Rear Window: Ghost of Hitler stalks Russia's parliament: Dictator in the wings

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The Independent Online
ADOLF HITLER's rise to power was long and filled with incident, but by any measure the general election of September 1930 was a turning point.

Before then, the Nazis had 12 seats in the Reichstag. They were well known but were still on the fringe, not even the biggest party on the extreme right. After the election they had 107 seats, their popular vote had risen from 800,000 to 6.5 million and they were the second largest party in Germany.

'Overnight,' wrote the historian, Lord Bullock, 'Hitler had become a politician of European importance. The foreign correspondents flocked to interview him.'

This is the ghost that was seen in Russia last week when Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party, calling itself Liberal Democratic, but in fact anti-Semitic, authoritarian and ultra-nationalist, captured 24 per cent of the vote in the parliamentary elections.

Zhirinovsky has been portrayed as a buffoon, but he is no newcomer to politics. He stood in the election in 1991 which made Boris Yeltsin president, and on that occasion polled 6 million votes. Now he has increased that to 14 million, he leads the biggest single party in parliament and he promises to stand again for the presidency in 1996.

Overnight, it seems, he has become a politician of international importance. His principal opponent, Yegor Gaidar, was the first to draw the analogy with the rise of Hitler.

In 1930, the correspondent of the Times newspaper took a close interest in Hitler's electoral advance, and he was under no illusions about the Nazi leader's rough brand of politics. Hitler despised democracy and the party system, he believed the German people to have been infected by foreign notions, he was an anti-Semite and he wanted to tear up Germany's treaties with foreign powers. The Nazis also had a tendency to attract hooligans, although this was now less evident 'as more youths of a better type have joined'.

The question asked then has been asked ever since: why did so many Germans vote for the Nazis? 'They turned to any movement which promised to sweep away the old parties,' the Times wrote. The Depression had begun, and in a year unemployment had more than doubled to 3 million, while the politicians of the centre seemed to offer nothing but constant quarrelling. Hitler had long predicted calamity; now he could claim that he had been right.

For the benefit of its readers, the Times recounted a little of Hitler's past. An Austrian of modest family, he had an unhappy youth and ended up working on building sites in Vienna. The First World War took him to the trenches, where he was wounded and decorated fighting for Germany. Then came politics, the abortive Munich beer-hall putsch of 1924 and a short prison sentence, followed by a slow but steady march towards power.

Zhirinovsky, too, is an outsider, born in Kazakhstan. He had, by his own account, a loveless childhood. He attracts thugs and likes uniforms. He has written a ranting autobiography. In policy, there is little to choose between him and the Hitler of 1930 - indeed there is a striking similarity in their reluctance to commit themselves to anything more than slogans. Zhirinovsky does not, however, have a war record or a revolutionary past, both of which proved useful to Hitler.

A leader in the Times in 1930 declared that Hitler's electoral advance should be taken as a warning. 'The whole cause of European disarmament will be imperilled hopelessly by the victory of a fanatically chauvinist faction in Germany,' it said. But that victory was not yet assured, as authority continued to rest with President Hindenburg and the army. The initial reaction outside Germany was likely to be ridicule rather than alarm.

There was, however, no room for complacency. The petty bickering of the other parties had been the chief recruiting sergeant for the Nazis. 'If the next coalition should break down and a new general election become necessary, there can be little doubt that those enemies of the present form of government will gain further support . . . and will re-enter the Reichstag in still greater strength.'

The centre did not hold. Fresh elections came in 1932 and the Nazis doubled their vote. By January 1933 Hitler was Chancellor.

(Photographs omitted)