It can't ­happen here!


By John F. Sase, Ph.D.
Gerard J. Senick,
General Editor
Julie Gale Sase, Copyeditor

“It can’t happen here / It can’t happen here / I’m telling you, my dear / That it can’t happen here / Because I been checkin’ it out, baby / I checked it out a couple of times / But I’m telling you/It can’t happen here / Oh, darling, it’s important that you believe me / (Bop bop bop bop) / That it can’t happen here”
— Frank Zappa
“It Can’t Happen Here,”
The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out! (Verve, 1966)

Last month, we took a “Small-Is-Beautiful” approach in order to Think Globally and Act Locally. The reason for taking this path was to respond to the class-complacency that has spread quietly throughout recent decades. We have tended to grow accepting of the political situation of divisiveness on the global, national, and local levels as well as the stagnation of social and economic mobility in our culture — a malaise that has caused us to become separated by class.

This month, we turn to the darker side of complacency to which Frank Zappa alludes in his lyrics in our opening quote. Though history abounds with examples of change through purely physical brutality, more often this transformation has been the result of well-planned strategic political, economic, and legislative action. In the following paragraphs, we draw upon examples from the fourth decade of the Twentieth Century, presenting this information for general educational and reflective reasons. This presentation is not aimed at any specific person, political party, or government. Rather, I (Dr. Sase) have prepared these examples in the hope that they will continue to serve as cautionary tales for all people of all nations at all times.

In respect to the belief that “It Can’t Happen Here,” we can find many relevant examples throughout history. However, specific events that occurred during the first half of the Twentieth Century will remain the most relevant as well as the most thoroughly researched for some time. I have turned to my summer reading for inspiration in putting together this month’s column. Along with secondary sources, I have relied on the Third Reich trilogy written by Richard J. Evans, professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, England, as my primary source. These titles include “The Coming of the Third Reich” (Penguin, 2004); “The Third Reich in Power “(Penguin, 2005); and “The Third Reich at War” (Penguin, 2009). Hopefully, we are close enough to that era to remember but distant enough to discuss several difficult--and sometimes painful--matters.

In the following sections, we will explore four topics of interest to those of us in the fields of Economics, Political Science, and Law:  Freedom of the Media, the Separation of Church and State, Educational Freedom, and National Health and Welfare Policies. At the beginning of each section, we will pose questions that anyone might ask about possible feelings and reactions.


Freedom of the Media

One may ask him/herself “How do I feel about regulation of the media? Could the movies, television shows, newspapers, magazines, and Web sites that I enjoy disappear suddenly? If so, how could such a thing happen?”

Let us consider the challenge faced by international cinema during the mid-1930s due to disruptions within the German film industry. During that decade, any successes enjoyed by Universum-Film AG (UFA) and the other major studios in Germany were offset by the rapidly growing isolation of the German movie industry in the worldwide market. As the influence of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, aka “Nazi”) grew in their control of the German Reich, foreign distributors became more hostile to the product of the German studios. This mainly was due to the increasing political content and its nature along with the declining quality of the product content. As a result, foreign sales of German films plummeted.

Concurrently, there occurred a virtual cessation of imported foreign films into Germany. Basically, the reason was a financial one caused by the new government.  For example, even though cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters remained very popular throughout Germany and Walt Disney Studios had entered into a new distribution contract with UFA in December 1933, Disney quickly encountered difficulties that were shared by other American studios. These problems included the following:  Even though UFA also had lucrative distribution agreements with Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer since the 1920s, the German government had quadrupled import duties for every foreign film they bought by November 1934. Furthermore, the Reich imposed stringent controls on the export of currency, an act that made it virtually impossible for foreign filmmakers to remove profits from the country. In February 1935, the American studios Universal and Warner Brothers closed their businesses in Germany. From this time onward, foreign producers needed to take exported German films in payment for products exported to Germany. Related problems arose because German studios no longer produced films that foreign distributors wanted or would distribute throughout the remaining international market.

This decline in demand was attributable in part to the Reich Film-Credit Bank that funded almost three-quarters of all German feature films by 1936. This bank withheld financial support from producers whose projects would not be approved by the Reich government. Furthermore, the Reich Propaganda Ministry under Joseph Goebbels had assumed control of the training, hiring, and firing of employees in all branches of the German film industry as determined by the Reich Film Chamber, which was established in July 1933. A financial crisis endangered the two largest German film companies, UFA and Tobis Film. Goebbels responded to this situation by effectively nationalizing them. Financial control by the Nazi regime was backed by the Reich Cinema Policies. These mandates controlled the production and distribution of films and prohibited film criticism. The policies passed into law in February 1934. By 1939, the state-financed companies UFA and Tobis Film were producing nearly two-thirds of all German movies. Along with the next two largest studios, Terra Film and Bavaria Film, UFA and Tobis Film merged into a single state-controlled industry in 1942.


Separation of Church and State

One may ask him/herself “How would I feel about the elimination of the separation between Church and State? Would this be a wise move? If so, how might that affect my beliefs and how I choose to worship or not to worship?

To answer this question, let us consider some historical background. In Germany, the Evangelical Church developed in the state of Prussia during the unification of the many small German states in 1871. The King of Prussia, Frederick III, also served as German Emperor. In addition, he was the head of the Evangelical Church. Frederick expected the Church to show loyalty to all established institutions of the Empire. Given the push to control education, welfare, mixed marriages, and local religious processions that may undermine the national will, the new Nazi regime of the 1930s determined that the German Evangelical Church might offer the near-to-ideal vehicle for the religious unification of the German people. Unlike its Catholic counterpart, the Evangelical Church owed no real allegiance to any worldwide body or any institution outside of Germany. The Conservative Nationalists, a faction of German political extremists, viewed the Reich as a Protestant state and sought a “positive” Christianity that would overcome the religious divisions that continued to plague Germany. The Conservative Nationalists asserted that the Marxists had been “de-Christianizing” the working class since the late Nineteenth Century through their atheistic doctrines, The Nationalists embraced the emergence of the Third Reich as their opportunity to reverse the trend.

In May 1932, Nazi supporters among the clergy organized the pressure group known as “German Christians.” Following the Empowerment Act of 1933, the Nazi Party, with the aid of the German Christians, took serious steps to “Nazify” the Evangelical Church. Their ambition appears to have been the creation of a new kind of National Church that would purvey the racial and nationalist doctrines of the Nazi regime. By the mid-1930s, the German Christian faction numbered more than 600,000 members within the Evangelical Church. Having won a third of the seats in the Prussian Church Elections of 1932, German Christians began to press for the abolishment of the Evangelical Church and the replacement of it by a centralized “Reich Church” under Nazi control. With effective backing from a massive campaign by the Propaganda Ministry headed by Goebbels and the State-controlled press, the German Christians emerged with a sweeping victory in the Church Elections that took place throughout the country in 1933.

This newly dominant faction declared its mission to oppose the existence of Jews in Germany, to reject Christian cosmopolitanism, to fight against racial mixing, and to establish a belief in “Christ as Ubermann,” an image appropriate to the Aryan race. This group demanded a new “muscular Christianity” based on an image of Christ that would set a heroic example for German men in the present world. For the German Christians, Adolf Hitler would assume the mantle of a national redeemer who would bring about the “re-Christianization” of society in the context of its national reawakening with a spirit of Christ closely related to the Nordic (Aryan) spirit. Following his appointment, August Jager, the State Commissioner for the Evangelical Church in Prussia, declared that Hitler now was completing what Martin Luther had begun. Next, Jager dissolved all of the elected bodies within the Prussian Church and replaced many of the existing officials with members of the German-Christian (Nazi) faction.

The opposing faction was becoming worried about this rapid “Nazification” of the Church. These dissidents continued to hold that religion, not race, should be the root of the Christian community. In order to decentralize control, pastors in opposition organized into regional synods. Rejecting the unscriptural theological innovations propounded by the German-Christian faction, this rebel alliance founded their movement upon Bible-study groups. Reich Bishop Ludwig Muller attempted to undermine the alliance by banning specific sermon topics, disciplining oppositional clergy, and effectively merging the more-than-a-million-member Protestant youth organizations into the Hitler Youth. In response, the rebelling pastors rejected the Reich Church altogether and founded the rival Confessing Church. Though the dominant German-Christian faction had attempted to synthesize German Protestantism with Nazi racism, its efforts had collapsed, effectively.

One of these opposing pastors, German Lutheran Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), initially had been sympathetic to the regime. However, he came to believe that the racist politicization of the Church threatened the traditional conception of Protestant Christianity. Of those who resisted the Reich Church, 700 Protestant ministers from across Germany—including Niemöller--had been imprisoned by the end of 1937. Niemöller remained at Dachau until the end of World War II. Today, he is best remembered for giving a powerful, memorable quote to the world, one that carries a message that remains relevant to this day:

“First they took the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing.

Then they took the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then it was the trade unionists’ turn, but I was not a trade unionist.

And then they took the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came and took me, there was no one left who could have stood up for me” (Niemoller, cited by Ruth Zerner in “Jewish-Christian Encounters over the Centuries: Symbiosis, Prejudice, Holocaust, Dialogue,” edited by Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer [Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 1994]).


Educational Freedom

One may ask him/herself “How would I feel about the elimination of faith-related schools and associated extracurricular activities? How would I feel about the cancellation of faith-related plays, concerts, and sporting events? By what means could such repression be done?”

We need to frame our next example with some historical context. Twenty million Roman Catholic Germans (one-third of the population) residing mostly in the South and West (i.e. Bavaria and the Southern Rhineland along the borders of France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxembourg) traditionally owed their “institutional allegiance” to Rome rather than to the German state. The resulting hatred of the Catholic Church by the Reich extended into fanaticism.

In order to temper relations, the Papacy (under Pope Pious XI) concluded a Concordat between the Church and the Nazi regime in July 1933. This agreement promised to protect Catholic lay institutions in return for a commitment made by the Church to abstain from any involvement in politics. Nevertheless, the regime began seizing the property of lay Catholic organizations and forcing them to close down in the summer of 1933. That September, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the Bavarian political police to ban all activities by major Catholic organizations. The Church hierarchy in Germany stood down in their opposition to these actions by the Reich in order to avoid a construentem of political activity that would violate the Concordat of 1933. Nevertheless, the Gestapo began its surveillance of Catholic activities while the laity continued its refusal to dissolve Catholic youth organizations.

Control over the younger generation was considered essential in order for the Nazi regime to realize its vision of the future. The Reich exerted pressure in order to bring all of these young people into the Hitler Youth and its female equivalent, the League of German Girls. Catholic youth organizations, which had 1.5 million members in May 1934, ranged from a Catholic equivalent of the Boy Scouts to sports clubs of many kinds. In the opinion of the regime, such organizations were anti-nationalist as well as anti-National Socialist; therefore, they needed to be suppressed. Catholic priests and Church executives provided tough opposition to the Nazis. Their refusal to dissolve Catholic-youth organizations meant that the Hitler Youth remained unable to progress in the strongly Catholic areas of Bavaria and the Southern Rhineland. In response, the SS shot and killed Erich Klausener, general secretary of Catholic Action, and Adalbert Probst, national director of the Catholic Youth Sports Association, on the “Night of the Long Knives” (the Rohm Purge of 29-30 June 1934).

In respect to other church/school events, the Reich Theatre Chamber banned church-sponsored musical and theatrical events from 1935 onwards. The regime argued that these events competed financially and ideologically with contemporaneous Reich-sponsored plays and concerts. By 1937, the regime was banning Nativity plays, asserting that they amounted to political propaganda. The Nazi Ministry argued that such actions ran contrary to the provisions of the Concordat of 1933.

In response to these actions, German cardinals and senior bishops traveled to Rome in January 1937 in order to denounce the Nazi regime for its violations of the Concordat. In a favorable response, the Papacy drafted an Encyclical that drew upon its past correspondence with the German government. It summed up the complaints that the Vatican had invoked during the past four years. The approved document was smuggled into Germany, printed at different locations throughout the country, and distributed secretly to parish priests. On Sunday, 21 March 1937, the Encyclical was read aloud from virtually every pulpit in German Catholic churches.

In response, Hitler ordered all copies of the Encyclical to be seized and the printing establishments to be shut down. In a stepped-up campaign, Himmler clamped down on the diocesan press, restricted pilgrimages and processions, and banned classes on Catholic marriage and parenthood because they did not fall in accord with the National Socialist view of the New World Order (see the discussion of the New World Order in “Hitler’s Second Book, [The Unpublished Sequel” to Mein Kampf, 1928], translated by Krista Smith and edited by Gerhard L. Weinberg [Enigma Books, 2003]).


“One Leader, One People, One School”

Next, Goebbels launched an ongoing campaign in order to close denominational schools and replace them with non-religious “community schools.” This campaign was backed by votes that were garnered from parents who were forced to sign prepared statements. The statements declared that these mothers and fathers did not desire that the education of their children be misused for stirring up religious unrest.
Furthermore, those parents who “voted” to retain denominational schools were branded as Enemies of the State. In course, the actions by the Reich against denominational schools included the withdrawal of welfare-support payments for those parents who refused to vote for the abolition of the schools.

The Goebbels campaign was successful. In 1934, 84 percent of children had been registered in denominational schools in Munich, Bavaria. However, this percentile fell to 5 percent by the end of 1937. By September 1939, the Reich had succeeded in turning all denominational schools in Germany into community schools.

The Catholic Diocesan Administration asserted that this reduction and elimination was achieved entirely through unjust and illegal means, which involved terrorism that contravened every principle of justice and law. In many areas of the country, programs in religious instruction that were provided through vocational schools were mandated to follow newly imposed guidelines that described Jesus as being non-Jewish.
Parents who objected were summoned to special meetings in order to pressure them to enroll their children in classes teaching the Nazi World View in place of religious education. Those parents who refused were threatened with dismissal from their jobs.


Health and Welfare Policies

One may ask him/herself “How do I feel about national healthcare policies? What could happen if I have a previously existing condition? How discriminatory can getting needed care become before something is done?”

Once again, let us review how the far-right of Germany handled these issues. In 1933, Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick announced that the new NSDAP-controlled regime would concentrate German public-spending on racially sound and healthy people. Their strategic goal would be achieved by reducing Reich expenditure on what they viewed as “weak or wayward” and “asocial and inferior” individuals. These included the sick, the mentally deficient, the insane, cripples, and criminals. Furthermore, the Nationalist plan would subject these citizens to a policy of what the Reich called “selection and eradication.” Frick proposed compulsory sterilization for anyone who suffered from illnesses that included schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy, and congenital “feeblemindedness” as well as hereditary deafness or blindness.

In the depth of the worldwide Great Depression, German national finances suffered under the weight of welfare. These economic conditions led many in the professions of Medicine and Social Work to believe that multiple aspects of social deviance, poverty, and destitution resulted from hereditary degeneracy. Therefore, case decisions would be made by Hereditary Health Courts and Courts of Appeal, acting on referrals from public-health officers, institutions including nursing and old-age homes, and Social Workers in the Welfare system. Sterilization (50% male/50% female) became the treatment of choice. Of the more than 360,000 patients who underwent this “treatment,” almost all of them were sterilized before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

Approximately two-thirds of the sterilized patients were inmates of mental hospitals. Sterilization became the attractive practice to asylum directors because many of these patients could be discharged back into the community. This reduced the operating costs of asylums, which were pressured by the State to cut their expenditures. Many young women were sterilized in order to prevent them from bearing illegitimate children who would burden the community at large. Clearly, reasons ascribed for their sterilization often focused on matters of social deviance rather than any demonstrable hereditary condition. Those inmates who were unlikely to sire or bear children due to age or illness did not require sterilization, but many of the “weak and wayward” fell victim to the Euthanasia Program within the Reich. In summary, the regime used sterilization to control or to crush those segments of society that did not meet the Reich standards of the ideal “new man” or “new woman.”

The new Selection and Eradication Laws empowered the regime to control sexuality and reproduction. From that point, the Reich was only a step away from banning racially undesirable marriages and procreation altogether. The goal was to remove enemies of the race and its society from the heredity chain as swiftly as possible. Even before the law of 1933, factions of German society delineated those persons who were “valuable” from those who were deemed “inferior.” The major factor in this sorting process was Economics. This helps to explain why Orthopedic surgeons and physicians were fearful of losing their jobs. Therefore, many medical professionals argued against policies of sterilization and abandonment of treatment by pointing out that physically handicapped persons of sound mind could be employed in appropriate jobs. Their treatment had met with some success. However, it was only in late 1937 that the Reich agreed that it was advisable to bring the physically handicapped into the economy. This action was due to an increasing shortage of labor. However, this clemency began to reverse in 1939 as the regime ordered all “malformed” children in Germany to be registered. In the war years that followed, approximately 5,000 such children were transferred to special “children’s departments” of the Euthanasia Program that also serviced 70,000 patients from psychiatric hospitals. Professor Evans points out that the real difference in policy “was to emerge only later when the war began, as the Nazi regime turned from sterilizing social deviants to murdering them.”

Take (Me) Away

In referring back to our opening quote of “It Can’t Happen Here,” the dark side of complacency has begun to separate urban class from rural class and the more educated and wealthier classes from those with limited education/training and income. In addition, those citizens with health issues and/or financial challenges are becoming more victimized in current society. Finally, faith-based issues are used to pit one group against another. From the actions of the Reich some 80 years ago, we can see that sometimes the majorities suffer in a loss of their rights after they have been used to subjugate or eliminate the minorities. In effect, It Can Happen Here! I suggest that we, the many professionals in the fields of Law, Economics, and others, use our brains, education, and influence to push back the rising tide. Hopefully, we provide the level-headedness and knowledge of past cases and other documented sources that counter the xenophobic brand of nationalism and the discriminatory practices based upon ignorance, superstition, and fear itself.
The issues discussed in the preceding sections are one that cause fear in all of us. Specifically, powerlessness is a universal fear that has been felt and voiced increasingly by those on the far right as well as by those on the far left as America has grown more divided during recent decades. Our feelings of inability to effect change are reflected by how we vote and to whom we choose to give allegiance as they assume positions of power. With these behaviors in mind, we have discussed the socioeconomics and politics that affect Freedom of the Media, the Separation of Church and State, Educational Freedom, and National Health and Welfare Policies. These and similar concerns affect us all--Democrats, Republicans, and those holding other political convictions. Hopefully, through the examples presented above, we are able to recognize how danger emerges when we choose to surrender power unrestrainedly to one person, one party, or one ideology.


Dr. John F. Sase teaches Economics at Wayne State University and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics for twenty years. He earned a combined M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics at Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School (

Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a Supervisory Editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for over twenty years. Currently, he edits books for publication (

Julie G. Sase is a copyeditor, parent coach, and empath. She earned her degree in English at Marygrove College and her graduate certificate in Parent Coaching from Seattle Pacific University. Ms. Sase coaches clients, writes articles, and copyedits (