by ProfDave, ©2022

Nazi leadership, undated (Hitler, Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebeels, Rudolf Hess) (National Archives)

(Jun. 21, 2022) — Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!  This week’s unit presents us with a lot of important topics.  I could go on for hours.  World War II alone is a full year’s course.  Sorry to disappoint the military buffs.  But one of the two or three top questions of the 20th century is how a liberal democratic regime in the most advanced nation on earth could fall under the totalitarian control of such a madman as Adolf Hitler.  Anyone living in an advanced democratic society (and liking to keep it that way) should be concerned with the answer.

Obviously, one whole side of the question is the context and environment in which this took place.  We have already looked at the physical, social, and economic conditions following the Great War, the rise of Fascism and Communism in Europe and around the world.  The second and greater crisis, of course, was the Great Depression.  No free government dealt well with this earthquake.  Where moderates could find no solution, extremism became attractive.  Extreme measures and massive state intervention were demanded.   Either deadlock or regime change seemed the only alternatives.

Taking this crisis atmosphere as a given background, we will consider I – Why the German Republic turned to Hitler, II – Why Europe failed to “appease” him, and III – What the Third Reich planned for Europe.

I. Why did the German Republic turn to Hitler?  Even though the Weimar Republic was facing an economic and political situation of catastrophic proportions, why turn to “the anti-Christ?”  We need to look at his character, his ideology, and his political technique.

Adolf Hitler came from lower middle-class origins, raised by a single parent in the slums of Vienna, Austria.  He was an art school dropout, eking out a living painting postcards.  He may have received Jewish charity.  Like many other young men, he welcomed World War One and served as a corporal in the German Army.  The end of the war left him a drifter, with a sense of betrayal, like many other veterans.  In Bavaria, he joined with six others to form the “National Socialist German Worker’s Party.” In 1923, he secured the alliance of ultraconservative retired General Ludendorff and Bavarian separatists.  In response to a Communist uprising, they tried to seize power in Munich and march on Berlin in imitation of Mussolini.  The “Beer Hall Putsch” (1923) failed and he spent a year in prison writing his memoir and manifesto, Mein Kampf.  I have had the misfortune of reading it – at least half.  It is mind-numbing, banal, repetitious, revoltingly hateful, and naively frank with flashes of diabolical brilliance [Hitler].

Was he a madman or a genius?  Yes.  His grip on reality was selective, let us say.  Like Nietzsche’s übermensch, he believed his “will to power” could master men and events.  No, Hitler never read Nietzsche, but many of his PhD-holding SS officers did and resonated with those ideas.  He was ahead of his time in believing that truth was subjective, not objective, and could be bent by the will.  And it worked – until the retreat from Stalingrad.  He was uneducated and certainly no intellectual, but he possessed a certain uncanny intuitive brilliance, “a sleepwalker’s certainty,” he called it.  He was a ruthless and clever mass politician.  He knew human depravity instinctively and played upon it like a violin virtuoso.  He was a master of the latest communications technology.  Finally, he learned to project a uniquely charismatic personality.  No one could withstand his fanatical certainty nor his manic rage [Deutsch, Speer].

National Socialist ideology was an ink-blot test.  What you believed was what you saw.  There was something in it for everyone and the party stood for whatever you thought.  It became a loyalty without content [Arendt 324].  It was nationalistic but revolutionary, anti-communist but against big business, it called itself “socialist” but fought real socialists bitterly.  It promised an active foreign policy, restoration of German greatness, and solving the Jewish question (but hardly anyone paid attention to the last).

What Hitler really believed in can be found in Mein Kampf and in his actions during the war.  First and foremost was the Jewish world conspiracy against Aryans.  This came from his days in Vienna and contact with Russian anti-Semitism and back-room social Darwinism.  He associated Jews with international capitalism, international communism, internationalism per se, and racial pollution.  He proved this by making the “final solution” his priority over the survival of Germany itself at the end of the war. 

Second in importance, was his pan-German hatred of Slavs.  Again, this comes from growing up in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He compromised this for a time in his alliance with Stalin but returned in a vengeance with his “New Order.” 

Third is his belief in a Master Race, a pure Aryan elite, destined to rule a pan-German lebensraum stretching from the English Channel to the Caucasus and beyond.  He acted on this, too, but in the end the Aryan elite came down to one man in the führerprinzip (or leadership principle).  He wrote, “German democracy is the choice of a leader and the absolute authority of the same.”  At the end he believed only in himself.  Germany had failed him and did not deserve to continue. 

Fourth was his anti-bolshevism.  This too comes from his encounters with socialist mobs in Vienna, but he particularly hated communism for its Jewishness, its Slavic association, its internationalism, and its 1918 betrayal of the German Army. 

Finally, he willed German revenge for the loss of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.  With many other German veterans – especially those like him who spent the last weeks in the hospital – he felt betrayed and robbed of victory on the home front by republicans, socialists, and civilian politicians.  He hated the French as well, and the punitive measures they had placed upon Germany.  It was the last two that resonated most with his audiences [Hitler, Deutsch].

Primarily, however, it was not what Hitler or the NSDAP believed that attracted voters, but their technique.  Hitler practically invented mass politics.  He reached over the heads of politicians, factions, and organized interests to the atomized masses.  He made the isolated, the alienated, and the discontented (very close to a majority) into a movement through the propaganda of the word and scene, the deed, and the movement itself. 

The propaganda of the word and scene was consciously borrowed from Wagnerian opera.  His cronies (Goebbels et al) produced carefully orchestrated mass rallies of immense psychological impact as a stage for Hitler’s compelling conviction and emotion.  “A big enough lie told often enough will be believed,” Hitler wrote – over and over again.  Truth was subjective.  The lie became a fact through the will to power. 

The propaganda of the deed could be traced to socialists and futurists – especially Mussolini – but was perfected by the National Socialists.  They were doing something (however irrelevant) while the elected government was doing nothing.  Like Mussolini, Hitler began by organizing veterans and other young men into a paramilitary party army, the SA and later the even more fanatical SS.  They derived a lot of free publicity and secret admiration by confronting the communists in riots that the police were unable to control.  The left freely employed mob violence which the brown shirts met with paramilitary effectiveness.  As the snowball gained momentum, the Propaganda of the Movement took effect.  By joining, wearing an arm band or a uniform, or just saluting, one gained a sense of being part of something big, something heroic, something going somewhere [Hitler, Heughins 1969].

So when it came down, in the course of the democratic process of a multiparty state, to a choice between Communism and Fascism (did I tell you that the only possible parliamentary coalitions were socialist/communist or conservative/Nazi?  Or else martial law?) In the last four years the parties of parliamentary democracy (in the center) were squeezed out by the anti-parliamentary parties of the left and the right.   The Conservatives, an aristocratic and monarchist party, hated Hitler as a lowborn upstart, rabble rouser, and revolutionary – but anything was better than a Bolshevik revolution!  President Hindenburg chose Hitler as his Chancellor, hoping that the Conservatives could control him.  The rest is history [Bullock].

It took less than two years to transform Germany into a totalitarian state under the principle of gleichschaltung – sounding together, coordination.  The unemployed were enrolled in Labor Service Battalions to perform public works.  Leisure time was organized in the Strength Through Joy Movement.  It provided entertainment for the common man, sports, opera, holidays in the Alps, cheap homes, and Volkswagens.  There were organizations for everything.  That was the point.  There were to be no autonomous organizations or activities in which the state did not participate and supervise.  Scouting?  Join Hitler Youth.  Stamp collecting?  You belonged to the National Socialist stamp collecting club.  Everything else was disbanded or placed under state supervision.  One by one political parties were abolished.  Trade unions were co-opted. 

Even the churches were placed under supervision and their youth organizations disbanded.  Some of Hitler’s henchmen promoted a neo-pagan revival, while others introduced “German Christianity” sanitized of all Jewish associations.  Jewish-Christian clergy and worshippers were banned from the new Reichskirche.  The Roman Catholic Church resisted for a time, but Hitler negotiated a Concordat with the Pope.  Some Protestants resisted to the end, but others compromised: Hitler promised a moral renewal of the nation and liberal theologians wanted to keep in step with the times.  His approval rating was around 85%.

Ethnic Jews were systematically identified, stripped of citizenship and businesses, and their wealth expropriated.  It was not what you believed, or where your allegiance lay, but what you were: one Jewish grandparent was enough.  They were at first encouraged to emigrate but many did not.  Germany was their home and their country.  When the war began, Hitler moved forward with his plans, announced 15 years before, to exterminate them.

                 

“I’ve got it!”  Chamberlain returns from Munich with Hitler’s Pledge (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

II.  Appeasement.  How and why did “peace in our time” fail?  It seems obvious to us, with 20:20 hindsight, that Hitler’s program represented a threat to the peace and stability of Europe, not to mention the gross violations of human rights.  A survey of pre-war news magazines on both sides of the Atlantic reveals that this was known, disbelieved, and left up to the British to deal with [Heughins, 1963].  How did the world perceive Hitler and the German question?

First, the world was turned inward by the Depression.  France, for example, was afflicted by musical chairs government coalitions and an almost constant state of transition as party after party attempted to solve the economic crisis but failed to secure a majority.  The evidence was emerging of the nature and intentions of the Hitler-state.  France and Poland were alarmed.  The Soviet Union sent warnings to the west, but was itself a pariah state, feared far more than Germany.  The United States was isolated.  We had withdrawn from the world at the end of World War I and never joined the League of Nations.  As for Britain, the default leader of the democratic world, never had a people wished to avoid war so badly.  Pacifism was very strong, and thousands had taken “the Peace Pledge,” never to bear arms under any circumstances. [Bruner].  Englishmen were convinced that sending the “lost generation” to be slaughtered in the trenches of Verdun and the Somme had been a monstrous crime never to be repeated.  The French believed that they had been delivered in the last war only by a miracle and would not take any risks without British and American support.

Secondly, many people, especially in Britain and America, believed that the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, had been deeply flawed.  John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, believed it had all but caused the Great Depression.  Legitimate revision was long overdue and arguably responsible for Hitler’s rise.  All nations should have disarmed, not just Germany.  Germany had been forbidden to station troops in the Rhineland – an unfair restriction of German sovereignty which had been exploited by France in the 20’s with disastrous effect.  Culturally and linguistically German Austria, shorn of its empire and reduced to its medieval provincial boundaries, was forbidden to merge with Germany – in defiance of national self-determination!  Then there were other territories which were historically and linguistically German that had been awarded to Czechoslovakia and Poland.  Hitler had a point.  On its merits, the case of the wartime alliance was weak.

Hitler had won the 1932 election on a platform of German pride, and this was reflected very gradually in German foreign policy.  Starting in 1935 there began a series of “Saturday Surprises” – unilateral German actions timed when the power-brokers of Europe were away for the weekend. 

On March 16, 1935, Hitler announced that, since European disarmament had been rejected, Germany renounced the arms limitations of the Versailles treaty and would raise an army of 500,000 troops.  The League of Nations did nothing, but Britain, France and Italy (yes Mussolini) consulted at Stresa, Italy, to guarantee the treaty borders.  France entered into a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union (Stalin).  Hitler made an impassioned peace oration that led to a naval disarmament agreement with Britain – allowing Germany to build a fleet equal to France!

March 7, 1936: Hitler moved three battalions into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland, ostensibly in response to the Franco-Soviet alliance.  The French could have easily invaded and humiliated Hitler, but France was between governments again, had no military plans for such an action, and would not do any such thing without British support – not forthcoming.  It was, after all, the heart of Germany!  Hitler was right again.  He knew better than his generals.

During the summer, Mussolini contrived to invade Ethiopia.  It was partly to avenge the Italian defeat at Adowa and partly to show that he had revived the martial glory of Rome.  Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie passionately appealed to the League of Nations, and the debates drove a wedge between Britain and France and Italy.  Meanwhile, a civil war had broken out in Spain between General Francisco Franco – supported by Mussolini and Hitler – and the Constitutional Republic – supported by anarchists, communists, Stalin, and international volunteers.  The best the League of Nations could do was sanction Italy and impose an arms embargo on Spain.  Spain became a proving ground for German and Russian weaponry and tactics.  Then November 25, 1936, Germany, Italy, and Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact.  This was ostensibly a treaty of mutual aid against the Communist International, directed by Stalin, but it also provided diplomatic cover for Japan’s intervention in China the following year as well as Italy and Germany intervening in Spain.

Then March 12, 1938 Germany annexed Austria – much to Mussolini’s surprise and concern.  There had been an Austrian Nazi coup attempt back in 1933.  It failed, but an arguably fascist authoritarian regime had been installed, repressing all dissent.  Hitler demanded a plebiscite on the issue of union, and when the government refused, he simply invaded.  There was no resistance.  Fences were mended with Mussolini, already committed to foreign adventures of his own, and, after all, Austria was unquestionably German.  The plebiscite was almost unanimous [“Anschluss.”].

Czechoslovakia, created out of pieces of the old Austrian Empire, was the only real democracy in Eastern Europe.  Thanks to its mountain borders and its sophisticated arms industry, it was also defensible.  It had alliances with France and the Soviet Union, but France was a long way away and Soviet help would have to come through Poland or Romania.  Problem: Poland and Romania feared Stalin’s rescue more than Hitler’s attack.  Actually, Poland and Hungary had claims on pieces of Czechoslovakia themselves.  Another problem: Czechoslovakia had a 1/3 German minority, mostly living in those protective mountains, the Sudetenland.  In the fall of 1938, a small Nazi party among those Germans demanded “national self-determination” and union with Germany.  Germany mobilized.  Great Britain intervened.  Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, along with French and Italian counterparts, flew to Munich to meet with Hitler.  They averted war by diplomacy, securing “peace in our time,” as Chamberlain boasted.  Germany was awarded the Sudetenland.  Hitler promised it was his last demand.

“Our time” did not last long.  France was paralyzed.  Czechoslovakia was broken up into indefensible Bohemia and Moravia.  The following March 15 Hitler gobbled the rest of it.  At last Europe awoke.  Appeasement had failed.  Hitler had used legitimate complaints as stepping stones to illegitimate ends.  He did mean what he said in Mein Kampf.  His ambitions were, London concluded, unlimited – Napoleonic.  Policy changed abruptly.  Britain enacted universal military service and extended unconditional guarantees to Poland: a blank check against all comers!  British policy had consistently resisted continental entanglements since 1815, particularly in Eastern Europe where the British navy could not sail.  Theirs was a “blue water strategy.”  Further, Britain had never approved of the provisions of Versailles in the east, of which the Polish frontier was the weakest link!  So reckless was this course that historian A.J.P. Taylor has accused Britain of causing World War II [Taylor 199 ff]!  Now Chamberlain swallowed the bitter pill of entering into negotiations with Stalin, the rogue regime of all Europe.

Then, August 26, 1939, came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union.  It partitioned Poland and divided up Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian regimes.  It could be seen as the undoing of Brest Litovsk, the punitive peace imposed on Lenin and Trotsky’s Russia by Germany in 1917.  Communists in Popular Fronts all over the world changed sides like trained seals.  Soviet “volunteers” in the Spanish Civil War were brought home and sent to concentration camps.  Chamberlain’s overtures to Stalin were fruitless.

Germany had stronger claims on Danzig and the Polish Corridor than any other of her Versailles losses.  Danzig and its environs had been German as long as there had been Germans in Europe, It was a member of the Hanseatic League since the middle-ages.  Versailles had made it a “free city” and awarded Poland land links to it because the diplomats thought Poland should have a sea port.  And of course, there was a noisy Nazi party in those territories demanding a return to Germany.  Hitler had already encouraged this agitation and initiated a propaganda war.  With the Soviet treaty in place, he believed Britain and France to be checkmated.  “The men I met at Munich,” he kept saying, would not fight – indeed could not save Poland.  He was partly right.  Five days later, in the early morning of September 1, German planes and troops stormed across the frontier in what came to be known as blitzkrieg.  Stalin was caught off guard but invaded just in time to claim his third of the country before it surrendered on September 27.  He was not, however, successful in taking Finland.  Meanwhile, Britain and France declared war, but were helpless to assist.

III. The New World Order.  What did the Third Reich plan for Europe?  With pain I omit the discussion of military aspects of the war.  There are just too many stories in my notes from 15 quarter credits under Dr. Harold Deutsch, who was an OSS officer and interviewed German generals and underground figures immediately after the war.  Sorry, war buffs, there just isn’t time.  What is more important than the history of warfare and military strategy is the character of Hitler’s New World Order.  Ideas do have consequences.

The conditions in occupied Europe varied greatly from place to place.  France was a mass of conflicting agencies, all trying to run things, all overlapping.  That was the way Hitler liked it: he could arbitrate among competing subordinates.  The Vichy regime in the south and east was left to carry on under a French fascist regime, with whom Hitler had friendly relations, but made no promises.  It was not quite an ally.  Spain, despite its debt to German and Italian assistance, wisely maintained “non-belligerency.”  Nordic Europe was ruled by local fascists (like Quisling in Norway).  Some attempts were made to Germanize these countries and identified ethnic Germans, volksdeutsch, who were especially recruited for the elite SS.

Eastern Europe was another matter.  It was slated for colonization and racial expansion.  Exterminating the Jews was just for practice.  Anti-Semitism was to be a school for rulership for this new territory.  The conquered culture was to be destroyed, the elites executed (in Poland, 70-80% of the clergy, nobility, and professional classes disappeared), the human rubbish of ordinary Slavs was to be displaced in a checkerboard fashion, sent to Siberia, to Africa, or isolated to die out gradually from disease under Medieval conditions.  German minority areas (in Poland and along the Volga for example) were to be annexed and scattered ethnic Germans used to rule.

He couldn’t be serious, right?  Wrong.  The SS implemented the plan wherever they went, but the army and the war industry dragged their feet.  In the Soviet Union the German army was welcomed as liberators, especially in the Ukraine, until the SS took over and proved themselves worse than communists.  Colonization plans were begun, but manpower needs interfered.  There were Volunteer Labor forces recruited from Soviet citizens to help the German army and war industries – then the SS came along and started kidnapping young men.  This drove people into the forests where they became partisans that gave the army no end of trouble.  POW’s often wound-up fighting in German uniform as casualty replacements.  The Reichswehr set up a Russian Army of Liberation in 1942 and a Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army as well.  It was suggested that nationalist puppet states be erected.  Stalin was that unpopular.  But Hitler said no.  His ideological agenda was more important than the war effort.

On the home front, Germany was unwilling to give up business as usual until late in the war.  In 1943 only 40% of German steel went into the war effort.  Women stayed in the home in Germany, while 2.3 million women went to work in Britain.  Industrial production did not reach 1918 levels until later.  By contrast British production was not even close to German in 1939 but exceeded it from 1940-42.  Then Albert Speer was given charge of German industry.  Production doubled between 1942 and 1944.  The one thing Speer could not control was the diversion of resources to the Final Solution.  Incidentally, the massive Allied bombing campaign had very little effect on the German war effort until the very end when Allied armies were already on German soil, but it certainly made civilian life extremely hard.  In the end, Hitler decreed a scorched earth policy, Germany had failed him and did not deserve to survive his defeat.

Aerial view – Berlin – Anhalter Bahnhof after Royal Air Force bombing, 1945 (public domain)

What do we learn from this painful period of human history?  Real historians are wary of pointing lessons, but there is just too much pain here to waste.  First, the inherent goodness of mankind is called into serious question by the events of the thirties and forties – both in Germany and in the Soviet Union (where even more died as a result of Stalin’s policies).  There is no limit to human depravity.  And whatever may be said of the destructiveness of religion, it was more than matched by the ferocity of a regime that puts itself in the place of God.  A lot of ink has been spilled in the effort to demonize Germans and/or Russians, but I am not buying.  They were not racially inferior, uncivilized, uneducated, or uncultured.  The enemy is us!

Secondly, desperate times should not tempt us to desperate measures – but they do!  And delegating our dilemmas to a fanatic is not a good idea.  If you cannot win without him, you cannot control him!  “The choice of a leader and the absolute authority of the same” is not democracy, not good crisis management – you are better off with the crisis.  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Thirdly, diplomacy is not the solution to every problem.  You cannot assume that every nation – particularly a dictator – operates on a policy of rational self-interest or universal benevolence.  Bismarck was closer to the truth than Chamberlain.  Capabilities are more important than promises and you should never trust a man (or woman) who thinks he is god, implicitly or explicitly.

Finally, ideas do have consequences.  Mein Kampf should have been taken seriously.  The whole program was laid out in black and white.  The NSDAP was not nationalist, socialist, conservative, or Christian and had no real program to solve Germany’s problems in any legitimate and peaceful way.  There was no truth in their message or their methods.  It was a triumph of will over reality from beginning to bitter end.  Neither Darwin nor Nietzsche nor Rousseau can be held responsible, Hitler did not read them, but his subordinates misappropriated their ideas to defend him.  Hitler’s career illustrates the dangers of hijacked ideas like “the survival of the fittest” races, the “will to power,” and “forcing people to be free.”

Works Consulted:

“Anschluss.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia

Britannica, 2011. Web. 08 Jun. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/26730/Anschluss>

Arendt, Hannah.  The Origins of Totalitarianism.  2nd edn (Cleveland: The World Publishing,

1958).

Bullock, Alan.  Hitler; A Study in Tyranny.  Rev edn (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

Bruner, Jerome “Peace Pledge Union,” Spartacus, retrieved 6/8/11 from

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWpeaceunion.htm

Deutsch, Harold.  “World War II,” lectures at the University of Minnesota, c. 1968-69.

Heughins, David W.  “An Uncertain Sound,” unpublished, c. 1963.  (Includes survey of British

and selected American press, 1933-39)

————.  “Nazis in the News,” unpublished, in partial fulfillment of MA, University of

Minnesota, 1969. (a survey of German newspapers, 1930)

Hitler, Adolf.  Mein Kampf, edited by J. Chamberlain et al. (New York: Raynal & Hitchcock,

1941)

Meinecke, Friedrich.  The German Catastrophe.  Trans by Sidney B. Fay, (Boston: Beacon

Press, 1950.

Nolte, Ernst.  Three Faces of Fascism.  Trans by Leila Vennewitz (New York: New American

Library, 1965).

Speer, Albert.  Inside the Third Reich. Trans by Richard & Clara Winston (New York: Avon,

1970.

Taylor, A. J. P.  The Origins of the Second World War, 2nd Edn.  Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1961


David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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  1. Good article… the intricacies and intermingling of ideas and events of which are almost too complex to fully fathom… and hopefully to never be repeated.