The notion of democracy often comes into those debates too. Hitler, it is said, was democratically elected. Er, so that's all right then? The Holocaust and all? Hamas, it is said of more recent times, was democratically elected too. Oh, OK. So the terror attacks - oh, please yourselves.
Let's shed a little light. It is interesting to discover, as I have this week, that the 1930s President of Germany, Hindenberg, who died in 1934, left a will, later destroyed, whose contents were known to at least one person other than the Nazis, and whose contents, as reported, have now come to light. From The Times (£) today, this: (editorial errors - were the subs having an off day, or don't they have subs any more? all theirs)
Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934. A few hours later, the Reich Government announced that the offices of president and chancellor would now been combined under Hitler, as the supreme Führer. A plebiscite was called, to allow the German people to express its collective opinion of Hitler’s unprecedented new role as both head of the government and head of state.
Hitler got wind of the existence of the will, and gave orders to “ensure that this document comes into my possession as soon as possible”. Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg, son of the late President but a loyal Nazi, duly handed his father’s will over. It has never been found.
Four days before the plebiscite, however, the Nazis announced the discovery of Hindenburg’s “political testament”, which gave an account of his political career and included complimentary references to Hitler; it may have been a forgery.
Hindenburg’s apparent endorsement of Hitler from beyond the grave came at a crucial moment. On August 19, 1934, a fortnight after Hindenburg’s death, some 38 million German voters approved Hitler’s usurpation of power, with fewer than five million voting against it. The following day, the Nazis brought in the mandatory oath of loyalty for every member of the German army. Hitler was now all-powerful.
Why then, Hitler's assumption of absolute power was done by the will of the people, through democracy, I hear you cry. (Hamas did it by throwing the opposition out of windows, but that is another story). Er, no. Democracy and a plebiscite are not the same thing. That is why in a more banal but also important context, a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union would be wrong. I am against referendums in principle (though if one is called I vote) because governments are there to govern. Candidates get elected, or should, on the basis of their policies and what their parties stand for, or are perceived to. And some at least of that depends on how engaged the electorate are with the democratic process - how interested they are in what their elected representatives do on their behalf.
I don't know who elects the President of Germany, in the 1930s or now, but whoever does or did what did they think about Hindenberg's naming of Hitler Chancellor of Germany, apparently against his better judgment, when old and ill and perhaps under pressure? These things can happen in democracies.
A plebiscite, a referendum, is a platform for ranting demagogues. I'm against them.
Postscript: does anayone remember Al Stewart's history songs from the 1970s? Not being a historian, I learned a lot from them. There was one called "The Last Day of June 1934", which conotained the lines "On the night that Ernst Roehm died the voices rang out... grown strong like the joining of wills".
Yes. Think on. Democracy or demagoguery? Good faith or bad?