The acquiescence of the German people facilitated the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
For all the research and writing that has been done on the subject of World War II in the 53 years since the great conflict ended, one question continues to perplex many students of history. How did Germany, a nation of cultured people, the land of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Goethe, sink willingly into the abyss of Nazism?
The answer lies, perhaps, in an examination of German society during the years between the world wars. Germany had been defeated in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles had forced the country to accept the blame for the war, stripped it of territory and saddled it with enormous payments of war reparations to the Allies. Postwar Germany found itself in economic chaos. Even before the worldwide calamity of the Great Depression, inflation raged unchecked.
Radicals of both the political left and right battled in the streets and helped to ensure that the Weimar Republic, Germany’s attempt at democratic government that lasted from 1919 to 1933, was destined to fail. Aged President Paul von Hindenburg could not provide the leadership necessary to guide Germany through such a dark period in its history. Forward stepped Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, the Nazis.
Hitler offered hope. He promised jobs. Most inspiring of all, he symbolized a return to order. In exchange, of course, he exacted a price. In the relentless persecution of non-Aryan peoples, including Jews, Gypsies and Slavs, he took from the average German much of his humanity.
Throughout the 1930s, the outward order masked the inner horror–the rampant, state-sanctioned antisemitism, the boycotts of Jewish stores and the terror of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when synagogues blazed and shop windows were shattered.
Acclaimed journalist and author William L. Shirer was an American correspondent in Berlin in the 1930s. His memoir, The Nightmare Years, offers insight into the German psyche, which he gained while working and walking among the people. “What surprised me at first,” wrote Shirer, “was that most Germans, so far as I could see, did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work were becoming regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation.
“One soon became aware, to be sure, that in the background there lurked the terror of the Gestapo and the fear of the concentration camp for those who got too far out of line or who had been Communists or Socialists or too liberal or pacifist or who were Jews….
“Yet the Nazi terror in those early years, I was beginning to see, affected the lives of relatively few Germans. The vast majority did not seem unduly concerned with what happened to a few Communists, Socialists, pacifists, defiant priests and pastors, and to the Jews. A newly arrived observer was forced, however reluctantly, as in my own case, to conclude that on the whole the people did not seem to feel that they were being cowed and held down by an unscrupulous tyranny. On the contrary, and much to my surprise, they appeared to support it with genuine enthusiasm. Somehow Adolf Hitler was imbuing them with a new hope, a new confidence and an astonishing renewed faith in the future of their country.”
In his recently released book, The Nazis: A Warning From History, author Laurence Rees interviewed more than 50 eyewitnesses to life in Nazi Germany. Rees writes: “Erna Kranz was a teenager in the 1930s and is now a grandmother living just outside Munich. She remembers the early years of Nazi rule, around 1934, as offering a ‘glimmer of hope…not just for the unemployed but for everybody because we all knew that we were downtrodden.’ She looked at the effect of Nazi policies on her own family and approved: salaries increased and Germany seemed to have regained its sense of purpose. ‘I can only speak for myself,’ she emphasized a number of times during our interview, conscious no doubt that her views are not politically correct. ‘I thought it was a good time. I liked it. We weren’t living in affluence like today but there was order and discipline.’ Ask Erna to compare life today with life in the 1930s under the Nazis and she says, ‘I thought it was a better time then. To say this is, of course, taking a risk. But I’ll say it anyway.'”
Shirer’s observations from more than a half century ago are startling. The present-day revelations provided by Rees are shocking and profoundly troubling.
The prospect for the future of mankind holds within it a great paradox. We shape our destiny like no other creature on this planet. We are capable of doing what is right and good. Yet we are capable of hatred and destruction. We have so often, throughout history, succumbed to the baseness and ultimately to the evil of our lesser selves.
Eventually, we will come once again to a fork in the road. Let us heed the warnings of history.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II