The destruction of democracy in Germany happened a long time ago in a very different place from modern Australia. However, there may still be important lessons which we can take from history, and which can help us to be vigilant about our own democracy today.
4a Go back to the table you drew up for the assessment task. Look at the principles of a democracy in the left-hand column and decide how they are working in Australia today. Fill in the fourth column with this information. For example, for voting, you might say that Australia has a fair system of voting, with every person having an equal vote; or you may know of some argument which suggests that the system of voting is not working fairly. Fill in what you know.
4b Read the following conversation between Sophie, a German student, and an Australian student Sophia. Underline the key points that are being made about democracy in Australia, and what might be needed to protect it from attacks and abuses. Add any new information or ideas to your chart.
Sophia: Is it true that people in Germany really wanted a dictatorship?
Sophie: That's where everyone seems to make their biggest mistake. You just can't talk about 'people in Germany' or 'the Germans' as if they all wanted the same thing or behaved the same way. People had very deep political differences and that might even have been one of the problems. The democrats, especially the Social Democrats and the genuine liberals, were as passionately against Hitler and his threat to democracy as his followers were for him.
Sophia: But in Australia everyone is in favour of democracy.
Sophie: Of course. There is even compulsory voting. But how many people really expect politicians to fix their problems? I'm always hearing people say, 'You can never believe a politician'. Yet they then seem ready to believe a politician who makes quite outrageous claims. And don't all your politicians claim to be governing 'for all Australians'?
Sophia: Is that what happened in Germany?
Sophie: To an extent, yes. The country had problems that were impossible for any government to solve and people only saw a lot of politicians claiming to have answers while problems just got worse.
Sophia: Why didn't they see Hitler as just another politician?
Sophie: Because he kept saying he was different. He claimed to lead not only a party but a 'movement'. He said all the others had special interest groups to look after and he didn't belong to any section of the community. He would bring about a true 'National Community'. He made sure people knew who he was, and made the most of a reputation for violence among his followers: at least that showed they weren't afraid to fight for their beliefs. And he quite openly said he was out to change the political system to one in which the politicians would no longer have a say.
Sophia: So the people who voted for Hitler knew they were voting to end democratic government?
Sophie: Some did, but most were probably confused. One problem was that democratic government had already ended. The last Chancellors didn't have a majority in parliament - they were there because the President chose them. So that made the democratic system, which had had only a few very troubled years to prove itself, hard to defend.
Sophia: Still, why on earth vote for a dictatorship?
Sophie: Haven't you noticed how much talk there is in Australia about needing a 'strong leader'? Many people in Germany were hurting economically and they didn't listen to the Social Democrats' warnings because they associated them with the working class, not the middle class. Lots of conservative people wanted no more experiments with democracy or 'social justice'. They wanted things to be as they had been before all the economic and political upheavals.
Sophia: Surely that's the greatest irony. They voted for more radical change than anything they had ever known!
Sophie: That's something to watch out for in Australia, I'd say. Political change is always presented as unthreatening, possibly even as a return to how things used to be.
Sophia: I can't see how that would apply to a young country like ours.
Sophie: Both our countries are 'young' in a constitutional sense. My country, Germany, was unified in 1871, just 30 years before Australia. Both got federal constitutions, though in Germany only men originally had a vote. Why doesn't anyone blame men for the disasters?
Sophia: Perhaps because women had the vote in both countries by 1920, though it's true they were never elected to govern. In any case, democracy lasted better in Australia than it did in Germany. We didn't have anything like the Nazi Party, which brought war and suffering to millions and millions of people.
Sophie: Thank goodness, that's true. But there are still a couple of things to keep sight of. A threat to people's sense of security can get them to accept things they never would have dreamt of. Germans didn't normally expect to see their political opponents excluded from parliament and put into a concentration camp. And don't forget that for a long time in this country Aborigines were regarded as inferior and excluded from politics altogether. People in both countries now know that formally making people equal citizens does not guarantee everyone equal rights.
Sophia: Surely the right to change the government is the key democratic right.
Sophie: It is, and it carries a big responsibility. The majority of voters can get rid of a government they think is not in their interests and elect one which is. But majority interests are not the only ones. Voters have to make sure the government keeps listening to them, and to less powerful voices as well as powerful ones. Today, Germany and Australia are two of the most democratic countries in the world and in both people have to watch that the majority doesn't use its weight against the rights of a minority. That might be the biggest challenge for democracy in all countries. Wherever people start to say, 'Well, that's what most of us want and we can't be worried about you', that country could be in as much trouble as Germany was under Hitler.