Knowledge Boost #5: The Coming of the Third Reich
This book had been sitting on my shelf for years now (I think The Quiet Man might have gifted it to me, but I'm not 100% sure on that, which is how I know it's been sitting there for years) and honestly, this area of history just isn't my bag, baby. World War II doesn't trip my trigger the way it does for some people and I went into this book thinking it was going to be rehashing events that I had a basic outline/knowledge about in the first place and I didn't know what I was going to get out of it.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Every time travel movie ever made inevitable poses the question of: "Could we travel back in time and kill Hitler?" Most people, being decent enough people, would say 'sure' to that notion- hell, Doctor Who even has an episode called "Let's Kill Hitler" but I hate to rain on the science fiction wishes and dreams of many people: killing Hitler wouldn't have helped. Things had been cooking for a while at that point.
Really, you have to go back to 1848 if you really want a hinge point to change the trajectory of a nation. Had they succeeded and not resulted in a counter-revolutionary backlash, both Europe and America could have looked very different today. In the wake of that revolutionary year, nationalism rose hard and fast and that, combined with rapid growth and industrialization produced inequalities which, in their turn, bred resentments that had to go somewhere.
There's a weird crossover with the next book I'm reading for these posts-- but it's not an accident that rising anti-Semitism kickstarted the Zionist movement around this time- I'll just say that. There was that period around the start of the century when people had all kinds of frankly sketchy beliefs about racial hygiene and superiority that, alas, aren't completely extinguished either today.
So, even before World War I-- the ingredients were all there and cooking-- I even had my 'Sound of Music' bubble of Anschluss burst in my head because it turns out there was a significant pan-German movement in Austria at the time that wanted to be incorporated into the Greater Germany.
If 1848 was the first potential pivot point to avoid the whole 'Nazi' thing, The Treaty of Versailles is probably the second and looks even stupider in hindsight than the disaster we've all come to know and love in the decades hence. I would have traded reparations for dismemberment, just to see what would have happened. Germany had only been a thing for fifty years at that point. There would have been people (perhaps not too many after the war, I'll grant you) that remembered the *before* but whether or not that would have been enough to erase five decades of building German identity and nationalism that had come after 1848, I don't know. You could have set up an independent Bavaria, Hannover, Burgandy, and a de-militarized Prussia and tried that for a while, but I think that might have taken more international involvement than the rest of Europe was willing to give after the War.
But it is another path they could have taken which might have produced a different outcome. The national humiliation and economic penury imposed upon Germany in defeat did nothing to calm down either economic/racial/ethnic resentments or cool the flames of nationalism, but rather- especially with the hyperinflationary crisis of the early 20s, stoked them. And, given the measures the Weimar government had to impose to get hyperinflation under control-- (forcibly deflation, essentially) that only bred more resentments-- this time against the newly formed Weimar Republic.
The ingredients were all there and they'd be cooking a lot longer than I think most folks- at least ones that don't get down in the nitty-gritty of late 19th Century/early 20th Century German history- realize. Youth movements sprung up in Weimar Germany that were a harbinger of what came next. Veterans of the war and the Conservative/Nationalist establishment made their way into Universities and started inculcating elites with far-right sympathies.
As economic conditions worsened, you see the welfare system start to be used against people- with actual spies reporting people they believe to be abusing the system. The government would just declare some people unfit to work or receive welfare based on the sketchy racial hygiene and social biology things that were so prevalent back then. (The way it's described in the book is super creepy and honestly chilling.) Controlling hyperinflation calmed things down on the economic front for a bit, but then the Depression hit and exacerbated things again.
Politically, as the perceived legitimacy of the state declined, violence became an acceptable tool of politics-- and it wasn't just the nascent Nazi Party and other Right Wing parties that were the culprits-- the Left got in on the action as well. The Communists gave as good as they got and at some point, The left formed The Iron Front (nothing authoritarian sounding about that name at all.)
As the 20s turned into the 30s, we reached our final potential pivot point and that's the government of Heinrich Bruning. The book doesn't think he could have saved the Weimar Republic-- but instead, thought that a military dictatorship might have tipped the scales against the Nazis taking power, but the reality is that a military dictatorship probably would have sparked a war. Any new government was going to have to repudiate the Treaty of Versailles at a minimum and nationalism was at such a fever pitch that if a hypothetical military government didn't take steps to rearm and restore German honor, then I think that would have been a non-starter for a lot of people in Germany at that time. The humiliation of Versailles, the economic penury of reparations, and the economic crises of hyperinflation and the depression made for a toxic mix.
Was a military dictatorship a viable option? I think if Hindenburg had been younger or there had been another leader of his stature from the pre-Weimar days who had the respect of the military, it might have been. The Nazis weren't stupid about how they went about this though-- by this point, they had plenty of people if not in the military, then certainly very sympathetic to their message and rhetoric.
Speaking of the Nazis: the biggest myth that this book blew up from me was that the Nazis weren't overwhelmingly voted into power. They never once won the majority of voters in the German elections and, before the Reichstag Fire, they actually saw their vote share drop a bit. This raises the question: had Weimar made a couple of different moves and been more stable-- which is a big 'if' I'm sure, could the mood of the electorate have turned, eventually? It's a hypothetical worth pondering-- as the money quote of this volume is probably this: "The Nazi Party was a party of protest, with not much of a positive program" (Boy, populism populisms now matter the decade, doesn't it?) Without the Reichstag Fire, do the Nazis fade out? It's largely a moot question at this point, because, well, it happened-- but I think the tentative answer I might have to do that is: maybe?
Nazi rhetoric was all about the restoration of German, bringing Germany back, and reversing the national humiliation of Versailles... they effectively used a crisis to seize the levers of power, but they didn't immediately end the institutions of state-- instead, they just let the remnants of the Weimar Republic atrophy, while they again- effectively, purged just about every aspect of society they could get their hands on. You can 'what if' for days on this question, but I do think the notion that they were a party of protest without much of a program could well have bitten them in the right circumstances. Rhetoric only gets you so far-- even though Goebbels was a truly evil genius and I shudder to think what he would have been like if he had the internet at his disposal.
The Nazi high water mark was 37.4% of the vote. They never came close to or broke 50% of the vote. So, how did we end up with the Third Reich?
The Reichstag Fire. That essentially gave them the excuse they needed to pass the Enabling Law that let them rule by decree via the cabinet. That law was the end of the Weimar Republic, completing a slide that had begun with Bruning in 1930 and taken three years to complete.
How are we surprised by what came after? How do we shy away from the horrors that followed? The table had been set. The ingredients and precedents were all there. I was stunned to learn that Dachau opened in 1933. The Germans put down a rebellion in Namibia using the brutal expedient of rounding up 14,000 Herero rebels and putting them in camps. 500 died a day, eventually, the total death rate reached 45%. That's probably the bitterest pill of all the swallow with this book. You can point to moments- and the book does, where history could have turned, ever-so-slightly and might have changed the outcome. Hindsight is always 20/20, but when it comes to the rise of the Third Reich, you just wish you had that time machine so you could go back and slap some sense into the right people.
Reflecting on the present day in America, it's hard not to think of an old saying, "Fascism is forever descending on America, but always seems to wind up landing in Europe." I'm not a big fan of drawing parallels and seeing creeping fascism under every rock. (I'm also not a fan of super overdone metaphors comparing America to the last days of the Roman Republic either, but it's either Weimar Germany or the Roman Republic for the doom-sayers of today, I guess.) Much like social media, reading this book requires breaks. You need to go outside and touch grass once in a while. Do I think any place is immune to authoritarianism? No, and if Americans harbor delusions that they are somehow immune, they would be wise to let go of those delusions immediately. The battle for the 21st Century is going to be about centralization versus decentralization, control versus not control, and those debates do not cleave neatly between the two parties that we're currently stuck with. (If anything, I think Strauss-Howe generational theory might prove to be the most accurate gauge of our current moment than anything else I can think of right now.)
Overall: Dense, sobering, gripping-- the blurb on the front says that this "Will long remain the definitive English language account" and I couldn't agree with that assessment more. My Grade: **** out of ****