History: Parliaments of Hell and Fire

By J Brooks Spector 28 August 2014

With the current unpleasant scuffles in South Africa’s national assembly in mind, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the historical record of parliamentary violence and destruction – beyond the passing of badly drafted legislation.

It is usually pretty easy to tell when it has been a very slow news day in the world. In the midst of the evening television news, just before the weather and sports, but right after the market and financial reports, producers will insert some vivid video footage from one of those stylised, kabuki-like riots that have taken place in some national parliament somewhere – perhaps in Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico, or Italy, or maybe Venezuela. Such a fight usually starts when one of the testier members from one party suddenly rushes his party’s opponents across the aisle – then the fists start flying, along with an occasional chair or two, just to keep things interesting and add a frisson of danger in the air.

If the melee is taking place in one of the Asian parliaments, there will often be close-up shots of the various distinguished members whaling away at each other with those ceremonial white nameplates. Those are the ones that stand vertically about 30 or 40 centimetres tall on each parliamentarian’s desk, the ones that have names written on them in those striking ideographs.  Besides helping parliamentary clerks keep clear about who is seeking recognition or speaking, those nameplates also make for very handy weapons in close order brawling.

Usually such fighting is mostly for show, but every once in a while someone is actually hurt. When that happens, that’s when the TV cameras zoom in on the injured parties for the shock visuals. There’s the blood pouring down over their white shirts and navy blue suits from a nasty head wound, usually as they are escorted from their chamber by hastily summoned emergency medical technicians. But, more usually, these fights are more like the kinds of things that happen on the baseball diamond, the football pitch or the rugby field. It’s mostly just some testosterone bravado and posturing, rather than a real street fight. But regardless, even a fight like that one means the speaker of that particular august body has really lost control of business but good. Does that begin to sound even faintly familiar?

One thing one usually doesn’t see, however, is the arrival of the local police riot squad or SWAT team. Instead, even a group boxing match like one of these fights is usually seen as a parliament’s problem to sort out for itself, rather than the summoning of the marines, given the usual separation of powers and authority that are a fundamental tenet of parliaments, constitutions and democratic governments.

Or, as commentator Raymond Suttner noted on social media the other day, “there is something farcical about this statement [the need for the security cluster to prepare a contingency plan to protect parliament] but it is also dangerous and manufacturing a threat to security from EFF MPs when the danger to our democracy is from the ANC riding roughshod over the constitution.”

If a parliament is in a mess, it remains their Augean stable to clean up, not the country’s security forces. In part this is usually because there is an understanding, even in the midst of the pushing and shoving, that the battling parliamentarians are the most direct representatives of what may be a seriously conflicted electorate and they have a right to govern their governmental arm.

If things are really divided in the country and assembly, it is possible they may end up resorting to a moment where they will duke it out, rather than bore each other to death with long speeches, while considering the revised budget for the national arts council or a proposed recapitalisation of the regional water reticulation system. Or, perhaps, maybe even something crucial like a pending impeachment for a president.

Perhaps the key to understanding such violence is that it seems to come to a boil when the issues in a particular country are especially hot and tempers start to fray, even among country’s elected representatives. Those representatives are human and subject to the same frailties as everyone else.

As one of the most notorious examples, back in 1856, in the United States, at the height of legislative battles over whether slavery should be allowed to exist in new states joining the union, one of the most astonishing fits of legislative violence (short of an actual assassination such as what happened to HF Verwoerd in South Africa or Governor Huey Long in Louisiana) took place on the floor of the Senate Chamber in the US Capitol building. The Senate has long had its reputation as one of the world’s greatest deliberative bodies; but, sometimes, elected representatives took shortcuts in their arguments.

On 19 May 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a staunch abolitionist, had given a fiery speech, personally condemning those senators who were proposing the extension of legalised slavery into the Kansas territory. Holding back very little, he had directed many of his most acrid comments at several senators from the South, including Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Mincing no words, Sumner labelled Butler as an imbecile (as opposed to an honourable member), adding for good measure, “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.” After that, some of Sumner’s friends warned him rhetoric like that would inevitably get him hurt.

Then, three days after Sumner’s speech, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks (who just happened to be Butler’s first cousin) strode into the near-empty Senate Chamber. He walked over to where Sumner was working at his correspondence while sitting at his desk (senators didn’t have office suites until much later in the century and did their work in the Chamber).

Brooks shouted to anyone who could hear him that Sumner’s speech had been a “libel on South Carolina” and then he used his walking stick to beat Sumner about the head and shoulders. Representative Preston Brooks actually had a documented history of violence and a sharp temper. In fact, he was walking with a cane precisely because of injuries he had sustained a decade earlier after being shot in a duel.  Eventually, Brooks’ blows became so fierce that his cane splintered into pieces from his exertions at beating up another elected representative.

The result of this assault, given the temper of the times, was that Brooks became a folk hero in the South – and people began sending him fancy replacement canes as gifts in recognition of his peerless “heroism” in attacking an abolition-advocating official. The House of Representatives voted to expel Brooks, but the motion failed, and Brooks was only fined $300 for the assault. His honour besmirched, he resigned and returned to South Carolina to seek hometown support, whereupon he was overwhelmingly re-elected to the now-vacant congressional seat, further infuriating people in the North. And as for Sumner – well, he had to be carried from the Senate Chamber in a near-comatose state – and it took him three years to recover his ability to function as a senator. He only managed to return to the Senate, just before the actual Civil War finally broke out for real, and judged a martyr for the cause of the abolition of slavery by his supporters.

In fact, in one survey of documented legislative fisticuffs from around the world since the mid-19th century on the Internet runs for pages and pages. This inventory includes numerous slugfests in Bolivia, Estonia, India, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea, Peru, Taiwan, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, various fistfights in US state legislatures and the US Congress besides the Brooks/Sumner bout, as well as Venezuela. And, of course, that list leaves out that fatal pushing and shoving at the Roman Senate, way back in 44 BC, when that putatively aspirant dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of people he had – up until that moment – thought of as colleagues and friends. According to the ancient Roman historians, some 60 different people were part of that bloodthirsty crowd, stabbing him 23 different times.

brooks on parliaments south korea

Members of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) clash in front of the main hall of the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on 08 December 2010 as the GNP tries to enter the hall to deal with next year’s budget bill. The standoff began the previous day when the GNP attempted to unilaterally railroad the controversial bill through the parliament. EPA/YONHAP NEWS AGENCY

But in this catalogue, perhaps one might also include one of history’s most infamous misuses of a parliament – as part of a larger political conspiracy – and as a cautionary tale for our own time. This, of course, was the Reichstag fire in Berlin on 27 February 1933 that became a defining moment for the early days of Nazi Germany. The Reichstag was the core of German politics with all the angry debates, political struggles, and political scheming that were no different from national government buildings elsewhere. As such, its destruction would have had great symbolic significance.

In Germany’s November 1932 election, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party had become the country’s largest single party – but it did not gain a parliamentary majority. After the results were in, Hitler made it abundantly clear he would not be able to work with the German’s national assembly with those results, especially since the two largest parties after the Nazis were both of the left – the Social Democrat Party and the Communist Party. Consequently, new elections were set for 5 March 1933, and, given the times, the real possibility existed the Nazis might even fare worse in a new election than it had in the previous one.

On 27 February 1933, the Reichstag was destroyed in a fierce conflagration. The Nazis captured the alleged perpetrator of the crime – a 24-year-old Dutch communist and labourer, Marius van der Lubbe and he was quickly charged with arson. Thousands of leftists were rounded up and arrested as a result of the fire and Van der Lubbe’s confession of having caused it.

In his confession, Van der Lubbe had reportedly said, “I had to do something myself. I considered arson a suitable method. I did not wish to harm private people but something belonging to the system itself. I decided on the Reichstag. As to the question of whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case.” Then, at his trial, he explained his motives further, “I can only repeat that I set fire to the Reichstag all by myself. There is nothing complicated about this fire. It has quite a simple explanation. What was made of it may be complicated, but the fire itself was very simple.” With that, Van der Lubbe was found guilty – and then executed in January 1934.

Of course there have long been rumours that a select group of Nazi Party militia, the SA, had actually done the deed under party orders. Then, members of the SS secretly killed the SA arsonists. Recently, German historians have offered thorough analyses disputing Van der Lubbe’s guilt. The Telegraph, reporting on historians’ analyses, wrote in 2001,  “While historians have agreed that there is no substance to Nazi claims that German Communists were to blame for the blaze, there has also been a lack of evidence to back the widely held belief that Hitler’s supporters burnt down the parliament building in Berlin. After poring over 50,000 pages of hitherto unexamined documents from former East German and Soviet archives, four leading German historians have now concluded that the fire was a Nazi plot. Marius van der Lubbe, 24, a pro-Communist Dutch labourer, was beheaded by the Nazis after admitting that he started the blaze alone to encourage a workers’ uprising.”

With this conflagration as a suitably lurid backdrop, the 5 March 1933 election then went ahead under the shadow of this “attempted communist revolt.” Even so, the Nazis still only gained 288 seats – and if all of the other parties (from the far left through to the moderate right) had opposed the Nazi Party at any point, it still would not have had an absolute majority in the national parliament. As a result, Hitler and his cronies pushed successfully for emergency legislation, the March 1933 Enabling Act.

This measure effectively eliminated the country’s national assembly as a functioning entity in Germany’s political life. And the furies were thereby unleashed. Perhaps there is a need to learn a bit more from history, rather than simply emulate it sometimes. DM

Photo: Burning of Reichstag, 27 February 1933.

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