Today marks the 80th anniversary of beginning of World War II.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s German army—the Wehrmacht—invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany. By the time WWII ended in September of 1945, between 70 and 85 million people had perished.*
Of course Hitler was the central villain of WWII (Europe), and so he’s the focus. There are a lot of books about the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power. Just type in “Hitler” on Amazon’s search engine for books and you’ll get 20,000 “results.” Just casually scan the hundreds of cable TV channels at your fingertips, and the odds are fairly good you’ll find a program or documentary about the Nazis or Hitler. A friend of mine nicknamed the History Channel, the “Hitler Channel,” because he noticed throughout the year so many programs on the channel seemed to be about the Nazis or Hitler.
But while Hitler himself continues to attract the consternation of many, I believe we’d be far better served if we better understood the psychological dynamics or emotional forces moving Hitler’s followers. Would-be tyrants and demagogues are always present in any society. There’s always someone saying he—and “only” he—can make us great again. But why, especially in modern democratic societies, like, say, Germany in the 1930s, would so many people come to support and believe in such a man? I realize this is a complicated question. And before anyone says: “Well most Germans didn’t know before the war, before Hitler came to power, that he’d do so many horrendous and cruel things,” I’ll remind them that Hitler, long before he came to power, had published his extreme views in a book called Mein Kampf—which was a best selling book in Germany! Hitler views were well known.
Hitler’s hate for Jews, for example, was red hot. Not something that could stay hidden. In 1922, that’s 11 years before Hitler became German Chancellor, Jospeh Hell asked Hitler: “What do you want to do to the Jews once you have full discretionary powers?” Hitler didn’t mince any words:
Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.
No doubt Hitler’s views weren’t secret. And yet many Germans, fully aware of Hitler’s spoken intentions, at least in Mein Kampf and what they’d read in the newspapers, voluntarily attended his massive rallies and flocked to the streets to throw the Nazi salute as their fuhrer past. Many Germans willingly surrendered their democratic freedoms, their personal liberties, and without a doubt their conscience, to a fascist, authoritarian leader.
Besides Hitler’s hate of the Jews, Hitler’s plans to expand Germany—which any sentient person knew meant war—was also well known. And once Hitler’s mission to expand Germany began, Hitler held nothing back in how this expansion would effect, not just Jews, but all non-Germans, non-Ayrans. In an August 22nd speech to the group of German military commanders leading the invasion of Poland, Hitler said:
The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.
That a whole group of educated, and supposedly civilized, German officers could be informed of the coming systemic slaughter of innocent men, women, and children—just because they were Polish!—and not immediately reject Hitler, should remind us of just how fragile so called civilized people’s commitment to civilized values, basic humanity, can be. After the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazi SS carried out Hitler’s orders with cold-blooded efficiency. By the time the war ended 6 million Poles had been killed.
So I think the bigger, more important, challenge for us is to understand the social factors, the social pathologies, that caused so many German people to accept and support Hitler and his dark Nazi ideology. Again, there are always authoritarian types in the crowd, but these types can only take power if a large number of people in democratic societies go along and buy into it. If anything, Nazi Germany serves as a reminder that the real danger to peace and civilized values isn’t so much the sociopaths and authoritarian personalities, but the social environment where authoritarianism is welcomed, accepted, and saluted as it passes by.