WWII began 80 years ago today

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939 (Photo: Wikipedia)

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.

Howling with the Wolves

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

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Cass Sunstein has an interesting review in the NYRB entitled It Can Happen Here. It’s a good, short read. The title of the piece, so you’re aware, is oddly chosen because Sunstein thinks “full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here [in the U.S].” So why name it that? I’m not sure.

Anyway, Sunstein’s review looks at 3 books that attempt 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 action and inaction that allowed Hitler and the Nazis to take and keep power. But the change (the fall into fascism), as 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 it, 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.”

So it was an incremental descent into tyranny aided, as one writer put it, by the “‘Automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.” For me, 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 opposition 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 basically seized dictatorial powers that same year. The speed of things, confusion, mass lies, 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.

Certainly most Germans could see the fracturing of their democratic society (and its values) when Hitler seized full dictatorial control of the government so quickly. Some German’s actually welcomed the fascist authoritarianism. As Sunstein’s review points out, there were working class Germans who said (years after the fall of Nazi Germany) that the Nazi years were the “best years of their life.” So there were some Germans, knowing full well what had happened, who still admired Hitler and the life he 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.

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 and his divisive, hateful rhetoric, 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, indeed, had taken over the country.

The problem, of course, was the Germans had made a deal with the devil, and the deal quickly became far more costlier than anticipated. 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. And so now the deal couldn’t be broken without a lot of death and destruction. The devil would get his due. The wolves would feast on the lambs.