Democracy’s Unexpected Keeper?: The Role of the Military and Police in Building and Maintaining Democracy 

By Alec Medine

The Undemocratic Military?

The year is 1974, and unrest is brewing in the capital of a Southern European, pseudo-fascist colonial empire. The regime had entered a period of steady decline as it became embroiled in long, bloody wars to keep hold of its African colonies. Both domestic and international criticism against the dictatorship was mounting, and the situation seemed to be coming to a head. Then, the military intervened; not against the regime’s dissenters, but rather, to mount an uprising that toppled the dictatorial government in Portugal’s famous Carnation Revolution. 

In the study of politics, security forces tend to have a strained relationship with the ideas of democracy. Whereas democracy tends to emphasize egalitarianism, personal freedom, cautious deliberation, and is conducive to pacifism, the military and other security services tend to prize the authoritarian attributes of hierarchy, discipline, and the projection of strength. Political scientists use this contrast to explain why military coups often undermine developing (and sometimes even established) democracies. In this understanding,  the security apparatus is regarded as a necessary evil which has to exist in order to enforce the rule of law and to protect the state and its citizens from foreign enemies. Otherwise, however, most modern western democracies have embraced a philosophy of keeping security organizations (like the military) at arm’s length from the democratically elected government, lest these forces intervene directly in civilian politics. 

In some exceptional cases, however, the military has played a critical role in creating or maintaining democracy. In many cases, the security forces of the military and police have exemplified  conscientious leadership, and have used their strength to support democratic ideals and values.  

Germany and the July Plot of 1944

Perhaps one of the most vivid and heroic examples of a military conscientiously intervening into national politics was the July Plot of 1944 in Germany. For more than twelve years, the Nazi Party had reigned over Germany as the most infamous dictatorship in world history. Under the Nazi reign of terror, the world was plunged into a hideous world war costing 70 million lives. In addition, the Nazis killed around 11 million people on racial and political grounds, over half of whom were Jews. 

By 1944, the German strategic situation was becoming increasingly desperate as the Allied forces began to surround Germany. At the same time, the Holocaust  reached its bloodiest year as Nazi authorities enacted the “Final Solution,” which sought to kill the entire Jewish population of Europe. Under these circumstances, a circle of German and Austrian military officers gathered to plot the overthrow of the Nazi regime, stop the Holocaust, and  end the war with an honorable peace between Germany and the Allies.

The conspirators behind the plot formulated it for a number of reasons. Most were tired of the war and wanted a new government willing to end hostilities. Some, such as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, were appalled by the atrocities the regime had committed against Jews, and sought to save Germany’s morality by overthrowing the Nazi regime. The mastermind behind the plot, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, believed that Hitler had to be killed to save Germany from disaster, and was also appalled by Germany’s crimes against humanity. 

The actual details of the plot were complicated and ambitious. Most of the conspirators were deeply embedded within the Nazi governmental and military apparatus, holding senior ranks within the military and civil service. The officials hoped their powers, responsibilities, and political connections would enable them to bring the regime down from within. 

The coup would first start with the assassination of Hitler at his bunker in East Prussia, called the Wolfschanze, or “Wolf’s Lair.” In this attack, the assassin was supposed to plant a bomb under Hitler’s table while the dictator was at a routine staff meeting; the sudden death of the German leader was then set to trigger the deployment of reserve troops in every major city in the German Reich, including Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna, as prescribed by a military action dubbed Operation “Valkyrie.” The coup’s conspirators, as the commanders of the reserve forces, planned to emerge from the chaos and falsely claim that the Nazis were launching a coup in which they killed Hitler to bring about another replacement within the party. Under the pretext of quashing this sham coup and restoring order, the commanders of the reserve troops would then order the mass arrest of all Nazi Party officials once their soldiers were in place. With the Nazi Party neutralized, the members of the plot would take on positions in the new German government and begin suing for peace with the Allied powers. 

During its actual execution, the July Plot experienced several fatal problems. First, Stauffenberg was the only person to volunteer to carry out the bomb strike on Hitler, a responsibility he took on top of orchestrating the rest of the operation. This considerably complicated the logistics of the coup: Stauffenberg would have to plant the bomb anonymously before escaping the scene to avoid raising suspicion, and would also be rushed in arriving at his headquarters in Berlin to lead the next phase of the plan.

Second, Hitler changed the location of his meeting. Rather than holding the meeting within the confined concrete walls of his bunker, Hitler opted to host it in a wooden house due to the hot summer weather, which dampened the potential explosive effect of the bomb. Third, Colonel Stauffenberg was only able to prime one of his two bombs. He could only use one arm to work out the complicated procedure to set the fuse, as he lost the other one in an injury sustained during combat, and thus arrived late at the meeting even after priming only one bomb.

Fourth, after arriving late, Stauffenberg could not get a seat close enough to Hitler, and had to sit three seats away from the dictator before setting the explosives and making his escape. When the bomb finally exploded, Hitler survived the blast and sustained only minor injuries.

Hitler showing Mussolini the room where the Stauffenberg’s bomb went off. Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images. 

Nonetheless, the plotters chose to initiate Operation “Valkyrie,” not knowing that Hitler had survived the attack. Within a matter of hours, after the troops had begun making arrests, Hitler made a public address over the radio assuring the public that he had survived and would find those who had tried to kill him. Once the remaining Nazi officials heard that Hitler survived, they realized that something was suspicious about the arrest actions, and decided to resist the arrests. Hitler then ordered Operation “Valkyrie” to be halted before capturing and charging all officers and government officials who were involved with treason. 

Soldiers loyal to the Nazi regime surrounded Stauffenberg’s headquarters in Berlin. By the evening, he and a number of other conspirators were dragged out and executed by firing squad in the courtyard of his office building; the building now houses a museum dedicated to the German Resistance. A number of the remaining conspirators were arrested and subjected to a show trial; at the trial, the infamous Nazi judge Roland Freisler sentenced most of them to death for their actions. 

Although the July Plot and Operation “Valkyrie” ultimately failed, the story stands as an example of ethical German military leadership during one of the darkest times in human history. Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators are now hailed as national heroes in Germany, and the German military continues to use their legacy as an example for how its soldiers and officers should behave as ethical citizens in uniform. 

Portugal and the Carnation Revolution of 1974

By 1974, Portugal had become one of the longest-standing dictatorships in Europe alongside its neighbor, Spain. The country enjoyed a brief stint as  a republican democracy following the 1910 Revolution, which overthrew the longstanding Portuguese monarchy. But a military coup in 1926 plunged the Atlantic nation into a military dictatorship, and another in 1933 led to a descent into fascism. That year, Antonio Salazar seized full governmental control of Portugal and began reforming the state into a fascist regime inspired by Mussolini’s Italy, which he dubbed the “Estado Novo,” or “New State.” (Not to be confused with the contemporaneous authoritarian regime in Brazil also called the Estado Novo.) Salazar’s regime was founded on the ideals of extreme political conservatism and Catholicism, and strove for a strong colonial empire. 

After the end of World War II (in which the country remained neutral despite its political proclivities), Portugal experienced both rapid economic growth and also growing political problems. The country remained largely impoverished. Portugal also tried to maintain its colonial holdings in a time of rapid decolonization across much of the world, leading to a series of drawn-out wars in Angola, Mozambique, and its other colonies. In 1968, Salazar, whose political will had been keeping the at that point not-so-new “New State” together for the previous 35 years, suffered a stroke, passing power onto one of his loyalists, Marcello Caetano. Caetano, despite promising modest democratization, continued Salazar’s policy of suppressing the regime’s political opponents, but lacked his predecessor’s power to retain control. 

Under these circumstances, a group of military officers formed a secret organization called the Movimento das Forcas Armadas (“Armed Forces Movement”, or MFA). Although they expressed communist sympathies, the organization was democratic in nature and plotted to overthrow the regime which continued to embroil them in endless colonial warfare. 

On April 25, 1974, the officers of the MFA finally rose up against the regime. The coup received considerable popular support in Lisbon, despite the military warning civilians to remain at home. Some demonstrators began placing carnations into the barrels of the guns belonging to soldiers participating in the coup, a gesture for which the revolution is now named. The combination of the MFA’s strike on the government and the massive civilian demonstrations in favor of the coup put intense pressure on the regime, which promptly collapsed without significant fighting.  

Portuguese soldiers participating in the coup carrying carnations in their rifles and on their uniforms. Source: Discover Walks Blog

Following the ouster of the Estado Novo regime, the MFA formed a military junta to govern the country. However,  a pro-communist coup and then a pro-moderate coup soon followed. Nonetheless, on the one-year anniversary of the initial Carnation Coup, on April 25, 1975, the MFA junta held the country’s first free elections. The new government rewrote the Portuguese constitution, replacing  the old fascist constitution of 1933. With new elections the following year, Portugal had set itself on a path of democratization and decolonization, and is now a successful democracy within the European Union. 

The Military’s Place in Building and Keeping Democracy

In many countries, the security and defense forces maintain an unusual and sometimes strained relationship with democratic ideals. However, the examples of the July Plot and Carnation Revolution show that this is not always the case; indeed, in both Germany in the 1940s and Portugal in the 1970s, a number of military officers strove to end rather than perpetuate the dictatorships dominating their country. Both groups of officers agreed that a new and different government was necessary to save the nation, and that this new government could not be just another dictatorship. Their military ideals matched the goals of democracy: they sought to create a society that is open, fair, ethical, and — perhaps surprisingly — peaceful.  

Once democracy is established, militaries tend to work best within society when there are strong constitutional limits on how the military interacts with the civilian government. These safeguards protect the state from politicians with military ambitions as well as military officials with political ambitions. Strong legal frameworks prescribe the precise role of the armed forces within the national government. Dictatorships tend to lack these strong distinctions because they rely on the military to be an additional arm of the state’s enforcement power. Conversely, democratization means defining the role of the state’s security forces in a way that removes their pretext to enter into power. 

The republics of Latin America are a remarkable success story in how they formed stable democracies out of a region once plagued by coups and military dictatorships. By the 1980s and 1990s, these military regimes had to bow to popular pressure to hand power over to democratic civilian governments. Since then, the role of the military in these states have become better defined legally. And notably, coups are no longer a frequent political occurrence in the region. 

Finally, the values of loyalty and discipline can also be channeled not only for the purpose of upholding the state, but also maintaining democracy. The German Bundeswehr stands as perhaps the greatest example of democratizing the mission of the national armed forces; modeled after the July 20th leaders, civic education around the concepts of democracy and ethics comprises a critical part of training for the German soldier, framed around the idea that soldiers are “citizens in uniform.” The United States military is similar in embracing the tradition of the “citizen-at-arms,” harkening back to the minutemen of the American Revolution who fought to make the Thirteen Colonies into an independent democracy. Outside of fighting for those basic democratic principles which define the United States, the U.S. armed forces have embraced a strictly apolitical stance in the American government. 

The security forces of even the most heinous states  have the ability to wield their power for ethical purposes. As long as governments are democratic and behave with good moral conduct, the police and army must remain outside of politics, focusing instead on enforcing the law and protecting the nation’s sovereignty. However, when justice has lapsed and the government behaves dictatorially, it is the moral duty of the police and military to intervene, as they are uniquely situated to protect citizens from further abuses and instate a new democratic government. 

Title Image Credit: Henrique Matos 

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