“One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” ― Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany
Cass Sunstein has an interesting review in the NYRB entitled It Can Happen Here. It’s a good, short read.
Sunstein looks at 3 books that are personal accounts of Germans, who survived the Nazi years, trying to account for how Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the pre-WWII German liberal democratic republic.
These books, for the most part, tell the story from the view of the average working class German. It was ultimately the German people’s collective inaction that allowed Hitler and the Nazis to take and keep power. The fall into fascism, we’re told, wasn’t a sudden thing—at least not in the awareness of the average German. The descent into tyranny was gradual. By the time most German people realized what was happening it was too late to do anything about it. Sunstein quotes a philologist who captures a set of common sentiments that many Germans seem to have had when reflecting back on that time:
…a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
It was an incremental descent into tyranny. It was aided, as one writer put it, by the German people’s “‘Automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.” It’s easy to see how this might happen in a democracy.
To be clear, if an election is an indicator of whom and what political party a nation supports (and it is), then Hitler didn’t have popular (majority) support amongst the German voters. The other parties combined, all more left leaning, garnered the majority of support. The problem was the left leaning parities were divided and that gave Hitler’s Nazi party a united front in the German Reichstag (parliament) and the keys to power. Hitler and his fascist right-wing party came to power in 1933 and immediately seized dictatorial powers that same year. The speed of things, the confusion, the mass of lies, the propaganda, and fear were all on Hitler’s side. An important set of things to keep in mind when thinking about how this might happen in our own time.
Many Germans welcomed fascist authoritarianism. As Sunstein’s points out, there were working class Germans, interviewed years after the Nazis had been destroyed and their crimes well known, that said the Nazi years were the “best years of their life.” So there were some Germans, who knew full well what had happened, who still admired Hitler and the life he supposedly gave them. When asked about the horrors the Nazi regime had carried out, like the murder of 6 million Jews, many of these Nazi working class supporters just dismissed that as basically “Fake news.” Of course reading this made me feel all the more pleased that Nazi Germany had been utterly destroyed and burned to the ground.
I didn’t read the books involved in this review, so I can’t properly critique the gradualist theory. My theory is that initially a lot of Germans who hadn’t supported Hitler grew to support Hitler. Even if they weren’t initially comfortable with Hitler and how he’d seized power, they chose to make moral compromises, over and over, because of a booming economy (mostly via a massive stimulus in government spending on the military) and a perceived order and stability that initially, at least, were all very agreeable. Many other Germans, even among the political opposition, sold out politically and morally. They decided it was best to go along. A German Republican at the time of Hitler’s rise told a man who’d voiced a deep opposition to the Nazis, that he needed to learn to “Howl with the wolves.” An apt metaphor when you think about it. A pack of wolves had taken over the country.
The problem, of course, was the Germans had made a deal with the devil, and we know how those deals end. Word was slowly spreading about the imprisoning (and murdering) of political enemies and the growing number of Gestapo raids and missing people (Jews AND fellow Germans) and their families and the suppression of individual rights. The German people would pay dearly. The devil would get his due. The wolves would feast on the lambs.