Germany In 1933: The Easy Slide Into Fascism (excerpt)
by Bernard Weiner
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.