A Warning from History
‘The Nazis, A Warning From History’ is being repeated on BBC4. The timing could scarcely be coincidental. We can’t say for sure where the World is going over the next few months and years. But it could easily take a turn for the worse while authoritarianism is making a comeback. Remember the past, recall the Santyana phrase, and look not to how we are condemned to repeat history, but how we can walk into a time where dictatorship and atrocities become more likely, not less. Comparisons between Trumpism and Nazism have been made before. These are my observations passed on re-viewing this landmark series.
The othering that the Nazis did with Jews, Slavs, Gays and Gypsies, was intentional. It was a racism stemming from something deeply dark in the heart of man, that became a useful tool for seizing power and establishing the Third Reich. Othering was essential to the Nazi ideology; leading Nazis were both racist and used racism to advance their cause. Some of them were less fanatical than others in their belief in racial superiority, but all signed up for it. Albert Speer may have been a soi-disant aesthete; he also caused the cruel death of thousands in the V2 programme.
Hitler was indolent. He often spent afternoons watching Hollywood movies. He was frequently unable to give his subordinates clear instructions. His administration of the Reich was characterised as chaotic. Ministries clashed with each other and the SS and Army were frequently at logger-heads trying to implement a vague instruction or command. He liked to claim he was constantly working for the Greater Germany, but frequently ruled from the comfort of his alpine retreat, the Berchtesgaden.
The Third Reich drew on the experience of Lenin’s Soviet Union in realising the importance of propaganda. The Nazis exploited the relatively new media form of the cine-reel and cinema to maximum effect. The production quality varied from disgustingly crude, to the retrospectively nauseatingly beautiful cinematography of Leni Riefenstahl. The Nazis used spectacle and performance to solidify their reputation among the working and middle class. Lies became truth, and truth lies, as the state became more totalitarian. The Third Reich banned Press freedom, dissenting journalists were lucky to be marginalised; they were more likely to be rounded up, or ‘liquidated’. By the late 1930s, Josef Goebbels was pushing against an open door.
The Nazis implemented public works projects. This appealed to their base. Their electoral support had started among the recently impoverished German working class. Many were content to avert their eyes on the desecration of Jewish property, confiscation of wealth, and eventual deportation to the camps, for the ‘ordinary Germans’ (and there had been real suffering during the Weimar era) were now gainfully employed in the factories, and building the autobahn. The Nazis were ‘National Socialists’, and the public works schemes put thousands of the ‘Volk’ back in employment. Hitler himself had little time for economics. ‘The People’ were prepared to accept a viciously racist government if meant the economic good times were back.
War became central to the Third Reich. The rolling back of international treaties, most notably Versailles, allowed them to prepare for military conflict, which became inevitable following a massive re-militarisation of the Fatherland. Many Germans had bought into much of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ claim around Versailles and were now proud to see their country reclaiming land that they had been told was rightfully theirs. What better way to rally a populace than to go to war, a war that would end in the immolation of the state and the death of millions.
Other countries were either naive in their reaction to the rise of the Nazis or in denial about the extent of the threat posed. This unwillingness to stand up to authoritarianism was rooted in the reaction to the slaughter of the ‘Great War’. War with Germany was to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant allowing innocent third-party countries to be intimidated or invaded. Hitler knew that if international leaders were unwilling to oppose him, he would have a free-hand both nationally (definitely) and internationally (probably). The World woke up too late to what was coming at them.
‘The Nazis, a Warning from History’ shows what happens when a madness takes hold of a body politic. Licence is given to what was previously verboten, the lunatics take over the asylum, and humanity itself is endangered. These aren’t warnings from another era; there are living, breathing Nazis out there, and living, breathing people who paid the price for the madness of fascist delirium. Every generation will throw up the ‘Strong Men’, the ‘Caudillos’, the Autocrats. If we don’t stand up and protest, call out when the new normal is no longer normal, then who are we to turn around when there is nothing left?