Otto Wels: A Moment In History

In any given year, every politician will probably make several dozen speeches. The vast majority of these will be forgotten instantly; even prime-time presidential speeches fade from the news cycle after a couple days. Indeed, history may only remember one out of the thousands of speeches given over a political leader’s term.

One such memorable speech was given by a Mr. Otto Wels. A German politician belonging to the Social Democratic Party, Mr. Wels spent more than a decade in politics and eventually became the party’s Chairman. He must have given a number of speeches throughout this time.

Yet out of all the time Mr. Wels spent as head of his party, history remembers only one speech of his. Today it is overshadowed in light of the great and terrible events that came after, but nevertheless worthy of recalling.

The date is March 1933, the place Germany’s parliament. The occasion: Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party are proposing an Enabling Act after unknown assailants burned down the Reichstag building last month. This will transfer all legislative powers to the executive under Mr. Hitler. It will make Germany a one-party dictatorship.

With Hitler’s armed Brown-shirts standing right there as voting takes place, the Enabling Act passes by a 4-to-1 margin. All the parties, save one, vote for it.

Last of all stand the Social Democrats, and to a man they vote against Hitler’s Enabling Act – right in front of the Nazi stormtroopers. Even today the party prides itself in its actions on that fateful day. Otto Wels moves up to make a speech assailing the Enabling Act – the only opposing speech that day. A translated transcript can be found here.

To be honest, it is not a particularly memorable speech. Mr. Wels spends much of it defending his party; at times the flow is quite jumpy. One almost gets the feeling that it is politics-as-usual, not a moment that will be frozen in history. Nevertheless, Wels gets off some good lines:

Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not our honor.

We stand by the principles enshrined in, the principles of a state based on the rule of law, of equal rights, of social justice. In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No Enabling Act gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible.

When Wels ends, there is chaos in the room. The Social Democrats applaud; Hitler’s supporters, who outnumber them, raise a cacophony booing.

Then Hitler himself gets up and launches an epic attack on the Social Democrats. It is a quite unforgettable response (one can listen to this speech; the first part is here, the second here, and the conclusion here):

We National Socialists will now clear the path for the German worker leading to what is his to claim and demand. We National Socialists will be his advocates; you, Gentlement, are no longer necessary!

You think that your star will rise again? Gentlemen, Germany’s star will rise and yours will fall!

Everything that becomes rotten, old, and weak in the life of a people disappears, never to return. Your death knell has sounded as well.

I do not even want you to vote for it. Germany will be liberated, but not by you!

On balance, Hitler’s speech is by far the more effective of the two. Unlike Wels, he has two clear themes: the German people and the wrongs done to Germany after WWI. He blames the Social Democrats for the latter and skillfully wields the card of German nationalism.

Moreover, Hitler has three advantages over Wels. Firstly he is a brilliant speaker, the best – perhaps – in German history. He is excited and angry, emotional and quite able to rouse an audience. To this day Germans are suspicious of politicians with impressive speaking skills.

Secondly, the Social Democrats had somewhat naively released copies of Mr. Wels’s speech to the media. It had then found its way to the Nazis, enabling them to pre-write a strong rebuttal.

Finally, Hitler has battalion of armed Nazi Brown-shirts in the room applauding his every word. Otto Wels was not so lucky.

Perhaps it is just, then, that history commemorates the words Otto Wels said that day and not those of Hitler. He was not a great speaker (that was Hitler), but he spoke for the side of justice. In the context of the times it was perhaps one of the bravest speeches ever spoken.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

 

Hitler the Politician

In modern society the name Adolf Hitler is synonymous for evil. As the perpetrator of the greatest crime of this century and its most destructive war, Mr. Hitler well deserves this reputation.

Yet too often in speaking of Adolf Hitler people forget the man and see only the legend he has become. Hitler, after all, gained power as a politician in a democratic Germany. He played the game of compromises, elections, and leverage that all politicians play. Indeed, Hitler was quite adept at politics; without his skill the National Socialists would have remained a fringe party like so many others

Take the Enabling Act of 1933, the law which effectively turned a semi-democratic Germany into a one-party dictatorship. It essentially shifted all power – the ability to make laws, most importantly – from the legislative Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) to Germany’s executive government (Hitler, in other words). One clause, for instance, read:

Treaties of the Reich with foreign states which affect matters of Reich legislation shall not require the approval of the bodies of the legislature. The government of the Reich shall issue the regulations required for the execution of such treaties.

In getting this law passed Hitler could not merely declare his will and have all Germany follow; there were still checks against his power at that time. Because the Enabling Act modified the Germany’s constitution, it required a two-thirds majority in parliament. At the time the Nazis only controlled 288 out of 647 seats (under semi-free elections taken during the same month of March). Moreover, the Social Democrats and Communists – which together held almost one-third of parliament’s seats – were adamantly opposed to the Enabling Act. If Hitler was to pass his law, he would have to tread a very fine needle.

Events, however, had provided a useful tool for Hitler to wipe out his political opposition. A month before, in February 1933, unidentified arsonists set fire to the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament (today many suspect the Nazis themselves as culpable). Placing blame on the Communist Party, Hitler had passed an emergency decree eliminating civil liberties. Communist representatives in parliament were summarily jailed, prevented from voting against the Enabling Act.

Several other factors helped Hitler. The influential Catholic Centre Party agreed to support the Enabling Act; in return Hitler promised to protect the Catholic Church. Intimation was present: on the day of the vote Nazi Brown-shirts surrounded the legislature, chanting “Give us the Enabling Act or there will be another fire!” A number were present inside the building, armed and in full uniform, as voting proceeded.

In the end, the vote was 441 in favor, 94 against. On March 23rd, 1933 the Reichstag voted itself out of existence.

All in all, the Hitler portrayed here is quite different from the evil caricature. One sees a clever and ruthless politician, not a madman. Watching Hitler the politician makes the myth more mundane, but it also paints a more accurate picture of events as they were.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

 

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