Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Nazis in power

The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), the first volume of Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans’s three-volume history of the Nazi era in Germany, was one of the best books I read last year. It was impressively detailed, yet gripping and frightening. It balanced comfortably between accident and inevitability, demonstrating the little, unremarkable factors that caused the Nazi rise, while also keeping an eye on the seemingly inexorable larger elements . It’s a way of letting us simultaneously understand the era as tragedy and as a sheer –and repeatable–human failing.

The second volume, The Third Reich in Power (2005), is a less dramatic book. Without the press of events that destroyed the Weimar Republic to structure it, Evans is left with a partyin power and the bureaucratic, legal, and illegal actions it takes. Everything feels like a prelude to the war that Hitler had been planning since before he took power.

But Evans still presents a lot of fascinating detail. Making use of multiple types of source, he paints a clear picture of life under a totalitarian regime. When the Nazis first started pushing citizens to denounce their neighbors,
It was the unpredictability of denunciation, rather than its frequency, that mattered. It caused people to believe that agents of the Gestapo, paid or unpaid, were everywhere, and that the police knew everything that was going on.

Germans who did not support the regime—a significant number in the early years—communicated their disapproval clandestinely:
Some began to speak of “the German glance,” a counterpart to “the German greeting” [the Hitler salute] when two friends happened on one another in public: it meant looking round to make sure nobody was within earshot.

And, in an example of just how much ground good history can cover, Evans tells of chilling accounts of dreams collected by journalist Charlotte Beradt in 1933:
One doctor dreamed in 1934 that the walls of his consulting-room and of all the houses and flats in the neighborhood suddenly vanished, while a loudspeaker blared forth the announcement that it was “according to the Decree for the Abolition of Walls, passed on the 17th of this month. . . . A girl reported that in a dream she had seen the two pictures of angels that hung over her bed move their eyes downwards from their accustomed heavenward gaze so that they could keep her under observation. . . . [A] woman dreamed that she removed the swastika from the Nazi flag every night, but it reappeared every morning all the same.

As diarist Victor Klemperer noted, and later wrote a whole book about,
Words that in a normal, civilized society had a negative connotation acquired the opposite sense under Nazism . . . So that “fanatical,” “brutal,” “ruthless,” “uncompromising,” “hard” all became words of praise. . . . The German language became a language of superlatives, so that everything the regime did became the best and the greatest, its achievements unprecedented, unique, historic and incomparable.

As the Nazis tightened their control on every aspect of civilian life, they retained an odd attachment to fig leaves of legality, hastily promulgated decrees (The Decree for the Abolition of Walls) to cover actions they wished to take, or, sometimes, had just taken. And it seemed to make a difference to people, both in Germany and internationally, that the Nazis pretended to rule by law. It was the same in the Roman empire: one of the reasons Caligula terrified people was that he dispensed with the legal fictions Tiberius had retained When Caligula wanted someone dead, he didn’t secretly poison him; he simply killed him outright.

Terrible, punitive laws were passed targeting particular groups—Jews, Catholics, Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, gypsies, and homosexuals—then the Nazis, from Hitler down to the lowest SS men, would go beyond the law in their brutality. When Jews were being forced to sell their businesses in 1935,
A characteristic incident occurred . . . when the Jewish owner of a shop agreed after lengthy negotiations to sell it to a non-Jewish purchaser who had repeatedly attempted to beat the price down. As he took the money from the purchaser during the final meeting in his lawyer’s offices, the door opened and two Gestapo officers came in and declared the money confiscated on the basis of a law covering the property of “enemies of the state.” Seizing it from the Jewish vendor, they arrested him for resisting authority, while the purchaser banded him and his family from returning to their business and to their home above the shop, although the contract allowed them to do so.

Once in a rare while, a person was able to use such fabricated legality against the Nazis themselves:
When stormtroopers were brought in to the village from outside to confiscate the bicycles of the local cycling club, which was close to the Communist Party, the local innkeeper, a long-established Nazi Party member, presented them with a fictitious deed purporting to show that the club owed him so much money that he was entitled to seize the bicycles in lieu of payment. The stormtroopers withdrew, and the innkeeper stowed the bicycles away in his loft, where they remained until they were retrieved by their former owners after the war.

Such victories were few, and The Third Reich in Power is throughout a horrifying slow-motion tragedy, wherein a radical party takes power and every day surprises people by how much more radical it is than they expected. That’s not to say the Nazis didn’t have support—Evans very clearly parses their varying, but generally high levels of public support, reminding us that what people wanted most was stability after the turmoil of the Weimar years. After 1934, the Nazis provided that, and for the most part, people were willing to look the other way in exchange.

What’s most chilling to me is the sense that we haven't learned what we should have from the Nazis. The most radical edges of our politics are still driven by suppurating resentment, as were those of the Nazis to an astonishing degree. Politicians still trade on fear and anti-intellectualism. Alberto Gonzales and the other believers in the “unitary executive” have yet to learn that no one is to be trusted with absolute power. In the rhetoric of the dedicated anti-immigration forces, who warn us that our culture is under attack, and we’re being “swamped” and “drowned” by aliens, I hear a familiar xenophobia and scapegoating.

As a nation, we’re very good at ignoring things that are disturbing. Of course, I’d like to think that had I been in Nazi Germany, I would have resisted. But there’s no way to know. I like a quiet, stable life. So do other Americans. How far would we go to keep that? How long would we look the other way? The totalitarian impulse never disappears. It just waits until we’re not paying attention, then it quietly begins going about its work.

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