Folks, remember last week, when I said I didn’t particularly like the WW2 era? Well, I now know why. There’s just nothing redeeming about it.
German history after 1933 is just a dark hole – nothing escapes from it, there is no light, and yet, at the same time, you cannot avoid it, as much as you’d like.
See, WW1 isn’t a great era either – all this destruction and misery and horrible trench warfare – but at least there were some upsides! The traditional structure of society broke down, which meant that after WW1, there were some leaps and bounds in personal freedom. So that’s good.
WW2? God, nothing good about that. At all. That’s why I don’t like it, but after last week, I figured I needed to find out how we got into this mess.
After all, don’t forget, that Germany pre-3rd Reich was the most civilized nation in history. This country won more Nobel Prizes than any other nation. There was incredible art and music coming out of Germany – think of the Bauhaus movement! Scientists in Germany pushed new boundaries, and everyone was looking at envy at the technological advantages made by Krupp and co.
I guess all that meant there just was more height to fall from.
But for such an important – and well researched – era in human history, the question of ‘Why’ seems fairly elusive.
How did Hitler come to power in 1933? How did we get into this mess?
There’s the usual explanations. The Great Depression. The Versailles Peace Treaty and the reparations therein. Hitler’s personal charisma. It all plays part, surely, but it is not entirely convincing.
Because, as Benjamin Carter Hett shows in his excellent book, the explanation is more than the sum of its parts. Yes, the Great Depression played its part. (Just remember that the worst was over by the time the Nazis got to power). Yes, the Peace Treaty and the reparations were bad for the German economy.
But let’s not forget one very chilling truth. The Nazis came to power entirely legally. There was no coup. (They tried that before, and failed). They wiggled their way into parliament by playing the rules.
And that’s such a horrible thing to realize, isn’t it? There really is no excuse.
So how did we get there? And, as Hett not-so-discreetly in his final chapter examines – could this happen again?
There’s two important bits to explain the Nazi’s rise to power.
First, it all has to do with the First World War. (Everything has to do with the First World War.)
See, in August 1914, when Germany went to war, things were rosy. Not as rosy as the Nazis later claimed, but pretty damn good. There was a true sense of national unity (very unusual in a federal – and young! – state such as Germany). There was a national purpose. The summer was golden, everyone was cheerful, and confident. The war would be over by Christmas, after all.
Compare this feeling to the one in November 1918, when the armistice was signed. After four horrible years (the last winter was especially cruel to the German people), things looked very different indeed. It was cold, and dark, and grey. The Kaiser abdicated, leaving a mess in his place.
And let’s not forget, in this era pre-modern media, people thought the war was going in their favour! By the time the armistice was signed, there was no foreign army on German lands. There was no occupation, no indication that things weren’t going as well as everyone said it was. So all of this came as a shock.
And then something vital happened. The military refused to negotiate the truce. They sent politicians instead. This might not seem like a big deal, but it was. Because the people they sent – and the parties they represented – became scapegoats for everything that went wrong. Democracy was tainted from the start, because it was its representatives that signed the treaty.
August 1914 vs November 1918. The Nazis were playing powerfully with this image, this juxtaposition between the two dates. It allowed them to say that they were bringing back the unity of August by defeating the traitors of November.
That’s the first thing.
The second thing is this – The Nazis got into government because the Conservatives invited them in. They thought they could contain the Nazis, use them against the Social Democrats, then discard them.
It obviously didn’t work out that way. Once the Nazis were in power, they used it to destroy their enemies, to clean ministries, newspapers and agencies from everyone that wasn’t on their team.
That’s the valuable lesson from all of this. Far right forces cannot be appeased. They cannot be contained, or used. They must not get into power. Once they get there, it is too late.
And as Hett says on the last page – nobody thought it would get this bad. They thought Hitler would be in power for a couple of years, and then be pushed out. They could not imagine the horror that was about to come their way.
It was simply unimaginable.
We do not have this excuse. We know how bad things can get – and how quickly they can deteriorate from bad to worse.
So please. Remember this. We have one advantage over the people that came before us. We have their example before us.
next week – i promise we’re going back to better, lighter, funner things. The last two books were really depressing reading, weren’t they? Time for something uplifting.