World in the Grip of an Idea: 10. Germany - National Socialism in Power
OCTOBER 01, 1977 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.
In the presence of his prospective cabinet and before President Hindenburg of the Weimar Republic, Adolf Hitler intoned these words on the morning of January 30, 1933: "I will employ my strength for the welfare of the German people, protect the Constitution and laws of the German people, conscientiously discharge the duties imposed on me and conduct my affairs of office impartially and with justice to everyone." So saying, he was sworn as Chancellor of the Republic. The other members of the cabinet having taken their oaths, Hitler affirmed his good intentions to the President in a brief speech. Hindenburg, who had delayed asking Hitler to form a government for months, looked as if he were about to make reply but instead dismissed them with his favorite formula: "And now, gentlemen, forward with God!"¹
Within months of this ceremony about the only relic of the
Ever since, indeed, beginning while it was going on, a great deal of ink has been spilled in attempts to account for Hitler and Nazism. One main approach has been to try to explain the violence, brutality, and viciousness of Nazism by what may be called a biographical-psychological examination of the leaders. Thus, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, and others are studied in order to discover their frustrations, quirks, sexual inadequacies, deprivations, and other origins of their hatreds. For example, a psychological study of Hitler made during World War II speculated that his disorders might have begun with misguided toilet training due to the excessive neatness and cleanliness of his mother. Anyone familiar with the literature knows of the reputed homosexuality of Ernst Roehm (organizer of the ill-famed SA—"Storm Troopers") and of the drug taking of Hermann Goering, for example.
How Nazism Gained Support in
The major difficulty with the biographical approach, aside from the speculative nature of so much of it, is that while it may shed some light on the origins of the brutishness of Hitler and his henchmen it does not explain their success in gaining the support of so many Germans. For this, there is a supplementary explanation. It is to be accounted for by something in the German character.
Although the collective guilt of Germans for Nazi acts was officially rejected by the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, this did not keep it from being widely believed and frequently imputed to them by writers and commentators. The Germans have been accused of being especially drawn to authoritarian governments. This has been attributed by some to Martin Luther and the
Whatever the motives of those who advance the biographical-Germanic explanation (combined, usually, with the notion that Hitler belonged to the "right wing"), the impact is to disentangle and separate Nazism from what is crucially necessary to understanding it. The biographical-Germanic approach tends to make it sui generis, something peculiar to
A simple story may both show the fatuousness of some of these attempts at explanation and lead us toward an understanding of the character of Nazism. The story is about a scene which the present writer witnessed a good many years ago on the outskirts of the small German town Herzogenaurah. It is but a few miles from the seat of a well-known university at
What is to be made of this incident, of this cruel attack by children, ganged up, on a deformed and helpless person? My first reaction, as I recall it, was quite conventional. What I had witnessed was the coming out of some loathsome trait in the German character. Or, the thought occurs to me now, perhaps the children should have been rounded up and taken to a psychiatrist in order to determine what it was in their earlier childhood that had bent them to participate in this particular cruel mischief. Mature reflection, however, convinces me that such approaches to an explanation are to be rejected.
What is misleading about this incident is that the person ganged up on and attacked was deformed. Once it is understood that this was incidental, what happened is all too commonplace. The person was not attacked because he (or she) was deformed but because he was different. It happens every day many times over. Children gang up to taunt and harass someone or other in their midst who is in some way different. The target often changes from day to day.
The present writer recalls having been beset by what seems to have been the whole female contingent of his eighth grade class when he announced that he was in favor of Wendell Willkie instead of
Nonetheless, herein lie the roots of collectivism. It is sometimes supposed that the wellspring of collectivism is envy. Undoubtedly, envy sometimes plays a role in collectivism, but it is not clear that it is essential. What is essential is the longing to be at one with some dominant group or order or class of people and to expel and, perhaps, destroy all who do not belong to it. It is, as H. L. Mencken once noted, the longing for the warm smell of the herd. It is powered much more by hatred than envy, hatred for the alien in the midst, the one who is different, and who thus disrupts the supposed unity. (This is mostly nonsense, of course, since such unity as exists arises from the focus on the alien. Expel the alien, and the differences among those in the "unified" group begin to stand out once again.)
None of us is immune to the collective urge. No doubt the Germans have it but so also do the French, the English, the Italians, the Russians, the Hottentots and the Bantu: the Jew and the Gentile, white and black, Protestant and Catholic, Oriental and Occidental. It may even be an urge which the human race shares with the lower animals. Nor is the collective urge necessarily and always productive of evil. When it is confined, restrained, limited, and civilized it enables us to enjoy the good fellowship and share in productive efforts with those of like mind and spirit. But when it is powered by hate, ideologized, and joined with the power of government—let loose to employ force—it is dangerous, wanton, and destructive. It becomes collectivism—the idea that has the world in its grip. The reason for including Nazism in this account is that some aspects of collectivism come out more clearly in it than elsewhere.
The Politics of Collectivism
Adolf Hitler was a master of what for want of a better phrase may be called the Politics of Collectivism. The phrase has probably never had any currency because we do not ordinarily think of collectivism as having a politics. After all, politics has to do with persuasion, with compromise, with composing differences, and with gaining office or position. By contrast, collectivism has to do with concerting all energy behind a set of objectives, with the crushing of dissidence, and with the removal of offending elements. Politics entails the modes of behavior of those who would gain and hold favor when people are free to accept or reject them, in ordinary usage.
Even so, there is what may be called a politics of collectivism. It entails the methods of operation by which total power is attained and imposed. It is the means by which a collectivist gets the weight of the populace behind him. When Lenin attempted it, he provoked civil war. Stalin achieved it, in so far as he did, by extensive and prolonged terror. Hitler used terror, too, but much more selective terror than Stalin, and it was coupled with other equally effective methods. His mastery of the politics a collectivism can best be understood by exploring his methods.
Hitler’s methods are revealed in Nazi ideology. Indeed, the ideology was itself a method of gaining and imposing power. There was always a tendency not to take Nazi ideology seriously, and for good reason. The intellectual level of it, in Mein
Kampf, which is the major exposition of it, is very low. It is difficult to take a writer seriously who breaks into a historical discourse with statements about bowlegged Jews seducing young blonde German maidens, and that in the coarsest and most vulgar language. It is possible to laugh or cry at such hyperbole but hardly to take it seriously. Yet, as it turned out, Hitler was serious, perhaps even sincere, and Nazi ideology requires careful examination.
Nazi ideology, that is, Hitler’s ideology, was not an intellectual system. It was not arrived at by deduction from self-evident truths (praxiological) nor by analysis (dialectics) nor built up from the facts (inductive). Probably the least important aspect of Nazi ideology, to Hitler, was whether it was true or false. He was not interested in improving people’s minds but in attracting followers; his appeal was not to the intellect but to the feelings. If Hitler had been reliably informed that the incidence of bowleggedness among Jewish men was much less than that for the German populace as a whole, it is most doubtful that he would have revised Mein Kampf to accord with the new information.
Nazi ideology was a compound of what may be best characterized as beer hall or, in the American idiom, barroom exposition. The amount of alcohol that makes the generality of people convivial turns some people into public speakers. Such a person is likely enough to become a loudmouthed expounder of ideas, taking for listeners any and all who are in the vicinity, though one will often serve as well as ten. He will expound at length on what is wrong with the world and how it can all be set right. Such a person may have a considerable fund of information, a good memory for striking detail, and be fairly well acquainted with popular ideas. However, he prefers monologue (his) to discussion, requires at most an occasional nod for encouragement, and will not brook disagreement with what he is saying. His ideas are to thought what
Hitler’s main discovery was how to make such talk productive in getting followers. The beer hall, or barroom, habitué who becomes a public speaker under the influence does not attract followers; on the contrary, he is probably hard put to find drinking companions. We can surmise, if we think about it, why it is that he probably does not attract followers. It is not that he fails to take his ideas seriously or that many of those about him do not share his prejudices. It is rather that he does not take himself seriously. Everyone knows that regardless of how cogent his ideas, the talkative drinker is not going to do anything about them. He is only going to talk about them. Hitler learned how to make such talk attract followers. He learned how in the course of numerous meetings in beer halls in
Hitler did take himself seriously. (There is no reason to suppose that he was one of those who become public speakers under the influence, for he cared little for alcohol. His beverage was power, not alcohol.) The problem was how to get others to take him seriously and join forces with him. The way he discovered was to remove all doubt that he would act, all doubt that he meant business. Those who ventured to attend one of his meetings stood a good chance of witnessing the Nazi determination to act. Hitler did not hold seminars in Nazi doctrine; he arranged "happenings" as a backdrop to his fervent speeches. Any person or group which expressed their disagreement vocally was beaten up and thrown out of the meeting. He neither invited differences of opinion, nor did he tolerate them. The violent attacks on those who disagreed signified a determination and willingness to act. Those who did not take Hitler seriously in his meetings could suffer a broken head for their oversight. There was more to it than this, of course. Hitler was an astute student of mass psychology. His meetings were a bizarre form of entertainment. He usually charged admission during the early years. The Storm Troopers would be in attendance, the threat of violence in the air, the beer hall the setting, and then the main fare, his speech. He scheduled speeches for the nighttime whenever possible, for, as he noted in Mein Kampf, people are more readily influenced at night. He usually spoke at great length, two or more hours. The critical powers of the mind decline as the posterior grows numb, and it is at this juncture that the demagogue can be most effective. Hitler could play on the vagrant prejudices which come to the fore as the mind ceases to discipline its contents; he could project feelings of discomfort onto the enemy of his choosing, thereby transforming discomfort into hatred.
All this would probably have been of no account without ideology. Hitler claims to have given considerable attention to various ideologies, particularly to Marxism both in its Communist and Social Democratic formulations, and to the various nationalist dogmas. He perceived, too, what must be their fatal error. They could not act decisively and forcefully. They tended to divisions among themselves which weakened them and made them irresolute. The solution to this that he hit upon was to have a single authoritative leader, though the idea may not have originated with him since Lenin had already exemplified it. But this would not solve the problem if the ideology divided the population drastically. It was in solving this problem that Hitler showed himself the consummate politician of collectivism.
Marxism Is Divisive
Marxism as an ideology divides the people. With its focus upon and almost total reliance upon the proletariat, it alienates the rest of the population. Its atheism alienated Christians. Its internationalism, which Hitler ascribed to Marx’s having been a Jew, failed to muster the national spirit of a people. Even so, Hitler gleaned much from Marxism. He believed Marxism to be right in destroying before making a revolution:
It indicates a lack of deep insight into historical developments when today people who call themselves folkish make a great point of assuring us over and over that they do not plan to engage in negative criticism, but only in constructive work…. Marxism also had a goal, and it, too, has a constructive activity…; but previously, nevertheless, it practiced criticism for seventy years, annihilating, disintegrating criticism, and again criticism, which continued until the old state was undermined by this persistent corrosive acid and brought to collapse. Only then did its actual "construction" work begin. And that was self-evident, correct and logical.2
He denied that the success of the Marxists arose from the complicated Marxian literature. Instead:
What has won the millions of workers for Marxism is less the literary style of the Marxist church fathers than the indefatigable and truly enormous propaganda work of tens of thousands of untiring agitators, from the great agitator down to the small trade-union official and the shop steward and discussion speaker….3
The Führer Principle
Hitler described his ideology as the "folkish philosophy." He said:
The folkish philosophy is basically distinguished from the Marxist philosophy by the fact that it not only recognizes the value of race, but with it the importance of personality, which it therefore makes one of the pillars of its entire edifice.4
What Hitler refers to as the "importance of personality" should be understood as the importance of leaders and the Führer principle. Actually, as Hitler noted, Communists have had to rely on "leaders." Hitler is quoted on this point, however, more to show that he was aware of or claimed similarity with the Marxists than for the acuteness of his distinction.
The major tactical difference between Nazism and communism was that Nazi ideology was not nearly so divisive. Hitler sought to forge an organic unity of the German people (excluding Jews and convinced Marxists, whom Hitler thought of as "ideologized Jews"). He would bind the Germans—industrialists, workers, military, and civil service—into a great productive and creative unity. To avoid dividing them, he steered clear of specific programs. As to what would be done economically, he said: "I had at that time and still possess today the unshakable conviction that it is dangerous to tie up a great politico-philosophical struggle with economic matters at too early a time."5 He inveighed, too, against those who would try to tie the Nazi Party to either a Protestant or Catholic base. This would only serve to divide rather than unite the people.
Hitler’s Use of Religion
The way Hitler used the Christian religion deserves more space than it can be given here. While Hitler was almost certainly a pagan, he frequently spoke as if he were the leading defender of Christianity and conscientiously doing the will of God. Typically, he could effect being most pious when appealing for racial purity. Instead of preaching celibacy, he declares at one place, the Church ought to enjoin racial mixing, and by this "admonition finally to put an end to the constant and continuous original sin of racial poisoning, and to give the Almighty Creator beings such as He Himself created."6 Of course, Hitler did not derive this doctrine from Christianity at all; he was using phrases and ideas drawn from Christianity to give a religious gloss to his own ideology.
Setting the Stage
Nazi ideology was concocted from German mythology, from the emanations of other contemporary ideologies, from anti-Semitism, and from Pan Germanism. Hitler intuited the ideological temper of the age and mixed a brew which would appeal to it. He was probably incapable of extended reasoning and he was certainly undisciplined to submitting conclusions to the test of evidence. He made contact with ideas at the point at which they have largely come loose from whatever gave rise to them. In this, he resembled the barroom talker. But, unlike our imaginary talker, he did not simply express them; he wove them into an ideology by repetition, by the skillful merging of images, by using his powerful will to hold them together. There was something demonic about his ability to express ideas that had a wide currency in
The Nazi ideology, though, should be thought of as a script to a play. People do not, by and large, read the script; they much prefer to watch the performance, to see the words take on life, to see them entwined with the action. If anyone was ever won over to Nazism by reading Mein Kampf he has yet to be heard from. But many were drawn into the movement as the play began to unfold.
Hitler was a revolutionary, a revolutionary socialist mayhap, certainly a revolutionary collectivist. He made no secret of his revolutionary intent. "National Socialism as a matter of principle," he said, "must lay claim to the right to force its principles on the whole German nation…. It must determine and reorder the life of a people…."7 Its purpose was to be realized by "tearing down a world and building another in its place…."8 Hitler did not, of course, specify much of what was to be torn down and he only promised that an organic unity would take its place.
Even though Hitler was a revolutionary, following his stint in prison in the mid 1920′s he set upon a course of trying to come to power by popular support. There is no reason to suppose that his punishment had converted him to legality, but it may have helped him to see the futility of any attempted seizure of power.
If the Reichstag were taken over, its powers might revert to the states. If the army chieftains submitted, the soldiers might refuse to fight. The unions could bring a revolution to naught, if it did not suit them, by a general strike. Control of
Rebuilding the Party
The failure of the
As noted earlier, the Depression gave Hitler his opportunity. As unemployment rose in Germany, so did the Nazi vote. In the election held in September of 1930 the Nazi Party got the second largest number of delegates in the Reichstag, second only to the Social Democratic Party. But they still had only 107 of 577 total delegates. The crucial fact, however, was that with the growth in delegate strength of the Nazi and Communist parties, none of the three configurations of non-revolutionary parties which usually formed governments could muster a majority. If a grand coalition of parties of the center plus the Social Democrats could have been formed it would have commanded support from only about 250 delegates. The old center parties had only 107 delegates. The nationalists could probably not have mustered 90.
Heinrich Bruning was named Chancellor and formed a government which had representatives from parties with only 137 delegates. The Social Democratic Party did not participate in the government, but Bruning was only able to maintain power with its tacit support. He turned increasingly to rule by emergency decrees issued in conjunction with President Hindenburg in order to be able to function and still avoid votes in the Reichstag which would bring about the fall of the government. "In 1930 the Reichstag passed ninety-eight laws. In 1931 the number fell to thirty-four, while Hindenburg issued forty-two emergency decrees. In 1932 the Reichstag passed only five laws, while Hindenburg issued sixty decrees."9
The 1932 Elections
The Reichstag elections held in 1932 help to explain this virtual parliamentary collapse. In the elections held in July of that year the Nazis became the leading party with 230 delegates in the Reichstag. The Communists had been gaining with each election and now had 89. Together the Nazis and Communists commanded 319 votes, a majority. There was, of course, no possibility that the two would form a government and work together, but they could and would combine, by a vote of no confidence, to bring down at will any government named. It apparently meant, too, that the German voters had opted for revolution, though who should bring it about, whether Nazis or Communists, was not yet clear. It was ominous, too, that the vote for the more moderate parties had been steadily declining. The Democratic Party, such voice as nineteenth century liberalism had, elected only four delegates to the Reichstag. The German People’s Party had only seven. Even the Social Democratic Party had been steadily declining in popularity.
Hindenburg had already tapped Franz von Papen to be Chancellor, and he formed a government from the center and nationalist parties. But he threw away whatever chance he might have had for tacit support from the Social Democratic Party (which would not have provided him with a majority in the Reichstag after the elections, in any case) by taking over the government of
No Ruling Majority
It may well have been that Pa-pen’s control of the government and the police in Prussia, which included the city of Berlin, prevented a Communist uprising, for
The Reichstag had no sooner assembled after the election than the Communists proposed a no confidence vote in the Papen government. It carried by the whopping vote of 512 to 42. Hermann Goering, the Nazi President of the Reichstag, prevented Papen from filing a dissolution order from Hindenburg which would have forestalled the test. Hitler had already refused to come into the Papen government as Vice Chancellor, insisting that he must head any government in which the Nazis participated. Hindenburg could not accept that solution at this time. So, there was little to be done but call for a new election.
The Reichstag election held in November of 1932 hardly improved matters. The Nazis lost a few delegates; the Communists gained a few; the National Party gained a few, and the Social Democrats lost a few. The Nazis and Communists combined still commanded a majority of the delegates. For once, however, the Nazis allowed the Reichstag to hold a few sessions without a crisis until it adjourned. Hindenburg called upon General Kurt von Schleicher to form a government. He maneuvered to try to get the support of enough parties to govern but in such a way that he lost whatever trust he had among party leaders. He tried to divide the Nazi Party by bringing Gregor Strasser into his cabinet. Strasser refused, and Hitler was furious with Schleicher. In like manner, he attempted to get support from the Social Democrats but succeeded only in irritating the leadership of that party. Meanwhile, Franz von Papen, who had earlier been a protege of Schleicher, began to maneuver behind his back.
Hitler As Chancellor
With the January 31, 1933 meeting of the Reichstag facing him, Schleicher recognized that he could not govern. Most likely, the delegates would hardly have been seated before he would have been subjected to a no confidence vote as humiliating as that received earlier by Pa-pen. There was one way, he thought, by which he could govern and Hitler could be prevented from coming to power. President Hindenburg should dissolve the Reichstag, grant him emergency powers to govern, and suppress the Nazis and Communists before any new elections were called, if any were called. Hindenburg would not agree to this course, and Schleicher resigned.
At this juncture, Hindenburg asked Hitler to become Chancellor of a new government. Historians, with perfect hindsight, have found fault with Hindenburg’s decision ever since. He was, after all, 85 years old and was almost certainly becoming senile. But if Hindenburg had been at the height of his intellectual powers, there is little reason to suppose he would have acted differently. He was on the horns of a dilemma. To follow Schleicher’s proposal would be to make him, or someone else, dictator. It would almost certainly mean the end of constitutional government and the
But could the army impose a dictator on
The other horn was Hitler. For all his blustering, crudeness, and vulgarity—this was well known—he was still an unknown quantity in one sense. He had not yet had the authority or responsibility for governing. Might not responsibility sober and tame him? Might not the necessity for getting a majority in the Reichstag restrain him? More, the cabinet might hold him in check. The Nazis were to have only two posts besides that of Chancellor. Papen was to serve as Vice Chancellor, and he was no wild man. Hugenburg, the head of the Nationalist Party, had a strong and tenacious personality; Hitler needed his party, and had him in the cabinet. Hindenburg detested Hitler, had delayed as long as he could raising him to power, but had finally to act. Reassured by his advisers, he made the fateful appointment.
Anyone dealt such a hand at cards as Hindenburg held, to change the figure of speech, should have asked for a new deal. Hindenburg already had, of course, but another election had left him holding the same cards, so to speak. Was there really any reason to hope that yet another election would bring about any great change? So, hoping for the best, Hindenburg listened to the cabinet being sworn and gave them his charge with his familiar parting words: "And now, gentlemen, forward with God!" Hitler was not a gentleman—far from it.
He was serious. He meant every word he had written and spoken, and more.
Next: 11. The Promise and the Terror.
1Eliot B. Wheaton, Prelude to Calamity: The Nazi Revolution 1933-35 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), pp. 202-03.
2Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), p. 453.
3lbid., p. 472.
4Ibid., p. 448.
5Ibid., p. 604.
6Ibid., p. 405.
7Ibid., pp. 577-78.
8Ibid., p. 581.
9Wheaton, op. c p. 97.