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.




Thank you, Mr. President.

How’s this for history? The first black President and the first female Speaker of the House just brought America’s health insurance system from the 19th century to the 21st century, doing what no politician before them was able to achieve.

The new law, while insuring 30 million and lowering the deficit, is not perfect. It does little to address cost containment. It contains a mandate without strong enough subsidies. The Medicare reimbursement issue persists. You might blame Barack Obama for these imperfections. You might say that had he shown more forceful leadership, he would have had a stronger bill. And you might be right. But consider this:

In 1993, President Clinton tried to pass health care reform, and didn’t even get a floor vote.

In 1974, President Nixon tried to pass health care reform, but couldn’t quite close the deal with the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson opted to pass Medicare rather than universal coverage, believing it more politically doable.

In 1945, President Truman, like Clinton, proposed universal health care but was unable to get a vote.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to pass universal health care, but thought it too politically unpopular and didn’t even try.

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt campaigned on the promise of universal health care and couldn’t even recapture the White House.

You can claim that the bill’s inadequacies are proof that President Obama failed to show true leadership on this issue, but history will tell you otherwise. He showed the courage that LBJ and FDR lacked, and his persistance did what Clinton, Nixon, and Truman were unable to do. I call that leadership.

Some things are worth losing over, and this is one of them. To last night’s 219 heroes and to President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid: thank you. This is the most important progressive victory since the Civil Rights movement. Sleep well knowing that whether you lose your next re-election or retire in 30 years, it was worth it.

2009 - The Year in Reading Open Thread

I'm curious to learn which books over the course of 2009 that the MyDD readership has read, enjoyed and might recommend.

I generally read two to three books at a time, a habit left over my graduate school days. Currently, I am reading Walter McDougall's Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828, a social history of the American people and the first volume in as yet incomplete trilogy. The second volume is Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 which I suspect will be next up. McDougall, a historian at Penn, attempts to identify the "uniqueness" of the American character. He argues that the creation of the United States is "the central event of the past 400 years." It's a bold thesis and his argument rests on that the United States was not just born of revolution but that it is one. Yet another theme that runs through the book is that while America is not a lie, it is a "disappointment" for though Americans are perhaps "freer" or at least freer to pursue happiness and yet all too often no happier than others and that we are but a restless nation of "hustlers" a group composed of "go-getters and rascals".

I am also reading The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism & the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 by Saul Cornell, a historian at Ohio State. I choose to read this book because I want to get at the roots of the Tea Party Movement. Suspicion of centralized authority has a long tradition in the US and the Anti-Federalists of the Founding Era were prolific writers and this volume looks at the various tenets upon which opposition to the Federal Government (and Hamiltonianism) rested. It's a good book for lawyers since increasingly legal scholars and the Supreme Court decisions quote Anti-Federalists like Richard Henry Lee and Elbridge Gerry, to whom we owe gerrymandering. Cornell argues that while the Federalists won the battle for the ratification of the US Constitution, it is the ideas of the Anti-Federalists that continue to define the soul of American politics.

The most recently completed book that I read was Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. The book won a Pultizer Prize and explores the character of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr. Wood, a historian at Brown, writes with clarity and the book is eminently enjoyable. He praises Washington especially for being conscious that he was setting precedents with almost every move. Wood, rightly I think, views Hamilton as having the deepest legacy of any the Founders. As Ron Chernow has noted, Alexander Hamilton is the "Father of the Federal Government" and his model of a fiscal-military state endures despite the deep aversion to central authority found in our politics. If the Founders were return to observe how we have evolved, Wood argues that only Hamilton would be largely pleased. The other aspect of this book that I enjoyed was Wood's take on the role of the Founders in creating what we today call publick opinion. The Revolution began as a rather aristocratic affair but over the course of 1780s and the 1790s a broader social revolution took place where the vox populi made its presence felt.

Earlier in the year, I had read Wood's newly published Empire of Liberty: The History of the Early Republic 1789-1815 that traced the development of the American institutions we now take for granted but were then nothing but uncertain. He details how Americans went from "subjects to citizens" and how quickly the spread of a political consciousness developed among Americans. Woods recounts the intensely partisan battles of the 1790s, the development of the Federalist program led by Alexander Hamilton and the counter-attack led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed that Hamilton's strong central government was a betrayal of the principles of the American Revolution.

There's more...

Twenty Years Later

NBC News is commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall by sending Tom Brokaw back to Berlin and posting his entire broadcast from November 9, 1989, as well as some documentary clips, on its website. Here is the first of twelve clips from and about that astonishing night.

A very interesting Washington Postpiece from USC Prof. Mary Elise Sarotte last month suggested that the whole event was a complete accident. What happened, in short, is that a bureaucrat misinterpreted his notes at the end of a long and boring press conference and unwittingly said the Wall was open; journalists jumped on it and reported the story; and East Germans flooded the checkpoints before Soviet officials had the chance to wake up and correct the situation. By the time the official apparatus was apprised, it was too late to change the flow of society.

At the Bornholmer Street border-crossing station in East Berlin, guard Harald Jäger, on the job since 1964, had watched Schabowski on television. Dumbfounded by the remarks, he told his fellow guards that the official's words were "deranged," and he started calling around. His superiors assured him that travel remained blocked, and he and his colleagues were armed as always.

But soon Jäger and his team were busy waving back some would-be crossers who had heard the western reports... Before long, the guards at Bornholmer Street were outnumbered by thousands of people; the same thing was happening at several other checkpoints. Overwhelmed and worried for their own safety, Jäger and his fellow guards reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable. They decided instead at around 9 p.m. to let a trickle of people cross the border, hoping to ease the pressure and calm the crowd. The guards would check each person individually, take notes and penalize the rowdiest by refusing them reentry. They managed to do this for a while, but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, "Open the gate, open the gate!"

This is where we were just twenty years ago. It is truly amazing how fast politics and life can change.

There's more...

True Origins of the Religious Right

I think you'll enjoy this lecture given at Emory University (Atlanta's 'little Ivy') and memorialized on YouTube, and you might even want to bookmark it in the event that you ever have a discussion with a Religious Conservative about the origins of their political movement. Stick it out to minute 10, and I think you'll stay for the whole thing (35 minutes).

There's more...


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