By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Most people are surprised to know that Adolf Hitler was never elected to any public office. Not chancellor, not mayor, not even dog catcher. He didn’t even start the Nazi party. He joined it in 1919 and became chairman in 1921, leading the party from then on.
After WWI, Germany was forced to switch from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy. Throughout the 1920s, the Nazis were a fringe party that garnered just 2 percent of the vote in the 1928 elections. But, thanks to the Smoot Hawley tariff passed by the U.S. Congress in 1930, which spread the Great Depression to Europe, the Nazi party garnered 37 percent of the vote in 1932 and became Germany’s largest Reichstag member.
Because of Hitler’s constant sniping and criticizing of President Paul von Hindenburg’s government, the administration decided they would rather have Hitler inside the tent urinating out than outside urinating in and, in January 1933, appointed him chancellor, a non-elected, managerial position that they thought they could control.
New parliamentary elections were set for March 5. On Feb. 27, the Reichstag burned down. Most historians believe that it was the Nazis who started the fire, but Hitler promptly claimed it was a terrorist attack by the Communists, Germany’s third-largest political party, and he persuaded President Hindenburg to issue a declaration of national emergency. That put Hitler on the road to supreme power.
The national emergency declaration gave Hitler the authority to take actions he deemed necessary to combat the terrorist threat and he used it to outlaw communists and quash critical media. Prior to the election, his Brownshirts terrorized the opposing political parties. Despite all of that, the Nazis still maxed out at 35 percent in the March elections.
Hitler’s next step was to present the Reichstag with an enabling resolution that would give the cabinet (essentially Hitler) the power to make laws without the Reichstag. Because the Communist party members were forbidden from attending the meeting and because the entire proceeding was surrounded by Hitler’s Brownshirts, the remaining members approved the resolution. Two years later, all Germans had to take an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. I think everyone knows what happened after that.
The U.S. Congress passed the National Emergency Act in 1976 giving American presidents the authority to declare a national emergency and take quick action in response to some rapidly developing problem. For example, George W. Bush used it in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Barack Obama to combat an outbreak of the Swine Flu. It’s been utilized 59 times in the last 43 years, none of them created any controversy. But that has now changed.
President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to fund the building of a couple hundred miles of wall along the 2,000-mile Mexican border. This, after trying to get Congress to allocate the funds unsuccessfully, essentially doing an end run around a co-equal branch of government and subverting the Constitution. Congress — both the House and the Senate — needs to push back.
If presidents are allowed to use national emergency powers to do things like build walls that are unneeded and unwanted by most Americans to fulfill campaign promises, where does this executive privilege stop? Could this or another president use it to suspend free speech, overturn election results or abolish Habeas Corpus?
If the Reichstag had responded swiftly and decisively in response to Hindenburg’s declaration 86 years ago, maybe Hitler would have been stopped in his tracks and all the misery that he brought upon the world could have been averted. Allowing an American president to declare a national emergency as a way to get around Congress opens Pandora’s box. Congress needs to stand up and protect the Constitution of these United States.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1997.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS