Establishing Dictatorships: Lessons from History by Steven Jonas

by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Writer, Dandelion Salad
crossposted on
March 11, 2013

Graffiti "4 More Years of Fascism"

Image by Dandelion Salad via Flickr

Admiral Miklos Horthy of Hungary is generally acknowledged to have been history’s first fascist dictator (that is an authoritarian ruler who was not royalty). Following the overthrow of a Hungarian Communist government by Romanian royalist forces in 1919, with the acquiescence of his own King he was appointed “Regent” (for the King) in 1920. He held that post until he himself was displaced by the Nazis in 1944. Italy’s Benito Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister by the Italian King in 1922, and with the latter’s acquiescence by 1927 had become dictator of Italy. (He invented the word “fascism” to describe his form of authoritarian government.) So, we have two prominent fascist dictators in essence appointed by Kings. It may surprise you to learn that the most prominent fascist dictator of them all, Adolf Hitler, got to his position by more-or-less constitutional means, in a Republic, not a Kingdom.

Following the end of the First World War, an attempted German Communist revolution was thwarted by the combined forces of the ex-Prussian Army and various right-wing paramilitaries. With the cooperation of the right-wing of the German Socialist Party, the successors to the Prussian Hohenzollern Monarchy (the Kaiser having abdicated and fled to Holland), and other center and right-wing forces established what came to be known as the Weimar Republic. (Weimar was a small provincial city in central Germany chosen as the new Republic’s capital.) Those forces created the first republican constitution for Germany out of whole cloth. The resulting Presidential/Parliamentary system governed Germany from mid-1919 until the Nazi coup d’état which took place in stages starting on January 30, 1933.

A key feature of what was called the Weimar Constitution was that it had a clause that granted the President emergency powers, which he could claim on his own authority, but under fairly strict control by the Reichstag (parliament). The President from 1925 onwards, the former commander of Prussian forces in World War, was Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg claimed Constitutional emergency power in 1930 and ruled under it until he appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor (Prime Minister) on Jan. 30, 1933. Hitler then proceeded to establish what would become the state ruled by his National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis for short). (Clever name, eh? Like certain other folks, the Nazis had their own good namers and sloganeers.) Among his very first acts was to begin rounding up Communist Reichstag deputies and other leading communists and imprisoning them either without charge or on specious ones. But even with their enforced absence from the Reichstag, he still did not have the 2/3’s majority he needed to amend the Constitution. He wanted to enable the Reichstag to grant emergency powers to the Chancellor, as well as to the President.

Then came the Reichstag Fire of Feb. 27, 1933. Although it was actually set by a team sent by Hitler’s no. 1 deputy, Hermann Goering (1), it was a false-flag event (sound familiar?) Hitler blamed it on the Communists, and using documents later proved to be forged was able to stir up a major anti-communist hysteria in the nation. This situation eventually led to the passage on March 23 by the Reichstag of what was called the “Enabling Act of 1933,” (there having been others during the course of the Weimar Republic). This one, however, gave Hitler dictatorial power and the rest, as they say is history. However, except for the fact that the Nazis cheated (if the Communist deputies had still been seated in the Reichstag, Hitler never could have gotten the 2/3rds vote he needed to pass the Act), the whole thing was “Constitutional.” Indeed Hitler made sure that the act was regularly renewed either by the Reichstag or eventually by himself, on the time schedule set during its original passage.

Among other powers, Hitler was able to arrest and imprison without charges or trial any German he labeled as a “threat,” or what have you. Having the parallel Army of the Schutz Staffel (SS, “Protection Squadron”) just going out and shooting perceived enemies or “members of an inferior race” in the street and etc., happened later. Further, I believe, although many Germans were sent to concentration camps and into the hands of the Gestapo (the “police” branch of the SS) direct execution happened only outside the borders of the German state.

You likely see where I am going with this. President Obama has apparently arrogated to himself, and through himself to the US Presidency, the power to arrest, and indeed kill, US citizens, on US soil, for “crimes” like “suspicion” of terrorism, potential terrorism, or “aiding and abetting terrorism” (2, 3). The next possible step is broadening that out to a total authoritarian government, based on “responding to terrorism” as defined by ??? Now the Democrats who find themselves behind this say words to the effect of “well, Obama can be trusted with these powers.” Maybe, maybe not, but nevertheless, what of a possible successor? And in any case, is any of this Constitutional? Well, not if you read the plain language, as “Justice” (I rule the way I want to rule on any given day, and that’s just tough, buddy) Scalia is always lecturing us on (see Articles II and VI and the 4th and 5th Amendments).

US Presidents have been arrogating to themselves powers that are simply nowhere to be found in the Constitution at least since Lyndon Johnson used the (fake) Gulf of Tonkin incident to vastly expand the US un-declared war on Vietnam. And that trail has led to this. At least Hitler could claim (and he did) that what he did beginning on January 30, 1933 was in accord with the Weimar Constitution. American exceptionalism? You betcha. If fascism does eventually come here it will be because a series of US Presidents gradually expanded their executive power, way beyond anything provided for in the Constitution, often invoking “communism” (see Reagan breaking the law, the Boland Amendment, to support the counter-revolution in Nicaragua) or “terrorism,” see G.W. Bush and now B. H. Obama, to justify what they are doing. At least previous fascist dictators could cite Kings, or a Constitution, or plain old civil war to overthrow a democratically-elected Republic— see Franco Spain. In the U.S., if it comes, it will simply be on a President’s say-so. And there will be no-one to say “NO.”


1. Tigar, M.E. and Mage, J., “The Reichstag Fire Trial, 1933-2008″ The Monthly Review, Vol. 60, No. 10, March 2009.

2. Paul Craig Roberts, “It Has Happened Here in America: The Police State is Real,” Feb. 9, 2013.

3. Chris Hedges, “The NDAA and the Death of the Democratic State,” Feb. 11, 2013,

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash@Truthout, he is the Managing Editor of and a Contributing Author to The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy ( and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad.


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5 thoughts on “Establishing Dictatorships: Lessons from History by Steven Jonas

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  5. Power doesn’t seem to want to be hemmed in by inconvenient laws. That is why the tempering force of the awareness of the people, in part through articles like this, is so important.. Thank you, Steven.

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