Vital lessons from the Nazi past

Review in AsPerceived Quarterly, No. 2, February 2017

At least two groups find histories of the Nazi regime compelling. One, of course, are the out and out neo-Nazis of today whose warped perception of political reality is only surpassed by their personal  inadequacies. The second group, in which I include myself, encompasses those who are baffled as to how, within living memory, a cultured, modern European society could fall for a racist, sociopathic demagogue and, tacitly or explicitly, assent to be governed by those whose actions could only lead to the permanently simmering subjugation of Europe or to the annihilation of their own country. As Western democracies are increasingly seduced by right wing parties and plausible leaders, it is important to study and publicise the similarities of statements made today with those in early days of the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany.

This latter purpose is why Volker Ullrich’s new biography of Hitler is important. Through formidable research, Ullrich seeks to present Hitler as a much more rounded and complex character than the individual as depicted in earlier biographies. He writes:

Hitler was undoubtedly an extraordinarily gifted speaker, and that capability was of inestimable importance to his rise to power during the 1920s and ‘30s. But the Chairman of the NSDAP was not just an excellent demagogue. He was also a fairly gifted actor who had mastered the art of appearing in a variety of masks and roles.

.... the myth of the ‘artist-politician’ has influenced many biographies. This obscures the fact that Hitler was a well-below-average painter and architect, however: his great gift was for politics alone. In his ability to instantaneously analyse and exploit situations he was far superior not only to his rivals within the NSDAP but also to the politicians from Germany’s mainstream parties. There is no other way to explain why he emerged victorious in all of the crises leading up to 1933. Or how he was able, within a few months after his appointment as chancellor, to subjugate his conservative coalition partners in the “cabinet of national concentration”, although they were convinced that they had co-opted him for their ends.

Ullrich succeeds brilliantly in his:

.... aim to deconstruct the myth of Hitler, the ‘fascination with monstrosity’ that has so greatly influenced historical literature and public discussion of the Führer after 1945. In a sense, Hitler will be ‘normalised’  - although this will not make him seem more ‘normal’. If anything he will emerge as even more horrific.

This biography also charts the victories of the Nazi party in local elections en route to its national success, though it never achieved a majority of votes - 43% was its highest total before Hitler abandoned parliamentary elections in favour of referendums. It also demonstrates the ‘Teflon’ quality of the public’s support for Hitler: no matter the scandals, the failure of the beer hall putsch, the assassination of challengers such as Ernest Röhm and Gregor Strasser, his dismissal of respected coalition partners, and above all the incremental and violent discrimination against the Jews, the public, having determined that Hitler was their political saviour, happily ignored it all. We see a similar syndrome, albeit at much lower level, with UKIP in the UK and with Trump in the USA.

Ullrich expresses surprise that later commentators, domestic as well as foreign, expressed themselves ignorant of Hitler’s lethal intentions towards the Jews when he had made them abundantly clear in his personal manifesto Mein Kampf, published in 1925. There was no party democracy in the NSDAP and Hitler’s price for assuming the party leadership was complete loyalty and obedience. He was indispensable to the cause and it was his personal destiny for Germany that had to be followed. This explains the title of Leni Reifenstahl’s influential - and brilliant - film, Triumph of the Will.

Ullrich makes it clear that the failure of France - the legal authority under the Versailles treaty - to intervene to prevent Hitler’s re-militarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 was, literally, fatal. It was the crucial moment on Hitler’s route to world war when he could have been stopped. Ullrich writes:

More than 20,000 [German] troops had crossed the Rhine, but only 3,000 penetrated further inland. They were under strict orders to retreat if attacked by French troops. But the French general staff was hesitant to launch such an attack, believing that their  troops were no match for the Wehrmacht. In reality, a single French division would have sufficed to thwart Hitler’s gambit. The Führer was well aware of the risk he was taking and anxiously awaited the first responses to the operation. According to .... sources, Hitler later described the forty-eight hours after German troops re-occupied the Rhineland, Hitler said, we would have had to retreat in humiliation and shame since the military forces at our disposal would not have been equal to even moderate resistance.

And thus was the later die cast.  Hitler continued on his murderous path, condemned by other countries in nothing but words. Nothing epitomised this attitude more than in 1938 when the attacks on Jews and their open exclusion from economic and social life increased towards the infamous Kristallnacht. In June that year a conference was called in the French spa of Evian on the initiative of the US President, Franklin Roosevelt. It roundly condemned the German government’s attacks on the Jews but none of the thirty-two participating countries was willing to raise significantly its quotas for German-Jewish immigration.

In this regard they played right into the hands of Nazi propaganda. ‘No-one wants them,’ jeered the [Nazi party paper] Völkischer Beobachter. In his concluding speech at the Nuremberg rally in 1938, Hitler made fun of the hypocrisy of western democracies that complained, on the one hand, about the ‘boundless cruelty’ with which the Third Reich was trying to ‘rid itself of its Jewish element’ while shrinking back, on the other, from the burdens connected with accepting such a large number of Jewish immigrants. ‘Plenty of morality,’ Hitler scoffed, ‘but no help at all.’

This has deeply uncomfortable echoes for the West’s treatment of Muslim refugees trying to escape from Syria, Afghanistan and other oppressive regimes. Hitler’s repeated accusation against the German Jews was that they were aliens with no commitment to the state of Germany and were parasites that exploited the country. It was patently rubbish, of course: Germans had fought with distinction in the German army in the First World War and, indeed, this facile argument could hardly be applied to the millions of Jews from the rest of Europe that Hitler set about exterminating, but it found a fateful and shameful resonance amongst many German citizens. Is there not an all too similar echo in Western attitudes today towards Muslims?

Today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric that has a malign and pervasive effect across Europe today, with right-wing nationalist parties polling significantly in elections in Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Holland and Denmark, finds its echo in 1930s Germany. Even more alarming is the more recent allying of xenophobic attitudes in foreign policy, which includes immigrants as “aliens”, with socialistic domestic policies. It is alarmingly imitative of a “national socialist” philosophy. Ignoring these parties, as had largely been the tactic of the mainstream parties thus far, giving them a free run, has been an accumulating disaster. And electoral tricks to keep them out of parliament are counter-productive. Their unsavoury propaganda has to be exposed and confronted with powerful analysis and argument. This book, by charting the “salami slicing” of an increasing discrimination against the Jews, and showing its consequences, should be read and noted.

Hitler, Ascent 1889-1939, by Volker Ullrich, translated by Jefferson Chase, pub. Bodley Head, 2016; ISBN 978-1-847-92285-4; 998 pages, £25.

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