Like other nations in other eras, Germany in the first half of the 20th century had its exceptionally intelligent citizenry and a lot of good and decent people. And, as in all societies, there were conformists, a lot of small mindedness, vain young men eager to get ahead and men without remarkable talent eager to associate themselves with something that salved their ego.
The German people had their grievances after World War One. There were economic problems and the usual struggles to earn a living. And their were nationalist issues – issues about Germany's place in the world – the kind of issues that Americans have been familiar with, issues that have arisen with the belief that the nation has not been forceful enough in international affairs and with proclamations about avoiding surrender.
In Germany the nationalist issues were intensified by Germany having lost World War One. And there were the usual myths: it was commonly believed that their country should not have lost the war and did so because it had been "stabbed in the back."
It was a common belief, moreover, not far from reality, that the treaty that ended the war (signed at Versailles) like the war itself amounted to foreign powers ganging up on Germany and that the treaty was a terrible injustice for Germany.
And common among the German people were myths and fears that made a style of thinking that was hardly peculiar to Germans. Much of the world focused on enemies as the source of their frustration. For some it was Satan, the devil. For some others it was the greedy rich in general, or the communists, or for some it was a particular leader. In the United States in the 1930s it was a hatred among some wealthy people for President Roosevelt. In the early 21st century there would be those who would blame "liberals" for everything that was wrong with the world. In Germany in the 1920s going into the 1930s there were people who blamed the Jews for everything that was wrong with the world.
Hitler was able to rise to power and make a greater mess of the 20th century because of small-mindedness among the German people eager to attack the source of their frustration. A big part of Hitler's rise to power was the frustration he and a lot of Germans felt concerning what they believed was the stab in the back of Germany during the war. That is what all the sieg heils were about. Sieg heil translated into English is "hail victory." The Jews, it was claimed, played a large role in this "stab in the back."
Hitler rose in power because of the extent to which he had won a following among people who voted. This support came from people who saw Hitler as having good ideas. Hitler did not appear to them as the maniac that Americans were to see in him. In real life, Hitler was sometimes relaxed. Sometimes he looked genuinely kind and happy. Often evil men do not look evil – Ted Bundy for example, or perhaps Timothy McVeigh. Read Hitler's speeches online and you can see he was above average in the sharpness of his mind.
A debate would arise at the end of the 20th century whether Hitler was a leftist or a conservative. Whatever one might think, it was conservatives who gave him power, beginning with President Hindenberg, who named him chancellor in January 1933 because Hitler had a substantial public following. And Hitler had the support of some industrialists because of his having promised them that he would eradicate the socialist labor movement.
Hitler's support among voters was largely from small towns and rural areas where organized labor was weak and conservative traditions, including religious beliefs, were strong. Hitler was atheistic but pretended religious devotion. These were people who were not well equipped to recognize the distortions in Hitler's speeches. Hitler had fashioned into his own speech-making what he thought people wanted to hear as well as his own interpretation of events. It was that kind of speech-making that common Germans did not recognize as demagoguery any more than people in the United States readily recognize the demagoguery that wafts across their airwaves.
Also, Germany was weaker in liberal tradition than was the United States. Support for democracy and individual rights had not been as widespread. In the 1930s, Hitler won acceptance of his policy toward his perceived enemies and he was able to manipulate the press more than he might have been able to do had he been the head of government of the United States. Might have! We don't know how Americans would have reacted to a military defeat in a great war and treated the way Germany was treated following World War I?
Copyright © 2010-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.