In his 1937 "Great Contemporaries," Winston Churchill wrote, "Whatever else may be thought about (Hitler's) exploits, they are among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world."
Churchill was referring not only to Hitler's political triumphs -- the return of the Saar and reoccupation of the Rhineland -- but his economic achievements. By his fourth year in power, Hitler had pulled Germany out of the Depression, cut unemployment from 6 million to 1 million, grown the GNP 37 percent and increased auto production from 45,000 vehicles a year to 250,000. City and provincial deficits had vanished.
In material terms, Nazi Germany was a startling success.
And not only Churchill and Lloyd George but others in Europe and America were marveling at the exploits of the Third Reich, its fascist ally Italy and Joseph Stalin's rapidly industrializing Soviet state. "I have seen the future, and it works," Lincoln Steffins had burbled. Many Western men, seeing the democracies mired in Depression and moral malaise, were also seeing the future in Berlin, Moscow, Rome.
In Germany, Hitler was winning plebiscites with more than 90 percent of the vote in what outside observers said were free elections.
What calls to mind the popularity of the Third Reich and the awe it inspired abroad -- even after the bloody Roehm purge and the Nazi murder of Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss in 1934, and the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws -- is a poll buried in The New York Times.
In a survey of 24 countries by Pew Research Center, the nation that emerged as far and away first on earth in the satisfaction of its people was China. No other nation even came close.
"Eighty-six percent of Chinese people surveyed said they were content with the country's direction, up from 48 percent in 2002. ... And 82 percent of Chinese were satisfied with their national economy, up from 52 percent," said the Times.
Yet, China has a regime that punishes dissent, severely restricts freedom, persecutes Christians and all faiths that call for worship of a God higher than the state, brutally represses Tibetans and Uighurs, swamps their native lands with Han Chinese to bury their cultures and threatens Taiwan.
China is also a country where Maoist ideology has been replaced by a racial chauvinism and raw nationalism reminiscent of Italy and Germany in the 1930s. Yet, again, over 80 percent of all Chinese are content or even happy with the direction of the country. Two-thirds say the government is doing a good job in dealing with the issues of greatest concern to them.
And what nation is it whose people rank as third most satisfied?
Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Moscow is today more nationalistic, less democratic and more confrontational toward the West than it has been since before the fall of communism. Power is being consolidated, former Soviet republics are hearing dictatorial growls from Moscow and a chill reminiscent of the Cold War is in the air.
Yet, wrote the Times, "Russians were the third most satisfied people with their country's direction, at 54 percent, despite Western concerns about authoritarian trends."
Of the largest nations on earth, the two that today most satisfy the desires of their peoples are the most authoritarian.
High among the reasons, of course, are the annual 10 percent to 12 percent growth China has experienced over the last decade, and the wealth pouring into Russia for the oil and natural gas in which that immense country abounds. Still, is this not disturbing? In China and Russia, the greatest of world powers after the United States, people seem to value freedom of speech, religion or the press far less than they do a rising prosperity and national pride and power. And they seem to have little moral concern about crushing national minorities.
Contrast, if you will, the contentment of Chinese and Russians with the dissatisfaction of Americans, only 23 percent of whom told the Pew poll they approved of the nation's direction. Only one in five Americans said they were satisfied with the U.S. economy.
Other polls have found 82 percent of Americans saying the country is headed in the wrong direction, only 28 percent approving of President Bush's performance and only half that saying they approve of the Congress. In Britain, France and Germany, only three in 10 expressed satisfaction with the direction of the nation.
Liberal democracy is in a bear market. Is it a systemic crisis, as well?
In his 1992 "The End of History," Francis Fukuyama wrote of the ultimate world triumph of democratic capitalism. All other systems had fallen, or would fall by the wayside. The future belonged to us.
Democratic capitalism, it would appear, now has a great new rival -- autocratic capitalism. In Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, nations are beginning to imitate the autocrats of China and Russia, even as some in the 1930s sought to ape fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
The game is not over yet. We are going into extra innings.
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