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An Informative Book Tells How Hitler Seduced a Democracy

Historian Frank McDonough explains the period leading up to Hitler’s takeover of Germany in The Weimar Years. The insights provided into the success of extremist rhetoric are a timely warning for our times.
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The Weimar Years

The Weimar Years by Frank McDonough.

December 22, 2023 04:49 EDT
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The Weimar Years is a year-by-year history of Germany from 1919 to 1933 by retired Liverpool John Moores University professor Frank McDonough. Published last month, it could not be more timely.

McDonough’s book describes the fall of democracy in one of the most sophisticated societies in the world and its replacement by a violently authoritarian regime built around one man, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler said he intended to come to power by legal means, but he stated openly, before he came to power, that he would not shrink from the use of illegal methods to hold onto power. “When our party emerges victorious by legal means,” he said, “a new Supreme Court will replace this one, and the criminals of November 1918 will find their reward. Then heads will roll.”

This language is not dissimilar to the “retribution” being promised now by Donald Trump.

How Hitler got the German people to give up democracy

The “criminals of November 1918” Hitler referred to were the democratically elected German politicians who signed the Treaty of Versailles, ending the state of war that had existed between Germany and the Allies.

A completely unrealistic view of the balance of power obtaining in November 1918 was lodged in German public opinion. Germany had by then been comprehensively defeated militarily and economically. But the High Command, led by Field Marshalls Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, persuaded the public that it was the politicians who wanted to give up and that the soldiers were able and willing to continue.

The second part was simply not true. German military capacity was exhausted.

It would have been better if the allies had insisted on unconditional surrender and full occupation as in 1945.

The interwar democratic politicians in Germany were talented leaders who, in other circumstances, could have been very successful. Chancellor Gustav Stresemann and Finance Minster Matthias Erzberger stood out. They made improvements in unemployment insurance. But reparations to the Allies heavily burdened the budget. Paralysis in parliament and hate-filled rhetoric meant that the president had to pass key legislation by decree.

It is not impossible that similar paralysis might evolve from the divisive debates that we will soon face over the related costs of aging societies: pension inequalities, immigration, healthcare costs, etc.

In 1933, the Nazis came to power and soon overthrew democracy. Hitler became chancellor with the aid of other authoritarian-inclined political parties. These other parties were closely associated with the army and/or were highly nationalistic. Alfred Hugenberg and Franz von Papen were principal leaders of this group. They thought they could control Hitler. So too did Hindenburg, who had become president.

When a lone arsonist burned the Reichstag in 1933, Hitler seized the moment. He blamed the Communists and persuaded Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree. The decree suspended civil liberties, effectively abolishing the last remnants of German democracy.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda master, had created a public mood that would accept this. He used a technique that we should watch out for today among the arsonist far right in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. Goebbels’s technique was to find something that people already hated, and encourage them to hate it even more. The “big lie” is a variant of this technique. It played to people’s emotions, rather than to their reason.

Hitler’s foreign policy aspirations

One other thing that interested me in McDonough’s book was the long-term foreign policy that Hitler had prepared as a Second Book (Zweites Buch) in the summer of 1928. This sequel to Mein Kampf was not published in Hitler’s lifetime, and it did not appear in English until 1961.

One wonders if Vladimir Putin has a “second essay,” a sequel to the long historical essay he published on the eve of his so far unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine.

Putin could mount no Blitzkrieg, but his intentions are no less malign than Hitler’s.

Hitler’s Zweites Buch laid out a four-stage process. Stage One envisaged massive German rearmament, the revision of the Versailles Treaty and the formation of military alliances with the UK and Mussolini. Stage Two envisaged German wars against France, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Stage Three would consist of the destruction of the Soviet Union. Stage Four was a planned war against the United States.

Hitler saw the UK as a natural ally of Germany. He thought the English and the Germans were racially close, as did many English people at the time. But a skeptical democracy was too well implanted in Britain for an alliance with a loud-mouthed German dictator ever to have taken off. Yet Hitler continued to dream of an alliance with the UK even after the war had started.

A military alliance with Italy in the 1930s would have been a liability for Germany. This was demonstrated when the war actually started and Germany had to rescue Italy many times. The reasons for the degree of Italian military weakness are hard to understand.

We know, with hindsight, that important parts of Hitler’s plan did not work out. But the fact that a relatively unsuccessful opposition politician, as Hitler was in 1928, could think in such ambitious terms is a warning from history.

The 1930s was a dark decade for Europe. I fear we are entering a similarly dark decade now. We need to study what happened in the 1930s if we are to avoid the mistakes made then.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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