[Revised November, 2012]
Despite Woodrow Wilson's promise, World War I did not lead to a
world "safe for democracy." Quite the reverse: it led to some of
the most tyrannical regimes the world has ever seen, to Communism in
the Soviet Union, to Fascism in Italy, and to National Socialism in
Germany. Of these three flavors of totalitarianism, it is the
last, National Socialism, that is in some ways the most
disturbing. Not because it involved the most deaths--Communism
takes far more lives--but for a very different reason.
Now all of you are familiar with with Hitler and his National Socialists. Hitler has become the universally recognized symbol of evil--as well he should. But there's a real danger to using Hitler as this kind of symbol. In contrast to Hitler, the rest of us look pretty good, and it's very tempting to view Hitler as an aberration evil person very different from all us fine, good, moral people. In comparison with Hitler, even Dr. Blanchard looks pretty good--even I look pretty good! Because we think Hitler an aberration, we tend to believe that the things that happened in Germany--events like those described in the book Night--could never happen here. This is simply not the case.
You see the Holocaust, the destruction of the Jews, is not
a uniquely cruel event in human history. It by no means set a
deaths, and there have been many instances where groups have been
treated with equal cruelty. What makes the Holocaust
so troubling is where it took place. The Germans were among the best
educated, most civilized, most progressive people on the face of the
earth--and Germany had a relatively good record in its treatment of the
Jews. In the first years after World War I, there were no doors
closed to German Jews. Jews were prominent in German politics, in
German business, in the art world, in journalism--everywhere. And
if the tables could turn on them so thoroughly and so rapidly--well, it
shows that such things could happen anywhere, including America, if we
are not very careful.
So how did Hitler come into power in Germany and end up doing the
horrible things he did? Well, the place to begin: World War I.
The War had been devastating to Germany in terms of both monetary
loss and manpower loss. On top of the direct losses, there was
harsh Versailles Treaty to deal with, a treaty that stripped Germany of
key territory and forced Germany to pay a $33 billion indemnity.
But one good thing had come out of this. At the insistance of
Wilson, the Kaiser was gone, and the Germans at last had a truly
democratic government, what we call the Weimar government, named for
the new capital, Weimar. For a time, it looked like the Weimar
government would have some success in addressing the many problems
confronting Germany. But, instead, Germany went in a very
different direction, adopting totalitarian National Socialism instead
of embracing freedom.
National Socialism was largely the creation of a single individual,
Adolph Hitler. Hitler explained his ideas in his autobiographical
book, Mein Kampf. Mein Kampf means, "My
Struggle." Hitler talks about his personal struggles, but he
really regards his struggle as the struggle of the whole of the German
Hitler believed that the Aryan peoples, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired
Scandinavian and Germanic types were the master race, equivalent to
Nietzsche's "Superman," destined to dominated the earth. What
these Aryans superior? Was it the blue eyes and blonde
hair? Well, Hitler prized these characteristics, but the real
strength of the Aryans was that they had evolved the willingness to
subordinate their own interests for the good of their people as a
whole. In other words, what made the Aryans the master race was
the fact that they would be perfect totalitarians, giving all
allegiance to the state.
An interesting theory. Certainly a people who would sacrifice
anything for the good of their people as a whole seems likely destined
to do well in the struggle for survival. But there was a
problem. The Germans had lost World War I. How had that
Well, said Hitler, it was because there was another race in
Germany: the Jews. The Jews were not by any means the most
inferior of races. It was sometimes hard to tell them apart from
Aryans. As a result, Aryan Germans were making a terrible mistake.
German men were marrying Jewish women. And, far worse, Aryan
women were marrying Jewish men.
Now what's the result of mixing the Aryan and Jewish races?
Well, that's easy to answer: the result is me. There are mostly
Aryan types on my
mother's side. My dad's family is Jewish. Mix the Jews and
Aryans, and you get me. Hitler may have had a point, yes?
The problem as Hitler saw it was that the Jews did not have the
superior Aryan trait of being willing to sacrifice for the good of the
nation as a whole. Quite the reverse: the Jews undermined
Germany. They were Communists, political saboteurs. They
were capitalists, exploiting the German workers. The Jews stabbed
Germany in the back in World War I. And, if Germany was to
fulfill its destiny, something had to be done about these Jews.
Crackpot ideas? Certainly: and, for a long time, most
Germans themselves regarded Hitler as a crackpot. In 1923,
Hitler's Brownshirts tried to take over Germany. They had no luck at
got tossed into prison (where he wrote Mein Kampf). He was soon
released: no one saw him as all that dangerous. In 1928, Hitler
and his Nazis were still a joke. They won just a handful of seats
in the Reichstag (the German parliament), and received only around
800,000 votes. They were no more important than (say) the Green
Party in this country. But by 1930, things had changed. The
Nazis got 6,000,000 votes and over 100 seats in the Reichstag--nowhere
near a majority yet, but a huge increase. What had happened?
At the same time the Nazi party was growing, another power was
growing as well: the Communists. Both totalitarian movements resorted
to violence, and, ironically, the violence led to increasing strength
for both parties. People fearing the Nazis joined the Communist party.
People fearing the Communists joined the Nazis.
In 1932, the German parliamentary system broke down: no one party
had a majority. The German president, a man named Hindenberg, thought
he had to include either the Nazis or the Communists in any ruling
coalition. Understandably, he preferred the Nazis as the lesser
of two evils. But the Nazis wouldn't participate unless their
man, Adolph Hitler, was named chancellor, the chief executive.
some reason, Hindenberg conceded: perhaps thinking that at least the
Nazis would give up street violence while, at the same time, not able
to implement any of their crackpot ideas. Who knows?
What happened, though, is that someone started a fire which
destroyed the Reichstag building. Hitler blamed the
Communists--and this was the last straw. Hitler called for
emergency powers to deal with the Communists--but he used those powers
to destroy all political parties other than his own Nazi party.
Like Lenin and Stalin, he used terror and intimidation,
organizations like the Gestapo. But Hitler also gained power because
people liked what he was doing. He took control of the economy (these
are National SOCIALISTS, remember), not destroying the big business
interests, but making them toe the line. Hitler promised his
people a "thousand year Reich," and empire that would last for a
thousand years--a new German empire (the third great German empire,
hence the name Third Reich). And the Germans were glad they had a
fuehrer, a leader. The Germans at last had their Stalin, e.g.,
man of steel. And in their enthusiasm, the German people gave their
assent to some grim, grim atrocities. Best known, perhaps,
Hitler's assault on the Jews, the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is called that because it was an attempt to wipe out
the entirety of the European Jewish population. There had been many
earlier persecutions of the Jews, but this was the first attempt at
complete genocide. A "holocaust" offering in the Bible is one where
the entire sacrificial animal is consumed, and so it seemed appropriate
to designate this particular attack on the Jews as a "holocaust."
Some Jewish scholars prefer the name "Shoah," desolation.
Now Hitler didn't initially see any need for genocide. At first, he
just deprived Jews or their citizenship, and, in 1935, issued Nuremberg
laws, laws placing restrictions on the Jews. Simply expelling the Jews
from Germany might have been a sufficient solution, and many Jews did
But when Hitler began to expand his empire in the first years of
World War II (1939-40), he all of a sudden added territory which
contained the Jews who had left. And, on top of that, his
territory acquisitions put far more Jews in his empire that he knew how
to deal with. And so, in the dark days of the war, the Nazis
hatched a "final solution," to the Jewish problem. Ultimately,
the Nazis wiped out around 6 million Jews--and lots of other
"undesirable" types as well.
How was it that the German people allowed this?
First of all, the way for Hitler was paved by ideas: the ideas of
Darwin, Hegel, and Nietzsche that I have mentioned already. Also
helpful, the peculiar respect for anything done in the name of
"science." Somehow, the "science" label lets us accept things we
would, in other contexts, reject as horrible.
[Note how far we traveled down exactly the
same trail the Nazis ended up following to it's logical conclusion in
this Wikipedia article
on eugenics. Very important to read this material!]
Secondly, bitterness and frustration over what had happened in World
War I. Many German young men came home from the war facing
horrible economic prospects. They were unable to find jobs good enough
to support a family--and this is they kind of thing that turns young
men into ready recruits for a radical movement. Seeing Jews
holding positions they would very much have liked for themselves made
things worse. Now what's going on here is partly a perception
problem. German Jews as a whole weren't doing so well
either. But if *one* Jew held a good position somewhere, there
were dozens of young Germans who thought that, if only the Jew were
gone, that position would be theirs.
Third, the weakness of institutions that might have opposed the
Nazis. The German church especially was weak. Only 5% of Germans
attended church regularly--and, in many churches, what was taught from
the pulpit wasn't traditional Christianity anyway--just a mixture of
various trendy ideas. Some German Christians did stand up to
Hitler: many priests and nuns died in the concentration camps.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Germany's finest Lutheran theologian, likewise
perished because of his opposition to Hitler. But the German
church was just too weak to make any real difference.
Also, the Nazis proceeded relatively gradually. They deprived
Jews of citizenship rights: so what? They then shipped them
to--not death camps--concentration camps--just places they could keep
an eye on people they didn't quite trust. Only later did the
camps turn into death camps--and only when Nazi defeat seemed
inevitable did the pace of killing really take off.
Also, the Nazis were fairly good at keeping what they were doing
secret. When the camps were liberated, American soldiers would
drag Germans from nearby towns to the camps and show them the horrible
things that had happened. Again and again, the German claimed
they didn't know. The Americans told them they had to have
known--but they insisted that they didn't, they didn't know at all what
was going on in the camps.
I believe them. They probably didn't know. They didn't
know, because they didn't want to know.
And there's the question for us. Could we ever get to that
point? Could we get used to the taking of innocent
lives? Could we get to the point where thousands, tens of
thousands, maybe a million innocent lives were taken every year, and,
because it was hidden away in a place we didn't have to see it--would
we just ignore it, pretend it wasn't happening or at least no concern
of ours? Do you think, just maybe, that might happen here--or
that it might even be happening here? Just a thought....