Institutional Redundancy, Regime Change, and Timothy Snyder’s SZ Interview


So I’ve seen this posted around a bit and really enjoyed reading it (if that’s the right word for being simultaneously fascinated and horrified). I had read Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands, and, while far from being an historian, found quite compelling the argument that most of the killings of noncombatants in Eastern Europe by the Nazi regime and Stalinist forces (but especially the former) were committed outside of camps, for instance by the Schutzstaffel’s einsatzgruppen, as a function of a larger inter-imperial expansionist struggle.

I agree with one of the main contentions in this interview, namely that American exceptionalism allows Americans to ignore regime change when it is happening right under their very noses. Somehow, the patterns of German political dynamics during the 1920s and 30s are seen as being fundamentally inapplicable here in the States, and that’s a danger. And while Snyder doesn’t get into the specifics of government structure in the interview per se, it’s probably fair to say that the evolution of the German Nazi party from one party in a parliamentary government to being *the* government involved a lot of the same “layering” of parallel institutions that we see performed today in the US.

For instance, the SS itself (originally the Schutzkommando) evolved from a volunteer protection force for the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) of just 290 volunteers, which was grown into a million-person paramilitary force that included the Gestapo, Reichswehr, einsatzgruppen, and Waffen SS. Donald Trump’s use of a private security force overlapping with the Secret Service, as well as his connection with America’s most notorious mercenary, Erik Prince (new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother) have worried some observers.

In another example, the German People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof) was established by Hitler in 1934, following the Enabling Act (1933), to make redundant the old German Imperial High Court (Reichsgericht) that had infuriated him by acquitting most of the Communist defendants in the Reichstagbrand trial. The People’s Court regularly meted out death penalties to those accused of degrading the “defensive” capacity of the state. Trump has denigrated the courts and the judiciary on the grounds of state security when (as in the recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to block his immigration ban) their decisions run counter to his desires. (The lack of respect for judicial oversight and checks on concentration of power only being reinforced by a snot-nosed, supercilious advisor’s overtly totalitarian assertion that the President’s powers “will not be questioned.”) His vows to not only maintain, but grow, Guantanamo and reintroduce the use of “enhanced interrogation” will depend also on the increased use of military tribunals in place of courts.

Another parallel institution just established is Steve Bannon’s “Strategic Initiatives Group”, perceived by some as an attempt to make redundant the more establishmentarian National Security Council, despite the anodyne assertion that it is geared towards bringing an inexperienced president up to speed on affairs of state.

But in the end, I think Snyder’s analysis of the role of American exceptionalism doesn’t even go far enough. American exceptionalism doesn’t just allow liberals and moderates to comfort themselves by ignoring ongoing regime change under the assumption that “the system” will correct itself. I would argue that the concept of American exceptionalism is itself being hijacked to facilitate the regime change. No longer is exceptionalism framed on the basis of the Constitution and the balance of powers established therein. Rather, it is increasingly based on an admixture of ethno-nationalism, economic autarkism, and state-industry intercalation that is itself strikingly similar to the German exceptionalism of the 1930s. No, history does not exactly repeat itself (and if it does, it sure doesn’t seem like comedy this time around). The Nazi eagle is not the parent of the American. But they’re both birds of prey.


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