Podium: The rise of Hitler was not inevitable

Richard Bazillion From a lecture by the historian and dean of the library at the Winona State University, Minnesota
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NATIONAL SOCIALISM has engaged the attention of historians for more than half a century. So complete was its take-over of Germany, and so great were the atrocities for which the Nazis were responsible, that Hitler's party is considered one of the most important organizations in German history.

Why, then, did Hitler triumph in Germany? What circumstances brought him to power? Might similar circumstances produce similar results elsewhere in the future?

There is a philosophical perspective that may help us. That perspective is the role of contingency in history. The point here is that there is nothing inevitable about the way in which history unfolds. Accidents do happen; and some of them have profound consequences.

For example, Nazi voting strength waxed and then suddenly waned between July, 1930, and November, 1933. When Nazi representation in the Reichstag declined from 230 to 196 in the last free election under Weimar, Hitler's momentum clearly had disappeared. There was no compelling reason for those who controlled the political system to appoint him chancellor. He simply no longer had any claim on the office. Yet this is precisely what Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen decided to do, with unforeseen consequences.

In their ignorance both of the actual political situation and of Hitler's ultimate objectives, they figured that the charismatic leader could be subjected to the discipline of the bureaucratic state. That calculation misfired. From the outset, Hitler's aim was to create a revolution.

Hitler, to his credit, I suppose, never made a secret of his intentions. While recovering from what Robert Waite (Hitler: The Psychopathic God) calls psychosomatic blindness, as the result of inhaling poison gas, in a military hospital at the end of 1918, Hitler experienced an epiphany. He suddenly realized that his destiny was to become Germany's Joan of Arc.

It is fair, I think, to characterize the basic Nazi attitude as "anti- modern". That is to say, people were attracted to the party because it appeared to oppose such modern developments as the large factory, socialism, department stores, cities, Communism and a breakdown in traditional values.

The Nazis promised to do something about the declining status of the lower middle class and to restore its economic position. One means of so doing was to eliminate the "shackles of Versailles". Another was to acquire "living space" in which Germany could reconstitute its agricultural society. A third solution was to drive the Jews out of German economic life, the single consistent thread in the so-called Nazi ideology.

Hitler went out of his way to win the support of conservative industrialists whose financial support the party badly needed. He especially impressed Fritz Thyssen, who later wrote a book misleadingly entitled I Paid Hitler.

The Nazis themselves did not promise to dissolve trade unions or to advance business interests through war. They did present themselves as a patriotic and anti-Communist party. That was the way to win support among businessmen and votes among the population at large. But Fritz Thyssen was the only convinced Nazi among the ranks of big business before 1933.

In fact, during the course of 1932, business became disillusioned with Hitler because of his attacks on the conservative Papen cabinet of which big business approved. At that point, Hitler revealed himself as someone who wanted power at all costs.

That power came to him as a result of plots, not because big business demanded that the Nazis take control of the government. So - not only had Hitler's electoral star set by 1933, so also had his support from big business.

It is impossible to support the argument that monopoly capitalism brought Hitler to power. He did take advantage of a particular economic crisis, which drove Germans to make a choice between the Communist alternative and what appeared to be a traditionalist political movement. The fact that Hitler's support among voters and big business fell dramatically in the course of 1932 proves that public perceptions of what the Nazi movement was really about were changing. Doubts grew about Nazi intentions, and Germans were troubled by what they were seeing and hearing.

There was nothing inevitable about the events of January 1933. The Nazi seizure of power, far from being the culmination of centuries of German history, therefore, was a contingent event with vast implications for the world.