Friday, December 21, 2007
How Did The Good Germans Elect Hitler?
Like many people, I pondered this. It is these sorts of questions that are actually not difficult to answer when you employ useful tools such as Google and Wikipedia. It doesn't turn out to be a very long walk in the park either. Hitler was elected because he promised to give the Germans what they wanted.
The background to this was the First World War, which hurt Germany in particular. The pride of the country was in tatters, and worse, the economy was a shambles. The zeitgeist was at a low ebb for the twenty years following the First World War.
Hitler promised to radically change all that, and in particular, his brand of strong leadership and his rousing speeches tapped into the public consciousness. The nerve that Hitler touched upon was German Nationalism. And he voiced his frustration that he wanted to expand the German 'living space'. In particular, he wanted to include Austria as a German province, and then he wished to restore territory lost during the First World War. It was under this premise, a fairly mild premise, that the Second World War began. It began with the premise of simply expanding the collective German backyard.
Hitler was no fool, as he only started his war after sneakily brokering a deal with Stalin, which amounted to Stalin agreeing not to attack Germany even though Hitler had declared his intent to make some (but limited) trouble in Europe. Hitler also counted on Britain watching his shenanigan's from the safety of their island and rattling their sabres but essentially allowing him some leeway. This wasn't a daft gamble at all, as Hitler had progressively taken over territories just prior to WWII in Czechoslovakia (is that correct?) and Britain did not interfere then.
There is some more interesting background. Suffice it to say, Hitler's gambit didn't work. He thought Britain would be cowed into accepting German belligerence that might never effect Britain. Instead, as we all know, the world reacted to the invasion of Poland, much to Hitler's surprise. The next step was possibly unexpected. Hitler's pride did not prevent him from continuing his rampage, and his deal with Stalin went sour. The result was carnage on a scale not often seen.
So the Germans elected Hitler to basically uplift themselves, and he did, for a time. He promised them the world, and he delivered hell. Hitler went mad in his final days, and took his own life, and his mania against what he referred to as 'International Jewry' remained a paranoid obsession even in his last hours. Even in his suicide note he mentions the threat of the Jews.
The Jewish holocaust represented the very dark side of German vanity. The Germans wanted to uplift themselves, and part of the psychological effort meant blaming someone, and punishing someone for their own troubles. The nationalism that Germany incited really serves as a cogent example for how terrible nationalism can be, in terms of an instrument that can turn nations against nations in the name of what - nationhood?
Hitler's strategies were extremely effective too. He is the only leader as far as I know who asked of his soldiers to make a personal pledge, that is a personal promise and commitment to him, as the Fuhrer, which means Father or Supreme Leader. This gave him Godlike powers, which he used even when the war was lost in iconic battlegrounds such as Stalingrad (where he expected his officers to keep their oaths to him, and fight until the last man).
One last thing on Hitler. It is easy to demonise Hitler as a monster, but Hitler married Eva Braun days before he died. This means, as rotten a scoundrel as he was, she somehow did not see or share that revulsion. This is awkward for us to accept, even harder is that Hitler probably thought he was doing what he was doing for the benefit of Germany. This is what happens when you elect an uneducated emotionally disturbed fella to lead your country. And probably he rationalised that his mistakes couldn't be such a big deal, because after all, Eva had stood by him all the way...
The closest current example of such rampant runaway nationalism (and associated delusion) is contemporary North Korea. On Oprah last night a man who had successfully had a cataract operation, gave emphatic thanks to a portrait of the Dear Leader. Never mind that the surgical team were paid for by an outside aid group, and the government not only had nothing to do with it, but made sure the pretence that they did have everything to do with it, remained strong.
To elect a madman you need only 3 things:
1) A strong sense of disenfranchisement (a collective unhappiness about something)
2) A charming and charismatic speech maker (who naturally promises delivery from this malaise)
3) The ability to effectively maintain the delusion that the sacrifices made (in terms of lives lost today) is worth the hope of promise being delivered, and that it can be delivered, somewhere in the murky future of deferred possibility.
2 more are useful:
4) the use of fear
5) the threat of force
When I visited Germany in 1998 I was shocked to discover to what extent Germans reject nationalism. There is a conscious effort to stay away from a nationalistic stance, and if you mention WWII or Hitler or Nazi's the Germans appear stung and guilt-ridden. Even so, today the country is very well run, and the people are extremely well organised, hard-working and once again, the engine of Europe.
For more commentary, look here.