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Germany In 1933: The Easy Slide Into Fascism


Bernard Weiner 
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers

June 9, 2003


If my email is any indication, a goodly number of folks wonder if they're living in America in 2003 or Germany in 1933. 

All this emphasis on nationalism, the militarization of society, identifying The Leader as the nation, a constant state of fear and anxiety heightened by the authorities, repressive laws that shred constitutional guarantees of due process, wars of aggression launched on weaker nations, the desire to assume global hegemony, the merging of corporate and governmental interests, vast mass-media propaganda campaigns, a populace that tends to believe the slogans and lies it's fed without asking too many questions, a timid opposition that barely contests the administration's reckless adventurism abroad and police-state policies at home, etc. etc. 

The parallels are not exact, of course; America in 2003 and Germany seventy years earlier are not the same, and Bush certainly is not Adolf Hitler. But there are enough disquieting similarities in the two periods at least to see what we can learn -- cautionary tales, as it were -- and then figure out what to do with our knowledge. 

 

The veneer of civilization is thin. We know this from our own observations, and various writers -- from Shakespeare to Sinclair Lewis ("It Can't Happen Here") -- have shown us how easily populations can be manipulated by leaders skillfully playing on patriotic emotion or racial or nationalist feelings.

Whole peoples, like individuals, can become irrational on occasion -- sometimes for a brief moment, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades. Ambition, hatred, fear can get the better of them, and gross lies told by their leaders can deceive their otherwise rational minds. It has happened, it happens, it will continue to happen.

One of the most outrageous and horrific examples of an entire country falling into national madness probably was Hitler's Germany from 1933-45. The resulting world war was disastrous, leading to more than 40,000,000 deaths.

A good share of what we know about how this happened in Germany usually comes to us many years later from post-facto books, looking backward to the horror. There are very few examples of accounts written from the inside at the very time the events were unfolding.

One such book is "Defying Hitler," by the noted German journalist/author Sebastian Haffner. The manuscript was found, stuffed away in a drawer, by Haffner's son in 1999 after his father's death at age 91. Published in 2000, the book became an immediate best-seller in Germany and was published last year in English, translated by the son, Oliver Pretzel. (His father's original name was Raimund Pretzel; as Sebastian Haffner, he went on to a highly successful career, writing in England during the war and then later back in Germany. He authored "From Bismarck to Hitler" and "The Meaning of Hitler," among many other works.) 

"Defying Hitler" is a brilliantly written social document, begun (and ended abruptly) in 1939; even though it fills in the reader on German history from the First World War on, its major focus is on the year 1933, when, as Hitler assumed power, Haffner was a 25-year-old law student, in-training to join the German courts as a junior administrator.

You find yourself reading this book in amazement; there is so much historical perspective, so much sweep of what was going on and predictions of what later was to happen, so many insights into what led so many ordinary Germans to join with or acquiesce to the Nazi program -- how could anyone so young be so prescient in the midst of the brutal sordidness that was Nazism? (Indeed, some critics claimed that Haffner must have rewritten the book decades later; every page of the original manuscript was sent to laboratories, which authenticated that it indeed had been composed in 1939.)

THE INDIVIDUAL IN SOCIETY

What distinguishes "Defying Hitler," in addition to its superb writing, is that Haffner focuses on "little people" like himself, rather than on the machinations of leaders. He wants to explore how ordinary Germans, especially non-Nazi and anti-Nazi Germans, permitted themselves to be swallowed whole into the Hitlerian maw.

Haffner makes occasional broad pronouncements about German character traits ("As Bismarck once remarked in a famous speech, moral courage is, in any case, a rare virtue in Germany, but it deserts a German completely the moment he puts on a uniform"), but he devotes a good deal of his attention to the question of personal responsibility. If you read ordinary history books, he says, "you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be 'at the helm of the ship of state' and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. 

"According to this view, the history of the present decade [the 1930s] is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody's lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard.

"... It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large... Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals."

THE RIDDLE OF HITLER'S RISE

Haffner tries to solve the riddle of the easy acceptance of fascism in Hitler's Third Reich. In March of 1933, a majority of German citizens did not vote for Hitler. "What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them" as Hitler, installed by the authorities as Chancellor, began slowly and then more quickly consolidating power and moving Germany from a democratic state to a totalitarian one?

All along the way, Hitler would propose or actually promulgate regulations that sliced away at German citizens' freedoms -- usually aimed at small, vulnerable sectors of society (labor unionists, communists, Jews, mental defectives, et al.) -- and few said or did anything to indicate serious displeasure. In the early days, on those rare occasions when there was concerted negative reaction, Hitler would back off a bit. And so the Nazis grew bolder and more voracious as they continued slicing away at civil society. Many Germans (including some of Hitler's original corporate backers) were convinced Nazism would collapse as it became more and more extreme; others chose denial. It was easier to look the other way.

Haffner saw what was starting to happen, but retreated into his law studies. Even while the Brownshirts were beating and killing people in the streets, the courts with which he worked remained a solid bulwark in defense of traditional democratic principles. And then one day, the Nazis simply marched into the Berlin court buildings and took over Germany's judicial system. Haffner was shaken to the core, but continued studying for his final exams.

Shortly thereafter, he and his fellow students were dispatched to a kind of boot camp for ideological and military training. Haffner, a Christian anti-Nazi, found himself, to his astonishment and horror, wearing jackboots, a swastika and learning how to kill. 

In an inner monologue, Haffner says: "There are some things I must never do: never say anything that I would be ashamed of later. Shooting at targets is all right. But not at people. I must not commit myself, or sell my soul... Oh dear! It dawned on me that I had already relinquished and lost everything. I wore a uniform with a swastika armband. I stood to attention and cleaned my rifle... .But that did not count: it was not me that did it; it was a game and I was acting a part.

"Only what if, dear God, there was some court that did not recognize this defense, but simply wrote down everything as it happened; that did not look into my heart, but simply noted the swastika armband? Before that court I was in a wretched position. Dear God, where had I gone wrong? What should I say to the judge who asked, 'You wear a swastika armband and say that you do not want to. Then why do you wear it?'"

Nazi propaganda, policies and terror had broken down traditional support-networks. You couldn't be sure whom to trust. Everyone could be on the government payroll, or could turn into informants to save their skins. And so arms went out in Nazi salutes, militarist songs were sung at rallies and on the streets, "each one of us the Gestapo of the others." In fear, individualism was crushed, leaving most citizens to relate only to The Leader, or to their military units, the comradeship offered by fascism.

MILLIONS OF MARKS FOR A LOAF OF BREAD

Then there was the economic factor, the terror associated with having no money with which to live. One reads Haffner's description of the hyper-inflation crisis, but it's difficult to accept or understand: "No other nation has experienced anything comparable to the events of 1923 in Germany. All nations went through the Great War, and most of them have also experienced revolutions, social crises, strikes, redistributions of wealth, and currency devaluation. None but Germany has undergone the fantastic, grotesque extreme of all of these together; none has experienced the gigantic, carnival dance of death, the unending, bloody Saturnalia, in which not only money but all standards lost their value.

"... Anyone who had savings in a bank or bonds saw their value disappear overnight. Soon it did not matter whether it was a penny put away for a rainy day or a vast fortune. Everything was obliterated... A pound of potatoes which yesterday had cost fifty thousand marks now cost a hundred thousand. The salary of sixty-five thousand marks brought home the previous Friday was no longer sufficient to buy a packet of cigarettes on Tuesday... In August, the dollar reached a million [marks]... .In September, a million marks no longer had any practical value... At the end of October, it was a billion... The atmosphere became revolutionary once again." 

When citizens face uncertainty on this scale -- and the fear and dislocation that attend all such social traumas -- a man on a white horse promising to restore order has great appeal, even to some staunch democrats.

There were other ingredients that went into the bubbling fascist vat: the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty that were placed on defeated Germany after World War I; the unceasing propaganda barrage in the mass media, helping citizens to agree with the government; the martial mentality that pervaded society. ("From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that is where [Nazism] draws its allure from: its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination, and its zest for action; but also its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents... Ultimately, that is also the source of Nazism's belligerent attitude toward neighboring states. Other countries are not regarded as neighbors, but must be opponents, whether they like it or not."

And then there is the inexplicable mystique that surrounds such men as Hitler, that mesmerizes and lures millions into their web. "If my experience of Germany has taught me anything, it is this: Rathenau [who led a progressive government in 1921-22, and was then assassinated by anti-Semitic thugs] and Hitler are the two men who excited the imagination of the German masses to the utmost; the one by his ineffable culture, the other by his ineffable vileness. Both, and this is decisive, came from inaccessible regions, from sort of 'beyond.' the one from a sphere of sublime spirituality where the cultures of three millennia and two continents hold a symposium; the other from a jungle far below the depths plumbed by the basest penny dreadfuls, from an underworld where demons rise from a brewed-up stench of petty-bourgeois back rooms, doss-houses, barrack latrines, and the hangman's yard. From their respective 'beyonds,' they both drew a spellbinding power, quite irrespective of their politics."

When Hitler's in-your-face brand of "beyond" power -- with its meanness and arrogance and menace, throwing opponents in jail, beating them, even killing them -- met the traditional democratic culture, those on the other end often had no tools at their disposal to combat the new hardball politics: "It was then that the real mystery of the Hitler phenomenon began to show itself: the strange befuddlement and numbness of his opponents, who could not cope with his behavior and found themselves transfixed by the gaze of the basilisk, unable to see that it was hell personified that challenged them."

THE BIG LIE TECHNIQUE

And how did Haffner deal for so long with this menacing force in front of him? "What saved me was... my nose. I have a fairly well developed figurative sense of smell, or to put it differently, a sense of the worth (or worthlessness!) of human, moral, political views and attitudes. Most Germans unfortunately lack this sense almost completely. The cleverest of them are capable of discussing themselves stupid with their abstractions and deductions, when just using their noses would tell them that something stinks."

Given their built-in weakness and their willingness to swallow the most outrageous Big Lies emanating from the propaganda ministry and the media, most Germans were fruit waiting to be plucked by the Nazi harvesters. "They still fall for anything. After all that, I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists. [The Parliament burned down and a convenient Communist arsonist was fingered, which the Nazis used as the excuse to unleash police-state tactics against all opponents.] What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character clearly for the first time during the Nazi period, is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution; as though it followed as a necessary consequence." 

In short, what should have been a strong political and moral opposition movement to Hitlerian policies, meekly acceded to the destruction of their country's institutions of law and social harmony. The result in society was a clear leaning toward the dynamic, muscular policies advocated by the Nazis, and a seething "anger and disgust with the cowardly treachery of their own [opposition] leadership."

Of course, fear of police-state action always was operative. "Join the thugs to avoid being beaten up. Less clear was a kind of exhilaration, the intoxication of unity, the magnetism of the masses. Many also felt a need for revenge against those who had abandoned them. Then there was a peculiarly German line of thought: 'All the predictions of the opponents of the Nazis have not come true. They said the Nazis could not win. Now they have won. Therefore the opponents were wrong. So the Nazis must be right.' There was also (particularly among intellectuals) the belief that they could change the face of the Nazi Party by becoming a member, even now shift its direction."

All of this follows the normal range of psychology, Haffner says. "The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called 'breeding.' This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial. It is missing in the Germans. As a nation they are soft, unreliable, and without backbone. That was shown in March 1933. At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown. The result of this million-fold nervous breakdown is the unified nation, ready for anything, that is today the nightmare of the rest of the world."

Haffner laments that the crimes of the Hitler administration, given this collective nervous breakdown, have very little impact on the population, which seems to accept everything done in its name with a shrug of the shoulders. "It is one of the uncanny aspects of events in Germany that the deeds have no doers, the suffering has no martyrs. Everything takes place under a kind of anesthesia. Objectively dreadful deeds produce a thin, puny emotional response. Murders are committed like schoolboy pranks. Humiliation and moral decay are accepted like minor incidents. Even death under torture only produces the response 'Bad luck'."

THE SLIDE TOWARD FASCISM

And so it becomes easier to simply permit oneself to sink, ever so slowly into this collective illness, into accommodation with the ruling party, even though the police-state is constantly violating citizens' privacy. "We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. Just a little pact with the devil -- and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters."

Certainly, Haffner and others like him felt their own slide toward complicity with the Nazis, as their sense of self faded. "Things were quite deliberately arranged so that the individual had no room to maneuver. What one represented, what one's opinions were in 'private' and 'actually,' were of no concern and set aside, put on ice, as it were. On the other hand, in moments when one had the leisure to think of one's individuality... one had the feeling that what was actually happening, in which one participated mechanically, had no real existence or validity. It was only in these hours that one could attempt to call oneself morally to account and prepare a last position of defense for one's inner self."

Haffner was approaching decision time about his future if he stayed in the Third Reich. But it's clear which way he was leaning, as his analyses got darker and darker. "It is said that the Germans are subjugated. That is only half true. They are also something else, something worse, for which there is no word: they are 'comraded,' a dreadfully dangerous condition. They are under a spell. They live a drugged life in a dream world. They are terribly happy, but terribly demeaned; so self-satisified, but so boundlessly loathsome; so proud and yet so despicable and inhuman. They think they are scaling high mountains, when in reality they are crawling through a swamp. As long as the spell lasts, there is almost no antidote."

He hung in until 1938. Just prior to the Second World War, Haffner left Germany for England to join the war-effort against fascism. He did not return until the mid-'50s.

 

So, dear reader, examine the above descriptive passages from the Germany of the 1930s, when the Nazis were assuming full power, and see what lessons can be learned for our situation today.

As I write this, Ashcroft is telling the Congress that the Patriot Act -- the same act that more than 100 cities have voted not to honor because of its numerous violations of rights guaranteed by the Constitution -- does not give the Bush Administration enough police power and needs to be expanded. (This at a time when American citizens have been arrested, not charged and then stashed away on military bases, outside the judicial system; and hundreds of foreign prisoners are being held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo in violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva conventions.) 

Demonstrable government falsehoods are being published by a compliant media, while that same media, owned by corporate giants, refuses to report factual information that is embarrassing to the Administration. And finally, the Pentagon is working on "contingency plans" for the next unilateral invasion of a sovereign state by the U.S. military.

Copyright 2003 by Bernard Weiner

 

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances