Eighteen months into the Trump administration, I continue to be startled at the way so much of the Republican establishment has settled into a ‘politics as usual’ comfort zone, along the lines of ‘we may not like him, but many of our voters do, so for now we’ll go along’. In the spirit of George Santayana (‘those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it’) here are a few extracts from three classic books on early 1930s Germany. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I wrote this piece in October, 2016; I’ve updated the first para, everything else remains unchanged.) I begin with some contemporaneous observations (written by 25 year old Sebastian Haffner in 1939:
“At first the revolution only gave the impression of being a ‘historical event’ like any other: a matter for the press that might just possibly have some effect on the public mood. There was no revolution on January 30, 1933, just a change of government….. The general opinion was that it was not the Nazis who had won, but the bourgeois parties of the right, who had ‘captured’ the Nazis and held all the key positions in the government……. At the time, while I experienced the sequence of events it was not possible to gauge their significance. I felt, intensely, the choking, nauseous character of it all, but I was unable to grasp its constituent parts and place them in an overall order. Each attempt was frustrated and veiled by those endless useless discussions in which we attempted again and again to fit the events into an obsolete, unsuitable scheme of political ideas……. How infinitely stupid the attempts at justification, how hopelessly superficial the constructions with which the intellect tried to cover up the proper feeling of dread and disgust. How stale all the isms we brought up. I shudder to think of it. …. Daily life went on as before, though it had now definitely become ghostly and unreal, and was daily mocked by the events that served as its background….” – Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A memoir (pp. 104; 136-7)
And here is a more scholarly description of some aspects of the process from Richard Evans: “Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic. Many of them, too, particularly in rural areas, small towns, small workshops, culturally conservative families, older age groups, or the middle-class nationalist political milieu, may have been registering their alienation from the cultural and political modernity for which the Republic stood……. While conventional politicians delivered lectures, or spoke in a style that was orotund and pompous, flat and dull…..Hitler gained much of his oratorical success by telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. He used simple, straightforward language that ordinary people could understand, short sentences, powerful emotive slogans…..[General] Schleicher now [January 1933] saw a Hitler Chancellorship as a welcome solution: ‘If Hitler wants to establish a dictatorship in the Reich’, he said confidently, ‘then the army will be the dictatorship within the dictatorship’…” Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, pp. 265; 171
And here is an extract from Ian Kershaw: “Hitler was, in fact, in no position to act as an outright dictator when he came to office on 30 January, 1933. As long as [President] Hindenburg lived, there was a potential rival source of loyalty — not least for the army…… ” [BL: Then, as I summarized in an earlier post, came the burning of the Reichstag……and Hindenburg’s death in mid-1934]….. “…By summer 1934, when Hitler combined the headship of state with the leadership of government, his power had effectively shed formal constraints on its usage…. Conventional forms of government were increasingly exposed to the arbitrary inroads of personalized power. It was a recipe for disaster….” Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A biography.
Eighteen months after life had seemed normal, disaster was well underway……