There has been a digging away at the core principles of Britain’s system of Law and Justice over the last decade which threatens to undermine it entirely. Today, we look at key changes in pre war Nazi Germany which saw the Nazification of Germany’s nation of Laws, and corresponding changes in the British justice system today.
We need to acknowledge the warning signs and uproot this resurgent fascism while it’s still a sapling, or we’ll be hacking away impotently at a mighty oak before we know it.
Godwin’s Law? Oh Give it Up
No doubt someone is already preparing a comment accusing me of Godwin’s Law for making this comparison. So I’ll take a moment to set out why I am making it, and why it does not conform to the term.
Godwin’s Law was intended to highlight the sort of ‘Little Hitler’ comparisons to the Third Reich.
“Train conductor just gave me a fine for not having a ticket… Nazi!”
“Health and Safety laws mean I can’t smoke in my office anymore…it’s like Nazi Germany in here!”
“The government is telling me I can’t smack my kids anymore…Fascists!”
This is the sort of thing that Godwin’s Law pertains to. This is not what I am doing today. I am laying out some genuine similarities in the functioning of the state and private institutions of Germany between 1933-7 as it moved from a nation of laws to a nation of Nazis, with recent developments in British institutions. These similarities should raise real concerns about the direction in which successive governments are driving our nation. The reason I have chosen Germany is that it is the closest, most recent and most readily acknowledged example of such a transition.
Despite this, I accept that nevertheless many people are determinedly unwilling to consider the awful prospect that our government might not be acting on our best interests and will use Godwin’s Law as a tool of cognitive dissonance. In essence, Godwin’s Law itself can become a tool of censorship, used to close down important debate about the authoritarian impulse of the state and corporate power.
Law and Justice
Prior to the commencement of Nazi Germany in 1933, Germany had operated under the Weimar Constitution in a Republican democracy since the end of World War I in 1918. Judges were independent, bound only by law, protected from arbitrary removal and duty bound (at least in theory) by Article 109 to safeguard equality before the law.
With the reinterpretation of “protective custody” (Schutzhaft) in 1933, police power became independent of judicial controls. In Nazi terminology, protective custody meant the arrest–without judicial review–of real and potential opponents of the regime. “Protective custody” prisoners were not confined within the normal prison system but in concentration camps under the exclusive authority of the SS (Schutzstaffel; the elite guard of the Nazi state).
The End of Open Justice
The Nazis set fire to the German parliament building (the Reichstag) in February 1933 and pinned the blame on the Communists in a cunning move which was pivotal in bringing Hitler to power. The point was to provoke such fear that Communists were mounting a coup, that a strong National Socialist was required to quell the rebellion and restore stability. It succeeded.
However, when the suspects were brought before the court, all but one of the suspects (a mentally incapacitated Dutchman who had confessed) were found not guilty. The ruling so incensed Hitler and the Nazi’s that within a month they had passed legislation which removed the right to try cases of treason at the Supreme Court (Shirer, p269). Henceforth, this responsibility would be carried out by the new People’s Court which was no court at all.
Now, one might ask, how on earth is this in anyway similar to the British justice system? The Nazis are not the only government exploiting misplaced fears to curtail civil liberties.
In 2009, the former head of MI5 Stella Rimmington accused the British government of exploiting the fear of terrorism to pass laws intended to restrict our civil liberties. She was right. In recent years, an astonishing amount of legislation has been passed curtailing civil liberties, the right to protest and the right to fair and open justice in Britain. The Labour government passed 25 Acts of Parliament and 50 individual measures to restrict civil liberties for UK citizens in the name of ‘national security’ in its thirteen year term.
The US opened Guantanamo Bay and began kidnapping citizens from around the world, detaining them illegally for years without charge or trial and committing torture against them and the British government was complicit in it.
Control Orders were passed in 2005 and gave police the right to place citizens under permanent house arrest with an electronic tag without any judicial intervention, that is, outside of the court system. Between 2005 and 2011 fifty people were made subject to these control orders.
After promising to remove the powers on election, the Coalition government simply replaced them with TPIMS, which amount to the same thing but restricted the orders to a review after two years.
The Terrorism Prevention Act and other legislation give the State the power to detain citizens indefinitely by identifying them as a terror threat, without reference to a judge or a court. This amounts to protective custody.
The End of Open Justice
On piece of legislation you might not be aware of is The Coroners and Justice Bill of 2005 which removed the independence of Coroners, and gave the Executive (state) the power to suspend inquests or hold them in secret, even in cases of homicide.
Recently, when British citizens started to be released from Guantanamo Bay and seek justice for their treatment, the UK government first appealed to the courts to block the cases, then to redact information that would show their complicity in torture and rendition, and finally sought to pay people off.
As the compensation bills mounted, they changed tack and drafted The Justice and Security Bill, which stipulates that in future, all such civil cases will be tried in secret courts. These courts would be blocked to the media and the state would be able to present its argument and evidence to the judge in the absence of the plaintiff in the case.
This decision ends a 700 year old tradition in the UK of open justice, in the name of national security but in reality, for the sake of state control of information and justice.
The Rev Nicholas Mercer, a lieutenant colonel who was the army’s most senior lawyer during the last Iraq war, told the Daily Mail:
“The justice and security bill has one principal aim and that is to cover up UK complicity in rendition and torture. The bill is an affront to the open justice on which this country rightly prides itself and, above all, it is an affront to human dignity.”
These two pieces of legislation have made it legal for the state to intervene in and end the investigation of suspicious deaths, and lawfully kidnap and imprison its citizens without ever being challenged in an open court. Open justice is no longer guaranteed.
Propaganda and the Demonization of Groups
The Nazis used propaganda to such a degree and with such horrific results that the practise was widely condemned and the Ministries for Propaganda across the world changed their names….in itself an act of propaganda.
I would like to compare and contrast two specific pieces of propaganda, one by the Nazi Regime and one by the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.
The Nazis made puff pieces about one concentration camp called Theresienstadt which made it look like a holiday camp. The following is a film made about the camp.
The reality was that Theresienstadt was a transitory base to transport Jews from the East, to the death camps. Of the 140,000 Jews taken to Theresienstadt nearly 90,000 were deported to death camps where they died. 30,000 Jews died at Theresienstadt itself.
However, the propaganda sold the lie to the German public that the Jews were taken elsewhere but treated well. This allowed the holocaust to go on far longer than it might have if people had been forced to face the reality of it.
Guantanamo Bay is a detention camp which has imprisoned nearly a thousand (officially acknowledged) of detainees of the US (and British) government for years on end, without judicial intervention and under conditions of torture.
The Daily Mail however recently ran an article entitled “Inside Guantanamo Bay‘ which sold the place as some sort of recreation centre for the world’s scariest muslims. Alongside random pictures of fresh fruit, books written in Arabic and (gasp) halal meat, were quotes like this:
“Far from languishing in a dank and desolate dungeon as many in the outside world imagine, inmates are in fact able to rent Harry Potter movies, borrow car magazines and even get strawberries for their tea.”
“To relax, prisoners can visit the camp’s in-house library, which contains a host of books, in Arabic and English, Hollywood blockbuster DVDs and magazines.”
This article is one of many staged in cahoots with the US military. President Obama signed an Executive Order in 2009 to close Guantanamo Bay. These articles have been released as the majority of the 166 men still detained without trial there have mounted a hunger strike in a bid to regain their freedom. More than half of these men have been cleared for release for months, yet remain behind bars regardless. Yemeni prisoner Bashir al-Marwalah wrote to his lawyer:
One cannot help but note the similar playbook adopted by the holocaust and Guantanamo bay apologists.
Outside of this isolated issue, the government has launched a propaganda war on the poor which has seen the unemployed, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups suffering escalated hate crimes as a result.
We Need to Start Rolling This Back, Now
You don’t prepare your system of law and justice for the best possible government; you prepare them for the worst possible government. If this government hasn’t taken full use of its overwhelming powers, then another might. Only a person with no understanding of history, or grasp of social behaviour would ignore the dangers of a state engaging in protective custody, closed courts, poverty and propaganda on a people. When these forces are combined, they almost inevitably lead to an unstable, embittered and violent society. Britain is facing such circumstances today.
I wrote the above piece in March this year, and since then we have discovered that undercover agents have engaged in state sponsored rape of female activists for the purposes of extracting information, that undercover agents were used to smear the family of murder victim Stephen Lawrence in efforts to cover up their own racism induced botched investigation, and that GCHQ have been monitoring our personal internet use including reading our emails, messages and listening in on Skype calls for years. We even find that the disbanded unit of Undercover Police responsible for some of the above, was simply renamed the ‘National Domestic Extremism Unit’, and that more than 9,000 people, most of whom do not have criminal records, have their data on this database – including surveillance. The state is now gathering enormous data, through intrusive means of surveillance, on anyone whose political leanings are not aligned with the status quo.
We have the choice to wish it away, ignore it, become complicit in it or actively resist it. Only the last option offers our and subsequent generations the hope of a better world, where the founding principles of our post World War II social contract are not only restored, but extended. Let us be clear, we need to win some huge battles simply to restore what we have lost, let alone credit ourselves with having created a higher order of justice, freedom and access to information than we inherited. So we need to start now.
It starts with learning, rolling up our sleeves and joining with others. It means both coordinated and organised and completely uncoordinated and disorganised methods of resistance yes, but invention too. We must resist what is and what is intended, and invent something new and inspiring in its place. It’s time to get involved.
Convention on Modern Liberty – get acquainted with the facts. Know the nature of your rights.
William L Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – the ultimate tome charting how Nazism grew in Germany from the 1920’s through to the fall and the Nuremberg trials. I read this as I wanted to understand how a country could descend into fascism. It makes terrifying but sobering reading. I do warn you that Shirer is a rampant homophobe, so be warned for the odd breath taking remark.
Reprieve – a great organisation working on open justice, an end to capital punishment and supporting Guantanamo and other unlawful detainees across the world.
Defend the Right to Protest – excellent information, together with direct action to defend the right to protest.