I find surprising the detailed manner in which history repeats itself. The result of the landslide described here seems to have been replicated in the USA of our times in ways that all of us witness each day. The Germany of say 1939 seems like the blueprint for the US role in the world of today.
The year of 1918 was the most miserable year in post-World War One Europe. For most Germans their defeated country was the most miserable of all. And they were angry. Angry that fathers and sons had to die in the trenches of Imperial Germany’s war. Angry at the poverty. At the reigning chaos. A few years earlier Germany’s was the second world economy and its infrastructures like railways the envy of the world. Germans dreamed of the return of that greatness. Make Germany great again!
The Kaiser had abdicated, the German nobility was abolished and the Social Democrats proclaimed Germany a republic. But many Germans as well as the victors snickered at the weak Republic of Weimar. The small town of Weimar seemed unfit to be the capital of the world power Germany would soon be again. So widespread was opposition to the Weimar political divisions that rightist groups joined proliferating paramilitary organizations like the well-armed Freikorps.
At the same time the Communist Revolution exploded on the scene in Kiel and Berlin where Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had reformed the Spartacus League, founded the Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) newspaper and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) with the declared goal the destruction of capitalism. Armed workers seized control of train stations, public buildings and major Berlin newspapers. Liebknecht declared the “traitorous” Social Democratic (SPD) government deposed.
But the timing was bad. The uprising came too late. The SPD and other anti-communists—many of the left—with the help of the military establishment had organized that Freikorps of war veterans who were glad to prolong the fighting. After a week of street fighting, the well-trained Freikorps settled the issue by killing the Communists, including both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. By January 11, 1919 the revolution was crushed and many revolutionaries dead.
A de facto republic since the Kaiser abdicated, by February 1919 Germany became a de jure republic. In its fourteen years of existence, the Weimar Republic faced enormous economic and political problems, including hyperinflation, the political extremism of left and right paramilitaries and contentious relationships with the victors in the Great War. Resentment towards the Versailles Treaty was strong especially on the political right. Rightists were angry with the treaty signatories and those who tried to fulfill its terms. Though the Weimar Republic fulfilled most of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, it never met its disarmament requirements—the Freicorps were only subterfuge—and paid only a small portion of the war reparations. Germany accepted the western borders of the country but disputed the eastern borders such as those of Austria and of Sudetenland assigned as part of Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, in the South, crazy things were happening in Munich, capital of separatist Bavaria. Young men in new brown uniforms marched around town. Or sat orderly in the rear of brand new troop trucks. Communists? Reichswehr, the regular German Army? They looked different. Whose were they? Who financed them? Big industrialists. Foreigners?
In the meeting halls of Munich breweries, the multi-storied establishments of each of Munich’s major breweries which Germans have always loved, a new man appeared. Adolf Hitler quickly became a popular speaker.
In November 1918, also King Ludwig of Bavaria had abdicated and Bavaria was declared a People’s State of which the leader of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, a politician named Kurt Eisner, became Minister-President. Eisner advocated a socialist republic but distanced his party from Russian Bolsheviks, guaranteeing private property but was unable to provide public services. In January 1919 Bavarian elections he was defeated and in February was assassinated by the right-wing nationalist Arco-Valley.
Then, in April the Bavarian Soviet Republic was established in Munich. Räterepublik Baiern—republic of councils or soviets. It demanded independence from the Weimar Republic; one month later it too was crushed by the German Army and the paramilitary Freikorps. The revolutionaries were jailed in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison and many executed.
The wild events occurring in Munich reflected the confusion in the whole country. A chaos that led people into worse directions than the grand imperialistic aspirations of the past. But inflation and defeatism were not the real threats to the future Germany. Rabid nationalism was the threat. And militarism and revanchism and totalitarianism. Moreover, other sub-states of the Deutsches Reich harbored secessionist desires as did Bavaria.
In March 1918, the extreme nationalist, Anton Drexler, had formed in Munich the party that became the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiter Partei, DAP). The new man, Adolf Hitler, was an Austrian serving by special dispensation in the German Army. His first DAP speech was held in Munich’s famous Hofbräukeller on 16 October 1919, speaking to one hundred and eleven people. Hitler later declared that this was when he realized he could really “make a good speech”. At first, he spoke only to relatively small groups, but party leadership recognized his oratorical and propaganda skills. Though formally still a lance-corporal in the German Army, the Austrian, Hitler, became chief of propaganda for the party in early 1920. Hitler’s magnetism and his words that many wanted to hear began to make the party more public. He organized its biggest meeting yet of two thousand people on 24 February 1921 in the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus, Munich’s most famous beer hall. In this speech Hitler enunciated the twenty-five points of the German Workers’ Party manifesto, giving the organization a bold stratagem with a clear foreign policy: abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, a Greater Germany, Eastern expansion and exclusion of Jews from citizenship. The manifesto was clearly anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist and anti-liberal.
On the same day as Hitler’s Hofbräuhaus speech the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party”, or Nazi Party, the NSDAP). The party executive added the word “Socialist” as an appeal to left-wing workers.
After that success, Hitler began lecturing in various Munich beer halls. In that same February of 1921 a small “hall protection” had been organized, which came to be called Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment), or SA. And Hitler continued to draw the crowds. By the end of that year party members numbered two thousand. In that period the new Nazi Party recognized that without Hitler the party was dead, and granted him full powers as head of the Nazi Party.
During 1922 and 1923 Hitler’s Nazi Party created two organizations that came to have great significance: the Hitler Youth and a guard unit that eventually became the Schutzstaffel, the dreaded paramilitary organization, the SS, headed by Heinrich Himmler. With this organization behind him, Hitler—perhaps inspired by Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922—decided that coup d’ètat was the right strategy to seize control of Germany. Hitler loyal elements within the German Army helped the SA Brown Shirts to procure barracks and modern weapons but the march order never arrived because Hitler was arrested and sentenced to prison for a failed beer hall putsch. Pardoned a year later, Hitler—a man in a hurry as are most eventual tyrants—used the time in a Bavarian jail to dictate the first volume of his book, Mein Kampf to his deputy Rudolf Hess.
From the moment Hitler realized that even HE could be jailed, he opted to achieve power through legal means. In German federal elections of December 1924 the new NAZI Party garnered 6.6% of the vote, 1,918,329 voters. From then on it was a gradual but seemingly unstoppable landslide to power. Adolf Hitler knew the German people; he knew their thinking better than they themselves. He knew their anger. And he knew their inherent need for order. Ordnung muss sein!
The Austrian writer of that period, Stefan Zweig, in his book, Die Welt Von Gestern, (The World of Yesterday), underlines that Germany has ALWAYS been a class society. And that Germans could not take seriously as a long-term leader of the great German people a man who had never finished elementary school and moreover made his name in Munich beer halls. Even when Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor in 1933, the public was convinced it was a temporary arrangement and that German Ordnung would soon return and a properly educated person of the leadership class would assume power. In those times, Ordnung on a national scale was more important than freedom and law. Zweig recalls Goethe saying that disorder was worse than even lawlessness. Alles ist in Ordnung! ‘Everything is in order’ is an important expression in German.
Hitler also understood the willingness of the Allies to believe any promises that furthered peace. People of the world refused to believe the unbelievable that was soon upon them. Hitler got much help from outside his own party organizations: Monarchists like the Wittelsbachs in Munich considered Hitler their man; Nationalists believed he was preparing the road for them; heavy industry considered Hitler—whom they had supported for years—protection against Bolshevism; the petite bourgeoisie saw him as a savior.
Social Democrats saw in him the nemesis of their arch enemies, the Communists. The bad blood between the Communist Party (KPD) and the Socialist Party (SPD) prevented them from working together. The KPD portrayed the SPD as the primary bourgeois threat to socialism in Germany. Socialists saw Communists as puppets of Moscow. This lack of cooperation rebounded to the advantage of the Nazi Party, since only a parliamentary coalition of the KPD and SPD could have prevented the Nazis from coming to power legally. Even at the height of their influence in the Reichstag, the Nazis did not have enough delegates to resist such a coalition.
The most varied political parties saw Hitler who promised something to everyone as their friend. Even many German Jews believed the German state apparatus and its holy Constitution were morally better than they were.
Then there was the touchy question of foreign aid, especially from the US of A, which began with the rise of Bolshevism in Russia. American aid counted and bears much responsibility for Nazism whose purpose was the destruction of Russia and Russian Communism.
Since 1930 President Hindenburg had backed the long established class Chancellorship. But the Great Depression caused a surge in unemployment. Germany was bankrupt. Result: in 1933, Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor with the Nazi Party as part of a coalition government.
Within months, the famous Reichstag fire—the burning of the Parliament building in Berlin blamed on Communists—and the so-called Enabling Act that gave Hitler wide powers, wiped out constitutional governance and civil liberties. Hitler’s seizure of power meant government by decree without legislative participation. The republic ended, democracy collapsed, and a single-party state began the dictatorship of the Nazi era.
Mass deception was the Hitlerian method. Gleichschaltung or standardization and coordination of all political-social-cultural forces with the new Nazi state was the route to Hitler’s new society. And of course a fearful people believe almost anything as we well know today. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, put it this way in a 1928 speech to Nazi cadres:
“Success is the important thing. The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. I speak differently in the provinces than I do in Berlin…. That is a matter of practice, not of theory. We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses. Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.”
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).
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