Those of you who know me well know that I’m an avid student of modern history—particularly the three decades between the end of World War One and the end of World War Two. Over the years my research and studies have focused primarily on a single question: how could 35 million Germans, historically some of the best-educated and most intelligent people in the world, have followed a madman like Adolf Hitler not just to the brink of national destruction but over the precipice?
The answer, viewed thru the unblinking lens of history, turns out to be multi-faceted but simple—one might even say obvious.
In August of 1914 the Second German Empire began a war against Serbia. They did so in confidence that by Christmas their troops would be home again, celebrating yet another German military victory.
Four years later America and most of Europe were involved, and the war was still dragging on. The German military commanders told the German people that the war was going well and an eventual victory was assured, but the German people were weary of war. In November of 1918 the German government ordered the troops to abandon the battlefield and return home. In so doing, they acknowledged and accepted defeat.
Since Germany hadn’t planned for a long drawn-out war, by 1916 the German economy was beginning to suffer. After the war things got much worse. Soldiers returning home in 1919 found a nation mired in what we call today “stagflation”—high unemployment, rising prices, and shortages of food and other basic necessities. Things continued to get worse as the value of the German mark declined against other world currencies.
The only thing that kept Germany afloat during the Nineteen Twenties was a massive influx of foreign investment, mainly from America. When the American stock market crashed in 1929 and the flow of American dollars into Germany stopped, the German economy collapsed.
The post-war government changed often, as group after group proved unable to deal with Germany’s problems. They failed because they all shared a common weakness—they were controlled by special-interest groups, principally banking and heavy industry. They passed laws and made regulations that benefitted them, not the nation or the people.
In 1924 a new figure entered the German political arena. Adolf Hitler was the leader of a small political party called the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP. Unlike other German political parties, each of which appealed to a clearly defined segment of the population, the NSDAP tried to offer something to everyone. Even their name was an attempt to blur established political lines. Consider:
National = right-wing
Socialist = left-wing
German = right-wing
Workers = left-wing
Their message was as contradictory as their name. When they spoke to farmers in rural areas they promised that under an NSDAP government the farmers would receive higher prices for the food they produced. When they spoke to factory workers in the cities, they promised abundant food at lower prices. They were able to get away with that kind of campaigning because the world of the Nineteen Twenties lacked the widespread and instantaneous communication we have today.
The one message that was consistent no matter what audience they were addressing was a message of German nationalism. Germany had once been a great nation, they said. It was Germany’s birthright to be a great nation. That birthright had been stolen in 1918 by traitors in its own government. An NSDAP government would return Germany to its rightful place as a world power.
In the election of 1926 the Nazi Party, as it had come to be called, was hardly noticed, winning less than 2% of the popular vote. They did somewhat better in 1928, then in the election of 1930, with the German economy in chaos, they won 38% of the vote and became the second-largest political party in Germany.
They held that position thru the election of 1932, and on January 30, 1933, after several weeks of back-room negotiations, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Spanish philosopher Jorge Santayana said, “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The truth of that statement is irrefutable. Even the most casual reading of history will turn up events that seem eerily similar despite being separated by decades or even centuries.
As I study the history of Germany in the Nineteen Twenties and ‘Thirties, and hear the newscasts of current events, I can’t help but see certain similarities. For example:
- World war One was triggered by an act of terrorism—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian separatist.
The Afghan and Iraqi wars were triggered by an act of terrorism—the destruction of the World Trade Center by Islamic fundamentalists.
- Germany entered WW1 expecting a quick and relatively easy victory. Instead, the war lasted more than four years and ended in a German defeat.
America expected quick victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the beginning it seemed we had them, but six years later we’re still in both places. Now our President-elect has pledged to withdraw from Iraq, and possibly from Afghanistan as well. Abandoning the battlefield is an admission of defeat, even if no document of surrender is ever signed. The American withdrawal from Vietnam is an example.
- The unplanned-for duration and cost of WW1 threw the German economy into a crisis that took almost twenty years to recover from. The economy was beset from all sides—high unemployment, rising prices, shortages, and a declining currency.
The unplanned-for duration and cost of the Afghan and Iraqi wars are beginning to affect the American economy. Gross Domestic Product is down, inflation is starting to go up, unemployment is starting to go up, and the dollar is at an all-time low against other world currencies.
- During the Nineteen Twenties the German economy was kept afloat by massive foreign investments. When the influx of foreign investments stopped, the economy collapsed.
During the Nineteen Seventies and ‘Eighties the American economy was propped up by Japanese investments in our stock, bond, and real estate markets, using the dollars we paid them for cars and electronics. Since the ‘Eighties it’s been the OPEC nations investing the dollars we’ve paid them for oil. And recently it’s been China and India investing dollars we’ve paid them for goods and services.
If all those nations suddenly stopped investing in our economy for whatever reason, our economy would be in danger of collapse, too.
- The government of post-war Germany was controlled by special-interest groups. The government acted in ways that benefited the special interests, not the general population.
Comparisons to America are numerous. The most recent is that the government is using our tax dollars to bail out mortgage banking companies and investment bankers that have made bad mortgage loans, while letting several million Americans face foreclosure and loss of their homes.
The most recent comparison I’ve seen is that all thru the ‘Twenties the Nazis campaigned on a platform of change. The government isn’t working, they said. It needs to be changed. Elect us and we’ll give you change. Today we’re hearing the same litany from our President-elect.
The American people seem to be responding—and why not? Things are getting worse every year. Our health insurance costs more every year, but it seems the insurance covers less and less. More and more of us are uninsured, because we just can’t afford the premiums any more.
Few of us are confident that we will ever be able to retire. Our grandparents did okay on their Social Security checks. Our parents had to supplement their Social Security with income from savings or investments, and for many of them retirement was a time of sacrifice and deprivation.
Today it seems it takes a full-time income just to make ends meet. We couldn’t begin to survive on what Social Security is going to pay, and we haven’t been able to put as much into our 401(k) and IRA as we’ll need to make up the difference. After forty or forty-five years of working we’re facing the fact that we’re going to spend our “golden” years in not-so-genteel poverty.
Parents worry about the future their children will have. They want their children to go to college, but the cost of a four-year undergraduate degree in a public college is approaching $100,000 and they simply can’t afford it, especially if they have two or three children. The alternative is for the child to go to school on student loans then spend their entire life paying off the loans—with money they need to be putting away for their own retirement.
America has been the cradle of free enterprise and capitalism, but more and more we find ourselves looking at places like Norway and Sweden and thinking, “Okay, they have a 70% income tax rate, but look at what they get for it. Free health care. Free education all the way thru college. Thirty-five hour work weeks, six weeks of vacation, and fourteen holidays. A secure retirement.”
So when a politician promises us change we find ourselves thinking, “Well, why not give them a chance? They may not make things any better, but it couldn’t be much worse.”
And the historian who has spent a lifetime studying the rise and fall of the Third Reich whispers, ”Oh, yes. It could be much worse.”
So what am I saying—that I see an American Hitler on the horizon? No, not yet. I don’t believe we’ve gone far enough down yet. We’re still the most powerful nation in the world, and much of the world fears “awakening the sleeping giant.” They won’t lose that fear until a few nations like Iran and North Korea kick us and prove that the giant isn’t sleeping but in a coma. Then kicking us will become an international sport.
We’re still the richest nation in the world, although our leaders use those riches to benefit every nation except America. They ship dollars around the world by the ton, ignoring the millions of Americans who are homeless, hungry, or in need of medical care they can’t afford. When other nations demand even more of our dollars, our leaders simply raise our taxes. I believe the day will come when we’re paying a 70% tax rate but without any of the benefits enjoyed by Sweden or Norway.
Eventually, perhaps in a decade, or two or three, a charismatic leader will emerge. He (or she) will probably be a man of the people, born to humble origins. Not a graduate of Harvard or Yale, he will probably have been educated at some small public university that no one ever heard of. He will probably have served honorably in the Army and been wounded in some minor conflict.
“America was once a great nation,” he will tell us. “It’s America’s birthright to be a great nation. That birthright has been stolen by our leaders, who have betrayed us. Give me the power and I will return America to its rightful place as a world power.”
“Yes!” we will say. “That is what we want!” And we will give him the power.
While he is rebuilding our shattered military forces he will say, to us and to the world, “I only want equality. I only want the respect that America is entitled to.” While he is planning for conquest he will say, “I don’t want war. I’m a veteran. I was wounded. I’ve seen the horrors of war first-hand.”
At that point we can only hope that he has studied history, and learned from it.
And the thing that frightens me the most, the thing that causes me to feel both pride and shame as I write this, is that if I am still living when he appears, I will vote for him.