Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Moral Collapse of Nation

How did it come to this? Sebastian Haffner’s Account of Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Moral Collapse of Nation

Hitler's Germany

In early May (May 1-3) of this year, an international group of Bonhoeffer scholars and interested graduate students will discuss the idea of Christian Humanism in Bonhoeffer’s theology and in the works of the well-known American author Marilynne Robinson. Inevitably, Bonhoeffer’s life and work evoke the Nazi era and the failure of an entire nation to resist the dehumanizing worldview and genocidal, racist violence perpetrated by the Nazi-Regime. The question that is always raised and probably has no final answer is “how could it come to this”?

Many books have been written to answer this question, but perhaps very few as engaging and insightful as Sebastian Haffner’s Geschichte eines Deutschen.  Translated literally, the title means “History of a German.” A better translation, however, would be “Memoir of a German,” because the book’s attractiveness derives from Haffner’s decidedly personal narrative point of view through which he offers a plausible account of how an entire nation succumbed to Hitler’s politics. What makes this memoir so compelling is the author’s open confession how he, as one educated in a liberal humanist tradition, was drawn into Nazi ideology. Equally remarkable is that Haffner wrote the book in 1939, just after he emigrated to England, in an attempt to explain the transformation of Germany into modern barbarism both to himself and to an English audience. So how does Haffner explain Germany’s descent into inhumanity?  His explanation is twofold. The first explanatory track covers the historical background, which, beginning with the First World War, schooled an entire generation of young Germans to resonate with Hitler’s policies and the identity-shaping experience he offered. The second track provides what one could call a psychological analysis of the dynamics by which a liberal and critical spirit such as his own could be brought to participate in the Nazi machinery.

As happened to many of his generation, Haffner’s national identity was shaped by the First World War, which he experienced from afar by daily reading the war reports posted in a local police station. A war that did not materially (aside from a slumping economy) affect one’s immediate environment had the fascination of a game. Haffner summarizes this formative experience as follows: “The war as a big, exciting and inspiring competitive game among nations, which granted more engaging entertainment and pleasurable emotions than anything piece had to offer — that was the daily experience of ten successive cohorts of German schoolboys from 1914-1918; and that became the positive foundational vision of the Nazis ideology. From this vision it draws its persuasive power, its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination and desire for action; and from this vision it equally draws its intolerance and cruelty against its internal political enemies, because he who does not want to play along in this game, is not even acknowledged as adversary but simply as spoilsport. And, finally, based on this vision the Nazi’s also assumed naturally a warlike attitude toward neighbouring states, because every neighbouring country is not actually regarded as neighbour but, willingly or not, as adversary — otherwise, the game could not take place!” (29).  This formative experience of war as spectator sport explains to Haffner, why the most enthusiastic Nazis were usually not those who actually fought in the First World War and were acquainted with its brutal reality; indeed, many of these war heroes were later opponents of the Nazi regime. Rather, the “actual Nazi generation” stems from those born between 1900 and 1910, “who experienced the war as a great game, undisturbed by its reality” (29).

The grave disappointment, indeed, the shock and loss of identity experienced by Haffner’s generation on account of Germany’s defeat, was channeled into a new obsession with patriotic clubs, uniting the interests of athleticism, politics and opposition to the communist revolutionaries, who had played a major role in the tumultuous post-war protests against the former imperial government until eventually the Weimar Republic was established. In Haffner’s view, these clubs already put into place the basic cultural soil in which the Hitler Youth would later flourish (45). Moreover, during the days of the revolution, the government relied on para-military units, the so-called Freikorps, to repress communists. The “Free Corps” consisted of the same kind of ruffians and bullies who later formed Hitler’s army of thugs, the SA (Sturmabteilung). Haffner writes, “The Free Corps . . . contained the very same people and even more so the same viewpoints, comportment and fighting style as the later Nazi storm troops. They had already invented the phrase “shot trying to escape” [a euphemism for murder], made good progress in the art of torture, and adopted the generous habit of putting insignificant adversaries in front of a firing squad without much questioning or differentiation, thus anticipating June 30th, 1934 (Haffner refers to Hitler’s elimination of SA leader Röhm and many others, who he felt had become a threat to him).

The next event listed by Haffner as preparatory for Germany’s surrender to the Nazi regime was the year 1923, which “prepared Germany not specifically for Nazism, but for any fantastical adventure. The psychological and political roots of Nazism go back further, as we have seen. But [in 1923] came into being what lends Nazism its maniacal character: the cold craziness, the cocky, uninhibited, blind determination to do the impossible, the sentiment that “right is what is useful to us” and “the word ‘impossible’ does not exist.”  What Haffner refers to here are the years (following?) the French occupation of the Ruhrgebiet (then containing Germany’s main industrial resources) leading up to the massive inflation in 1923. Young Germans learnt the lesson that what counts are not stable structures, law, or long established traditions, but rather the personal flexibility and chutzpah exemplified by those who gained sudden riches through speculations with stocks and bonds. The subsequent years of relative stability, 1924-1929, were comparatively boring, and held little excitement for those who have not learnt to appreciate the happiness of relative freedom and prosperity, an ability which many of Haffner’s generation did not possess. These years invited Germans to enjoy a reasonable measure of freedom, peace, order, benign liberality, good wages, good food, and also a little public boredom. Everyone was invited to receive back his private life and to live his life according to his own ease and to be happy in his own way.”  For Haffner it is one of the most astonishing political events of our time that this “invitation was, by and large, not taken up. One did not want this. It turned out that an entire generation in Germany did not know what to do with the gift of private life” (76). The reason:  the younger generations were accustomed to deriving satisfaction from the range of their emotions (patriotic love, hatred, grief and exultation), their emotional kicks, so to speak, from the entertainment afforded by the spectacles of war, revolution, and inflation, even at the price of poverty, hunger, death, and danger. How one lives out of one’s own strength to cultivate one’s private life and tastes, something Haffner admires in the French and the English, was beyond these Germans’ ability. They were simply bored by the relative peace and waited for another new excitement—at least according to Haffner.  Only a small layer of the educated upper and middle class were capable of this enjoyment of culture, but they had no real influence on the majority, which was waiting to be liberated from this boredom through another mass entertainment (78). If one had understood this state of affairs, argues Haffner, one would have seen the German nations’ obsession with sports in the mid twenties as what it really was: the “collective dumbing down” (Massenverblödung) of the German populace.  Peace loving politicians did not realize that this obsession was the petri dish in which the old tickle of war games were kept alive and nurtured. How ironic that many thought that this athletic mania helped work off the generation’s war-instincts. The opposite was the case (81).

With this socio-historical backdrop in place, we now move to Haffner’s second explanatory tract, namely how Hitler’s political and psychological strategies succeeded in dehumanizing an entire nation. We cannot possibly recount here the exact events that led to Hitler’s rise to power as head of the German state, invested with emergency powers that suspended all regular political and juridical paths of opposition. Our question is what psychological dynamics made possible the willing concession to these events by so many German citizens. Many are familiar with the explanation provided by Martin Niemöller’s famous words inscribed at the Washington D.C. holocaust memorial: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. Haffner, however, provides a more complex, fuller picture. One has to keep in mind that all too often, acquiescence to Hitler is criticized by those with hindsight, those who know the full extent of his monstrosities that often remained invisible to many of his contemporaries in 1933. At the same time, however, Haffner, writing in 1939, sees with absolute clarity that the larger political parties (social democrats, communists, and the Catholic “Zentrum” party) betrayed the 56 percent of Germans who had not voted for Hitler in 1933, by granting him their co-operation and thus a legal rise to power. Thus, says, Haffner, it is wrong to speak here of a revolution; rather one should speak of a collective lack of nerve, courage, and nobility. He writes: “four things did this March [1933], which resulted in the eventually unassailable Nazi rule, bring us: horror, festivals and proclamations, betrayal, and finally a collective collapse—a simultaneous nervous breakdown of millions. . . no other European state had an origin that was so nauseous (ekelhaft). None of the opposing parties had the guts to refuse to work with Hitler. Paradigmatic for this moral betrayal of the electorate were the actions of the social democratic candidate, who was Germany’s representative figure head or “minster president,” Otto Braun. One day before the election, he crossed the border into Switzerland to stay at the new residence he had purchased there as a precautionary measure (134). For already the violent suppression of opposition party members by Hitler’s SA thugs had spread a fear that was taking hold. One example of SA tactics, only months after the Nazi rise to power, was the so called Köpenicker Blutwoche (June 21-26, 1933), a week long massacre of Jews, communists, and anyone else who was deemed oppositional. This week of murder and intimidation had been triggered by Anton Schmaus, a union boss, and his two sons who resisted the unwarranted intrusion of SA goons into their house, shooting three of the intruders in self-defense. The SA returned with a bigger force, brutally murdering all three citizens and then proceeded to ‘take revenge’ on others who, as the infamous phrase went, stood in the way of “Germany’s formation as a people” (Volkswerdung).

Haffner, educated in humanistic high schools in Germany, and a well-cultured individual who studied law and wrote for various German papers, did what many other liberal citizens did: he continued to live in a shrinking cultured world, attending theatre, clubs and discussion groups on the latest artists and writers; indeed, even Haffner’s own professional world of the state court in Berlin seemed to continue without any change during the beginning Nazi terror.  For a while, this strategy worked. Indeed, he assures the reader that right up until the beginning of the war in 1939, one could still escape the Nazi’s presence in smaller bubbles of subculture as long as one did not do anything of political consequence. He credits the suddenly increasing artistic output of idyllic literature in Germany to this phenomenon. Haffner provides a fascinating account, however, of how cultural realities shifted. Through narrating key events in his own life, he shows his dawning awareness that the Nazi non-culture morphed from a fringe phenomenon outside of main society and the actual working legal system toward the point at which the Nazis had become the dominant culture and that one’s own cultivated sphere of the middle class was now rapidly disintegrating. And yet, like many others, he yielded to the need to maintain this world as an escape from the ugly alternative, an escapism that weakened active opposition and thus served the Nazi’s all too well. As Haffner put it, the dwindling of his cherished world was as if someone slowly turned off the supply of breathable air, until one did not know where to turn. This began with the state’s right to monitor public communication by phone or letter, proceeded to the state’s suppression of unwanted art and entertainments, and culminated in the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. As Haffner points out, once the subcategory of “sub-human” was introduced, it was easy enough to slot anyone opposed to the Nazi’s policy into this category, whether they were Jews, Poles, Communists, Social Democrats, or Nazi officials who had become too powerful. Yet the question remains how people such as Haffner himself could fail to resist this dehumanizing worldview. The answer is fear and indoctrination. Fear, as Haffner tells, us, takes several forms. There is the simple fear that it is better to be on the side that beats up others than to be physically harmed oneself. Yet Haffner also reports on the more insidious fear of having one’s everyday life derailed. He gives examples for both. The first, naked fear for one’s bodily safety first assailed him when two members of a longstanding discussion group for politics among fellow articled clerks joined the Nazis. When in their next meeting, Haffner disagreed with their enthusiastic report about the SA’s reprisals against opponents, Haffner goaded the newly baked Nazi with the remark: “And I suppose you will have to report my dissent to the authorities, do you?” And his newly Nazified colleague replied coldly, with a new, hitherto absent steely look in his eyes, “I just might have to do that, if you resist Germany’s formation as a united people” (222).  Haffner reports how this remark elicited in him, for the first time, real fear. Incidentally, his former friend never made the report. Haffner’s example for the fear of having one’s comfortable life derailed permits a fascinating glimpse into the machinery of Nazi indoctrination. The Nazis, in an attempt at political conformity, ordered every articling young law student who was about to write his final examination to an SA boot camp, where they were to learn the virtue of camaraderie. The soldierly solidarity in which these law students were drilled, discouraged individual thought and induced a communal bond that was based, in equal measure, on the real human desire for community and its fake other of imposed conformity. Haffner reports on the evening when the whole group had to listen to Hitler’s radio announcement that independent German provincial governments were suspended, and that the next election would feature only one party, the NSDAP. Along with all others, Haffner found himself standing to a rousing Chorus of the “Horst Wessel Lied,” his right arm rigidly outstretched for the Hitler salute. Was this true community? Haffner recalls that, unlike others, he merely lip-synched, but also writes, “but all of us had our arms in the air, and thus we stood before the eyeless radio, which pulled up our arms as a marionette player does with this dolls, and want or pretended to sing; each the Gestapo of another” (269). Weeks of drills in saying “Heil Hitler” and strenuous exercises that left no time to develop individual opinions, together with the thought, “let’s just get through this and not resist, for what good would it do, and any derailment here would sink my own career dreams and my parents’ hope in them,” rendered even educated, aspiring judges susceptible to conformism. Now, in the twenty-first century, we often bemoan individualism as the basic foundation of selfishness and consumerism; and this is surely an important criticism to make, but let us not forget that the kind of conformist collective the Nazis managed to cultivate is perhaps even more dangerous. Haffner realized the emasculating, leveling power of the Nazi camaraderie which sought the lowest common denominator for group behavior and thus repressed individual responsibility to a standard higher than the group’s ethos. With devious cleverness, says Haffner, true solidarity and desire for community were thus twisted into conformism and utter moral vacuity: “the general whoredom of comaraderie, into which the Nazi’s seduced the German people, degenerated this nation more than anything else” (285). For Haffner, Hitler and Goebbel’s most effective weapon was the cunningly woven appeal of unity, purchased at the most vulgar level of morality that dehumanized every noble sentiment. Love became sexual lust or the means of breeding Aryan offspring, justice and rights were jettisoned in favour of group think, and so on and so forth. The worst, is that “this kind of comaraderie divests human beings of their responsibility for themselves and before God and before their conscience. The comrade does what everyone does. He has no choice. He has no time to reflect, except when he finds himself in the unbearable situation of being alone. His comrades are his conscience which absolves him from everything, as long as he does what everyone else does” (286). As Haffner notes, in this regard, Hitlerism and Communism were not far apart.

Haffner’s account contains many more examples of the powerful way in which such conditioning together with the lack of any other private or public breathing room slowly forges a homogenous mass; even those who seek to resist the influence of this monster, either through gentle, ironic detachment, or fatalistic acceptance are swallowed up by it. In a line strongly reminiscent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own assessment of Nazi Germany, Haffner describes how those who laughed at Hitler’s first clumsy attempts at politics and at his lack of class and culture, finally fell under his sway because he eventually did produce success after success. Bonhoeffer himself was frustrated that Hitler’s continued military successes kept military offices from toppling him, although they were disgusted with the regime’s cruelty and inhumanity.

There are a number of insights we can glean from Haffner’s memoires in preparation for the upcoming Bonhoeffer conference. The first is that human dignity and solidarity may indeed be inalienable, but they are not automatically effective. They require active guarding and implementation. Moreover, the very culture that promotes these values, are Judeo-Christian values that have become part of our cultural air to such an extent that we deem them self-evident. Yet, as Haffner points out, this is not the case. When he and his friends discussed the initial threat of Hitler, discussing concepts such as freedom and solidarity, or even nationalism, humanism and individualism, these conversations presumed a “Christian-humanistic-civilizational” table of values that remained itself non-negotiable (109). Very few were bold enough to imagine that Hitler’s regime could and would simply replace the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman base of morality and law with such an utterly inhuman, arbitrary despotism. Without spreading the usual alarmist fear of the decline of Western civilization, modern readers should nonetheless learn from this that no cultural achievement is permanent and self-sustaining; we have to be conscious of this guardianship and the formation of moral consensus. Secondly, we can learn that this guardianship and conscious nurturing of humane values is not a merely theoretical matter; the Nazis knew what they were doing with their SA boot camps, with the Hitler youth and its combination of indoctrination and communal spirit. It is here that individualism does prove to be a great danger—the solitary, educated liberal humanist was among the first to falter in the onslaught of the Nazi’s brutalities and brain washing. The secret to true individual responsibility and the power to resist mass conformity derives not from individualism but from community and from a proper understanding of the wholesome power of education through the critical appropriation of tradition. Haffner himself makes this clear in the interview which is published with his memoirs. He attributes his ability to sniff out and eventually flee Nazi conformism to his education in two schools. The first was the “Königsstädtisches Gymnasium,” a high school attended by many Jewish students, who formed the academic elite of this institution, and inculcated in him many of the liberal-humanist values that fortified him; most Jews were social democrats, and liberal humanists, because they saw their religious ethos most clearly represented in these forms of civil life; the second institution was the “Schillergymnasium,” which was dominated by the rich, conservative children of lower officers and higher civil servants; again, here blew the air of critical thought, of cultured nobility and a nationalism linked to these values, the spirit which animated many of the later Nazi resisters from the aristocratic military leaders, such as Claus von Stauffenberg und James von Moltke. Bonhoeffer, himself, of course, also moved in this milieu, but in his case we must add what may well be the most powerful source of resistance, namely the divinely grounded, and yet profoundly human solidarity demonstrated by a God who became flesh, to elevate, suffer for, and liberate humanity for its true destiny of communion with God and others. Haffner’s book is not about religion, to be sure. And yet, his captivating personal narrative in many ways lays bare the profound need for a moral consensus in society, a consensus that is bookended by the dignity of human beings and the reality of a moral order to which we are responsible no matter how our culture may develop. “Moral order,” of course, is not quite the right word, for as many post-holocaust philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas have pointed out, this ‘order’ has to be grounded in a transcendent reality that is personal, and, indeed, one that is human.

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