Department of Everything Old is New Again

Yesterday in Vienna the results of a survey study were published.  Those polled were Austrians over age 15.  They were asked their opinions about a number of things, including You Know What.

First, the good news.  Eighty-five percent agreed with the statement “democracy is the best form of government.”  Remember that number: 85%.  Thirty percent agreed with the proposition that the national socialist era (in Austria, at least) brought “only bad” things; another 31% agreed with the position that it brought “mostly bad” things.  Those two groups strongly correlated with whether the particular respondent had a “Matura” (the equivalent of the German Abitur, which is a level of academic challenge and achievement most Americans aren’t exposed to until their junior year in college, if then), and with whether the respondent had an overall optimistic view of his economic future.  The further good news is that the combined 61% who saw either primarily or exclusively bad things in the 1938-45 years represents an increase from 51% in 2005.  So in nine years we’ve seen a 19.6% increase in the proportion of People Who Get It.

But, lest one get too congratulatory, 36% of the respondents agreed that the Nazi era brought “both good and bad” with it (the write-up doesn’t make clear whether the survey included questions to tease out the responsive question, “For whom?”).  I mean, I can partly understand at least the ethnic Germans figuring that, since the Anschluß ousted a government that was scarcely democratic or representative, and in fact was first cousin to the authoritarian state to the north, all they did was trade one thug for another.  On the other hand, it’s not as though Austria was poised for war in March, 1938, or that its military had been given instructions similar to those received (with blanched face and sweaty palms) by the German high command in November, 1937.  And it’s not as though pre-Hitlerian Austria was already rounding up and persecuting its Jews.

What’s alarming is that 3% of the respondents agreed that the national socialist era brought “primarily good” to Austria.  I guess all you can do is observe that there’s one in every crowd, and in fact, it seems, at the rate of 3 per 100.

More disturbingly, 56% agreed that it is time to “end the discussion of the Second World War and the Holocaust.”  Yeah, because talking too much about a monstrous crime in which your society played a leading role makes it so much less likely that someone else will go goose-stepping down your path.  American chattel slavery ended 150 years ago next spring.  Scholars are still parsing through the surviving records and evidence and still finding new facets to explore, new insights to gain, new lessons with resonance for human relationships in the 21st Century.  The twelve years of national socialism left incomparably greater documentary residue, and the Last Pertinent Question on the war and its implications for humanity isn’t likely to be asked or answered in my lifetime.  But hey! Austria’s Got Talent! or whatever crap they watch over there.

You can to some degree write off that 56%.  Half the human population is of below-average intelligence (that’s not invidious; it’s statistics).  It’s not reasonable to expect that lower half of the curve to have the imagination to suspect the vast scope of the unexplored that remains out there in any field of contemplation as complex as what went down from 1933-45, and in fact the years preceding it and following.  While it sounds callous, you can write them off because there’s no reason to suppose they’ve been listening to the discussion in the first place.

The genuinely alarming data point from this survey is the number — 29% — who agreed that what Austria needs is “a strong Leader who does not need to worry about parliaments and elections.”  Oh dear.

For starts, don’t think that 29% figure is small enough to ignore.  The Nazis themselves in Germany only topped out at 43.9% in their last election (05 March 1933), and that was after they’d taken power, after the Reichstag fire, after arresting most of the socialist and communist party leadership, and after loosing the Sturmabteilung in its tens of thousands on the streets.

Secondly it gives an idea of how high a proportion of the population (i) seeks its salvation in government action, and (ii) views that action as itself a normative positive value.  As Jonah Goldberg points out in Liberal Fascism, one thing the fascistic parties of Europe (and their leftist sympathizers in America) all shared in common is an express faith in the value of action, forceful action, action that stands for no delays for deliberation.  “Bold, continuous experimentation” (FDR), anyone?

This 29% number suggests that a large proportion of one’s fellows has not contemplated how much easier is it to do harm than good, how much easier it is to un-do good than harm, and finally, how susceptible to the laws of unintended consequences governmental action is.  When Calvin Coolidge’s father was elected to the Vermont legislature, his son, by then a Massachusetts state senator (I’ve slept since I read this, and I don’t think he’d been elected governor yet), wrote him a note.  It was much, much more important, Calvin wrote his father, to thwart bad legislation than it was to pass good.  Calvin Got It.  Wanting a “strong leader” who can “cut through the red tape” and “get things done” without all that pesky give-and-take, all that empty vaporing debate, is strong evidence that one is dealing with someone who simply has not attended to the world around him very carefully.  [Ironically it was Coolidge and Dawes, grinding through the federal budgets line by line, who actually in the literal sense eliminated use of the red tape that had been used to bind government documents.  That anecdote is in Amity Shlaes’s recent biography of Coolidge.]

Finally, 29% thinking what one needs is a strong leader who need not bother with legislatures and elections, while 85% think democracy is the best form of government, suggests that a sizable proportion of the Austrian population is politically schizophrenic.  Guys:  You cannot square those two positions into any relationship other than diametric opposition.  Holding those two thoughts simultaneously and consistently is not possible.

You have to wonder whether the survey designers shoved in questions which, together or in a single question, restated the guts of the Ermächtigungsgesetz (translation here) and then asked the agree/disagree position.  I wonder how many, relative to 29%, would have agreed with the proposition that what Austria needs is legislation that grants the country’s Leader the power to do those certain specific things which the Reichstag granted Hitler in 1933.

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