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“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: Trump, Hitler and the Clueless

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COMMENT: In FTR #33 [5], we exam­ined a Ger­man pro­fes­sor’s account of what it was like to expe­ri­ence the rise of Hitler, com­par­ing it to the U.S.

A con­sum­mate­ly impor­tant arti­cle in Die Zeit gives us a win­dow on the past and a van­tage point of analy­sis for our times: Just com­pare how the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion, many of the more estab­lished politi­cians, the Ger­man press, the Ger­man so-called “pro­gres­sive sec­tor” (includ­ing the Com­mu­nists and unions), for­eign diplo­mats and last (but cer­tain­ly not least, the Jews) saw the rise of Hitler.

Suf­fice it to say that the par­al­lels between how they saw Hitler and how Trump is being seen are eerie. Note the bland pro­nounce­ments about Hitler and the unnerv­ing­ly sim­i­lar plat­i­tudes being bandied about by con­tem­po­rary observers:

“Wait Calm­ly” by Von Volk­er Ull­rich;Die Zeit; 2/1/2017. [6]

They argued he would grow more rea­son­able once in office and that his cab­i­net would tame him. A dic­ta­tor­ship? Out of the ques­tion! How jour­nal­ists, politi­cians, writ­ers and diplo­mats weighed in on Hitler’s appoint­ment as chan­cel­lor.

Is there rea­son to wor­ry? No, thought Niko­laus Sievek­ing, an employ­ee at Hamburg’s World Econ­o­my Archive. “I find the act of view­ing Hitler’s chan­cel­lor­ship as a sen­sa­tion­al event to be child­ish enough that I will leave that to his loy­al fol­low­ers,” he wrote in his diary on Jan. 30, 1933.

Like Sievek­ing, many Ger­mans didn’t ini­tial­ly rec­og­nize this date as a dra­mat­ic turn­ing point. Few sensed what Hitler’s appoint­ment as chan­cel­lor actu­al­ly meant, and many react­ed to the event with shock­ing indif­fer­ence.

The chan­cel­lor of the pres­i­den­tial cab­i­net had changed twice in 1932 — Hein­rich Brün­ing was replaced in ear­ly June by Franz von Papen, who was replaced in ear­ly Decem­ber by Kurt von Schle­ich­er. Peo­ple had almost got­ten used to this tem­po. Why should the Hitler gov­ern­ment be any­thing more than just an episode? In the Wochen­schau news pro­grams shown in cin­e­mas, the swear­ing-in of the new cab­i­net came last, after the major sport­ing events.

This, despite the fact that Hitler had plain­ly explained in “Mein Kampf” and count­less speech­es before 1933 what he want­ed to do once in pow­er: to abol­ish the demo­c­ra­t­ic “sys­tem” of Weimar Ger­many, to “erad­i­cate” Marx­ism (by which he meant both social democ­ra­cy and com­mu­nism) and to “remove” the Jews from Ger­many. As for for­eign pol­i­cy, he made no secret of the fact that he want­ed to revise the Ver­sailles Treaty and that his long-term goal was the con­quer­ing of “Leben­sraum in the East.”

Ger­man Pres­i­dent Paul von Hindenburg’s camar­il­la, which had hoist­ed him to pow­er through a series of intrigues, agreed with Hitler’s goals of pre­vent­ing a return to par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cy, of cut­ting the chains of the Ver­sailles Treaty, mas­sive­ly arm­ing the mil­i­tary and once again mak­ing Ger­many the dom­i­nant pow­er in Europe. As for the rest of Hitler’s stat­ed inten­tions, his con­ser­v­a­tive coali­tion part­ners were inclined to dis­miss them as mere rhetoric. Once he was in pow­er, they argued, he would become more rea­son­able. They also believed they had “framed in” Hitler in a way that would enable his ambi­tions for pow­er and the dynam­ics of his move­ment to be kept in check. “What do you want?” Vice Chan­cel­lor Papen, the actu­al archi­tect of the Jan­u­ary 30 coali­tion, asked crit­ics. “I have the con­fi­dence of Hin­den­burg! In two months, we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into the cor­ner that he’ll squeal.”

Hitler’s thirst for pow­er couldn’t have been more gross­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed. The nine con­ser­v­a­tive min­is­ters in the so-called “Cab­i­net of Nation­al Con­cen­tra­tion” clear­ly car­ried more weight than the three Nation­al Social­ists. But Hitler also made sure that two key min­istries were filled by his men. Wil­helm Frick took over the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or of the Ger­man Reich. Her­mann Göring became a cab­i­net min­is­ter with­out a port­fo­lio, but also Prussia’s inte­ri­or min­is­ter, thus acquir­ing pow­er over the police in Germany’s largest state — an impor­tant pre­con­di­tion for the estab­lish­ment of the Nazi dic­ta­tor­ship.

Media mogul and head of the Ger­man Nation­al People’s Par­ty Alfred Hugen­berg was seen as the strong­man in the cab­i­net. He was giv­en the Min­istry of Econ­o­my and Agri­cul­ture of both the Reich and Prus­sia. The new super min­is­ter pur­port­ed­ly told Leipzig May­or Carl Goerdel­er he had made the “biggest mis­take” of his life by align­ing him­self with the “biggest dem­a­gogue in world his­to­ry,” but his asser­tion is hard to believe. Hugen­berg, like Papen and the remain­ing con­ser­v­a­tive min­is­ters, was con­vinced that he could steer Hitler to go along with his own ideas.

Big-busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tives shared the same illu­sion. In an edi­to­r­i­al in the Deutsche All­ge­meine Zeitung, which had close ties to heavy indus­try, edi­tor-in-chief Fritz Klein wrote that work­ing togeth­er with the Nazis would be “dif­fi­cult and exhaust­ing,” but that peo­ple had to dare to take “the leap into dark­ness” because the Hitler move­ment had become the strongest polit­i­cal actor in Ger­many. The head of the Nazi par­ty would now have to prove “whether he real­ly had what is need­ed in order to become a states­man.” The stock mar­ket didn’t seem spooked either — peo­ple were wait­ing to see what would hap­pen.

The con­ser­v­a­tives who helped Hitler rise to pow­er, and his oppo­nents in the repub­li­can camp, were wrong in their assess­ment of the true divi­sion of pow­er. On Jan. 31, Har­ry Graf Kessler, the diplo­mat and arts patron, report­ed hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with Hugo Simon, a for­mer close col­league of For­eign Min­is­ter Walther Rathenau, who was mur­dered in 1922. “He sees Hitler as a pris­on­er of Hugen­berg and Papen.” Appar­ent­ly Kessler felt sim­i­lar­ly, because only a few days lat­er he proph­e­sized that the new gov­ern­ment wouldn’t last long, since it was only held togeth­er by the “Papen’s cream puffery and intrigues.” He argued, “Hitler must have noticed by now that he has fall­en prey to a decep­tion. He is bound, hand and foot, to this gov­ern­ment and can move nei­ther for­ward nor back­ward.”

In his book “Defy­ing Hitler,” writ­ten in exile in Eng­land in 1939, jour­nal­ist Sebas­t­ian Haffn­er recalled the “icy hor­ror” he felt when he had learned of Hitler’s appoint­ment while work­ing as a clerk at the Kam­merg­ericht court in Berlin six years ear­li­er. For a moment, he had “phys­i­cal­ly sensed (Hitler’s) odor of blood and filth.” But on the evening of Jan. 30, he dis­cussed the views of the new gov­ern­ment with his father, a lib­er­al pro­gres­sive-edu­ca­tor, and they quick­ly agreed that while the cab­i­net could do a lot of dam­age, it couldn’t stay in pow­er for very long. “A deeply reac­tionary gov­ern­ment, with Hitler as its mouth­piece. Apart from this, it did not real­ly dif­fer much from the two gov­ern­ments that had suc­ceed­ed Brün­ing’s. … No, all things con­sid­ered, this gov­ern­ment was not a cause for alarm.”

The big lib­er­al news­pa­pers also argued that noth­ing tru­ly ter­ri­ble would hap­pen. Theodor Wolff, the edi­tor-in-chief of the Berlin­er Tage­blatt saw the cab­i­net as the embod­i­ment of what the unit­ed right-wing polit­i­cal groups had want­ed since their meet­ing in Bad Harzburg in 1931. He opened his edi­to­r­i­al on Jan. 31 by writ­ing: “It has been achieved. Hitler is the Reich Chan­cel­lor, Hugen­berg is the eco­nom­ics dic­ta­tor and the posi­tions have been dis­trib­uted as the men of the ‘Harzburg­er Front’ had want­ed.” The new gov­ern­ment, he argued, would try any­thing to “intim­i­date and silence oppo­nents.” A ban on the Com­mu­nist Par­ty was on the agen­da, he thought, as well as a cur­tail­ing of the free­dom of the press. But even the imag­i­na­tion of this oth­er­wise so clear-sight­ed jour­nal­ist didn’t go far enough to con­ceive the pow­er of a total­i­tar­i­an dic­ta­tor­ship. He argued there was a “bor­der that vio­lence would not cross.” The Ger­man peo­ple, who were always proud of the “free­dom of thought and of speech,” would cre­ate a “soul­ful and intel­lec­tu­al resis­tance” and sti­fle all attempts to estab­lish a dic­ta­tor­ship.

In the Frank­furter Zeitung, pol­i­tics edi­tor Ben­no Reifen­berg expressed doubt Hitler had the “social com­pe­tence” for the office of chan­cel­lor, but didn’t think it was out of the ques­tion that the respon­si­bil­i­ty of his office might trans­form him in ways that could earn him respect. Like Theodor Wolff, Reifen­berg described it as “a hope­less mis­judg­ment of our coun­try to believe a dic­ta­to­r­i­al regime could be forced upon it.” “The diver­si­ty of the Ger­man peo­ple demands democ­ra­cy,” he wrote.

Julius Elbau, the edi­tor-in-chief of the Vos­sis­ch­er Zeitung, dis­played less opti­mism. “The signs are point­ing to a storm,” he wrote in his first com­men­tary. Although Hitler wasn’t able to achieve the absolute pow­er he sought — “it is not a Hitler cab­i­net, but a Hitler-Papen-Hugen­berg gov­ern­ment” — this tri­umvi­rate was in agree­ment, despite all of their inner con­tra­dic­tions, that they want­ed to make a “com­plete break from all that had come before.” Giv­en this prospect, the news­pa­per warned that it con­sti­tut­ed “a dan­ger­ous exper­i­ment, which one can only watch with deep con­cern and the strongest sus­pi­cion.”

The left was also con­cerned. In their appeal on Jan. 30, the par­ty exec­u­tive of the Social Democ­rats and their Reich­stag par­lia­men­tary group called for sup­port­ers to car­ry out a “fight on the basis of the con­sti­tu­tion.” Every attempt by the new gov­ern­ment to dam­age the con­sti­tu­tion, they argued, “will be met with the most extreme resis­tance of the work­ing class and all ele­ments of the pop­u­la­tion who love free­dom.” [Ha!–D.E.]

With their strict insis­tence on the legal­i­ties of the con­sti­tu­tion, the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (SPD) lead­er­ship over­looked the fact that the pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial gov­ern­ments had already hol­lowed the con­sti­tu­tion and that Hitler would not hes­i­tate to destroy its last ves­tiges.

The Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Ger­many (KPD) also made a mis­judg­ment in its call for a “gen­er­al strike against the fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship of Hitler, Hugen­berg, Papen.” Giv­en that there were 6 mil­lion unem­ployed peo­ple in Ger­many, few had the desire to go on strike. The call to build a com­mon line of defense also wasn’t very pop­u­lar with the Social Democ­rats, whom the Com­mu­nists had defamed as “social fas­cists” only a short time ear­li­er.

The idea of tak­ing action out­side of par­lia­ment was just as far from the unions’ minds. “Orga­ni­za­tion — not demon­stra­tion: That is the word of the hour!” Theodor Leipart, the head of the Gen­er­al Ger­man Trade Union, said on Jan. 31. In the views of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the social-demo­c­ra­t­ic work­ers’ move­ment, Hitler was a hench­man of the old social­ly reac­tionary pow­er-elites — large landown­ers in the east­ern Elbe region and the Rhineland-West­phalian heavy indus­try. In a talk in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary 1933, SPD Reich­stag law­mak­er Kurt Schu­mach­er described the Nazi leader as being mere­ly a “dec­o­ra­tion piece.” “The cab­i­net has Hitler’s name on the mast­head, but in real­i­ty the cab­i­net is Alfred Hugen­berg. Adolf Hitler may make the speech­es, but Hugen­berg will act.”

The dan­gers ema­nat­ing from Hitler could not have been more grotesque­ly mis­read. Most of the lead­ing Social Democ­rats and union­ists had grown up in the Ger­man Kaiser­re­ich. They could imag­ine repres­sion sim­i­lar to Bismarck’s anti-social­ist law, but not that some­one would seri­ous­ly try to destroy the work­ers’ move­ment in its entire­ty.

The fact that Hitler’s appoint­ment meant that a fanat­i­cal anti-Semi­te had come to pow­er should have made Germany’s Jews, above all, ner­vous. But that was not the case at all. In a state­ment giv­en on Jan. 30, the chair of the Cen­tral Asso­ci­a­tion of Ger­man Cit­i­zens of Jew­ish Faith said, “In gen­er­al, today more than ever we must fol­low the direc­tive: wait calm­ly.” He said that although one watch­es the new gov­ern­ment “of course with deep sus­pi­cion,” Pres­i­dent Hin­den­burg rep­re­sents the “calm­ing influ­ence.” He said there was no rea­son to doubt his “sense of jus­tice” and “loy­al­ty to the con­sti­tu­tion.” As a result, he said, one should be con­vinced that “nobody would dare” to “touch our con­sti­tu­tion­al rights.” In an edi­to­r­i­al in the Jüdis­che Rund­schau, a Jew­ish newspaper,published on Jan. 31, the author argued that “there are pow­ers that are still awake in the Ger­man peo­ple that will rear up against bar­bar­ian anti-Jew­ish poli­cies.” It would only be a few weeks before all these expec­ta­tions would prove to be illu­so­ry.

For­eign diplo­mats also made false assump­tions about the nature of the change of pow­er. The Amer­i­can con­sul gen­er­al in Berlin, George S. Messer­smith, believed that it was dif­fi­cult to make a clear pre­dic­tion about the future of the Hitler gov­ern­ment and spoke of his assump­tion that it rep­re­sent­ed a tran­si­tion­al phe­nom­e­non on the road to a more sta­ble polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. To British Ambas­sador Horace Rum­bold, it seemed like the con­ser­v­a­tives had man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly fence in the Nazis. But he also pre­dict­ed that there would soon be con­flicts between the unequal coali­tion part­ners because Papen’s and Hugenberg’s goal of restor­ing the monar­chy could not be rec­on­ciled with Hitler’s plans. He rec­om­mend­ed that the For­eign Office should take a wait-and-see atti­tude toward the new gov­ern­ment.

French Ambas­sador Andre François-Pon­cet called the Hitler-Papen-Hugen­berg cab­i­net a “bold exper­i­ment,” but he also sug­gest­ed his gov­ern­ment remain calm and wait for fur­ther devel­op­ments. When he met Hitler in the evening of Feb. 8 dur­ing a recep­tion held by the Ger­man pres­i­dent for the diplo­mat­ic corps, he was relieved. The new chan­cel­lor seemed “dull and mediocre,” a kind of minia­ture Mus­soli­ni.

The Swiss envoy, Paul Dinichert, heard about Hitler’s appoint­ment as he was eat­ing lunch with some “ele­vat­ed Ger­man per­son­al­i­ties.” He described the reac­tions in his dis­patch to Bern thus­ly: “Heads were shak­en. ‘How long can this last?’ — ‘It could have been worse.’” Dinichert rec­og­nized, cor­rect­ly, that Papen was the pup­pet mas­ter behind the instal­la­tion of the new cab­i­net. But, like most oth­er com­men­ta­tors, he was wrong in describ­ing the out­come: “Hitler, who for years insist­ed on rul­ing by him­self, has been yoked, hemmed in or con­strained (take your pick) with two of his dis­ci­ples between Papen and Hin­den­burg.”

Rarely has a polit­i­cal project so rapid­ly been revealed to be a chimera as the idea that the con­ser­v­a­tives would “tame” the Nazis. In terms of tac­ti­cal cun­ning, Hitler tow­ered high above his cab­i­net allies and oppo­nents. In a short time, he had upstaged them and dri­ven them against the wall, dis­lodg­ing Papen from of his pref­er­en­tial posi­tion with Hin­den­burg and forc­ing Hugen­berg to resign.

Hitler need­ed only five months to estab­lish his pow­er. By the sum­mer of 1933, fun­da­men­tal rights and the con­sti­tu­tion had been sus­pend­ed, the states had been forced into con­for­mi­ty, the unions crushed, the polit­i­cal par­ties banned or dis­solved, press and radio brought into line and the Jews stripped of their equal­i­ty under the law. Every­thing that exist­ed in Ger­many out­side of the Nation­al Social­ist Par­ty had been “destroyed, dis­persed, dis­solved, annexed or absorbed,” François-Pon­cet con­clud­ed in ear­ly July. Hitler, he claimed, had “won the game with lit­tle effort.” “He only had to puff — and the edi­fice of Ger­man pol­i­tics col­lapsed like a house of cards.”