colleague and friend, Eddie Obeid, is serving a five-year jail term. Corruption was also the reason for his downfall.

Quality media supports investigative journalism which is expensive. Advertising, especially classified advertising, funded it. But along came Facebook and Google and away went the advertising. Kate McClymont works for the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s owned by Fairfax Media subject to a takeover bid. Investigative journalists like Kate McClymont are an endangered species throughout the world. We have to do what we can to protect them. In so doing, we are protecting democracy and our way of life. Investigative journalists are a bulwark against tyranny.

Monash University media academic Ben Eltham has a solution, albeit controversial. His idea is for Australia but it is applicable elsewhere. He advocates taxing Google and Facebook 25 percent of their domestic advertising revenue. The money would fund quality journalism. The multi-national digital giants must be responsible to those who buy their advertising. Some journalists have started news-sites and are continuing their important work. And there are news sites not owned by traditional media.

The Conversation is an international success linking academic expertise to a mainstream audience. The most powerful nation on earth’s leader is incapable of the doing the job. The need for those in public office to be held to account is greater than ever. Investigative journalists are needed more than ever. Ben Eltham’s idea should be trialled. In the meantime, support the great work independent journalists are doing online. By doing so you’re supporting democracy. Among Australia’s sites are:

Game on

New French president Emmanuel Macron has won the election. Let’s hope he wins forthcoming challenges as convincingly. They include:

  1. Fighting apathy. Thirty percent of the electorate didn’t vote. It was the lowest turnout in more than 40 years.
  2. National Assembly elections next month.
  3. Quelling the anger of the far right.

Macron’s win is phenomenal. He is the first candidate for the presidency never to have run for public office before. He founded his party, En Marche, in April last year. His only experience in government two years as an economics minister. And he will be the Fifth republic’s youngest president.

His meteoric rise shows the extent of people’s disillusionment with the major parties. And it’s indicative of the move away from the left/right divide that has characterised politics for centuries. He is emblematic of the new dichotomy defined by former British PM Tony Blair as open versus closed. The former is Macron’s approach: open, outward looking, global; and a mix of pro-business, socially progressive policies. The latter is Le a Penn/Trump/Brexit approach: protectionism, closed borders and a yearning for the past.

The move away from left/right is partly caused by the failure in the US, UK and France of both to deliver what they promised. The French election turnout of 65 percent is low. Macron needs to reach and engage the 30 percent who stayed away from the polls. Disillusionment with the “system” can lead to support for extremism which undermines democracy.

The second challenge is the elections next month. Elections to for 577 members of the 15th National Assembly will be on 11 and 18 June. Macron will have to rely on the support of Republicans and Socialists to implement his agenda.

Thirdly, Macron will have to quell the anger of Le Pen supporters. She has made clear her intention to broaden her neo-fascist movement. Macron’s difficult task is to find a way for people not to want to vote for the latest version of Le Pen’s vehicle she hopes will deliver her power.

Macon’s victory is for France and Europe. France is the cradle of the Enlightenment. Former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand said the country was the “champion of the rights of the citizen”, referring to the French as “the sons of the French Revolution”. Republican president Jacques Chirac said, “France is custodian of a vision, of values, of a humanist ideal”.

Marine Le Penn was a threat to those great ideals. She may have softened her language in an attempt to appear more moderate but French voters rejected her. Let us hope they continue to.


Democracy endangered 


Australia’s second biggest media company dealt a blow to democracy on World Press Freedom Day.

The next day, 4 May, Facebook announced its revenue for the quarter to 31 March rose 49% to $8.03 billion.

The sacking of 125 journalists by Fairfax Media is the latest in a plethora of editorial staff cuts at the company. It’s not alone. Media companies throughout the western world have been cutting editorial staff for the past 15 years.

The advertising model that sustained newspapers was destroyed by internet advertising. And then along came Facebook. Traditional media’s advertising loss has been Facebook’s gain. And what a gain. Facebook’s global advertising revenue of $36.29 billion this year is exceeded only by Google, according to forecasting firm eMarketer.

The demolition of traditional media companies like Fairfax that produced quality content isn’t just bad news for newspapers. It’s bad news for our democracy. Each round of cuts diminishes the quality of the media. Fairfax journalists’ seven-day strike shows how strongly they feel.  Journalists are often criticised for sensationalism, getting it wrong and aggression. But they provide a fundamental and valuable service by holding people to account. People like former NSW ministers Eddie Obeid and his crook colleague Ian Macdonald wouldn’t have been brought to justice if it hadn’t been for the exemplary investigative journalism of Fairfax’s Kate McClymont.

It’s not the end of quality journalism. But the future doesn’t look good. Each time the number of journalists holding to account those with power is reduced democracy is diminished. And that benefits those who would do damage.

Turkish democracy RIP

Voting concept - Ballot box painted into national flag colors - TurkeyDemocracy is the worst form of government, British statesman and war-time leader Winston Churchill said, “except for all the others.” Democracy died in Turkey yesterday. The yes vote in the referendum to extend presidential powers was won 51.3% to 48.6%. But it was much more than that. It was a decision to abandon the modern state established on 29 October 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, or “Father Turk”. His vision was a western-style Turkey in which the legislators represented the sovereignty of the people.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vision is for Turkey to become the leader of the Muslim world in which its partners will be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia. The president will represent the sovereignty of the people.

This dramatic and fundamental change is another alarming turn to the extreme right  in Europe. Europe has been there before. And the results still reverberate throughout the world.

Erdoğan used a time-honoured grab for power by couching his arguments in the guise of strengthening the country to ward off threats. His ruling party, the Justice and Development Party or AKP, argued the changes were nothing more than a typical executive presidency, with the head of state doubling as head of government, just like the United States.  A report by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission found “little resemblance” between Erdoğan’s proposals and the US.

The 18 approved proposals transfer power from the legislature, the Grand National Assembly, to the President. The Assembly will become an advisory group. Turkey will no longer be a democracy.

There are parallels to Hitler’s rise to power and consolidation of it. I am not saying Erdoğan is like Hitler or that the AKP are Nazis. I am saying there are similarities in method.

There has been a state of emergency in Turkey since the failed coup attempt on 15 July last year. Hitler claimed the fire that destroyed the legislature, the Reichstag, was part of a plot to overthrow his month-old government. A state of emergency was declared on 28 February 1933. The Nazis blamed the Communists who admitted lighting the fire. But there is argument about whether or not the Nazis were involved.

Erdoğan blamed the coup on US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. He denies involvement. The state of emergency prevented the opposition from campaigning freely against the proposed changes. Germany’s opposition parties were also muzzled.

Since the Turkish coup:

  • A sweeping purge left no government institution untouched.
  • More than 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed for their alleged ties to the Fethullah Gulen’s movement.
  • More than 80 journalists languish in prison for questioning AKP policy.
  • Dozens of media outlets have been taken over by the government.
  • Reports of maltreatment and even torture are common.
  • An opposition pro-Kurdish party has been decimated by anti-terrorism action.
  • Hundreds of defamation lawsuits have been brought against individuals who “insulted” the president.

The 18 approved proposals to change the constitution include:

  • The presidency will no longer be a non-partisan largely ceremonial role above the political fray. The incumbent will be head of government, head of state and head of the ruling party.
  • The office of the prime minister will be abolished and replaced with the president supported by vice-presidents.
  • The President will be able to:
    • Appoint cabinet ministers without requiring a confidence vote from parliament
    • Propose budgets
    • Appoint more than half the members of the nation’s highest courts.
    • Dissolve the national assembly and impose states of emergency.
  • It will be harder for the General Assembly to remove the president from office or bring down his government with a vote of no confidence.

Turkey’s opposition parties say they will challenge the referendum result. Their efforts are likely to be in vain given Erdoğan’s dominance. History has innumerable examples of unrestrained power. Turkey’s president now has it. Minority groups, AKP opponents and supporters of democracy will be oppressed. The stability of Europe and the world is now less certain.

Enabling distress

Enabling Act - Storm Trropers Outside.jpg

A devastating blow was dealt to Germany’s fledgling and fragile democracy on 24 March 84 years ago. The German legislature voted away its power by supporting the Law to Remedy the Distress of the People Bill (Enabling Act). The law caused devastating distress. It gave the Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, unchecked power. He could pass laws without parliamentary approval, even if they were against the Constitution. The Enabling Act was the second nail in the coffin of German democracy[1].

The vote

The Nazis wanted its grab for power to be officially sanctioned and so needed the Reichstag’s (legislature) support. That’s why one of Hitler’s first actions after his ascension to the Chancellorship was to schedule elections for 5 March. The Nazis orchestrated the campaign’s tinderbox atmosphere. The fear of a Communist revolution was created. And Hitler was portrayed as the country’s saviour, the only person who could stop it.

Fire destroyed the Reichstag on Monday, 27 February, the week of the election. The Nazis blamed the Communists. A State of Emergency was declared the next day. Heavily armed security forces patrolled public buildings. Police patrolled trains, searching for “suspicious” people. “Brown shirt” storm troopers, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, patrolled the streets and instigated brawls. They broke up political meetings and beat up candidates and supporters.

The pressure on non-Nazi legislators was relentless, even on the day of the vote. The Reichstag session was held at the Kroll Opera House. Storm troopers were around the building on the day of the vote yelling: “Full powers – or else. We want the bill – or fire and murder”. Storm troopers lined the aisles where the vote would take place. A legislature’s chamber is hallowed ground. Imagine armed uniformed soldiers on the floor of the House of a Representatives in the US or  Australia or the the House of Commons in the UK or Canada.

The legislation considered that March day  was a constitutional change requiring a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag. The vote was 441 for, 84 against. Almost one in five Reichstag members – 122 of the 647 – was absent for what was arguably the chamber’s most important vote in its history. Twenty-six of the 120 SPD members were either in jail or hiding.

Of those there, the SPD members were the only ones who had the courage to oppose which contrasted with the cowardice of the Catholic Centre Party. The party’s members prevaricated until the day before the vote. Former Chancellor, dilettante, Franz von Papen, led government negotiations. Hitler became involved in the final days. The party agreed to support the Bill in return for guarantees of religious freedom. A letter confirming the agreement was promised.

Party Leader -Ludwig Kaas - Centre Pty 1933.jpg

Hitler didn’t deliver the letter. The Centre Party delivered the votes. The party’s leader, a priest, Ludwig Kaas, above, doubted Hitler’s word. Kaas reportedly said: “On the one hand we must preserve our soul, but on the other hand a rejection of the Enabling Act would result in unpleasant consequences for fraction and party. What is left is only to guard us against the worst. Were a two-thirds majority not obtained, the government’s plans would be carried through by other means.”

Perhaps the Nazis would’ve achieved what it wanted “by other means”. Perhaps the SPD thought that. But it didn’t accept the priest’s unprincipled position. Centre Party support for the Bill before the vote was not unanimous. Former Chancellors Heinrich Brüning and Joseph Wirth and former minister Adam Stegerwald did not support the party’s position but fell into line on the day of the vote. Thus, a Christian political party supported anti-Christian legislation.

Party Leader -Otto Wells - SPD.jpg

The only speaker against the proposed Act was the SPD leader Otto Wells, above, despite:

  • Two months of assault, imprisonment and intimidation of party supporters and members.
  • The intimidating presence of storm troopers inside and outside the building on the day of the vote.
  • His party outnumbered five to one.

Wells spoke in support of the rule of law, equal rights and social justice.

“In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism.”

Then he spoke directly to Hitler: “No Enabling Act gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible. After all, you yourselves have professed your adherence to Socialism. The Socialist Law has not destroyed social democracy. German social democracy will draw new strength also from the latest persecutions.”

Hitler’s speech included many appeals to the Centre Party. Much of it from what the party asked in negotiations. The government would work for the “political purification of our public life”. There would be a “moral purging” of the body politic. The government wanted “an honest coexistence between Church and State”. It would fight against a “materialist view of the world”. A genuine community “equally serves both the interests of the German nation and the welfare of our Christian faith”.

Hitler pledged restraint. “The government will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures … The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one.”

The Upper House, the Reichsrat, unanimously passed the Bill on 24 March. It was signed into law by President Paul von Hindenburg later that day.

What it enabled

The Bill’s length was in direct disproportion to its impact. There were five articles:

  1. The government can make laws, including those affecting financial matters.
  2. Laws don’t have to comply with the Constitution, thus rendering it irrelevant.
  3. The Chancellor will announce laws in the government gazette.
  4. Treaties the government makes with other countries won’t need approval.
  5. The Act is effective from the day of its proclamation.


The Act rendered the Reichstag irrelevant. It was no longer originated or considered legislation. It met a few more times before the end of the Second World War for Hitler to make speeches about foreign policy mainly for international audiences.

The Enabling Act was initially adopted for four years but was extended in 1937, 1939 and 1943. It was the basis of all legislation throughout the Nazi dictatorship and abolished after the capitulation by Law No 1 of the Allied Control Council on 20 September 1945. The Enabling Act resulted in the:

  • Criticism of the government becoming a crime.
  • Banning of political parties, except the Nazis, on 14 July 1933.
  • Establishment of a new ”state security” force, the Gestapo, on 26 April 1933. It immediately began arresting “unreliable” people. They were sent to Dachau, the first concentration camp that opened on 22 March 1933.
  • Banning of trade unions.
  • Further cutrailment of freedom of the press.

The first of more than 400 regulations and laws that persecuted Jews were enacted. Jews were first banned from:

  • Teaching
  • Going to university
  • Working in the civil service, the media and military
  • Owning businesses.

Books by Jewish authors were banned, thus some of the greatest intellectual contributions of the 20th century were prohibited [2]. Authors included Karl MarxSigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Germany’s population in 1933 was about 67 million of which less than 0.75 percent, 505,000, were Jewish. About 320,000 Jews emigrated by 1939, including Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. They were lucky.

Not long after the passing of the Enabling Act, Britain’s Ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, wrote: “We are living in a country (Germany) where fanatics, hooligans and eccentrics have got the upper hand.”


[1] The other two of the three events that destroyed democracy were the Reichstag Decree of 28 February 1933 and the third The Night of the Long Knives purge from 29 to 30 June 1934.

[2] An officially-sanctioned book burning was held on 8 April 1933, the 300th anniversary of the posting of Lutheran Church founder Martin Luthers Ninety-Five Theses.