03/28/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Iraq, the GOP and the Lesson of 1933

It was a funny coincidence that the nation and the rest of the world marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war fiasco at the same moment that CPAC, the only group of people who still believe "Bush's folly" was a great idea, was having its annual hootenanny in Washington.

As it happened, I was in Berlin while all that was going on.

Berliners are marking another anniversary this year: 80 years ago, in 1933, the National Socialists came to power. Some of this marking comes in the form of public art installations -- groups of tall kiosks with photos and text illustrating some of the important moments in the Nazi ascension.

Fascinating and chilling as each individual display is, the thrust of all of them is to remind viewers that the triumph of Nazism happened in out in the open, in plain sight and with the approval -- enthusiastic or tacit -- of many ordinary Germans.

In 1933 Hitler came to power not through a palace coup or a fortuitous assassination but through the mechanisms of German democracy which he distorted and manipulated to extraordinary effect. The lesson of 1933 for Germans, therefore, is that liberal democracy is a fragile institution indeed, and it requires a great deal of public diligence to preserve.

One should never draw the Nazi analogy. To do so is almost inevitably to betray the real history of the years 1933-1945. But the lesson of 1933 remains relevant. Look around the world today and you can find several nations where democracy has been subverted into autocracy: Russia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela.

Closer to home, 10 years ago a Republican administration, asserting that in time of war the president had unchecked authority, and a supine Republican Congress, used a combination of demagoguery, dishonesty and bullying to foist the Iraq War on us. That $2 trillion tragedy also happened in plain sight, and with the approval -- enthusiastic or tacit -- of a great many ordinary Americans.

Even more troubling than the GOP's position on particular issues is that the party has been taken over by those who evince contempt for the democratic process itself. On the one hand, John Boehner tells the nation that 'we will not compromise' on another, GOP operatives around the country work feverishly to deny people access to the voting booth.

Back when he was in the House, former Speaker Newt Gingrich thundered that Democrats were traitors -- ipso facto, apparently, because they disagreed with Republicans. When George Bush announced in November, 2001 that "you're either with us or against us," he wasn't just describing the administration's approach to terrorism, but the GOP world view.

Yet, the take-over of the GOP by dangerous extremists has taken place in plain sight and has been abetted by a public discourse which rarely calls this extremism what it is. Instead, we keeps insisting that there must be two, equal sides to every question. If I say the earth is round, the GOP must be entitled to the same respect when it announces that it is flat.

What historians will make of President Obama's successes and failures remains to be seen. But there is no question that he inherited a bigger mess than any president since Abraham Lincoln. When FDR took office in 1933 the economy was probably in worse shape, but he had little to concern him overseas, much less two feckless and failing wars; in 1969 Vietnam was also a tragic quagmire, but the economy Richard Nixon took over was still relatively healthy.

What has become clear since 2011, however, is that Obama has had a third crisis to confront: the near-collapse of any sense of effective governance caused by the relentless obstructionism of Congressional Republicans. Writing in the March 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew notes "No modern president from either party had been confronted with such an obdurate opposition. In an institution where it is essential, 'compromise' had never before been a term of obloquy."

Which brings us back to 1933 again.

Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated shortly after Adolph Hitler seized power in Germany. Perhaps FDR's greatest achievement in the end had nothing to do with specific policies or programs, like farm supports or Social Security or the FDIC. In 1933 the prevailing ideology of laissez faire, gonzo capitalism had left 25 percent of Americans unemployed and with no end in sight. Under such circumstances National Socialism -- and its twin, Stalinism -- looked seductive to many Americans.

FDR re-instilled in Americans the faith that democracy could still work to solve our collective problems. Many people have observed that FDR saved American capitalism from its own worst excesses -- and he did -- but he may well have saved the American liberal democracy too. That may ultimately prove to be Obama's biggest challenge too -- bigger than health care, or underwater mortgages. Especially because, unlike FDR, Obama must work with a Congress that refuses to work with him.

In their enthusiasm to thwart the president, in their refusal to acknowledge the results of November's elections, and in their disdain for democratic compromise, conservatives -- like the folks who attended CPAC and used it as a kind of primal-scream group therapy session -- have forgotten the lesson of 1933.

Steven Conn is professor of history at Ohio State University and editor of To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press, 2012)