Hitler An Aberration? Or a Symptom...
|Adolf Hitler appealed to something deep within the German psyche (all of these 1925 photos of Hitler taken by his personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann).|
That leads us to a very delicate question. Why did the Germans unite - and this is undeniable, that a large section did unite - to one degree or another behind Adolf Hitler and his attempt to conquer the world? Trying to claim that Hitler represented only a tiny sliver of his community fails because millions of people worked avidly to support the war effort and there were extremely few protests. This question does not have a simple answer, though you will see many simple answers to it.
Simple answers include that Hitler illegally seized control (he didn't, all powers were legally granted to him), that the German people did not have sufficient information about Hitler's true goals before they granted him power (they did, he published a book called "Mein Kampf" long before his accession to power explaining them in some detail), or that the political process simply failed (Germany had a very standard political system that was acceptable to the Allied victors of World War I, so if its process failed, so could any political process).
One can list a number of technical factors for the rise of the Third Reich, but they all evade the fundamental common denominator. That boils down to a matter of national will that ultimately was frustrated or at least led to unplanned outcomes. This leads us to a philosophical discussion about dominant themes in German culture (Kultur) at the time.
The Germans of Hitler’s time were proud people who felt that they were rightfully the dominant power in Europe. How and why this viewpoint developed could take several treatises to outline all of the major points, but the essence of the matter is that the Germans had developed a militaristic culture. What you notice about history is that this phenomenon develops in different areas - it waxes and wanes over time.
By the Middle Ages, Italy had completely lost this grand military culture. After the brutal period of the Empire, the Italians retreated into their fortified towns and basically just wanted to be left alone. Aside from a few individuals, the Italians became noticeably non-expansionist and the battleground for other foreign adventurers. One could argue that they never have regained the same cultural militaristic dynamic.
Anyway, I don’t mean to get too abstract, so let's get back to Hitler and Germany. Hitler hijacked a tradition that had been growing for a hundred years before he arrived on the scene. German militarism rose throughout the 1800s. Several major successes fueled it, such as the victorious Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s, and it followed a common pattern. The common theme of these evolutions is that a nation’s philosophy gradually becomes expansionist, and that happened to Germany. It was like being infected with a disease. The culture feels that it is powerful and surrounded by inferiors and weaklings, and thus deserves more of everything.
The Germans had their reasons. They felt threatened because they were two enormously powerful forces: Napoleonic France and Russia. This seemed to aggravate their insecurities and generate a turn to outlandish militarism. Being occupied by Napoleon seemed to trigger a turn to arms to prevent a recurrence. It was almost like starting a chain reaction because once begun, it continued to grow even as foreign threats such as Napoleonic France fell away.
The German militaristic ethos probably peaked during the tenure of Kaiser Wilhelm. He was a particularly jingoistic sort, though in a sort of childish way. The Kaiser rapidly built up his armies and his navy and was looking for an excuse to use them to satisfy his enormous ego and insecurities. Was he an anomaly? Not in Germany he wasn't. The citizenry was primed for this due to a perceived advantage to be derived by conquest and their own feelings of insecurity. This hunger had been stimulated by a long period of peace following the defeat of Napoleon and then of Napoleon II. War looks a lot more fun and fashionable when you don't actually face its consequences.
The Kaiser, of course, blundered in an unnecessary major war because he was aching to use all the fancy toys he had paid for. The defeat in World War I was a real slap in the face to this militaristic culture and caused a deep scar on the German psyche. While undeniable that Germany had lost, the Germans denied it anyway because their culture simply could not accept that Germans were powerless and militarily inferior. Thus, the growth in the “stab in the back” thesis invented by World War I military leader Erich Ludendorff and happily adopted by Adolf Hitler. Hitler hijacked a small party that probably would have quickly disappeared and went looking for scapegoats for the WWI defeat. He quickly found them in segments of the population that had been resented both openly and tacitly by German Kultur for centuries.
The Germans, in other words, never accepted their defeat in World War I. They felt they were still the masters of the world, they had just been betrayed of their rightful victory. Hitler played on this feeling and eventually gave the people what they wanted - a chance at revenge. This didn't work out as well as they had hoped, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
So, where does that leave us? It does not take responsibility for what happened away from Adolf Hitler. Germany had its militaristic phase and now appears to have finally gotten past it, just as the Italians did. However, German history, Roman history, and that of other societies that went through similar trauma show that the growth of militarism and unrealistic expansionist dreams is a larger problem than just one nation at one time in history. It is a recurrent situation in human history and it is likely to happen again.