It could never happen again: It is 60 years since Hitler became Chancellor. In Germany today, skinheads spout Nazi rhetoric but they are not the real thing, says Josef Joffe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Contrary to the widespread misconception, Hitler did not seize power 60 years ago. The myth of the Machtergreifung was spread by the Nazis themselves to suggest that they bestrode the stage as true saviours of the Volk. After the demise of the Third Reich, many Germans were only too happy to perpetuate the myth that Nazism was inflicted on them - as if Hitler's storm-troopers had landed in Berlin from outer space.

In fact, Hitler's accession was perfectly legal and democratic. His Nazi party was the strongest in parliament and so, in the twilight hours of the Weimar Republic, President von Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor. The rest is history, the history of a democracy that supped with the devil and was consumed by him.

Today, 60 years later, worried Germany-watchers are only too tempted to trundle out the Weimar analogy. They point to the rise of the right-wing Republikaners, the rampages of neo-Nazi skinheads, the seeming paralysis of the Kohl government and the multiplying signs of crisis in the land of the 'economic miracle', and ask: could it happen again? The answer is no.

Most historians would agree that economic disaster was the death knell of the Weimar Republic, and they are right. Just when Weimar's frail democratic institutions had sunk a few roots, the Great Depression struck. From 1929 to 1932, gross national product plummeted by 35 per cent.

By Weimar standards, Germany's current economic troubles look like a boom. The economy is stagnating, but it is not in free fall. There are serious problems, to be sure: an unemployment rate of 8 per cent (14 per cent in the east), a constant drain of money from west to east, the harsh winds of a globalising economy.

But there is also more adaptability in the German economy than pessimists thought only a few months ago. Trade unions, which last summer went on a nationwide strike binge, are moderating wage demands. There is a growing sense (and acceptance) that the good old days of more pay for less work are over. The infamous rigidity of a German economy grown fat and complacent on a diet of steady growth is beginning to crack. And in this tale lies a reassuring political moral: if people are willing to tighten their belts, then they will not revolt against the authorities and chase pied pipers.

Business in general may be deteriorating, but the profit margins of the right wing are not improving. Take the cynically mislabelled Republikaners, who are trying to make a killing in the political market with their heady brew of xenophobia, populism and nationalism. The strategy does not seem to work. Nationwide, the Republikaners are not even guaranteed entry into parliament, which requires at least 5 per cent of the vote. According to the polls, they are straddling that hurdle; perhaps they will clear it, perhaps not.

What about their kin in the gutter, those bald-headed punks in studded jackets who beat up foreigners (or those who look like Auslander) and lob firebombs into asylum-seekers' hostels? They spout a murderous Nazi rhetoric, but these Sieg Heil-ing kids are only a pale copy of the real thing, circa 1932. First, they have no cohesive ideology - unless one dignifies a mishmash of one part Mein Kampf, two parts beer and one part petrol with that name. Second, they do not have a Fuhrer, and third, they don't have an

organisation.

Indeed, the murderous violence that rocked Germany last year (with 17 dead) seemed almost private. Though these 'skins' pretend to be Hitler's great-grandchildren, they are leagues apart from the Nazi shock troops of yesteryear who systematically set out to demolish the Weimar Republic. Just how isolated they are was demonstrated last November after the murder of three Turks in Molln. Spurred out of its lethargy by the outrage, the government put its formidable law-enforcement machinery into gear and the culprits were caught within a week.

An interesting social survey shows something similar. Asked whom they would not want to have as neighbours, Germans put right- wing extremists first (77 per cent of the sample), followed by junkies (67 per cent) and drunks (66 per cent). This suggests that neo-Nazis will have a hard time depicting themselves as standard-bearers of a new Germany.

Will things become worse as economic trouble turns into real crisis? Perhaps. But let us not ignore the many safety nets that the modern welfare state has installed against a revolt by society's losers.

In 1932, a young, out-of-work German might have joined the storm-troopers for little more than the sake of three hot meals a day and a shiny pair of jackboots. Today, an unemployed person collects two-thirds of his last after- tax income. He does not need to attend a mass rally to relieve his boredom, he can pop a video into his machine. Downward mobility is not necessarily a disaster today. The fall is cushioned by the largesse of the post-Keynesian state.

Germany is no longer the paradise of stability it once was. But 40-odd years of a functioning democracy (which the Weimar Republic never enjoyed) have made a difference. Sixty years ago, a dispirited, cynical populace cheered as the Nazis celebrated their victory with a torchlight parade. Last December 500,000 Munichers, almost half the city, turned out with candles in hand to demonstrate against neo-Nazism and xenophobia.

The author is leader page editor of the 'Suddeutsche Zeitung'.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments