“They Salute With Both Hands Now”, by David Low, 1934One thing I keep hearing, over and over again (and usually from people who really ought to know better than to ask, living as they do in very overpriced glass houses down in the States and all) is “How could the Germans let it happen?”–“it” being the Nazi tyranny, the holocaust, and the twelve-year national nightmare that was Adolf Hitler. A better question, I think, would be: “Considering all the circumstances, how could they not?”If the latter half of that question shocks you, maybe it’s because you, like so many others who’ve been spoon-fed a steady diet of none-too-deep thoughts by your friendly corporate media, aren’t used to doing the former half: Considering all the circumstances.That’s why I have very little patience for the facile “explanations” that I’ve seen and heard (invariably written by the side that won the war): The religious drivel (“the Devil got loose in Germany”)–especially ludicrous in light of how religion aided the Nazis; the racialist drivel (“all Germans are anti-semites, it’s in their blood, the monsters”); the “willing executioners” drivel (“they all knew and went along with it because they liked it”), etc. Anyone who makes these odious generalizations with a smug claim to knowing what sort of people the Germans are, knows nothing and should shut the fuck up. History, of course, is full of clue-by-fours for those who seek single, simplistic “answers” to the question of what went wrong with the Germans’ hearts and minds. You can always start with the Treaty of Versailles, which smells suspiciously of an IMF/World Bank style odious debt. The Triple Entente nations knew the Germans couldn’t rebuild AND pay reparations at the same time, and that was precisely the point: to bring a powerful, developed country to its knees so it couldn’t compete against the “superior” victors. So that the supremacy of the victors would remain forever assured, and the “inferiority” of Germany driven home to every single German. So that their country would, in future, be forever indebted. So that it would be a veritable ATM machine that never stops spitting out capital for the vultures overseas to exploit, specifically on Wall Street. What do you think helped the Roaring Twenties go on roaring as long as they did? Answer: OVERSEAS CAPITAL. While people were playing the stockmarket like a slot machine on this side of the Atlantic, on the other side, Germany was being bled dry. These things connect, people–the wheelbarrows full of cash exchanged for one loaf of bread were not exactly a German innovation. They were the last gasp of desperation in a country that could do no more to make good on its unpayable war reparations. And every German suffered in heart and mind.How much did they suffer? Well, for those who can read German, I could recommend any number of novels: Oskar Maria Graf’s Die Gezählten Jahre, Rosemarie Marschner’s Das Bücherzimmer, Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel…the list could go on and on. Modern and contemporary German literature has been full of the trauma of not only Nazism but the run-up to it, for decades. We Germans keep coming back to it. It is THE story of our lives, even those like me who were born into relative prosperity in other countries and who grew up not knowing that trauma at first hand. But the trauma is always there, in the background, persistent as an unhealed sore. It’s in the picture I have of my grandfather in his SS uniform, his dark eyes wide with unutterable fear and desperation. It’s in the picture my mother has of her baby sister’s coffin, covered with a swastika flag. It’s so persistent that I have to keep coming back to the spot myself, to see what I can dig up. My research has been piecemeal, but extensive–and it always turns up the same stone, over and over again: POVERTY. Poverty drove 1920s, post-Great War Germans to acts unthinkable in the (still) very cushy here-and-now: some actually sold their children into prostitution because there was a “thriving” sex tourism industry in Berlin, rich perverts were pouring in from abroad, and most important, the alternative was starvation. (And no, I’m not exaggerating or making things up; I can even recommend a book in English that lays it out rather chillingly.)Given THAT set of circumstances, the appeal of a raving crystal-meth-addicted lunatic who was, in private, a pervert himself…starts to make a bit of sense, ja? Especially since his prime topic of ravings was, you guessed it, the need for Germans to regain their pride. A great many who loathed him for other reasons (and reasons good) couldn’t help agreeing with him on that point. Even I can’t deny that there was a huge case of emotional battery to recuperate from, although in the case of Hitler, the “cure” was part and parcel of the disease. (He did not, for all his cursing of Jewish bankers, do a damned thing to hold the menace of foreign capitalism out of Germany. On the contrary, he kowtowed to it, as is only to be expected of one who needs money and machinery for his tyranny–and who also, not coincidentally, honed his bully-boy chops by beating up socialists and commies for the local capitalists. He did the same thing after he got into power, too, by writing laws and charters overwhelmingly favorable to employers. “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”, my ass.)Yes, there is an element of the collective psychology at work here, but it’s not the whole story, and it’s certainly not monolithic. All Germans were monsters who knew what Hitler was and approved? Hardly. The overwhelming majority voted against Hitler, but because those who opposed him could not (or would not) form a coalition and lacked effective leaders, they were rendered politically neuter. There was indeed a citizen resistance, albeit a pitiably fragmented and ineffectual one; one largely neutralized by the advent of the Gestapo, who had few qualms about shooting their countrymen for disobedience or menacing their children as they did with my grandfather when he dared to mouth off (“Sie haben vier Kinder, Herr Becker…”). Some Germans hid Jews or helped them escape. Some would go along with the party line in public (largely because their own safety and success depended on it), only to defy it in private. Some really had no idea what was going on (a surprising number, in fact–which really shouldn’t surprise anyone, because after all, the Third Reich was an incredibly secretive and compartmentalized regime, and the upper ranks of the Nazi party routinely kept things from the people.) And then there were those who really were monsters. They were a minority–it’s been estimated (hard numbers are virtually impossible to come by, owing to the psychological nature of the beast) that only one in five German adults was a truly convinced Nazi, and of these, a smaller number still were willing executioners. This much IS known: At the height of their popularity, the party drew less than 40% of the vote, and much of that support was soft; many people who had initially voted for them in
protest, later pulled back in dismay at the thought of them actually coming to power. So much for the idea that they were hugely popular or that their ideas had widespread support! And not all of the Nazi monsters were even German. Hitler himself was an Austrian, remember; he also liked to draw on non-German outlanders to do his dirty work for him. Think of how many concentration camps were in Poland, for example. Or how many “butchers” had non-German names. Collaborators were all over Europe, and it didn’t take much to bring out their long-held bigotry and hate. (Need I remind you that “pogrom” is not a German word?)But in the end, it still comes down to the Nazis. How what they did still has the power to shock and terrorize us today, just as it did their fellow Germans then, out of all proportion to their actual numbers. The question is, how could they do it?The answer, I believe, may lie with Josef Fritzl. Consider the parallels between Fritzl and Hitler:
- Both men are Austrians.
- Both come from extremely abusive and unstable households.
- Both are known to have committed incest–Fritzl by imprisoning his daughter Elisabeth, Hitler by doing the same with his half-niece, Angelika “Geli” Raubel (often misspelled Raubal), who later committed suicide.
- Both enslaved their victims.
- Both incinerated the bodies of those they killed.
- Both got away with their crimes by being pathological but highly convincing liars, as well as dangerously authoritarian.
- And both enjoyed the complicity–in many cases unwitting–of those nearest them, thanks to their lying and authoritarianism, and their ability to play on the meekness and submission of those who feared them.
- Blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong
- Respect for submission to acknowledged authority
- Belief in aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different
- A negative view of people in general – i.e. the belief that people would all lie, cheat or steal if given the opportunity
- A need for strong leadership which displays uncompromising power
- A belief in simple answers and polemics
- Resistance to creative, dangerous ideas. A black and white worldview.
- A tendency to project one’s own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group
- A preoccupation with violence and sex