Many questions perplex us about the Nazis, about the atrocities they committed and about the beginnings of the Second World War. How could one of the most advanced, highly cultured, industrialized and modern nation states in Europe allow such horrors to come to pass? How could democracy be replaced so easily? How did an extremist party lurking at the fringes of political life take over the entire government in such a shot time without ever raising the wrath of the bigger parties or of the people? How did they establish a one party state without ever commanding a majority in any single election?
To answer these perplexing questions, Richard Evans takes us to the time of the Second Reich established by Bismarck and builds the story of the german nation and the foreign influences that moulded its thoughts and political structure in a well paced and minutely detailed history.
It was not a single person by the name of Hitler or a single freak party called the Nazis that precipitated this wild descent into madness that led Germany into the most devastating war in history. A wide variety of political, economic and ideological factors contributed to developing these events. Evans tries to track the growth of ideas such as antisemitism, radical nationalism, conspiracy theories and the cult of violence from the time of Bismarck. He starts the book withe the question “Why start with Bismarck?” and never really answers it. In my view, the origins of antisemitism and the wild support nazis enjoyed among protestant electorates could have been explored if one chapter had been dedicated to the history of germany before Bismarck and focussing on martin Luther and the protestant movement. But, as it is, Evans chose to not make it a study of the entire germanic history so as not to give us the impression that there was a historic inevitability to the whole process and because of this he never fully manages to convey the real reason for antisemitism and protestant support anywhere in the book, both of which are such prime candidates for investigation.
Even though this is a review of the book, because my real purpose of reading the book was to understand the course of events and the causal connections that led to the world war, I will try to trace out the history from a while earlier than Evans and then join his narrative as we get to Bismarck.
Antisemitism was a cultural phenomenon in Europe much before the Nazis and extreme violence against the Jews can be traced back to the First Crusade when they started being branded as ‘Christ-killers‘ and were put in the same bracket as Muslims, progressed through the Inquisitions and Expulsions in various countries and culminated in the Final Solution in Nazi Germany.
There are two types of Antisemitism – Cultural and Religious. Cultural antisemitism is defined as “that species of anti-Semitism that charges the Jews with corrupting a given culture and attempting to supplant or succeeding in supplanting the preferred culture with a uniform, crude, “Jewish” culture.” Religious Antisemitism is the “christ-killer” version mentioned earlier. Cultural antisemitism was what was adopted by the Nazis (broadly allowing this category to allow for racial Antisemitism too which discriminates based on race).
Tracing back to the roots of antisemitism in Europe will take us to its deeply religious beginnings and this is probably why Evans chose to not cover it in detail. In any case, this religious hatred soon transformed into cultural and economic hated against their affluence and culminated in racial hatred once the budding ideas of Eugenics provided fuel to the fire.
In the context of the Industrial Revolution, Jews rapidly urbanized and experienced a period of greater social mobility. With the decreasing role of religion in public life tempering religious antisemitism, a combination of growing nationalism, the rise of eugenics, and resentment at the socio-economic success of the Jews led to the newer, and more virulent, racist antisemitism.
While these were pan-European trends, a dangerous precedent was set in Germany during the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther described Jews as a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” Luther wrote that they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut“. This treatise is supposed to have had a major influence on the Nazi movement.
Lutheranism was also ideologically very close to the kind of radical nationalism that motivated first Bismarck, then the far Right in Germany. The origins of the beginning of a sense of German identity began with the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther that resulted in the spread of a standardized common German language and literature.
The Three Reichs
The whole of modern German history has been a nostalgic and mad attempt at regaining the old glories of the Holy Roman Reich which was also called the ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation’. This was soon ended by the Napoleonic Wars that threw Germany into confusion and made it a faction of warring states. Advocacy of a German nation began to become an important political force in response to the invasion of German territories by France under Napoleon. And the more distant Germany grew from that state, the more they remembered the First Reich as the ideal state when Germany was superior and dreamed of returning to these glory days.
When finally Bismarck successfully unified Germany again in 1871, he became the ‘ideal leader’ who was bringing back the old order and a national hero for defeating those hated French who had humiliated Germany earlier. He even called this unified germany The Second Reich.
Bismarck and Germany was obsessed with unification by any means, by “iron and blood”. After his defeats of Denmark and Austria, France declared war on Germany, which ended with a thumping German victory and annexations of parts of France. Soon the new German Empire was established as a federation of 25 states with the King of Prussia as the Emperor. Ironically enough, this royal coronation and proclamation as the emperor of Germany was conducted at Versailles. Bismarck himself was elevated to the position of Imperial Chancellor.
After his initial military campaign, Bismarck spent the est of his life trying to achieve political stability in Europe and forging alliances. He was also instrumental in Germany not participating in the wild colonial acquisitions that the rest of Europe obsessed about. But with the death of the old king, the new Kaiser Wilhelm II came into power, and his careful foreign policies fell into disfavor, the new Emperor seeking rapid expansion and colonization. He was forced to resign from the Reichstag and died soon after. Under Wilhelm II, Germany was to pursue belligerent policies that polarized the major European powers who were soon to unite with France against Germany in time for the First World War.
Bismarck’s most important legacy was the unification of Germany. Following this unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. However, this was not the complete re-unification that the people wanted and many felt that something was yet left to be done by another Leader or Führer. The figure of Bismarck became legend and the romantic ideal of a leader for the german people became someone who was a militaristic dictator who would do anything for the nation. Bismarck, a devout Protestant also left a legacy of anti-Catholicism in Germany which led to the vast protestant electorates that fueled Nazi ascension later on. He also left a legacy of anti-socialism and suppression.
The First World War
After having dismissed Bismarck, William II was to launch a foreign policy that culminated in the fatal decision to support Austria-Hungary in 1914 that precipitate the World War. His policies led to the gradual weakening of the bonds Bismarck had formed with Russia an with Austria-Hungary. Meanwhile France had recovered from its last defeat and was itching for revenge. French soon formed treaties with Britain and then Britain with Russia, thus forming the Triple Entente. An increasingly insecure Germany started an arms race which escalated very fast throughout Europe. Austria-Hungary in its own expansion drive started a conflict with Serbia which ended in a declaration of war with them. Russia decided to support the Serbs and once Germany announced support for Austria-Hungary, France too joined the fray, with UK joining them soon.
Germany was the biggest power in Europe at this time and entered the war expecting huge gains and certain victory. They annexed huge portions of Russia and laid down draconian laws under the military legend Hindenburg. They incurred huge debts expecting to repay them with the spoils of war. But once their strategic mistakes led to America entering the war, it all went quickly downhill for them culminating in the Treaty of Versailles. The period before this had also seen the German Revolution that led to the establishment of a republic called the Weimar Republic and the Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country. It was this Weimar Republic that had negotiated and signed the Treaty of Versailles.
Hindenburg and other senior German leaders tried to soften the defeat by spreading the story that their armies had not really been defeated. This resulted in the stab-in-the-back legend, which attributed Germany’s defeat to intentional sabotage of the war effort by insiders, particularly by Jews, Socialists, and Bolsheviks. This led to the denouncement of the Weimar Republic government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as the “November Criminals“. Conservatives, nationalists, ex-military leaders and political theorists began to speak critically about the peace. Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, Jews, and sometimes even Catholics were viewed with suspicion due to presumed extra-national loyalties. It was claimed that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies.
The Treaty of Versailles was particularly harsh in its terms but Richard Evans draws our attention to the fact that the terms that Germany had envisaged on successful defeat of its enemies were far worse and even the treaty force on Russia was comparable. The Treaty asked Germany to take full responsibility for the war and to make heavy annual reparation payments to the victorious allies. The total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion Marks in 1921 which is roughly equivalent to US $442 billion in 2012. The final payments were made on 4 October 2010. It also forced rapid disarmament and restrictions on weapons manufacture and limitation on military troops to 100,000.
The conditions of the Treaty was to be decisive in many ways as the reparation payments pushed german economy over the brink and the military restrictions left german military mostly a spectator to internal changes and led to rapid gain in the importance of the paramilitary and the police. At the same time it led to a repressed rage among the german people that cascaded a series of political events that led to the radicalization of the entire political atmosphere.
Hitler was not German. He was born in Austria and his family emigrated to and from Germany in his early years. His father was serving in the Austrian Government and his conflicts with his father was among the reasons postulated as having caused Hitler to develop a strong affinity for Germany and a hatred for Austria. He started considering Germany his spiritual homeland. Hitler dreamed of becoming an artist but his strict and architectural paintings were rejected as unfit by the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. This led him to cultivate a deep anti-establishment mentality.
This was also the time when the Weimar Republic was experiencing strong political difficulties and the theories of Social Darwinism, Nationalism and Eugenics were gaining in popularity. Hitler grew up reading some of the early propagandists of these theories and they deeply influenced him. Driven by these impulses Hitler joined the Bavarian army to fight for Germany in the First World War. During the war he was injured and taken to a remote hospital to recuperate. Hitler too like the rest of Germany had gone into the war with assured victory and future glories of his nation in mind.
When news finally reached him of Germany’s loss and of the Treaty, he was deeply shocked, humiliated and scarred for life. He was soon to pick up on the concepts of the stab-in-the-back legend and of the “November Criminals” to explain this to himself and to fuel his hatred and his ascension.
He returned and continued working for the army and drifted though various movements before finding a mentor who recognized that Hitler was a good orator. Soon Hitler was using is speaking skills to motivate various factions under the direction of his superiors. He became a leading speaker at the National Socialist German Workers Party and soon became their leader and tendered his resignation to the army. His vitriolic speeches and charisma transformed the party and soon their numbers began to swell and his speeches started to attract huge attendance.
As the Nazi party grew, Hitler fueled by his hatred for the government and inspired by Mussolini, organized a coup or a “Putsch” to seize power and was completely thwarted and thrown into jail. This convinced him and the party that they have to keep up appearances of legality and come to power through the democratic system itself.
A gradual rebuilding of the Nazi party and a building up of it paramilitary wing was pursued after this even as the Hitler Personality Cult grew and grew and grew. They were waiting for an opportunity to make the first push towards power. Until this time only the radical right wingers and the nationalists were joining the party. Then came the Great Depression. Nazis used the fear and the confusion to drive home their ideology and became more popular party. In the 1932 election, two years into the depression, Hitler came second to Hindenburg but was already a force to be reckoned with, with over 35% votes, mostly from protestant electorates and Prussia.
The inability to form a majority government lead to Hindenburg inviting Hitler to be the Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The party still had no political majority and Hitler was intended to be only a rubber stamp. But then came the famous Reichstag Fire Decree, which was the response to the parliament being set on fire by an alleged communist party member. this gave Hitler an excuse to allege a Communist Plot against Germany and suspend basic rights and undertake a violent suppression of the Communist party, which was a much bigger party than the nazis in terms of parliamentary representatives. He then called for a re-election. With the Communist Party effectively suppressed, Nazis were able to gain a majority vote but was still short of the 51% required for an absolute majority.
Even though Hitler did not command a full majority, he was able to pressurize the parliament to vote for an Enabling Act. THis was achieved by banning Communist and Nation Socialist party members from attending the vote, which effectively made the Act illegal by all standards. Nevertheless, the vote was passed and the Act gave the Nazis complete legislative control for the next four years.
The Act was soon used to give an appearance of legality to what turned out to be a systematic and grotesquely violent suppression of all other political parties. All political opposition was wiped away with street violence, killings and finally formal dissolution of the parties. The Nazi paramilitary wing was given the right of the Police and was free to commit any atrocities and the military were soon reconciled and made an ally. Soon Nazis were organizing a campaign to make all social groups such as sports organizations and social clubs to be centralized under the Nazi banner in a process they called “Synchronization”.
With the political parties suppressed and all chances of any discordant voices eliminated, the Nazis finally let loose their racial campaigns and massacres and systematic eradication of Jews, Socialists and Communists from all social, political and economic positions in the entire country.
Thus with Hitler as the Supreme Commander in charge of what he called The Third Reich, with his minions wrecking havoc and with the German people perplexed at how all this came to pass, Richard Evans takes leave of us, daring us if we have the heart to continue the journey in the next book.
- Robert Michael: scholar of antisemitism (ramichael.wordpress.com)
- India and the Rise of Germany (2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany by Alan E. Steinweis (blogcritics.org)
- Robert Wistrich on failure of the liberal West to confront antisemitism in the Middle East (cifwatch.com)
- Report finds 1 in 5 Germans antisemitic (thejc.com)
- Does Antisemitism Make Jewish Assimilation Impossible? No (robertlindsay.wordpress.com)