Saturday, December 26, 2015

So You Want to Talk About Hitler

Ok.  Good.  We should talk about Adolf Hitler. He was a significant historical figure after all.

Let’s just make sure we get all of our facts right.

Unfortunately, people often don't.  There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about Hitler and the Nazis.  If you expect to learn from history, you have make sure you get everything right.  And speaking of everything, in History that happens to be what context is.  

Take the frequent comparisons between Adolf and celebrity presidential candidate Donald Trump.  There are similarities, such as a good sense for opportunities.  But Trump and Hitler share that with all successful people.  I suppose that's why “opportunist” never appears in those lists comparing the two men that have made the rounds on social media lately.  It has turned into some kind of a contest, who can best make the case that Trump or Hitler do or do not mirror each other.

That's what I mean about context.  Everyone thinks they know about Hitler’s rise to power.  But often, we know so much less than we think.  Not just about Hitler or World War II, but for all sorts of historical events.  For the sake of argument, let me ask you a few questions, and please see how many you can answer.  Why did Kaiser Wilhelm abdicate in 1918?  Who took over Germany after the Kaiser fled? How did they handle the Ruhr and Hyperinflation crisis?  When was Paul Von Hindenburg president of Germany and what were his policies?  Why was Hitler appointed chancellor?  Did you know that under the Weimar constitution, chancellor was appointed by the president?

How many of those questions could you answer correctly?  Please be honest.  The Kaiser abdicated and fled Germany because he feared overthrow. He feared overthrow because a naval mutiny had triggered a wave of violence across that turned into a revolution. The soldiers serving abroad knew their position was bad due to poor supplies, but from the view of the trenches, they didn't seem to be losing. But i,n Germany violence broke out over lack of food.  The Social Democrats took over Germany and declared a republic. Returning soldiers helped restore order or participated in the violence. Some soldiers supported the republic, some didn't. The Social Democrats completed the surrender to the Allied powers, without any bargaining.  From here the dolchstosslegende (stabbed in the back myth) formed and spread through the German and Austrian right.  The Social Democrats and other German liberals would ultimately take the blame for the lost war and the crises of the 1920s.  After Versailles, much of Germany’s most important industrial regions were taken away to be administered by the League of Nations.  Without the economic benefits of these regions, the entire German economy suffered.  When The Social Democratic led government wanted to renegotiate reparations in 1922, France and Belgium invaded and occupied the Ruhr and Saar Valleys, important industrial centers.  The Ruhr and Saar would be held hostage to ensure German compliance, while the French and Belgian troops took taxes and goods from Ruhr and Saar as reparations.  The German left called for a general strike to resist the French and Belgians.  Strikes occurred, all over Germany.  With any production brought to a standstill, the crisis got worse.  But the German government kept printing more money.  The famous Hyperinflation Crisis was a consequence of post-war economic depression, loss of industrial capacity to hostile foreigners, and poor administration all put together.  So, the Social Democrats handled the crises badly.  Paul von Hindenburg became president in 1925.  By that year most of the postwar crises had been resolved or were heading for a resolution, but Germans still felt humiliation and the problem of political violence remained, perpetrated as much by Communists as anyone else. Hindenburg was a monarchist.  He would have preferred a Germany ruled by a kaiser.  In fact, many Germans were monarchists.  Under the kaiser, Germany was a constitutional federal monarchy, with authoritarian laws, and not much in the way of public civil liberties.  The kaiser had been able to rule by decree, sidestepping the reichstag if necessary, so long as regional aristocrats did not resist.  Hindenburg and his ministers wanted to return to that.  Hindenburg’s cabinet, known as the Von Papen Clique after Chancellor Franz von Papen, were willing to make the president a kaiser in power if not in name, as no member of the imperial family was willing to attempt to regain the throne.  Between 1925 and 1934, the cabinet got the Reichstag to grant the office of the president more power, until the president had the ability to govern by decree, as the kaiser had in the past.  But, while things improved under Hindenburg, they did not improve enough.  When the crises of the 1920s discredited Social Democrats and liberals, the Communists were empowered.  In 1932, the Communists picked up seats in the Reichstag.  Hindenburg’s conservative coalition needed more people to stay in power.  They had a devil’s choice.  German conservatives detested the fascists, disrespected the liberals, but the Communists, they feared.  Like the fascists, the Communists were willing to resort to violence, and they had.  They preached the complete overthrow and recreation of society.  In the end, Hindenburg and the Von Papen clique brought Hitler into their coalition.  The conservatives thought Hindenburg would be able to control that “little Austrian.”  The trouble with relying on people is that we are all mortal.  Hindenburg died in office 1934.  Chancellor Hitler succeeded Hindenburg as president, and inherited all of the powers of the pseudo-kaiser. By 1934, Hitler did not need to do much to seize more authority because it was already his.  

I have only gone through some of the conditions in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and even those just barely.  There is so much more to the end of the monarchy and birth of the republic than I wrote, to say nothing of Hindenburg’s presidency.  What’s more, to fully understand the rise of the Nazis, one also needs a primer on the centuries of German anti-semitism, going back at least to the 1700s, maybe even as early as the First Crusade, which a recent Cracked article did a good job of ignoring.

Does this teach us anything about Donald Trump?  A little bit, at least.  We are recovering from war and economic troubles.  The American right has its own dolchstosslegende regarding terrorism.  Fourteen years after 9/11, islamophobia keeps getting worse.  Trump definitely uses that, but so do all the Republican candidates.  The United States is experiencing social upheaval, as what were formerly norms we took for granted are overturned: our understanding of who marries, gender identity, the subservience of non-whites.  All of these are challenged very publicly. If social change makes you nervous, you cannot even ignore it.  But, the United States has not experienced the kind of humiliation Germany did in the 1920s, we did not experience the appalling loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq, our economic slowdown was not nearly as horrific as the Hyperinflation Crisis.  Crime is at 100-year lows.  Even acts of terrorism pale in comparison to what we fear might happen.  And, most important of all, we do not face a devils choice between Trump and someone seemingly more threatening.

Trump polls better than the others because he is a more experienced showman.  There are similarities, at least superficially between Donald and Adolf.  Does that make Trump Hitler?  Well, no. Not yet.  Trump is Trump. No matter how similar, Trump is a product of his own context.  Therefore, I think that we should stop making that comparison.  Another thing to keep in mind is that calling Trump a Nazi only encourages his supporters.  Some of whom are ACTUAL Nazis!  We need to discuss what makes a fascist in order to understand our history, and our present challenges.  Making our enemies out to be something they are not only obscures our own vision, and handicaps our ability to resist them.  Another thing to keep in mind, the rest of the Republican field tend to espouse similar views as Donald Trump towards minorities and civil liberties.

I want to keep Trump out of the White House, but that's only one step to keeping things from getting worse.  What about our fellow Americans who enable Trump and others like him?  If Trump flames out and leaves the race, every would-be voter who supports him now is still in play and will remain so. We need a way to address them, too, or Trump won't be the last.  I am not sure what to do.  I think we will have to weather this storm for years to come.

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