On February 24, 1926, leading NSDAP (aka National Socialist, or Nazi) officials met in the town of Bamberg in southern Germany. Hitler attended. In the crowd sat a skinny young man with blazing eyes and a crippled leg named Joseph Goebbels.
The Bamberg conference would be a defining moment for Goebbels and the Nazis. Until now, the well-educated but impressionable Goebbels had supported a northern German Nazi leader named Gregor Strasser.
Strasser was a typical Nazi: nationalistic, militaristic, and racist. But he was strongly opposed to Hitler’s 25-point Program (see previous post), and he competed with Hitler for party leadership. At the Bamberg assembly, Hitler delivered a withering two-hour speech. Any opposition to his extremist program was quickly smothered.
After Bamberg, Goebbels, like an adoring schoolgirl – and like so many other Germans – began to fall under Hitler’s spell. He would eventually rise to become Nazi Minister of Propaganda, one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, and, next to Hitler, the person most responsible for bamboozling an entire country. Strasser would later be executed by Hitler.
Two days after this meeting, just 213 kilometers west of Bamberg, in the beautiful city of Frankfurt, a Jewish girl named Margot Frank was born. Exactly 19 years later she would die of starvation, exposure, and disease, along with her younger sister, Anne, in a concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.
Historians and writers have been scratching their scalps for over 70 years over how a Western democracy, albeit a fragile one, could elect a dictatorship, then permit a bunch of misfits and sadists to start a global conflict, rape their nation, and commit the greatest act of genocide in history. There’s more than one reason, and they’re all very complex. But William Shirer discusses some of them in his book, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. I lack the space to adequately cover them, but I’ll try to graze the surface:
Sonderweg: “Sonderweg” is a German word meaning “special path.” It’s a theory that German peoples’ values developed differently from other Western nations due to the nature of their leaders, as well as the writings and teachings of certain German philosophers and thinkers. Before WWII, historians looked at Sonderweg in a positive light. But after the war, they viewed it as having hindered development of liberal democracy, and helping give rise to fascism.
Shirer discusses Sonderweg and proposes that Nazism was a logical evolution of a national character that dates to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther is famous for his “Ninety-five Theses,” which broke from Roman Catholic dogma and helped initiate the Protestant Reformation. But Luther also openly hated Jews and advocated violence against them. His anti-Semitic writings, needless to say, were circulated widely in Nazi Germany.
Shirer cites a number of Germans after Luther whose beliefs (Shirer claims) contributed to a rising German nationalism and sense of Aryan superiority. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, and composer and writer Richard Wagner are the most well-known. While these cultural giants undoubtedly influenced 20th-century German thought and attitude, Nazi propaganda skillfully selected only those ideas of theirs which helped promote its cause, then twisted them for its own purposes. For example, although Nietzsche is famous for his philosophy of the “Übermensch” (a superior human who creates new values in the absence of God), he also spoke out against anti-Semitism, and he didn’t intend his humanistic philosophies to imply Aryan racial or German national superiority.
But did many Germans in the Depression look beneath the surface of the Nazi propaganda?
The THIRD Reich: Hitler and Goebbels sold many incredible fictions to the country during their moment in history’s spotlight. One of them was that Nazi rule represented a third realm, following the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and German Empire (1871-1918), and it would last a thousand years. It lasted less than a baker’s dozen, but enough gullible Germans became convinced that Hitler followed a line of great rulers that began with Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and continued with Otto von Bismarck.
Both Frederick and Bismarck have mixed legacies. They made Germany strong, but they did so through relentless militarism and imperialism. Additionally, Frederick marginalized Jews and despised the Poles, referring to them as “vile apes.”
Hitler kept a miniature portrait of Frederick up through his final days cowering in his Berlin bunker.
Treaty of Versailles: Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors in World War I. After it was defeated by the Allies in 1918, Germany was required to accept responsibility for starting the war, disarm its military, relinquish large tracts of territory, and pay reparations (the equivalent of $442 billion U.S. dollars today) under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Many, including some in the Allied sphere, considered the penalties too harsh (although not the French, who suffered most during WWI).
Every political party in the Weimar Republic, from the liberal Social Democrats to the Catholic Centre Party to the conservative German National People’s Party, railed against the treaty, but none more so than conservatives, nationalists, and ex-military leaders. Many of them – especially the far-right National Socialists – found a convenient scapegoat in socialists, communists, and especially Jews, who had been successful as business leaders and were thought to have benefited from a weakened Germany.
Hitler was very skilled at gaining traction for his extremist ideas by appealing to Germans’ patriotism and racial heritage and demonizing “the other.” Hitler knew that once you can convince enough people of a shared enemy, and create an impression that this enemy is sub-human and has devious motives… it’s extremely easy to get people behind you. Hitler’s most fanatical adherents were young people who could be easily indoctrinated (“Hitler Youth”), and the lower educated, who could be easily duped. Although the Nazis took the tactics of demonization to unparalleled lengths, such behavior has been exhibited over and over throughout history by people in power seeking political gain. The strong preying upon the weak. It happens in dictatorships, as well as democratic republics… including the U.S.
But I digress.
Once the Jews, Bolsheviks, and intellectuals could be purged from Germany, Hitler argued, “Der Vaterland” would be purified. It could then unify its many independent provinces, regain its lost territories, and expand on them (providing Germany its “Lebensraum,” or “living space”). Then, once again, it could bask in the greatness for which it was preordained.
As jobs became ever scarce and German exports slowed to a trickle in the first years of the Depression (1929-1933), citizens hungered for quick and easy solutions… even if some of the solutions made them a little queasy, or might be temporarily “uncomfortable.”
Hitler and the National Sadists provided these solutions with gusto.
(Thanks for sticking with me in this unsavory topic. In the next installment of my “Fascism for Beginners” series, I’ll discuss how German citizens weren’t the only ones who contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany).