Can we defeat fascism through the superiority of our arguments, by letting loose the BBC’s finest presenters and allowing the racists to expose themselves in the “glare of publicity”?
Those who defend allowing Nazi British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin on to BBC Question Time often put forward these arguments.
But they need to learn from history. They should look back to another country where the Nazis were allowed to pose as respectable parliamentarians and given a free run in the media, with liberal and left wing opponents debating them.
That country was Germany, in the years immediately before Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933.
The Nazis were clear that they were using democracy in order to destroy all democracy.
As early as 1925, Hitler stated, “Our movement is anti-parliamentarian, and even its participation in a parliamentary institution can only imply activity for its destruction.”
Yet the leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the equivalent of the Labour Party in Britain today, urged their supporters to only oppose the fascists by “legal”, constitutional means – not attempting to break up Nazi meetings.
As Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, the SPD’s newspaper, Vorwaerts, printed a special edition.
It said, “In the face of a government that threatens a coup d’état, social democracy stands firm on the grounds of the constitution and legality.”
Today, with the knowledge of the Holocaust and mass destruction that fascism led to, few could argue against the idea that Hitler should have been stopped by any means necessary.
A show of determined resistance by the working class movement and anti-fascists would have stopped the German ruling class from handing power to Hitler.
Hitler said later, after he took power, “Only one thing could have stopped us – if our adversaries had, from the first day, smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our movement.”
Unfortunately Germany’s mass Communist Party was engaged in a period of extreme sectarianism.
It would not unite with others to challenge the Nazis and Hitler was appointed chancellor without the slightest opposition on the streets.
What happened in Germany was not inevitable.
Big business came late to the decision to give Hitler power.
A section of it had always been prepared to fund the Nazis, but most preferred more conventional right wing politicians.
They hoped they could “house train” Hitler once he was in office.
Instead, the Nazis contaminated the German ruling class.
Big business, the bankers, generals and civil service were drawn towards policies and beliefs which would lead to genocide.
The idea that Nazis are intellectual illiterates who can be shown up by “cleverer” politicians misses out something else too.
Many of Germany’s sharpest journalists and finest minds joined the Nazi party long before Hitler took power – so it cannot even be claimed that they only took out a party card to keep their jobs.
The universities were a stronghold of the Nazis as early as 1931.
The country’s foremost philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was a Nazi. He was elected rector of Freiburg university.
His first act was to abolish all democracy on campus, including the bodies which had elected him.
Worse followed. Jewish and “anti-Nazi” books were burned on campus, while Heidegger lauded antisemitic books and attacked Jews. He remained a Nazi party member until Germany’s surrender in 1945.
The equivalents of today’s top journalists and commentators – who claim today they should be let loose on Nick Griffin because they will trounce him – supported the Nazis, even if they found them a bit uncouth.
They were terrified a destructive economic crisis would lead to revolution, and they hated the left and the working class.
Before Hitler took power there were plenty of liberals and left wingers in Germany who argued that the views of Joseph Goebbels – later Hitler’s propaganda minister – were reprehensible, but that he should be heard because he was an MP.
But on taking over as propaganda minister he immediately moved to close down all press freedom in Germany.
Those who had once debated with Goebbels and the Nazis vanished into the concentration camps.
Goebbels declared, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
“The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and military consequences of the lie.
“It thus becomes vitally important for the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”
Today, arguments about democracy and “free speech” are used to justify allowing Goebbels’ spiritual heirs, the BNP, on to the BBC.
Yet it is impossible to debate with people whose main tactic is to tell such “big lies” – to the extent of denying the Holocaust, something Nick Griffin has a criminal conviction for.
Hitler’s victory shows we cannot trust big business or the liberal elite to fight the Nazis.
It shows what happens if we allow the Nazis to gain respectability, and what happens when we fail to mobilise in opposition to them.
The BBC has learned nothing from history. We should not make the same mistake.