It was Germany’s 9/11. In 1923 on the 9th of November (in European syntax, 9/11), Adolf Hitler launched a failed coup d’état in Munich. It was a badly coordinated but sincere attempt by 2,000 people to seize power. It was what came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch.
Hitler was tried for treason and found guilty. Had his sentence been remotely proportional to his crime it would have been the last we ever heard of Der Fuhrer. Instead of decades in prison or death, Adolf Hitler was sentenced to five years of cushy luxury in Landsberg Prison, a sentence of which he served barely nine months. It was perhaps the costliest judicial error in world history.
In a similar lapse of judgment, Republican President Gerald R. Ford pardoned Richard M. Nixon for his crimes committed when he plotted and covered up the burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s office at the Watergate Hotel. It was one of the costliest presidential mistakes in American history. Though Ford was not re-elected (probably because of the pardon), America soon forgot Watergate. Little more than six years after Nixon’s resignation began the 12 years of Republican domination of the executive branch of government.
More than that, it was the beginning of the ascendancy of the Religious Right, and the spirit that any method in the service of the Will to Power was justified. That spirit, nurtured by Reagan, the two Bushes and a deeply corrupted GOP, made Donald Trump not only possible but inevitable.
It was that spirit that also made him bafflingly popular with a significant (albeit minority) segment of the American population. It inevitably led to Donald Trump’s own Beer Hall Putsch, again, a badly coordinated but sincere attempt by 2,000 people to seize power on January sixth.
Should that dreadful day go unpunished, or insufficiently punished, future political opportunists might see it as a signal to try it again. After all, leniency worked for Adolf Hitler and the Republican Party. It certainly didn’t stop them.
Predictably, Republicans now claim that pursuit of the January sixth criminals and the impeachment of Donald Trump might spawn “disunity.” What do they mean by that? I think Adam Schiff put it best on Tuesday when he tweeted:
“Some Republicans in Congress seem confused about what “unity” means.
They seem to think that if you don’t give them what they want, you’re not for unity.
That’s not unity, that’s my way or the highway.
We’re in a crisis and Americans need help.
Let’s unite around that.”
Meanwhile, January sixth must be punished. It was an attempt, led by Donald Trump, to destroy American democracy and reverse the will of the American people. Should that day go unpunished it will be seen by some sanctimonious Republicans as not just an attempt to seize power, but a training day. It was easy, too easy really, and might have been successful had it been only slightly better coordinated.
I’m not encouraging a foregone judicial punishment. One of the pillars of American greatness, including the guarantee of the peaceful transfer of power, is the right of individuals to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. We must abide by and be content with whatever conclusions America’s judiciary reaches regarding the January sixth attempted coup. But the judiciary must be allowed to reach a conclusion. Anything less in the misguided name of “unity” will be a colossal error of judgment. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.