Deciding how Germany failed in 1945 is a game of whack-a-mole: reasons just keep popping up.
Germany in May 1945 was a large-scale abattoir. Many senior political leaders had fled Berlin; those who didn’t were either captured or dead by their own hands or by the German firing squad. The military leaders stayed at their posts–for the most part–doing what every German expected them to do. And therein lies part of the problem.
Doing what was expected of them; obedience to the end.
While obedience to the needs of the state wasn’t/isn’t that unusual or dangerous, Germans have a habit of obeying their leaders regardless of pretty much everything, including their destruction. Somehow, the “mission” that the Nazis had set out for Germany to create a better world included destroying 11 million people regarded as “not Aryan.” By 1945, this meant following the Nazi leadership’s goal of destroying the entire German nation because it was deemed “unworthy.” It also meant that the death camps were to operate on overdrive before being overrun.
Race was what all the fuss was about
In the 19th century, many writers, pundits, anthropologists, politicians, and other blowhards theorized about “race;” it was a cottage industry. One theorist/philosopher was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an ex-pat Englishman and the author of a book entitled Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899). In Foundations, Chamberlain lumps all the Teutons (which included the Germans, Slavs, Celts, Greeks, and Latins) into a single lump called the Aryans. The Aryans are/were what anthologists call a language group originating somewhere in northern India that had some influence on the German–and thus English–language. Like others at the time, Chamberlain suggested that the Nordic/Teutonic race was superior and responsible for everything good that ever happened. At the same time, the Jewish “race” was responsible for everything bad.
Chamberlain’s ideas were neither new nor novel at the time. And it sold like proverbial hotcakes.
Chamberlain’s book was well-reviewed and well-received in Germany, Europe, and Russia. Chamberlain corresponded with Kaiser Wilhelm II about it; George Bernard Shaw thought the book was a “historical masterpiece.” In the US, the reception was more guarded. Theodore Roosevelt highlighted Chamberlain’s extreme bias, a judgment that seems to have escaped other contemporary readers. He also wrote that Chamberlain “represents an influence to be reckoned with and seriously to be taken into account.” The former President also said:
There could be no more unsafe book to follow implicitly, and few books of such pretensions more ludicrously unsound; and yet it is a book which students and scholars, and men who, though neither students nor scholars, are yet deeply interested in life, must have on their book-shelves.Theodore Roosevelt. History as Literature. 1913.
Which is precisely what the Nazis did.
Chamberlain was also Richard Wagner’s son-in-law and a publicist for Bayreuth in Bavaria. Wagner, as we all remember, created the Ring Cycle (The Ring of the Nibelung). This magnum opus is a series of four operas depicting the story of, literally, a ring that could potentially rule the world. It’s tied up in old Germanic myths with Greek tragedy overtones and will take up seventeen hours of your time, should you want to listen to it. The Ring Cycle is meant to be performed at festivals that took four days to put on at Bayreuth. It was one of Hitler’s favorites–and thus any faithful Nazi’s–depicting the struggle for the possession of power for generations.
Irony of ironies, Houston Stewart was Neville “Peace in our Time” Chamberlain’s uncle.
Antisemitism is as old as Christianity in Europe, made worse by economic crises, plagues, and other disasters. In France, antisemitism reared its ugly head for an entire generation during and after the Dreyfus affair, nearly splitting the country into two. In Germany, the trigger was somewhat more subtle. The Treaty of Versailles caused profound economic shocks in the German economy. As a result, the sullen masses of unemployed German men and women, soldiers and sailors and farmers and farriers and candlestick makers heard from the Nazis just who to blame–the Jews. And the German soldiers and so forth believed and pressed others to believe because some believed.
Peer pressure is the most terrifying tool in every tyrant’s playbook.
A Russian forgery augmented the Communist-Zionist conspiracy that Hitler spoke of in Mein Kampf. The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion–or simply The Protocols–was written in Russia probably as a hoax to be circulated among antisemites. Then, someone cleaned it up and published it in an antisemitic rag in Russia in 1903. It also circulated as a pamphlet in Russia before the Russian Revolution, when refugees carried copies outside the country. It then became a means of counter-revolution and was translated into English by the Wilson administration’s War Department, replacing all references to Jews with Bolsheviks. It became, so mistranslated, an instrument in the first Red Scare in the US. Of course, it was also translated into German in 1920–using the original wording at first, then augmented with and Jews–and denounced as a hoax by the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1924, despite widespread acceptance in Germany as a genuine document. Many people around the globe–especially in the Muslim world–believe in The Protocol‘s authenticity to this day.
Nobody said it had to make sense…but it made enough sense to enough Germans to put the Nazis in power.
The great importance of The Protocols lies in its permitting antisemites to reach beyond their traditional circles and find a large international audience, a process that continues to this day. The forgery poisoned public life wherever it appeared; it was “self-generating; a blueprint that migrated from one conspiracy to another.”Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, 1988
The Germans believed, and they obeyed, in part, because they were Germans. They were accustomed to being led by strongmen of one stripe or another. Lenin famously related the story of the German delegation to a world anarchist convention in the 1890s. The German delegation, it seemed, was late for the opening meeting because, it being Sunday, there was no one at the train station to take their tickets.
How and when and why the Nazis took Germany over has been done; this analysis has nothing new to add. But one thing it does need to add is that dilettantes led the Nazi system, and when they took power, they required non-Nazis to run the country because they had no good idea how. They knew some of what to do, but
- A former fighter pilot and heroin addict in charge of the secret police and the Five Year Plan?
- A champagne salesman as the chief diplomat?
- A chicken farmer in charge of national defense?
None of those could be any worse than a failed artist as the country’s leader
But they were in charge. And they led the charge against the rest of the world and the “non-Aryans” in all of Europe. And gradually, as the rest of the world got used to their new way of war, they started to lose. What is truly remarkable about Germany from 1941-43, as the casualties started piling up and their enemy’s power grew by orders of magnitude every quarter, is how the German leadership resorted to magical thinking, promising new and more powerful weapons, Just keep fighting, they said, our Leader will save us. That magic ring is right around the corner. When Roosevelt died in April 1945, Goebbels congratulated Hitler on his insight. Do you see? Surely this new President will make common cause with us against the Russians…
And right up to May 1945, most Germans believed and acted upon that belief. Even after the surrender, many still believed in the tales that the Nazis told.
But where’s the failure here? In the Nazis whipping up the masses, or in the masses willing and ready to be whipped up?
Then we come to Versailles
The Treaty of Peace Between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany (the Versailles treaty for short) was concluded in 1919. It was somewhat remarkable because, as a treaty of peace, the German belligerents had practically no input on it. The aforementioned allies–France, Britain, and the United States–had the only significant input. Other powers like Belgium, Italy, and Japan were present during the negotiations, but their contributions to the terms were minimal. Versailles was about vengeance, and France and Britain got theirs.
Germany was disarmed–not completely, but significantly. She lost all her overseas colonies in the Pacific, China, and Africa, as well as Memel, Eupen-Malmedy, and Alsace-Lorraine in Europe. She also lost any and all rebuilding capital she could ever have for two generations because of the enormous cash reparations. Germany was also “punished” by being separated from East Prussia by the creation of a land corridor to the Baltic given to Poland–known in song and story as the Danzig Corridor. The terms were so humiliating that Germany found it difficult to find a German in their government willing to sign it. Not only was Germany disarmed and partly dismembered, but she was also as humiliated as a schoolboy spanked by his mother during a school assembly.
And the Nazis made no bones about reminding the Germans of that humiliation
While the Versailles cash requirements were onerous, they were also repudiated before the Nazis went off the deep end completely–before the wars and the death camps. I would argue that the Versailles treaty wasn’t enough on its own to drive the German people into the arms of madness. What was, or rather did? Was it the combination of antisemitism and humiliation, or was it the audience? Was it the message, messenger )the Nazis themselves), or messaged? Do we blame the Nazis and their messages of hate (again), or do we blame those who followed their lead?
There was also that bit about the end of WWI itself
The First World War was in one important way the last war of the 19th century, in that the conflict didn’t end with an Allied victory parade down the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. Oh, the Germans were defeated, all right, and their allies Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire were suing for peace. The German navy mutinied, waving the red flag of revolution; German streets were being decorated with red banners. There was very little that could stop the Allies from overrunning Germany proper in a few months.
But they didn’t; the Germans sued for peace and a war-weary Europe granted it
That became the fodder for the “stab in the back” myth that Germany didn’t really lose in WWI because the Army was supposedly undefeated. After all, the Army marched back to their barracks bearing their weapons, didn’t they? (Yes, many did.) It was those in the rear, the November criminals who stabbed Germany in the back. The Nazis made good use of this concept whenever the thoughts of law, order, or diplomacy were introduced into the debate–which was frequent in the beginning, but gradually died down when cooler heads were silenced. In another ironic twist, it was Hindenberg (who appointed Hitler chancellor) and Ludendorff (who coined the phrase “stabbed in the back” and marched with the Nazis in the Munich Putsch) who told the German government that the Army was finished in 1918.
The Nazis were very big on mythology, mysticism, and ideological nonsense. Their magical thinking was in part responsible for the failure, but it wasn’t the only cause–they had to have a receptive audience. Once again: messenger, message, or messaged? When we look at Germany up to 1918–starting next time–we’ll ask the same question.
By now I expect everyone has got their copies of my latest book…haven’t you? You haven’t? I am shocked! Shocked!
Not especially. But I wish you would.
The Liberty Bell Files takes characters you should have met in the Stella’s Game Trilogy–Julia Parkinson, Dave Clawson, and others–from when they joined the Bureau in 1980. It’s a great deal about paranoia and cleaning up the detritus of the Red Scares, of the Cold War, and especially the fears of its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover…hence the title.
But, as you know, the Liberty Bell Files is a work of fiction. It’s all made up. Imagine, if you will, an FBI case file that starts like this:
File Number Ending 067265-LIB
File Created 6/7/42
File Name: Edward Steven Copenicium DOB 6/25/1901, Evans County, Texas.
Subject expressed disloyal opinions June 1942 in Dallas, TX by stating “if this war needs us, they’re really hard up,” while not expressing mirth.
This imaginary case floated around in the fictitious Liberty Bell Files for forty years. And there was this one:
File Number Ending 651925-LIB
File Created 12 Dec 67
File Name: Fauna DOB unknown (probably 1964).
Large feline won biggest cat in Idaho at state fair September 67. Unnaturally large (over 40 pounds) for a domestic feline. Owner is Laurencia Smith NewmanneeFlannagan (DOB 1932), an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war and the current military draft who has visited Sweden, Switzerland, and other pacifistic countries. Possible lines of investigation include radiation-enhanced animal breeding.
OK, it was the 60’s, but…an FBI file on an overweight cat? But there was also…
File Number Ending: 99402-LIB
Name: Founders of the Fourth Reich
Origin: Ca. 1962, Skokie Ill. Founded by David Scarborough (b 1945) and William Durst (b. 1945). both of Skokie.
Narrative: Initial tenants were that Martin Borman is the rightful leader of the national socialist movement. Founders wish to lead the movement in the Midwest. Note: they appeared to be more concerned with national socialism in a literal sense than with the racist overtones of original organization. Founders decried anti-Semitism and eugenics in their founding manifesto.
Updates: 1964: Membership over 3,000 in Illinois and Indiana.
1969: Meetings between high-level leadership of this organization and KKK confirmed.
1972: Several members arrested for synagogue bombing in Arlington Heights, Ill.
1972: Scarborough and Durst found shot in head in Chicago.
OK, the Bureau’s busy, but this one was sitting around–ignored–too. There are rooms full of files like these going back to the 1930s. Most innocuous, some curious, a few, dangerous. And that’s what Dave and Julia and forty-odd other people in the Bureau’s Special Projects Division–that doesn’t exist–work on.
These non-existent cases and more are what The Liberty Bell Files were all about…because the bureaucrats can’t stand NOT knowing and they have more money than sense…or would have if these cases and this organization actually existed.
The Liberty Bell FIles: J. Edgars Demons is available from your favorite booksellers.