Sunday, October 9, 2011

Another Date With Hitler


First, sorry to have missed a week.  A quick trip to commiserate with the survivors of my high school class followed -- immediately, too immediately -- by our semiannual trek down or up the Eastern Seaboard ate up the days.  But we are resettled and brimming over.  Bring your mops!

It has become a commonplace on the right to accuse the leadership on the left, especially when pocketbook issues come up, of approximating the tactics -- if not presenting the apparition, the Antichrist himself -- of the risen Hitler.  Posters of Barack Obama have been circulating for some time representing our angular, tawny president with a toothbrush mustache, a manifestation of the Evil that will consume your children and drain your bank accounts.

Somehow the temperate Obama seems to provoke this sort of hallucinated attack, no doubt an outbreak of the vestigial racism that haunts our politics.  But in a way it might be time to pay a little attention to the historical forces that actually did thrust a hysteric like Hitler into control of a desperate society like Weimar Germany and opened the way to the worldwide catastrophe that followed.

Hitler's assumption of power was a fluke, the consequence of a fateful, hair-brained decision by his predecessor as Chancellor, von Schleicher, to drum into power this joke leader of a fading political movement -- the Nazis never exceeded 37% of the popular vote -- and give the shrill little demagogue the opportunity to destroy himself.  Von Schleicher and his Junker colleagues miscalculated badly; Hitler installed Hermann Goering as the Minister of the Interior, let loose his Brownshirt army, and grabbed total control in a Germany too culturally and economically depleted to resist.

I myself arrived in Central Europe, after years of contemplating German history from a university setting, as a Fulbright Scholar in 1955 and spent the next six years in the region living, soldiering, and writing.  Much of post-war Germany was rubble still -- not only East Berlin and Dresden but entire neighborhoods of Frankfurt and Munich.  I lived for some months with a typical German family -- to keep his job, the father had become a Nazi Party member, and fought in both World Wars. Later, in the military myself, I rented a flat from another family of onetime Nazi functionaries. These people, and many others, turned into lifelong friends. 

What kept coming through as I came to know these survivors was what they had been through.  In the aftermath of World War I their world had collapsed.  Unemployment was universal; the Allied reparations policy and the depredations of bankers in New York and London had forced economic technocrats like Hjalmar Schacht to water the Reichsmark until virtually everybody's savings were worthless.  In pre-1914 Germany, the cultural and scientific center of Western thought, a mood of tolerance and respect for the contributions of citizens of every background was expected.  Walther Rathenau, a Jewish economist, had run the finances of the country for the Kaiser. Hitler's own father, a mid-level bureaucrat in the Austro-Hungarian tax collection bureaucracy, had nothing but contempt for anti-Semites, whom he considered declasse.

All this is leading to my historical point.  Bad luck, bad judgement, a lost war and atrocious economic management had led within comparatively few years to the utter erosion of the middle class and fed the rise of the Nazis.  A rich, modernist society characterized by tolerance, invention, and prudent economic management had collapsed internally and produced the sustained nightmare from which my generation has been attempting to recover ever since.  Obama is no Hitler.  But unless we begin to deal with the crisis we face, and replace the short-sighted, greed-driven expectations which activate so many of our citizens with a genuine willingness everywhere to sacrifice and rebuild, our prospects are dimming every day.  We are much closer to imploding than most of us realize.

The new Hitler waits in the wings.

Burton Hersh     

1 comment:

  1. Ahem, well... this is cheery!
    Have you been following the occupation of wall street?
    I met this guy and heard him tell his fascinating story of how the police mistreated him!
    -I'm an intern for a new non-profit on researching and developing affordable housing initiatives in Williamstown
    -I'm planning to go to Neighborworks training in D.C. from 12/12-12/16.
    -FEMA is considering hiring me as a voluntary agency liaison, and to be their physical presence, after their Disaster Recovery Center is closed, and they pull out.

    Wishing you and Ellen my best,


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