In his memoir entitled Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood (NY: Other Press, 2012) (trans. Martin Chalmers), Joachim Fest talks about how his family in Berlin chose to resist Hitler and the Nazi regime, while all around them, people acclaimed Hitler and regarded him as a savior figure who would make their nation great again. Among other dissenters with whom they talked as Hitler rose to power — always with great caution — the burning question was how this could happen in Germany, a nation devoted to law and order.
A recurring theme of Fest's testimony is how the rise of Hitler to power in Germany released demonic tendencies and energies in the population at large, which had been hidden prior to Hitler. As the Nazis seized power, people throughout Germany (and then in many other places in Europe) began to say and do malicious things, to express their hate of the Other openly, in an unvarnished way that had not been acceptable prior to Hitler.
Fest speaks of a Jewish friend of his family, Dr. Meyer, whose wife gave up the will to live as Hitler rose to power, and who died as a result. After Kristallnacht, when the Nazis organized a night of violence against Jews and their property throughout Germany, Meyer became very reclusive. He told Fest’s family that it had confirmed his worst premonitions. And:
He [said he] would never have believed how much malice dwelt behind the doors of the apartments around him (pp. 125-6).
As a member of a highly educated, enculturated family with a great respect for German culture — a family that considered itself German first and foremost, and Jewish only secondarily — Meyer and other Jewish people close to the Fest family stated that they could not understand what was being done to them. Had they not contributed significantly to the building of Germany and to its culture? The people now showing open disdain for them had previously been good neighbors and friends, or so they had assumed.
This is a persistent insight hammered home in the book, the heavy price a society pays when it permits its leaders to cross a line and to encourage open, unabashed persecution of minority groups. The malice Dr. Meyer and other Jews began to recognize in neighbors and friends is often there in any society, lurking beneath the surface, latent and ready to be brought to the fore by those who might benefit from exploiting hate. What Hitler changed was the willingness of many people in Germany to send those malicious signals in an open, ugly, shocking, and very destructive way to members of othered groups they despised and sought to blame for Germany's economic malaise following World War I.
Though it was obvious to some Germans including Joachim Fest's family, who opposed Hitler for religious reasons among other reasons, that Hitler's racism comprised murderous intentions towards the Jewish people, many Germans chose to believe that God had sent him to make their country great again:
[S]he [the wife of Karl Vaupel, a close friend of Fest's father], in the jargon of the time, was an enthusiastic Nazisse. She was capable of maintaining in all seriousness that the Führer had been "sent by God" and that the Lord had great things in store for Germany (p. 101).
Steve Benen in his "This Week in God" column at Maddow Blog this past weekend:
Robert Jeffress, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor, said this week he's supporting Trump because it's "biblical" to support a "strongman" in government.
Michelle Bachmann, former U.S. Representative from Minnesota and head of Trump's Evangelical Advisory Board:
Michele Bachmann expressed hope on Saturday that God has "lifted up" Donald Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton and save the country from Marxism and radical Islamism.
How could this happen in Germany, a nation devoted to law and order, Fest's family and others like them asked? But it did happen. And the racism on which it was based ended up extorting a huge, terrible price for which the German people, and German churches, most of which were conspicuously silent as it happened, bear a load of shame even now.
A nation, they said, that had produced Goethe, Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart, and so many others, would simple be incapable of barbarism. Griping at the Jews, prejudice, there had always been that, they thought. But not violent persecution (p. 181).
How could this happen? Fest's testimony:
But the ten million or more . . . [enthusiastically supporting Hitler] . . . didn't want to see the means by which Hitler achieved his successes. They thought he had God on his side; anyone who had retained a bit of sense, however, saw that he was in league with the Devil (p. 118).
With every act of violence, some of us are pushed more decisively into the arms of a political savior figure seen as a "strongman" sent by God to save us — even when every sign possible tells us this "strongman" is in league with the devil. Joachim Fest notes that his Catholic family had hoped Catholic Austria would resist Hitler, but when Nazi troops marched into Austria in March 1938, Catholic Austrians greeted them waving flags, crowds thronging the streets, cheering, throwing flowers, shouting enthusiastic Heils!, singing. Women fainted (pp. 118-9).
Immediately after this happened, news broke in Germany that Jews were being rounded up in Vienna and elsewhere. Fest notes that his family's peaceful upper-middle-class neighborhood in Berlin began to fall apart as the Nazis rose to power: neighbor turned against neighbor, spying and reporting, haranguing each other over silly matters like whether a neighbor's children were noisy or uncontrolled. A nasty side people had not seen in each other suddenly emerged and came to the fore — let out of the bag by Hitler's rhetoric and the violence his regime began to relase.
As Fest notes, all of this happened in a nation with a strong sector of highly educated people, a reputation for civility, a population full of people enamored of law and order. How can this possibly be occurring in Germany of all places, people asked themselves? Where are the voices of our intellectual and religious leaders, of the decent common folks, as all this gets underway?
"Why do these easy victories of Hitler's never stop?" he [Fest's father] asked one evening after a pensive listing of events. And why, he asked on another occasion, was this mixture of arrogance and hankering for advantage breaking out in Germany, of all places? Why did the Nazi swindle not simply collapse in the face of the laughter of the educated? Or of the ordinary people, who usually have more "character"? (p. 120).
Where were the Catholic intellectuals, this anti-Hitler Catholic family wanted to know? Why were they silent? Why, in fact, did the Catholic church, with its strong traditions of defending human rights and those on the margins of society, appear actually to be welcoming Hitler? Surely Catholic intellectuals, those representing the Catholic church in the academy and journalistic sector, knew better? But they were, for the most part, silent — when they were not actively abetting the Nazi regime.
In short, conservative, Catholic politics were much closer to and forgiving of Hitler's policies than of anything that might have aided the godless atheism of the political left (p. 157, n. 6).
Where were the Catholic intellectuals, faithful, good Catholics teaching in universities and working in the journalistic sector, Fest's family asked, as Jews were told they could not continue in the liberal professions including medicine and pharmacy, were told they could not sit on park benches or walk on German walking trails, could not subscribe to newspapers and magazines, had to wear a yellow star and turn their typewriters over to authorities, were forbidden to have pets? (pp. 178-9).
Where were the leading Catholic intellectuals when Jews went to florists to buy flowers for the graves of family members and were told in no uncertain terms that of course they could not buy
wedding cakes flowers for weddings flowers to adorn graves: these were reserved for good people, for ethnically pure Germans? (p. 179).
As Hitler famously said, "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think." The ascendancy of the strongman always depends on instilling and exploiting fear in people — fear based on an avoidance of thinking, on illusionary charges that someone else is responsible for the misery in the world, on cheap, glib insinuations that easily targeted minority groups have messed things up for everyone else.
The ascendancy of the strongman depends on the mendacious claim that people are "angry" and have a right to their "anger," when what they are angry about is totally unreal, bogus, implanted in their unthinking little heads by exploitative media whose entire purpose is to make people "angry" by disseminating lies and blocking thinking.
A society that goes wholeheartedly down this road of unthinking embrace of a cynical, values-free strongman is a society headed to total devastation. Unfortunately — see: Hitler — that devastation usually affects far more than just the society that has ceded its soul to the strongman. This is the lesson we might learn from Nazi Germany, Joachim Fest tells us in his book Not I.
If we are willing to learn it, that is . . . .
(I'm posting this with a nod to Annika, who has had valuable things to say in threads here about the significance of the Nazi error as we Americans assess what is happening to our country today as Donald Trump rises to power.)