How - and why - did the Nazis get to power?
Why is this question, which never seems to go away, still important?
This weekend a public controversy in the U.K. about the pertinence or otherwise of a comparison of potential government policy with 1930s Germany stormed through the news. There was no getting away from it. My view is that the comparison, when it was made, was somewhat stretched, but it is important that we make comparisons with the past, as well as protecting the right of people to do so (though this blog makes no pretence to understand the detail of the employment contract between the protagonists). Its clearly critical that we understand our history: after all, that’s what I do for a living. Indeed, General The Lord Dannatt and I have a book coming out in September this year doing precisely this; comparing public policy about the British Army between the two world wars, and commenting on the deleterious impact of this policy on the ability of the Army to prepare for, and wage, modern war. Its a cautionary study of what we believe has happened to the British Army over the past decade or so.
But back to this weekend’s brouhaha. The debate about the comparison of UK public policy with 1930s Germany (in which I assume the debate was about Nazi rather than Weimar Germany) has a very deep resonance with me, as a couple of years ago I wrote a book on the subject. It was a conversation with my agent, Charlie Viney, in about 2015 that started it all. There are lots of excellent books on the market about the Nazi era in Europe between 1933 and 1945 (Frank McDonough is the place to start if you are new to the subject), though few look at how ordinary people enabled the Nazi horror to emerge. The more I study it the more I realise that history is less about institutions per se than it is about humans and their agency. The Nazis were people, and those who helped their rise were also people. I told Charlie that as a soldier I once lived with my young family at Lager Bergen-Hohne, the old Wehrmacht barracks complex that sits next door to the site of the notorious transit camp of Bergen-Belsen, where the Dutch teenager, Anne Frank, lost her life. Scores of thousands of Untermenschen, the human detritus of a Nazified Europe, died of neglect in the human garbage dump that once lay hidden amidst the towering silver birches of these remote forests in Lower Saxony. Standing at the entrance to the Bergen-Belsen memorial today is a sobering experience, the bleak surroundings bringing a rush of melancholia triggered by the thought of so many lives wasting to death on the cold, grey sod amidst the terror of starvation, disease, loneliness, and deliberate, criminal neglect. The shadow that invariably passes over my soul on these occasions is made worse by the realization that this horror came about as the result of human design and political purpose. Men—some men—wanted this to happen, and many men, and women, allowed it to be so. Horror did not take place of its own accord but was the result of action by some—a few perhaps—and inaction by many. Bergen-Belsen today stands mute but terrible testimony to human evil and the failure of people to recognize malevolence for what it was, and to act, in a timely manner, against it.
‘OK, Rob’ Charlie said, ‘your job is to write a book on how the Nazi’s came to power. Do it from the perspective of those looking on, from the outside. How could the world let something like this happen?’
I’m not surprised that comparisons made with the Nazi era generate heat. They should do. We don’t always get the comparisons right, but we can be forgiven for the emotions these discussions generate. Both in Germany during the 1930s, and in the wider world of the democracies, political liberalism failed catastrophically to assert, and protect, its primary virtue, namely liberty under the law. Bergen-Belsen—one small place among many—was the product of deliberate calculation, in which in the space of a single generation an entire nation was persuaded to hate. The real travesty is that most of what happened among these bleak birch forests was foreseen. From the moment Hitler took power the world began to know and understand—albeit through a glass darkly—what the Nazi Party was attempting to do. It was clear to many observers that the Nazi plan was to mobilize an entire society in a program of racial and national aggrandizement that would overturn many hundreds of years of Judeo-Christian civilization, not to mention the culture of Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller. It would do so at the expense of her neighbours, as well as those—inside Germany and out—considered by the Nazis not to reach the physical and moral standard set by nature for the Teuton, the Aryan master race destined to rule the world. The Untermenschen were people unworthy of life, or at least worthy only of being ruled—as slaves—by Germans. John Winant, the United States ambassador to Britain between March 1941 and April 1946, and one of the great heroes of this story, concluded that the Nazis “not only knew, they planned, with cold premeditation, the slaughter of a race, and all others who opposed their will. Long before war came at all the indifference of an appeasement-minded world allowed these enemies of humanity, bereft of charity, an open field to sow and reap their nightmare harvests.”
It was far less easy at the time in the West to see what was happening in the Soviet Union and the horrors of Stalinization, as this happened behind a carefully constructed curtain, designed to prevent outsiders seeing the truth within, but this could not be said for Germany. For an entire decade before Hitler in a pique calamitously (for Germany) declared war on America on December 11, 1941, considerable numbers of North Americans—travellers, academics, journalists, diplomats, housewives, businessmen, among others—possessed a window into the darkening soul of this ancient, declining culture, and made their findings known, often in clear and unequivocal terms, to the folks back home. Some of these warnings strike the modern reader to be remarkably prescient. But was anyone listening? Some, a courageous few, decided to take the fight to the Nazis by direct action well before America found itself committed to war. It is to them that my book is dedicated.
I’ve long believed that the best history is sourced from the memories of those who were there, who watched and made it happen. My book begins and ends with the premise that the views of a wide range of different people—students, housewives, soldiers, diplomats, engineers, journalists, civil servants, businessmen, scientists, and many others—looking at history as it is made, though from differing perspectives and prejudices, offer in their accumulation an interpretation of events as valuable as the political and military memoirs of those intimately involved in political affairs, and of the specialist historical accounts written retrospective to the events they recount. For the most part people carrying out their ordinary lives see other things, too, that are more often missed—or ignored—in what might be considered more rarefied, analytical accounts of events. The rise of Nazi Germany during the 1920s and 1930s was closely observed by many North Americans, who, like the children opening the wardrobe door into Narnia, found themselves entering a world dramatically different from their own, and one which they could not entirely comprehend. As they—Dorothy Thompson, Leland Stowe, Bill Shirer, Matthew Halton, Sigrid Shultz, Janet Flanner, Edgar Mowrer, and many others—began to report their findings back home, they encountered something they did not expect. On the one hand, many of their listeners and readers seemed resistant to the story they were telling, and reluctant to accept its veracity. On the other, many people simply expressed disinterest. The accusation of exaggeration, bias, and even warmongering became common. One was understandable—people often need to see and touch, like doubting Thomas, before they believe—but the other reaction surprised them. As the years went by, and the true nature of Nazism was increasingly revealed to American observers in Europe, the implications for deeply entrenched personal, societal, economic, and religious freedoms, in the United States, Canada, and other European democracies, became starkly apparent. How was it that their own countrymen and women could not comprehend the scale of the threat facing liberal democracy emanating from the new Nazi regime in Germany? How, then, to deal with a member of the community of nations whose values—in respect of human liberty—were now so dramatically different from the others’? How to do so, especially when the type of political repression represented by Nazism was sold to both internal and external audiences as an antidote to bolshevism? How to sound the alarm without appearing to beat the war drum?
In respect to the war in Europe, generally regarded to have begun on September 3, 1939 (although the Czechs and Poles would suggest earlier dates and many, then and now, argue that this date was simply the end of the armed truce that had lasted since November 11, 1918), what has rarely been heard are the voices of those living in Europe at the time but who were not from, or of, this troubled continent. Many North Americans living in London, Paris, and Berlin experienced in full the march to war and the violent Nazi tidal wave that swept across Europe between 1939 and 1941, smashing the Versailles settlement on the jagged rocks of total war. The world had never seen war like it before, either in its ideological fury or its disciplined, machinelike execution, its ruthless, exterminatory xenophobia, or its extraordinary scale and the extent of the misery and suffering it engendered. Scores of thousands of non-Europeans were caught up in the conflagration, reporting back home in letters, diaries, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and in their published accounts the full spectrum of their experiences. Importantly, it was the experiences of a vast cohort of American expatriates in the war’s swirling tides that were transmitted to families and audiences back home, and which intimately wove America into the destiny of Europe, despite the overwhelming imperative across America in 1939 to remain aloof from the world and let the troubled continent of Europe settle its own problems.
My book does not pretend to be a history of Europe during this period, or a history of Nazism and German expansionism. That has been done far better, by others. Rather, it is a synthesis of the memories, remembrances, attitudes, and experiences of a handful of North American expatriates who lived through this period in Europe, and who wrote, and spoke of what they saw at the time, especially during the two years of war when America remained neutral. It was hard for many who could see and experience what was going on in Germany to comprehend the argument for maintaining neutrality in the face of the Nazi destruction of European civilization. “Who is neutral when the house is burning down?” asked the author Jimmy Sheean in rhetorical exasperation at the isolationist policies of his homeland. He, and many others, worked tirelessly from 1933 to warn America that the fire engine was required, that this was no mere war of national interest in which Americans could make anything other than a full commitment to the anti-Nazi cause. Germany under Hitler and his henchmen constituted an existential threat to American liberty in a way that the Great War did not. The powerful impulses towards isolationism, some of which were built on fears that America had been hoodwinked into joining the fighting in Europe in 1917, needed to be reversed to persuade American popular opinion that wholehearted intervention in Europe was again required.
My greatest challenge was to determine what stories and testimonies to include, given the wide choice available from the bright panoply of stars who illuminated this dark night sky between 1939 and 1941. Wherever possible, these characters have been allowed to speak for themselves, and to speak vicariously for the many thousands who shared their views at the time and who have left no diaries, memoirs, or published accounts of their experiences. The truth is that I ran out of space to include the widest array of characters I had first hoped, and with some heartbreak have been forced to exclude some extraordinary people—such as Varian Fry, Charles Sweeny, Johnney Dodge, Sigrid Schultz, Betty Watson, Helen Kirkpatrick, Margaret Bourke-White, Mildred Harnack, and Billy Fiske, for instance—whom I have left to other commentators. My intention was to allow the multitude of voices that remain—this cloud of witnesses, even—together to tell the story of the onset of terror, as the storm clouds burst over Europe and grew rapidly closer to American shores in the years and months before the United States found itself embroiled, for the second time that century, with war in Europe. The difference now was that this war was a life-and-death struggle, a war for the very soul and heart of humanity. Those who realized this became the evangelists of freedom and did all they could to sound the alarm amidst a fog of competing narratives, confusion, propaganda, and misinformation. The world continues to owe them, many decades on, the greatest of debts.
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