Seventy-five years ago today World War II ended in Europe. Hitler was dead, and a devastated Germany surrendered unconditionally.
In his diary for that day William L. Shirer wrote: “All day I have had to rub my eyes to believe it; to realize that this is really the end of the nightmare that began for me . . . five and a half years ago. It seems a long time—ages—and some twenty-five million human beings who were alive on that day and relatively happy have perished, slaughtered on the battlefield, wiped out by bombs, tortured to death in the Nazi horror camps.”
Although the end of the war in Europe is quite clear, when did it all actually begin?
Most conventional answers focus on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But would Hitler have invaded Poland without securing his southern flank, which he accomplished on March 15, 1939 when he marched into Czechoslovakia? Would he have marched on Czechoslovakia if he hadn’t already seized Austria in March 1938? Does the date go back even further—to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty?
I would submit that the date may in fact be even earlier than all that: to January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. After all, Hitler had laid out his plans for all the world to see (and read) in Mein Kampf, published in 1925. It’s all there: Germany’s need for Lebensraum in the East; his hatred of the Jews. Hitler made no secret of his ultimate plans when and if he achieved a position of power.
And while much attention is focused on every conceivable aspect of the “hot” war (1939—1945), far less is paid to its crucial antecedents.
Peter Fritzsche, one of my favorite historians, has just written an in-depth study of Hitler’s start in 1939 in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, Basic Books (2020). As Fritzsche is quick to point out early on, “[In 1933] Europe suddenly slipped from the firm footing of a postwar era into the anxious vertigo of a prewar one.”
In his latest book, Professor Fritzsche attempts to answer a conundrum that lies at the heart of one of the strangest socio-political developments of the Twentieth Century. Namely, how were Hitler and the Nazis able, in a bitterly polarized country; in a country where opposition parties consistently outpolled them; in a country where the Nazis were in fact losing popular support—how did Hitler, within a mere 100 days, so solidify his hold on the nation that all dissent was effectively eliminated and the country stood almost wholeheartedly behind his program?
As Fritzsche explains, it’s complicated, and this blog can hardly do justice to his deep analysis.
Fritzsche first makes clear that Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on January 30 was by no means preordained. Just two months earlier, in the November 1932 national elections, the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, and the Communist Party, together received more votes than the Nazis, whose share of the national total actually slipped, from 37% to 33%. But the right-wing, anti-Weimar parties were united, whereas the anti-fascist parties were not.
Even so, it was only on the morning of January 30 that the leaders of the nationalist, right wing factions each concluded that the appointment of Hitler was the only way to establish authoritarian rule, and destroy the hated Weimar Republic. This desire outweighed even their fear that they would be unable to tame him.
Once in power, the Nazis used a combination of consent and coercion—push and pull—to meld German society into a united whole. Many Germans, tired of the political and economic uncertainly which had characterized Germany since 1919, were beguiled by Hitler’s program, and the vision of a new Germany he offered.
In End of a Berlin Diary, Shirer relates an interrogation by US Forces of Hanna Reitsch conducted shortly after Germany’s surrender. Reitsch had achieved notoriety during the war as a female test pilot and aeronautical expert. Even in retrospect Reitsch continued to believe Hitler’s initial aims were worthy. “Hitler ended his life as a criminal against the world,” she confessed, but quickly added, “he did not begin that way. At first his thoughts were only of how to make Germany healthy again.”
Where consent failed, there was always the threat of coercion. Armed with near dictatorial powers following the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Nazis soon forced the independent press to toe the party line. At the same time the compliant nationalist press pursued its goal of the destroying the republic, “which meant the destruction of fact, morality and law.” Any underground movement soon fell afoul of impromptu concentration camps, where the violence meted out was not primarily to extract information but to break the spirit of the resisters, and to cause suffering rather than death.
The Nazis also promoted solidarity within its growing ranks, ironically, by artfully engaging in the politics of division, of exclusion and inclusion. The Jews were the first to be excluded, via boycotts, etc., and no one could be neutral. To help a Jew was to be anti-German. Next came the Social Democrats. To associate with a Social Democrat was to be a traitor, and a traitor could not be a friend. Better then to accept the inevitable, and even embrace it, than to object, and thus stand out in the crowd. In fact, it was not enough to keep quiet—one had to denounce the enemy. When Hitler belittled Weimar, and those associated with it, in his speeches, his audiences cried out “Hang them.”
And so, in an exceptionally rapid and comprehensive way, German society became fascist. As Hanna Reitsch’s comments above show, the country was soon convinced that the coming of Hitler promised a brighter future for Germany.
But as Professor Fritzsche makes clear, the conservative grandees who coalesced behind Hitler on that fateful morning of January 30, 1933, in their eager ambition to destroy Weimar by any means possible, made one fatal mistake, a mistake that they would only come to fully realize when Germany lay in utter ruin on May 8, 1945:
“they had made a pact with the devil.”