People do believe the strangest things

England's greatest historical myth still provides them with an annual unofficial holiday. Everybody acts as if they believed the most incredible story you will hear in a long time.

A man called Guy Fawkes was supposed to have filled the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder, without any of the guards noticing anything unusual. His plan was supposed to involve blowing up all the members of parliament and the king during the ceremonial opening of the year's business for 1605. Of course, the secret police were in the know from the start. They started the plot.

The result was that Fawkes and his co-conspirators were arrested dramatically the night before the planned opening of parliament. They were burned at the stake and Guy Fawkes is still burned in effigy on bonfires all over England on 5th November to commemorate this 'triumph of democracy', actually the survival of a parliament packed with stooges appointed by an absolute monarch.

In one town they used to burn an effigy of the Pope because the chosen conspirators were all Catholics, a persecuted minority that made a suitable target for mindless mob violence and further persecution. That xenophobia and religious bigotry lasted for centuries – to provide scapegoats and distract Britain's more ignorant and oppressed subjects from the real cause of their troubles.

More recently, Adolf Hitler's Nazi party won enough seats in parliament in Germany in 1933 to make them essential partners in any coalition government – but not enough to rule alone. They wanted to rule without coalition partners, so somebody burned down the parliament building (Reichstag).

The communists were blamed, rounded up and jailed. Other left-wing parties accused of sympathising with them were banned. Independent newspapers were closed down. Lots of people found themselves in jail after the panic that followed the fire. When things calmed down, so many MPs were in prison that the Nazis were now the majority among the MPs who were still at large.

Hitler became Chancellor, the remaining political parties were 'persuaded' to dissolve themselves and the stage was set for banning trade unions and other associations that were not 100% Nazi-controlled, for persecution and eventually massacre of millions of Jews. Germany was on its way to a war that killed some 70 million people and left Germany itself bombed flat.

Maybe you can't fool all the people all the time, but you don't need to. In this second case, nobody needed to believe the story of a communist plot, though it probably helped if the Nazi rank and file, Hitler Youth and other thugs did. The people who were spreading it had spread so much fear that their opponents felt helpless and paralysed.

Which of these two possibilities, a witch-hunt against the wrong suspect, or a paralysing fear, sounds more likely in our situation? We don't have to fall into either trap if we have the right balance of caution and courage: caution not to do anything ill-judged, courage to act on what we see clearly.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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