“A republic, if you can keep it,” is a quote famously attributed to Benjamin Franklin as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention, upon being asked what sort of government the convention’s delegates had created. What interests me most is the second half of Franklin’s quote: Franklin, a student of various forms of government, emphasizing the fragility of government. Our republic has proven to be resilient — surviving a schism in the 1860s, and other calamities before and since — but its continuation is neither a foregone conclusion nor a certainty.
This year and next mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, perhaps the most massive undertaking in human history: The triumph of good over evil, with countless acts of heroism, and chilling, institutionalized viciousness. It also marks the victory of the rule of law over totalitarian government and all that follows from it. The lessons of the era, while we casually consider what would be revolutionary changes to our form of government, are many.
One lesson, in particular, is how evil incarnate can rise to power. Take one eminently despicable SS Nazi general, Hans Kammler, as an example. Kammler was an early adherent of the Nazi Party, joining the Party even before Hitler fully rose to power. He was an architect and engineer by training, distinguishing himself in the early years of the war as an efficient manager of civil engineering projects. When the Holocaust was to be implemented, it was Kammler who chose Auschwitz as a key camp site, creating the blueprints to double and then redouble the size of the camp. It was Kammler who designed the standard concentration camp barracks. It was Kammler who then installed the gas chambers and crematoria — at Auschwitz and at other camps throughout the Third Reich. He worked not from the safe distance of a bureaucrat, but with weekly and even daily visits to the camps, barking orders, demanding changes, and even firing his pistol into the air to demand greater activity by his underlings. Kammler became an expert at mechanizing death.
His next innovation was Germany’s slave labor trade. In charge of the concentration camps, Kammler and the SS decided to make slaves of the most able-bodied prisoners, renting them out to the German government and German industry and creating a revenue stream for the SS. Kammler became the overseer and predominant user of slave labor in the Nazi regime, using them both to fuel his SS construction projects and to turn a profit for the SS.
In the final year of the war, Kammler became the sole officer promoted to Obergruppenfuhrer, the highest commissioned rank in the SS — second only to Heinrich Himmler himself. From that perch, he ruled all of Germany’s secret weapons, including the revolutionary Vengeance Weapons, the V-1 and V-2 rockets. These were the ultra-secret ‘wonder weapons,’ hinted at in Hitler’s speeches, that were to reverse the course of the war in Germany’s favor. But, as detailed in my new book, “The Hidden Nazi,” Kammler knew that even with the V-2, the war was lost. In December 1944, he cut a deal with the Americans — trade Germany’s rocket team with the Americans to escape justice. A month after the deal was struck, Kammler moved the rocket team to prevent them falling into the hands of the advancing Russians. A month later, Kammler learned the rocket team’s new location would be within the Russian post-war zone of occupation — so he moved the rocket team yet again, to Bavaria, into the path of the American Army.
Kammler, having delivered the rocket team, never faced justice for his horrendous war crimes. Conventional history reports that he committed suicide in the final hours of the war, and so no one pursued him. However, “The Hidden Nazi” presents documents revealing the stranger-than-fiction truth about Kammler. He did not die at the end of the war, but rather lived on. The “Hidden Nazi” tells the rest of the story in detail, with broad lessons about the fragility of the rule of law, and how a highly cultured society can so quickly and thoroughly run off the rails.
Winston Churchill was fond of citing the old saw that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Now is not the time to retry other failed forms of government.
Dean Reuter is the principal author of “The Hidden Nazi: The Untold Story of America’s Deal with the Devil” (Regnery History), and co-editor and author of “Liberty’s Nemesis, and Confronting Terror.”