Precis: Chapter 2 In this chapter Bergen describes the political and social climate in Germany between both World Wars. Hitler grew up in a lower middle class background in a small provincial town in Austria and, judging from his mediocre performance at school and his modest progress as a soldier in the Great War, he had difficulty matching his ambitions to his talents. It almost seems as if he saw parallels in his early failings in his career as an artist and the near collapse of the economy of the Weimar Republic: both sets of circumstances needed a cause that was to be found outside Hitler’s and the German people’s responsibilities respectively.
Anti-Semitism and the idea of white supremacy were not new ideas in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Hitler’s tortuous ideology about a superior “Aryan” race in need of living space and liberation from corrupting non-Aryan, i.e. Jewish, influences tapped into ideas that had been around for many decades, if not centuries.
The German nation felt a sense of disillusionment and betrayal after losing the 1914-18 War and was looking for a reason why their soldiers had failed to win the war. The ruling elite of the old German Empire had largely survived into the years of the Weimar Republic and therefore they were not held in great respect by the German people. Hitler’s theories of a betrayed superior race, facing a common enemy in the “Jew”, tapped into that feeling of betrayal and made sense to many disillusioned and impoverished Germans, often from the lower middle classes.
Hitler’s attempt to overthrow the government of the Weimar Republic in 1923 – an act of treason – therefore did not damage him in the eyes of many Germans but added to his credibility and hero status. Germans were in desperate need of a leader figure – a führer – and Hitler’s charismatic approach made sense to the masses who were not looking for intellectual debates but seemingly longed for explanations why their once great nation was at its knees. A scapegoat for all evils was needed and found in the “Jew”.
Germany’s old ruling (then still often identical with aristocratic) classes looked upon Hitler and his organizations of brown shirts (SA) and SS and the party wing, the NSDAP, with disdain and the belief that they would be able to contain and control them. Tragically, when the Weimar Republic weakened, Hitler managed to turn the tables on them: he had popular support, he was supported by charismatic figures, in particular his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, the Head of the SS, and Hermann Göring, the Head of the Luftwaffe (Air Force) and their populist views at the time won the day.
Hitler’s unusual rise from mediocrity to almost absolute power is probably best explained by a mixture of his unfulfilled ambition and hunger for greatness, a set of post-war political and economic circumstances that swept away the old and tired ruling classes, and a need on the part of the German people for reassurance and an explanation to lift them out of their feeling of shame in defeat.
Bergen, D. War & Genocide, “Leadership and Will: Adolf Hitler, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, and Nazi Ideology.