Civilian Dictators, Dictatorial Democrats and Bangladesh (Part 1)

By: | Muhammad Ali Azlan |


Dictatorships are often unexpected. They have arisen among prosperous, educated and cultured people who seemed safe from a dictatorship – in Europe, Asia and South America.

Consider Germany, one of the most paradoxical and dramatic cases.

During the late 19th century, it was widely considered to have the best educational system in the world. If any educational system could inoculate people from barbarism, surely Germany would have led the way. It had early childhood education — kindergarten. Secondary schools emphasized cultural training. Germans developed modern research universities. Germans were especially distinguished for their achievements in science – just think of Karl Benz who invented the gasoline-powered automobile, Rudolf Diesel who invented the compression-ignition engine, Heinrich Hertz who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, Wilhelm Conrad Rőntgen who invented x-rays, Friedrich August Kekulé who developed the theory of chemical structure, Paul Ehrlich who produced the first medicinal treatment for syphilis and, of course, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. It’s no wonder so many American scholars went to German universities for their degrees during the 19th century.

After World War I, German university enrollment soared. By 1931, it reached 120,000 versus a maximum of 73,000 before the war. Government provided full scholarships for poor students with ability. As one chronicler reported, a scholarship student “pays no fees at the university, his textbooks are free, and on most purchases which he makes, for clothing, medical treatment, transportation and tickets to theaters and concerts, he receives substantial reductions in price, and a student may get wholesome food sufficient to keep body and soul together.”

While there was some German anti-Semitic agitation during the late 19th century, Germany didn’t seem the most likely place for it to flourish. Russia, after all, had pogroms – anti-Jewish rioting and persecution – for decades. Russia’s Bolshevik regime dedicated itself to hatred – Karl Marx’s hatred for the “bourgeoisie” whom he blamed for society’s ills. Lenin and his successor Stalin pushed that philosophy farther, exterminating the so-called “rich” who came to include peasants with one cow.

Why, then, did the highly educated Germans embrace a lunatic like Adolf Hitler? The short answer is that bad policies caused economic, military and political crises – chow time for tyrants. German circumstances changed for the worse, and when people become angry enough or desperate enough, sometimes they’ll support crazies who would never attract a crowd in normal circumstances.

Like the other belligerents, Germans had entered World War I with the expectation that they would win and recoup their war costs by making the losers pay. The German government led their people to believe they were winning , so everybody was shocked when the truth came out. Then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech outlining his high-minded “14 Points,” leading the Germans to expect a peace negotiation. But the British and the French – America’s principal allies — were determined to avenge their losses, and vindictive terms were forced on the Germans. They felt betrayed and humiliated. Germany’s principal military commanders realized that whoever signed the armistice would be hated, so they resigned and let a civilian official sign it (he was subsequently assassinated). As a result, the Weimar republic, Germany’s fragile democracy, was immediately discredited.

Hitler was among those agitating against the Weimar government. He joined the German Workers’ Party that, in February 1920, became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) – later shortened to Nazi. It offered a witches’ brew of nationalism, socialism, anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism. The German historian Oswald Spengler influenced early Nazis with his idea of “Prussian socialism.”

Hitler’s main talent seemed to be as a speech maker, so he began giving speeches that appealed to Germans embittered and disillusioned by the outcome of the war. He denounced Jews, capitalists and other alleged villains, vowing to rebuild German greatness.

Historian Ian Kershaw observed that “Without a lost war, revolution, and a pervasive sense of national humiliation, Hitler would have remained a nobody.”

Then came the inflation crisis. Victorious Allies demanded that Germany pay steep reparations, apparently without giving much thought about how the Germans would get the money for that. Trade restrictions made it harder for German companies to earn money through exports. European tariffs generally tripled and were as much as 800% higher than prewar levels.

The German government defaulted on its reparations agreement. Determined to extract reparations from the Germans, in January 1923 the French sent troops into the Ruhr where much of German industry was located. The German government responded by subsidizing those who pursued passive resistance against the French. Consequently, German budget deficits soared.

By itself, reparations would have been daunting, but Germany also had a financially stressed-out welfare state. Almost 90 percent of German government spending went for a big bureaucracy, social programs, money-losing nationalized businesses and other subsidies — a portfolio of obligations uncomfortably familiar to us. The German government subsidized municipalities, much as U.S. states are begging the federal government for bailouts now. Germany had a troubled government-run pension system like our Social Security. The German government provided health insurance for millions of people. There were German government programs for 1.5 million disabled veterans. The government lavished subsidies on the arts. There were government-run theaters and opera houses. Government-owned railroads lost money. The German government even operated factories producing margarine and sausages, which lost money.

The German central bank began printing stupendous quantities of paper money to pay for all this. At the peak of the inflation in late 1923, only 1.3 percent of German government spending was covered by tax revenue. The result was that in less than five years prices soared 100 billion-fold.

Inflation harmed everybody to one degree or another. Many bank deposits were devalued to nothing. Historian Gerald D. Feldman reported that gangs of unemployed coal miners plundered the countryside, because farmers refused to trade their produce for worthless paper money. The government enacted rent controls that limited the ability of landlords to recover their costs and discouraged developers from building more apartments. So cities borrowed from foreign lenders to build housing that lost money. Libraries and museums couldn’t maintain their collections because of inflation. Much scientific research became financially impossible, too.

Historian Konrad Heiden reported, “On Friday afternoons in 1923, long lines of manual and white-collar workers waited outside the pay-windows of German factories, department stores, banks and offices. Each received a bag full of paper notes. According to the figures inscribed on them, the paper notes amounted to seven hundred thousand or five hundred million, or three hundred and eighty billion, or eighteen trillion marks – the figures rose from month to month, then from week to week, finally from day to day. People dashed to the nearest food stores where lines had already formed. When they reached the stores, a pound of sugar, for example, might have been obtainable for two million marks; but by the time they came to the counter all they could get for two million marks was a half-pound. Everybody scrambled for things that would keep until the next pay-day.”

People employed in the private sector were enraged when unionized government employees – who carried out the government’s disastrous economic policies — succeeded in having their salaries pre-paid, so they could convert the currency into goods before the currency depreciated further. The publication Soziale Praxis reported: “It seems significant to us that public opinion is now gradually turning against the civil service to an extent that gives great concern. How much hostility is daily directed against that portion of the employed German people with civil service status is shown by the press and also even by those parties which previously supported the civil service and now press for a reduction of the civil service.”

Hitler gave speeches appealing to those he called “starving billionaires” who had billions of paper marks but couldn’t afford a loaf of bread. Altogether, during the inflation, Hitler recruited some 50,000 Nazis and became a political force to reckon with.

In August 1977, a small crew from Pakistan Television (PTV), visited a house of a former general of the Pakistan Army. The general had also been the country’s president between March 1969 and December 1971. He had

been living in that house since early 1972 and was hardly ever seen in public for over five years. He had been under house arrest.

Apart from this, he had also become a virtual recluse.

The PTV crew was being headed by late Burhanuddin Hasan, a senior employee of PTV’s station in Rawalpindi. The man he went to meet with his cameraman and technicians was Yahya Khan. Hasan in his 2005 book, ‘Uncensored’ wrote that he had been ordered by the Martial Law regime of Gen Zia (which had come into power through a coup in July 1977), to interview Yahya.

Former minister in the Z.A. Bhutto government, Dr Mubashir Hasan, in his 2001 book, ‘The Mirage of Power’ wrote that when a vicious civil war and a subsequent confrontation with India (that was backing Bengali nationalists) triggered the breaking away of East Pakistan, a group of angry army officers forced Yahya to resign and hand over power to Bhutto.

Bhutto became the new head of the state and government and quietly placed Yahya under house arrest.

Yahya was hardly seen or heard from again. One section of the now highly polarised polity accused Yahya’s ‘incompetence’ for the East Pakistan debacle, while the other section put the blame on Bhutto’s ‘arrogance’ and ‘ego’.

Yahya refused to speak on the subject, telling Hasan that he had already said what he wanted to say to a commission that was set up by the Bhutto regime to investigate the East Pakistan debacle.

During his silence and reclusion, the left accused him of blundering during the East Pakistan commotion and losing a war against India, whereas the right scorned at him for turning the military into a lot of decadent and morally bankrupt men. Such loud and now deeply-ingrained denouncements have sidelined certain acts of his which at the time were rather revolutionary.

Yahya Khan was the second Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan. Ayub Khan, his predecessor, at the time of his fall in 1969 gave him that status. After six days of assuming power as the CMLA, Yahya Khan became the President of Pakistan on 31 March 1969 and kept that position till 6 December 1971.

Yahya had fought in World War II as a member of the British Indian army and was captured in Italy and sent to a brutal prisoners’ camp being operated by Mussolini’s fascist regime and its German Nazi allies. Yahya joined the Pakistan Army after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Brigadier Samir Battachariya in his 2013 book, ‘Nothing But!’ explains Yahya (in the 1950s) as being a ‘hard-drinking man’ but one who was ‘a thoroughly professional officer.’

In 1965 he was made Major-General by the regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and led an infantry division during the 1965 war against India. In 1966 Ayub made him Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army.

The Ayub regime which had fused together secularism, ‘modernist Islam’, capitalism and a complex strand of democracy (‘basic democracies’) had remained popular in its first six years (1958-65). But the 1965 war had a negative impact on the economy and subsequent ethnic and political tensions triggered a widespread movement against the regime in 1968. Yahya, whose influence within the armed forces had increased, nudged Ayub to resign. Ayub quit in March 1969. Yahya took over as president and imposed the country’s second martial law.

Yahya lessened the curbs imposed on the press, suspended Ayub’s 1962 constitution and assured the political parties that Pakistan was to become a parliamentary democracy. But just as the Urdu tabloids got busy publishing details of the general’s colourful life awash with wine and women, Yahya was also busy doing what was once deemed impossible.

His political reign was marked by these significant features:

a: Legal Framework Order 1970

b: Dissolution of One-Unit

c: Holding of Pakistan’s first free elections on adult franchise

d: Success of Pakistan Peoples Party in West Pakistan and of Awami League in East Pakistan that confirmed the drastic political differences between the two wings of the country.

e: The war of 1971 and the division of Pakistan into two independent states.

Though the elections held under Yahya are still considered to be the fairest ever in Pakistan, the results brought the prejudices and tensions between West and East Pakistan out into the open.

After Bhutto’s failure to win the elections and Mujib’s whopping victory, the country and it’s complex dynamics were at stake and tensions were at an all time high, on top was a careless leader who did not pay heed to the impending doom which was to fall upon his country.

Mujeeb’s Bengali nationalist rhetoric became increasingly militant and Bhutto exploited this to the hilt. After failing to get the newly-elected assembly to come together and pen a new constitution, Yahya sided with Bhutto’s narrative seeing it as the will of the people.

Stunned, after the 1971 debacle, believing he alone was not responsible for the tragedy. But the mood had swung and an overwhelmed nation was looking for a scapegoat. Yahya became one when he was forced to resign by his own men. After his ouster, he went completely silent.

The colourful dictator who had become the harbinger of parliamentary democracy and provincial autonomy became an elusive, mythical villain who was never heard from again.


The writer tweets @MuhammadAliAzlan



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