Life is Beautiful, winner of Academy Awards for best foreign film and best actor (Roberto Benigni), is a remarkable movie. This story about a Jewish Italian father’s attempt to shield his son from the Nazis is perhaps the most powerful movie ever made about the Holocaust. The movie makes its impression precisely because it focuses on one family’s ordeal and juxtaposes horror and humor.
What are audiences thinking when they leave the theater? Undoubtedly the standard reactions are along these lines: The Nazis were evil. Or, hate and intolerance are terrible. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
How many people, I wonder, came away thinking: Government can certainly be dangerous. How can we limit its power so it will never engage in systematic mass murder again? Too few, I fear.
Murderous hatred was certainly a necessary condition for the Holocaust. But it was hardly a sufficient condition. How many Jews could Hitler and his thugs have killed had Germany had a strong tradition of individual freedom and private property undergirding a constitutionally limited government? The question answers itself.
In fact, Germany had no such tradition. Modern Germany was the creation of Otto von Bismarck, the authoritarian Iron Chancellor, who used the power of government both to suppress his opponents and to buy the loyalty of the people. He initiated the first modern welfare state. The Bismarckian system featured social insurance for disability, illness, and old age designed to tether the working class to the government and keep them from joining either the liberals (that is, the advocates of small, limited government) or the Marxists. Liberty was given up for security. The result was generations of dependent Germans who looked to government for everything and were willing to do whatever the government asked in return.
That background created a disaster waiting to happen. Germany’s defeat in World War I, the postwar Allied starvation blockade, the vindictive peace treaty and reparations, and the resulting hyperinflation were more than enough to push the German people eagerly into the arms of a classic strongman who identified a scapegoat and promised “justice” for a wronged nation. All they needed to do was give him total power-and they did so.
Murder on the scale perpetrated by Hitler-and Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, et al.-requires a state ; that is, a legitimized machinery of force. Only a state can concentrate the resources, thanks to taxation, necessary for such a monstrous objective. More important, only a state has the mystique, thanks to its schools and other propaganda organs, to command the allegiance required for large numbers of citizens to cooperate or at least to acquiesce. A dictator is just a bully with political power.
Hatred and intolerance are likely to be features of the social landscape for quite some time to come. It would be nice to see them disappear. But let’s be realistic. Trying to prevent future systematic mass murders by abolishing hatred and intolerance is naive and futile-especially if government accumulates new powers in the process.
A more efficacious and feasible course (albeit still difficult) is to institutionalize strict limits on government power. In this country, that means taking the Constitution seriously. James Madison, father of the Constitution, said the document created a government whose powers are “few and defined.” Thomas Jefferson said that if government power is boundless “then we have no Constitution.” The founders realized that freedom and limits on government go together. That’s why they favored separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. Remove the limits and you destroy liberty.
Today government defines its own powers. As a result, we are less free than earlier generations.
The Holocaust was an extreme consequence of the unbounded state. The way to say “never again” is by reining in government with constitutional constraints on power. When that’s accomplished, aspiring dictators will have difficulty achieving office higher than neighborhood tough.