Guest Essayist: Winfield H. Rose


How the catastrophe of Nazism occurred in Germany remains a question for the ages. It had no single cause, but resulted from a unique conjunction of traditions, events and personalities.

Christianity had existed in Germany for centuries. The Germans had a great civilization based on literature, philosophy, architecture, music and science. But they also had a strong military/warrior tradition going back at least to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. This slaughter of Roman troops was one of the worst military defeats Rome ever suffered and established the Germans as fierce fighters.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) following the Protestant Reformation caused great loss of life and virtually destroyed Germany. Two centuries were needed for Germany to recover. A great tragedy of this period is the discrediting of European Christianity. Protestants and Catholics did not come to love and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  After killing each other by the thousands, they decided Christianity and its values were no longer relevant and cast them aside. This was facilitated during the next two centuries by the emigration of many German Christians to the United States, thereby making the remaining population less religious and more secular.

As bad as the religious wars of the 17th century were, England and France retained their national identities whereas Germany did not. For two centuries the national identity of Germany was, at best, unclear and, at worst, lost – except in the minds of two men, one a politician and one a musician. Richard Wagner the musician was born in 1813 and Otto von Bismarck the politician was born in 1815 while the Congress of Vienna was meeting. Both desired German restoration and worked to achieve it.

Three short, successful wars under “iron” Chancellor Bismarck in the 1860s and 1870s enabled him to unite Germany politically and found the autocratic Second Reich in 1871 under Kaiser Wilhelm I. After Bismarck’s dismissal and death, it became even more autocratic under Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Thus, in contrast to France, Britain and the United States, there was no democratic tradition in Germany. German culture included an extreme deference to authority and to authority figures. When Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) established his own one-man rule, Germans were used to it.

The 19th century saw the wars of the charismatic conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and the composer Richard Wagner who died in 1883. All these except Marx, who was so radical he was expelled from the country, contributed to the strange mix that was to become National Socialism.

Hegel used the term “alienation” to describe a profound disconnect between what we see as real and what we desire as ideal and wish to be real. The greater the disconnect (dissonance, difference), the greater the alienation. It includes unhappiness, sorrow, grief, depression, anger, rage and, very importantly, a compulsion to seek remediation.

To remedy alienation, Hegel exalted the state over the individual and glorified Germanic civilization as the culmination of history, thereby advancing the secularization of society and encouraging and solidifying the natural human ethnocentrism and racism of the German people.

One could say Wagner took up where Hegel left off. Wagner’s musical dramas are set in a mythical, distant and glorious past which has been lost and begs to be restored. What Bismarck did politically, Wagner did culturally – and that was to create a German state (Reich) for Germans.

Nietzsche’s part in this tragic progression was the ideas of “transvaluation of values,” “beyond good and evil,” “God is dead” and “Superman.” The first three terms jointly mean the rejection of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman (Western) civilization and values, the rejection of divine and natural law and the redefinition of good and evil (evil is good and good is evil).

Nietzsche differed from Hegel in that, while Hegel thought German civilization was the best possible and the best ever seen, Nietzsche regarded it with scorn and contempt, calling it a “supreme abortion (miscarriage)” which needed to be replaced with a master race of Ubermenschen or “Supermen” who would be as superior to present humans as present humans were to apes. Thus, Nietzsche removed the moral and ethical restraints of civilization and thereby enabled the German people to descend into barbarism in pursuit of mythical glory.

It cannot be determined exactly how much of this history and philosophy Hitler actually knew and understood, but it is safe to say he grasped the basics. Nietzsche had a younger sister who set up a small museum in his memory. There is a picture of Hitler visiting that museum and admiring a bust of Nietzsche (Dagobert D. Runes, Pictorial History of Philosophy, New York: Philosophical Library, 1959, p. 301). It is well known that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer and that he frequently played Wagner’s music on a phonograph. Wagner was intensely anti-Semitic and did not accept Jews as true Germans; neither did Hitler, as is well known.  Add to this the popularity of eugenics and social Darwinism and you have a very toxic civic culture.

World War I and its aftermath put the final pieces in place for the rise of Hitler. Hitler himself served in the war and was wounded. He was obsessed with Germany’s defeat and restoration.

The abdication of the Kaiser required by President Woodrow Wilson created a severe leadership vacuum in Germany. The Allied wartime blockade of Germany’s North Sea ports was continued to June 1919, thus disrupting spring planting and worsening Germany’s already dire famine.

The Treaty of Versailles was a disaster. Germany was not allowed to participate and the war guilt and reparations clauses were especially onerous, thereby giving Hitler rallying cries of which he later made extensive use. At its signing, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch said, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” He missed it by three months.  The Weimar Republic which followed and its constitution were seen as imposed by foreign powers and therefore illegitimate.

Inflation was severe. It was said that, before the war, you took your money to shop in a purse and brought your goods home in a wagon but, after the war, you took your money in a wagon and brought your goods home in a purse. The significance of the postwar German economic collapse cannot be overstated.

Hitler exploited the economic collapse of the 1920s but was also “lucky,” if that’s the right word, insofar that there was a model leader in nearby Italy who, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, was showing the world how the postwar European catastrophe could be overcome.  That leader was “Il Duce,” Benito Mussolini, who came to power in 1922 and became Hitler’s prototype autocrat.

The failed “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923 provided another stroke of luck for Hitler. While he could have been incapacitated or executed, he was imprisoned only for a few months, a short time but long enough to dictate Mein Kampf.

Yet the most vile aspect of Hitler’s reign was his scapegoating of, German Jews. Human beings are always tempted to avoid accepting responsibility for our failures; they are always, people tend to think, the fault of someone else. And Hitler was the worst temptation. Jews and anti-Semitism had existed in Europe for centuries. They had been blamed for outbreaks of the plague and other calamities, so why not, Hitler thought, blame them for Germany’s present troubles?

Finally, Hitler had great oratorical ability and used it to bring all these factors together into the mass movement known as National Socialism (Nazism). Germany had fallen apart and saw itself as the ravished victim of evil forces. Hitler offered change, hope, order, prosperity and restoration. The German people were quick to climb on board but, to their eternal grief and shame, eventually learned they had made a Faustian bargain with the devil. Their slogan was “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer,” one people, one empire, one leader, but what they got was defeat, destruction and everlasting infamy.

Winfield H. Rose, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Murray State University.

1 reply
  1. Eric braverman
    Eric braverman says:

    I think it’s important to explore Luther more particularly in regard to eliminating Jewish books of the New Testament Hebrews James Jude revelation etc. unlike Calvin who never tampered with the Bible cutting out Jewish origins and Winthrop his student embraced them !

    Reply

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