Nazis provide a lesson for more than just the Germans: Steve Crawshaw in Bonn reflects on the 60th anniversary of Hitler becoming chancellor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE MESSAGE for passers-by was unmistakable. Chronicle: 1933. Day by Day in Words and Pictures said the album in a bookshop in central Bonn. In Germany, the problems of today are constantly being chewed over. But always in the background are those chilling comparisons with earlier decades. Disillusion with mainstream politics; bitterness at the state of the economy; and lethal attacks on foreigners. Have we not been here before?

Sixty years ago this week, Adolf Hitler, the National Socialist German Workers' Party leader, became Chancellor of the German Reich. The Nationalsozialisten, or Nazis, comprised only three out of 11 members of the cabinet. Even so, the blindness to what was to come seems startling in retrospect. Franz von Papen - himself chancellor until a few months earlier - remarked, after Hitler's appointment on 30 January 1933: 'We have him boxed in.'

To leaf through the Chronicle album provides a stark reminder of the dangers of complacency. At the beginning of 1933, the press was relaxed about the prospects for the year. The liberal Vossische Zeitung commented that, despite the growing power of the 'riders of the Apocalypse' of the SA, the Nazi stormtroopers, 'The signs are multiplying that the fateful circle of threatened collapse has been broken.' Just weeks before Hitler's appointment, the Frankfurter Zeitung commented: 'The National Socialist attack on the democratic state has been repulsed . . . Life itself has forced us to return to what so many were ready frivolously to throw overboard: to reason.'

Even after Hitler became Chancellor - which set him on the path to absolute power, after further elections in March - there was phlegmatism, in Germany and abroad. There were isolated words of warning. General Erich Ludendorff, a First World War hero, wrote to President von Hindenburg: 'By appointing Hitler as Chancellor of the Reich, you have delivered our holy German fatherland into the hands of one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I solemnly prophesy to you that this unholy man will cast our country into the abyss, and bring our nation into immeasurable misery. Future generations will curse you in your grave, for what you have done.'

But that bitter prophecy was not matched elsewhere. In France, it was argued that the momentum of the Nazis would recede, now that they had to share responsibility for Germany's plight. In Britain, Hitler was described as 'a man of straw'.

Thus, nothing is more dangerous than shrugging off dangers and there are plenty of parallels. A weekend poll suggested that support for the politicians is at its lowest ebb for years. Far- right violence has increased sharply. In the east, there is deep bitterness: people there have lost one country, but can scarcely be said to have gained another. Former East Germans are, in effect, citizens without a state.

And yet, as one leafs through the 1933 album, and companion albums from preceding years, it is above all the differences, not the similarities, which predominate. The period before Hitler came to power was a time of social, political and economic chaos.

Today, by contrast, Germany is a strong democracy. This is not Weimar. It is right that Germans are worried by the violence. It is heartening, too, that hardly a day goes by without some action or protest against Fremdenhass, 'hatred of foreigners'. 'Everybody is a foreigner, somewhere,' has become almost an official slogan. Germany in the 1930s felt humiliated by the world. Germany in the 1990s feels proud of its economic and political achievements - even while continuing to be gnawed by guilt about the past.

The latest in an unceasing stream of German meditations on national identity comes in this week's Die Zeit. Under the headline 'I am a German: what does that mean?' the author says that Germans must come to terms with being German. 'Whether or not we want them to, our neighbours address us - whether we are from west or east - as Germans. The reputation of the Germans with their neighbours is part of the reality of every German - a very useful part.' Today's generation, the author says, cannot escape responsibility for the past. 'The Jews or Poles can expect us not to use the dubious blessing of being born later as a way of suggesting that nothing terrible happened in our country.'

Such musings, by no means untypical, even outside the rarefied climate of Die Zeit, hint at one important distinction between 1993 and the embittered mood of 1933. Today, Germany believes that power comes only with responsibility: then, it did not.

A true comparison between those uncertainties in the 1930s and the present day may lie elsewhere. Then, ruling politicians thrashed hopelessly around to find a way out of the crisis - while Communists and fascists turned the economic and political collapse to their own advantage. History does not seem to be repeating itself in the still-almost-stable Germany of the 1990s.

Change 'Berlin 1933' to 'Moscow 1993', however, and the parallels may prove hideously close.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments