The Second World War is a subject that has been covered extensively. Whether it be through documentaries, Hollywood films, or through books. Attempting to consume all there has been created about World War II would be very difficult, if not impossible.
Arguably more important, however, is the prewar situation of Weimar Germany. Had it not been for the chaos in Germany caused by the first World War and its consequences it is easy to assume the Third Reich would have never come into existence.
While there are many books on the death of democracy in Germany most of them focus on the big players and key events. While the German people are mentioned they have served as a backdrop, setting the stage for the events to come. Theodore Abel, however, had a different approach.
Seeking to understand how the Nazi Party came to power Abel went to Germany and created a contest. This contest offered prizes for autobiographies on why members of the Nazi Party joined the movement. Without any outside assistance Abel had to provide the prize money out of his own pockets.
This contest resulted in one of the most illuminating insights into the development of the Hitler movement. It gives us, in the common peoples’ own words, why they were attracted to such an extreme movement.
The book is divided into three parts. Historical background, analysis of the movement, and six featured submissions from contestants.
Abel, in an effort to maintain trustworthiness and accuracy, filtered out submissions that appeared to be written to gain favor with party officials or other such insincere submissions.
One of the main recurring themes of the submissions is the feeling of betrayal, by forces seen and unseen. Reaction to the troops returning from the front was harsh, especially at the hand of socialist and communist revolutionaries. As one German writes
“Troops were once again returning to the Fatherland, yet a disgusting sigh met their eyes. Beardless boys, dissolute deserters and whores tore off the shoulder bands of our front-line fighters, and spat upon their field-gray uniforms. At the same time they muttered something about liberty, equality, and fraternity. Poor, deluded people! Was this liberty and fraternity? People who never saw a battle field, who had never heard the whine of a bullet, openly insulted men who through four and a half years had defied the world in arms, who had risked their lives in innumerable battles, with the sole desire to guard the country against this horror.”
(Why Hitler Came Into Power, Page 24)
This resentment and refusal to accept defeat led to the infamous Stab in the Back Myth, which became a rallying cry for nationalists throughout Germany.
The point in the book I found most interesting was how party members viewed nationalism and socialism. Initially seen as opposing forces Hitler instead formed a synthesis, combining the two into his doctrine of National Socialism. As a few submissions illuminate…
“But there was another word that aroused our enthusiasm; the word connected with “German,” instead of being coupled with democracy and liberalism as was usually the case. Socialism, enlightenment, the development of the communal spirit… Once more we could respect every German as our brother. We sensed and we knew that if we succeeded in animating these printed words, if we could unite the concepts of nationalism and socialism, we would have a banner under which we could lead the German people to freedom.”
“I read Hitler’s speeches, studied the program of the National Socialist party, and gradually I was politically reborn. Filled with a pure joy I realized that what my mother had once said was true after all- that it was a hallowed act to give up one’s life for Germany as the soldiers at the front had done. At the same time, my father’s lifelong yearning for a German socialism was tenable. I became a National Socialist.” (Page 212)
Another important factor in Hitler’s rise to power was his charisma. As many sources show seeing Hitler in person had an uncannily religious fervor to it. Supporters would become overwhelmed with a desire to struggle and work as much as possible to see that the ideals their leader set out would be implemented.
Due to attempts by the government to crack down on the Nazi party and the lack of unity early on many party members acted of their own initiative. Many members had to engage in grassroots efforts to expand the party, giving all they could afford to spread the message of National Socialism.
Now one must remember that although Abel tried to maintain accuracy it is unavoidable that a level of bias exists in these submissions. With the way some describe their devotion to Hitler it would be beyond ignorant to deny such bias. But in spite of this the autobiographies submitted shine a rare light into the Nazi party. One that tries to understand how a nation of civilized people could fall prey to Adolf Hitler.
I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want to gain a full picture of the Third Reich, you have to understand why the German people willingly gave it power.
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