Another rally? Perhaps that could have been the cynical response in Nuremberg, Germany between 1923 and 1938. During a 15-year period, the Nazi Party typically held an annual rally as a show of force and power. The events stirred citizens into a frenzy of support for a narcissistic leader who was never able to win the popular vote in the 1932 German presidential elections.
Looking back, there is no doubt that Hitler craved attention and adoration. It did not matter that he brought his country to the brink of utter destruction and murdered millions, so long as there were screaming crowds everywhere he went.
Twenty years ago, a law professor in an ethics class challenged his students to an uncomfortable and sometimes unpopular task. He asked us to defend — in a strictly legal sense — the killing of Jews in 1930s and 40s Germany because it was not illegal pursuant to German law. The premise of the class was that as one law stripped German Jews (and other so-called undesirables) of rights and citizenship, another decriminalized the killing of non-citizens.
Hence, despite the immoral acts of the Nazis, no crimes were committed in executing 6 million Jews and 5 million others during the Holocaust.
Of course, Hitler did not act alone. The German Reichstag — well stocked with Nazi party members — and the German judiciary were both complicit in assuring that the premeditated genocide was carried out.
It took less than a political lifetime for Germany to collapse from a people’s democracy to a dictatorship of racism and hatred.
Since World War II and the Holocaust, scholars have dedicated collective centuries of research and discussion to the question of what went wrong in depression-era Germany. They have examined Hitler’s youth; analyzed economic conditions; developed perfect historical “recipes” for the disaster; and focused on the Nuremberg Rallies and others as a manipulative tool in Hitler’s Germany.
However, sometimes “Look at ME!” boils down to something much simpler than analytic rubrics are programmed to assess. It is very easy not to see what is going on off stage when the magician is making flames shoot from his hand. The teacher may not see the test answers being stolen when two students are arguing by the water fountain. And a nation may be blind to illicit governmental activity when the entire country is focused on the bright lights of a rally.
I am not personally against rallies. Public events can be fun displays, but I always ask myself one question before all others: “Why?” A rally must serve more of a purpose than a diversion from either reality or covert activity. When repeated without cause or reason, my suspicions rise and I become the kind of person who attends the rally, but does not focus on it.
As rally popularity grows, it may be easy for watchdogs — like the judiciary and press — to become dazzled like the public can be by the spectacle. It is imperative that these two institutions remain steadfast as distant observers and not participants in the fervor of the demonstration.
In the meantime, let the rally banners fly. It is understandable that an insecure and narcissistic leader feel adored and appreciated for a thankless job. (It’s elementary school psychology…would you rather a crabby teacher or a happy one?) If Hitler had felt better about himself, maybe 11 million would not have died needlessly, and a once-thriving democracy would not have crumbled in a heap of violence and bigotry.