Every morning my buddy Helmut would ring our door bell to pick me up for our ten minute walk to school. Still chewing on my slice of dark bread I shouldered my backpack, and off we went to our next stop to pick up our friend Gunter to join us.
As we were waiting for him to come down, a woman came out from his apartment building, whispered to us that “they were taken last night” and then hurried away. Helmut and I looked at each other, with disbelief, shock, fear written all over our faces. We knew what this meant – we had heard rumors often enough about people disappearing in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.
But now it had happened right here, to our best friend and his family. Helmut started to cry. Shaken we went on our way to school.
Without our friend Gunter.
The war was in its third year. Up to now we had seen little of it, except that food had become more scarce and more soldiers were dying. My two older brothers were still writing to us from the Russian front, giving us hope.
But now with the Allied’s air raids the war had come to our town. My class mates and I were only thirteen but we already had to do wartime after-school chores – cleaning up the rubble after air raids, helping to put out fires or collecting metals for the war effort. We were kept very busy but I could not get Gunter out of my mind. Where was he? What was happening to him? And why?
At school, I had trouble keeping my attention on my work. I could not stop staring at Gunter’s empty desk. My home room teacher saw this. She said something like “our country may need their help elsewhere in winning the war. In any case, they will be well taken care of – stop thinking about it!”
I guess this is what she was expected to say, but I knew better. My parents had told me that Gunter’s family had been taken away because some one had denounced his father for having said something bad about the Nazis and about the war. I understood – even we youngsters were told in our compulsory “information sessions” that denouncing other people, even our parents, was our patriotic duty. My parents, of course, had warned me many times not ever to tell any one what we were talking about at home.
So people simply stopped talking to each other for fear of being accused of something they said. Anything, even the slightest slip of the tongue could lead to disaster. As if the horrors of the air raids, the hushed-up bad news from the front, so many soldiers losing their lives in far away lands were not enough – now we could not even be at peace in our own homes, with our family and friends.
But somehow, life had to go on. Together with my friends I did what boys would do – playing “cops and robbers,” playing pranks on our neighbors, playing soccer and running races. There was even the Nazis’ version of the Boy Scouts, officially not compulsory, but if you did not join, you could no longer count on admission to higher education. As the war was coming closer to us, our ‘patriotic’ indoctrination was becoming more and more intense. The ever present fear of getting into trouble for not doing enough kept hanging over us like a dark cloud.
I now began to understand what my parents had been telling me all along about the Nazis leading our country into ruin. But it took a few more years of growing up for me to ask myself the much bigger question: how was it possible that my country would go down the path to dictatorship into ruthless oppression, to crass brutality, recklessly starting a war that would end in total chaos for so much of the world? How did this happen, of all places, here in Germany, a country once renowned for its great achievements in science, in culture, with its much envied institutions of higher learning?
Our beloved Germany had slid into a dictatorship, ruled unforgivingly by a band of nationalistic zealots, hell bent on imposing their contorted world view on our country, on the world. Law abiding as they were, many Germans submitted to their harsh rule especially after it had been given a semblance of legality.
How could this have happened in Germany, and why? It would take five years of the inferno of a world war and untold suffering for millions of innocent people for an answer to these haunting questions.
Germany’s Road to Dictatorship
Two decades earlier the First World War finally had ended, not because one side was clearly the victor but because each warring country was exhausted – too many killed senselessly, too much wealth destroyed, too many going hungry, too many nations bankrupted. And then, far from trying to heal, the Versailles peace treaty opened new wounds, with Germany to carry the brunt.
After the war had ended, it would take Germany over ten years to find a new balance in its economic and political life. Finally, for the first time in its history Germany had become a democracy formally adopted in a constitutional convention held in the town of Weimar. But right from the start, its “Weimar Republic” was under attack from the extreme Left and Right, no party strong enough to garner a clear majority. In response to this reality the Weimar constitution provided that the party obtaining the most votes would be entitled to form the government. This meant that coalitions with other parties were always necessary, leading to the need to compromise, which in itself is not a bad thing.
In spite of their WWI post-war troubles, most Germans were gradually getting comfortable with their new democratic government. They began to look beyond the trauma of a lost war. The economy was beginning to recover, the devastating hyper-inflation had wound down, people began to find jobs again. Things were looking up for them.
Until a wave of nationalism made Hitler their new leader.
Initially, Adolf Hitler’s attempt to insert himself into the German political scene met mostly with disdain and contempt. After all, he was a total outsider, an Austrian and thus not even a German, with only rudimentary education, and certainly not a part of the ruling class. He had laid out his ideas in his book “Mein Kampf” to establish an authoritarian regime, to prepare Germany for war again, and declaring the Jews to be at the root of all problems. All this seemed so preposterous that most Germans were ready to dismiss him as a silly rabble-rouser. They came to regret it.
It would take Hitler twelve years of hateful oratory, an unending series of riotous rallies, and vicious street fighting by his private army to finally garner enough votes to make his party Germany’s largest – but even after all this extreme campaigning no more than just 30% voting for him in Germany’s last free election. However, under the Weimar constitution, this entitled him to form a new government which he did on January 30, 1933.
Much later, after all the damage had been done, many Germans asked themselves: How was it possible that a rogue like Hitler could wind up to be their leader, in a nation so steeped in tradition and valuing education and ethics as much as it did?
It turned out that Hitler succeeded precisely because he was not “one of theirs.” Instead, he cunningly branded himself as the champion of all those who had been left behind in the German post-war recovery – the middle class that had lost its economic status, the workers who had been carrying the brunt of unemployment for too long, and, last but not least, the generals whose jobs had become obsolete after Germany’s humiliating defeat.
On his march to become Germany’s dictator Hitler used the same approach that had helped several other of his contemporary dictators. He was an eager student of how others had been able to elevate themselves into a position of absolute power. He saw that all of them had used similar programs – using demagoguery to create rabid followings of the dispossessed who would spread fear in the streets, intimidate judges, take control of the media, and then blame everything on some hapless minorities. Once in power they would generously hand out jobs to their followers to reward them with the possessions of those who had been eliminated for having opposed them. Hitler had seen how this basic program had been successfully used by every one of his contemporary dictators and he would use it, too. Here is how he implemented it:
- Hitler was the consummate demagogue, a con-artist and a compulsive liar, but his crude oratory and his outlandish promises appealed to the under-educated and the dispossessed. He was very, very good at it.
- With his mottos: ”We will make Germany great again” and “Germany above All!” he also seduced many unsuspecting Germans into becoming his followers, blind to the deceit behind these slogans.
- Ignoring the legal process, Hitler immediately started to rule by executive orders, reducing Germany’s legislative institutions to rubber-stamping his edicts. Government officials who dared criticize him were fired, and if they persisted, locked up.
- In rapid sequence he dismantled Germany’s judicial system, dismissed dissenting judges, eliminated freedom of the press, outlawed all opposing organizations and labelling them “the enemy of the people.”
- In a show of strength he proceeded to tear up international agreements that he found onerous. It endangered the country’s security but made him popular with many Germans who felt their country had been unjustly humiliated.
- Next, he blamed minorities, foremost the Jews, for all the nation’s problems, and ruthlessly persecuted them.
- When many Germans started to object to his trampling on all they held as their moral values he would tell them: ”Look, I told you all along that I would do all this. I even wrote it in my book for all to read. You elected me anyway, so now stop complaining or else..!”
- When this was not enough to fend off his critics he did what dictators like to do – he started a war which would divert attention away from his Nazi goons’ outrageous behavior ending any remaining opposition, all in the name of patriotism.
To seize power was one thing, but how would Hitler manage to keep it? From the beginning of his presidency he and his cronies were very much aware that the great majority of Germans were still very skeptical about his agenda. Many Germans hated his band of thugs that he had organized to keep opposition under constant threat of violence. But the more Hitler tried to assert himself in his still tenuous position the more Germans were determined to end his reign of terror.
He was driven by his fear that the Germans would eventually see through his deceit and would get rid of him just as they had done before with some of their political leaders. After all, he was very much aware that less than one third of all Germans had voted for him in their last free election. And he was also alarmed by the growing opposition from his inner circle, the very men and women who had helped him to become Germany’s leader. He knew he had to do something dramatic to secure himself in his newly obtained position of power.
So, in a move reminiscent of Stalin’s purges Hitler had the leaders of his inner opposition killed. It sent shock waves through Germany.
How was Hitler able to get away, literally, with murder? How would he get away with the many horrendous crimes that he and his henchmen would commit in the years to come? He could do it because he had already “stacked” the courts with judges from his own party who predictably did nothing to prosecute him. Also, the German press was already controlled by Hitler’s newly created Ministry of Propaganda which was spinning this purge as “the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the nation.” For those who were still voicing their objection, his network of concentration camps was ready. Just enough about the atrocities committed there was leaked out in carefully measured doses, meant to spread terrible fear among Germany’s population.
Seeing how he had escaped prosecution from that first massive crime spree, Hitler was ready to continue on his path of committing one heinous crime after the other, each aimed a consolidating his power, but each leading him – and Germany – deeper and deeper into the abyss, with one foul deed making the next one inevitable, a never ending cycle of violence. It would take five years of a disastrous world war to bring an end to his heinous regime.
Hitler, of course, was keenly aware that many Germans still were just waiting for an opportunity to take him down – just a few years into his reign he had narrowly escaped several attempts on his life. (At least one of them, the one on November 8, 1939, was most likely a staged affair. It was carefully orchestrated to have Hitler leave the scene a few minutes earlier than planned, under the pretext of “scheduling changes” and thus escaping the big explosion. He would use it as a welcome pretext to unleash yet another sweeping purge of his opponents. Faking assassination attempts is a favorite ploy among dictators.)
Hitler then became paranoid about his own safety and responded to each crisis with ever escalating repression and cruelties with new repression, new violence, new killings of real or imagined challengers.
All dictators eventually will fall into this cycle of violence.
Driven by his paranoia, he and his inner circle developed a “bunker mentality” closing themselves off, trying to shield themselves from their own people. However, in doing this they also removed themselves from the realities of the life of their nation, causing them to make one bad decision after another.
Whatever his means, Hitler eventually succeeded beyond his wildest dreams – he had made himself the uncontested master of Germany. At this pinnacle of his career as politician you might assume that he would now settle into a new phase where he would begin to enjoy his position as the leader of a great nation, reluctantly acknowledged by the world as a reality to be reckoned with. However, like all men of great power he now became totally consumed with doing ever more to secure his newly achieved exalted status.
He demanded every one to swear an oath of unconditional loyalty to him personally. Those who would hesitate to do so would be eliminated one way or the other, from just getting fired or somehow disappearing – “accidents happen.” With many Germans’ exaggerated belief in the sacredness of a personal oath this made it so much easier for him to rule the country, unchallenged from other views about what would be good for the country.
But as a result, Hitler wound up surrounded with ‘yes-men’, unwilling to give him contrarian advise for fear of offending his fragile ego. There was no one left in his inner circle to prevent their inexperienced “Commander-in-Chief” from committing one military blunder after another.
Then Hitler embarked on an all-out program to brand himself as a leader unmatched in history, as standing above everything and everybody, and especially above the Law. The personality cult he created for himself as Germany’s “Fuehrer” was aimed at making him unassailable in the eyes of his people, which is exactly what a dictator needs as a shield against any possible future challenge to his authority. Every school room, every home, every government office was to display a portrait of Hitler. He required everyone to wear the insignia of the infamous swastika, the Nazi symbol of Aryan superiority that the Nazis had borrowed from ancient Hindu religions.
Keenly aware of the power of symbolism, Hitler made the Nazi swastika icon appear everywhere. Displaying the newly created German swastika flag became obligatory. Not to display this flag out your window would mark you immediately as an opponent, often with dire consequences. It would also immediately give the Nazi goons your location, for them to knock on your door…..
Was Hitler sincere in his misguided belief that he was the “savior” of his country, or was he just the typical pandering politician? Did he really believe all this stuff about his great love for the German nation, and all the venom he was spouting at his adversaries? Or was he a total cynic, simply tuning out, or even enjoying the monstrous crimes committed in his name? We may never really know.
But one thing is sure – every single step that Hitler took to eventually get complete control over his nation could have shown the Germans early on where he was heading. He became their dictator not by one single dramatic move, but in relatively small increments, one fateful small step at a time. Early on, at each one of these steps the Germans could have stopped him.
But they didn’t.