“Tyranny springs from democracy much as democracy springs from oligarchy. Both arise from excess; the one from excess of wealth, the other from excess of freedom. ‘The great natural good of life,’ says the democrat, ‘is freedom.’ And this exclusive love of freedom and regardlessness of everything else, is the cause of the change from democracy to tyranny.”
The monarchy of the German Empire gave way to the democracy of the Weimar Republic, which became fascist Nazi Germany. The reasons why are extraordinarily complex and unable to be explained briefly, but perhaps the extreme fragmentation of the Weimar Reichstag was a form of “excess of freedom”. As you can see here, twenty-nine distinct political parties occupied a seat in the lower house at some point.
The above quote may sound like a post-World War II meditation on the nature of democracy. However, it was actually written in 380 BCE. Roughly a century after democracy was “invented” in Ancient Greece in 508 BCE, Plato wrote The Republic, a formative work of political theory. To a modern audience, Plato’s words read like an eerie prophesy about Nazi Germany. Plato’s next remarks, then, are even more chilling.
“The protector, who tastes human blood, slays some and exiles others with or without law…that is, a tyrant. Perhaps he is driven out, but he soon comes back from exile; and then if his enemies cannot get rid of him by lawful means, they plot his assassination…In the early days of his tyranny he smiles and beams upon everybody; he is not a ‘dominus,’ no, not he: he has only come to put an end to debt and the monopoly of land…He has to make a purgation of the State…the more hated he is, the more he will require trusty guards; but how will he obtain them? ‘They will come flocking like birds’…And the people have jumped from the fear of slavery into slavery, out of the smoke into the fire. Thus liberty, when out of all order and reason, passes into the worst form of servitude…”
Hitler came to the German people, promising to fix their broken economy, and take back the territory which some claimed had been unfairly taken away from them. Eventually, he made a “purgation of the State”, slaying millions of people in the name of “racial purity”. All the while, the SS eagerly protected Hitler and his government. In the end, the German elite were so afraid of the threat the radical left posed, they didn’t see the threat coming from the radical right until it was too late.
You can read the full text of Plato’s Republic here.