After three months (!) I have finally finished reading The Coming Of The Third Reich by Richard Evans (amazon). A highly worthwhile and ultimately troubling book about how the Nazis came to rule Germany in the early 1930s.
To those of us too young to remember WWII, Hitler and Nazism seem like bogeymen, monsters sprung wholly-formed from Hell, aberrations so monstrous we can’t conceive of such a thing being repeated. That’s simply not the case. The Nazis weren’t exceptional. They weren’t even original: as Evans points out in the book, most revolutionaries seek to do away with the old in favour of the new, but the Nazis did away with the relatively new — democracy and the Weimar republic — in order to return to the very old: declaring themselves the third Reich reestablished the line of nationalist dictatorships.
Neither was there anything extraordinary about how they rose to power. The political violence dealt out in the streets by the brownshirts wasn’t that different than what happened in Italy, Spain or other nearby countries around the same time. But Germany had two key ingredients that added fuel to the murderous fire: first was that Germany was still — and many people don’t really realize this, myself included — the most powerful country in Europe. Second was the national sense of racial purity which, when combined with an antisemitism strong even for Europe at that time, led down a path that ended, almost inconceivably, at extermination camps.
This, though, was the part of the book that surprised me the most. I’ve always tacitly assumed that the Nazis came to power, in part, by riding a wave of antisemitism that swept through Germany. How else to explain why they would so quickly turn to imprisoning and slaughtering Jews? What Evans explains so well is that the Nazis believed in an Aryan ideal, not an antisemitic one. I’d always thought of those two words as rough synonyms, but racial purity — the nation of pure German culture — went far beyond that. The Nazis didn’t even enter the national stage through violence against Jews; they concentrated on Communists. By the time they terrorized the Communists out of the German political arena, they turned their attention to Social Democrats and any other party of the left until they too were intimidated into political irrelevance. Add one twist of fate (the Reichstag fire), some political opportunism and back-room intrigue, and suddenly Adolf Hitler has been appointed chancellor. Yes, appointed. Something else I’d never realized: Hitler was never elected to office. He was given it by those seeking to rein him in, the farmer inviting the wolf into the sheep’s pen. At any rate, now that the brownshirts had run out of political victims, in their anger they let their idea of racial purity be their guide, and turned to the business of ridding Germany of what they saw as poisonous elements. What started with organized boycotts of Jewish shops escalated to murder, and finally genocide, with remarkable speed.
Ultimately, Evans points to two less-often mentioned reasons why the Nazis were able to seize power. The first: the great depression. Economic crises and massive unemployment make for palpable fear, and propagandists such as Goebbels made fine hay of this one in particular. The poor and desperate can be driven to great lengths, and will lash out given half a chance. Evans makes the case that the Nazis game them just such a conduit: they famously stopped campaigning for anything well before coming to power, and instead campaigned against: against the Weimar republic, against those they professed stabbed the true Germany in the back in November of 1918, against Communism, against racial impurity, against democracy…they simply dealt anger and revenge, playing on the emotions instead of the intellect. Theirs was, as the saying later went, a revolution of destruction. The second reason was the near-inexplicable absence of revolt against Nazi ideals. Put another way: much of Germany agreed with, and approved of, the Nazis. Not all, certainly, and even those agreed or consented may have done so out of fear, but the lack of will on the part of the citizenry to reject Nazism and their violent methods suggests assent. Perhaps their defeat after WWI convinced the German people a return to military imperialism was necessary. Perhaps the desire for racial purity among Germans transcended the Nazi party. Perhaps both.
This, then, is what I found so troubling. Disasters — economic, natural, man-made — happen from time to time. Those discussing the current economic crisis often refer to the “panic” we’re seeing, but what we’re seeing now isn’t panic, it’s concern. If we see massive unemployment, hyperinflation, crumbling institutions…then we’ll see panic. And then we’ll see true desperation, and we’ll see political advantage taken of that rampant fear. Add one ill-timed act of violence to the mix — say, a large-scale Al Qaeda attack on a western country — and it isn’t hard to imagine the effects. Curtailing of rights under the guise of patriotic security. Nationalism. Xenophobia along racial or religious lines. It’s an unlikely series of events, but but no less likely than what happened in Germany not eight decades ago. The rise of Hitler and the Nazi party wasn’t an act of pure evil, as we seem inclined to believe. It was a confluence of violent intent, political will and tragic fate, and to think that it could not happen again is beyond short-sighted. It is dangerous.