Today’s dip of the toe in history involves 3 stories:
First up: The Gracchi Brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, each served as Tribune of the Plebs in second century B.C. Rome. They received an excellent Greek education (always a dangerous thing), and, dreaming of democracy, tried to take land and power away from the aristocracy, know as the Optimates. Much land in Republican Rome had been seized as spoils in their victories. To those who have, much is given, it seems: the aristocracy took it all. Roman commoners who had fought to win those wars were left with nothing. Laws were already on the books to give the land to the commoners, but they simply got ignored.
Tiberius made his name as a hero in the Third Punic War, and was elected Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BC. Once it became clear he intended to take ‘their’ land away from them, the Optimates tried every trick in the book to stop him. Finally, the Optimates had him and about 300 of his supporters clubbed to death. This was the first use of murder to ‘solve’ a political problem in centuries, but it set the precedent for the rest of Rome’s life.
Gaius, a somewhat more practical politician, then took up the program, and again had some success. In 122 BC, the Optimates incited a mob to kill him; seeing the writing on the wall he killed himself rather than fall into their hands. Subsequently, several thousand of his followers were arrested and executed.
This ruthless suppression of the Gracchi put a damper on uppity commoners for a while.
Next up, Gaius Marius was a much more sophisticated politician, had few, if any, ideals getting in the way of his desire for power, and was a great general. He was not so intent on actually delivering what he promised to the plebs, except insofar as it furthered his ambitions. He was elected Consul for a record – and tradition-destroying – 7 terms.
He was opposed by another great general, Sulla, and took the ill-fated policy of trying to undermine Sulla’s power from Rome while Sulla was on campaign in Greece. Things got ugly. Following the precedent above, when given the chance, Marius had Sulla’s supporters murdered and their heads put on display.
Unfortunately for him, Sulla also broke tradition and took his army to Rome. While Marius himself lucked out and died of old age in his bed, when Sulla got to Rome, it was a bloodbath. Italians with reason and opportunity to seek revenge are scary.
Now the precedent was changed: you cannot rule in Rome unless you have an army loyal to you.
The escalation from putting out hits, as it were, on your political enemies, to inciting riots and then using the police and courts to having your enemies executed, to waging civil war took under 50 years in Rome. Things were a lot slower back then.
Next up, we have the curious phenomenon of Reichstag Fire. In 1933, Hitler’s Nazi Party had achieved power, but only had a plurality in the German Parliament. Conveniently, somebody (modern historians say: the Nazis themselves) started a fire that burned down the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.
Communists were blamed, a scapegoat found, and marshal law declared. Hitler then used his new power to arrest all the Communists members of Parliament, which – surprise! – then gave the Nazis a simple majority.
The rest is, as they say, History.
Which is largely being repeated. Again.
With that in mind, here’s that timeline:
- Reichstag Fire: Monday 27 February 1933
- Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler took out his competitors within his own coalition: June 30 to July 2, 1934. This is the part I’m anticipating with grim appreciation.
- Took 5 more years to invade Poland.
Or one could use other examples. Perhaps the French Revolution is more apt. But I’m not a real historian, I leave it up to the pros to come up with best fit precedent.