Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Book Report Sunday (Tuesday Edition): The Nazi Seizure of Power

The Nazi Seizure of Power by William Sheridan Allen A very merry Christmastime to all. Nothing better than a cozy week of snowshoeing and fireplaces to get some reading done... In the small [Bavarian] town of Northeim, the National Socialist Party rose from winning 5% of the vote in 1930 to over 60% in 1933. Once they achieved democratic victory, the Nazis promptly dismantled the free press, absorbed civil societies, crushed opposition parties, and cancelled elections. Allen seeks to explain how and why the Nazis swept to power so suddenly and thoroughly. Northeim was a typical country town of about 10,000, with about one-third of the (male) population civil servants, one-third industrial workers or unskilled laborers, and the remainder a mixture of professionals, farmers, and merchants. Unemployment peaked at a moderate 10%, even at the height of the Depression. Around 130 residents (1%) were Jewish, mostly thoroughly assimilated shop owners. A relatively small number (~ 8%) were Catholic, with the rest Lutheran. The character of the place was solid "Red State", if you will -- industrious, tightly-knit, patriotic, militaristic. Prior to the Nazi rise, the electoral picture was roughly this: * a solid 25% of the electorate supported the Democratic Socialists, to whom [AUTH] is clearly sympathetic. They were the only party that was committed to democracy and the Weimar Republic to the bitter end, and their support scarcely wavered over the years. * A small but noisy fraction (~ 5%) supported the Communists, whose effects were primarily to frighten the middle class and prevent the Socialists from moving further to the center. A sizable chunk of the Communists would eventually support the Nazis, either out of spite of the Socialists, an attraction to radical revolution of any stripe, or the belief that it would hasten the true communist revolution. * The majority of the electorate was split between several conservative parties: the Nationalists, the Catholic Center, and the People's Party. It was from these rather staid parties that the Nazis would win the bulk of their support. Much of the middle of the book is simply a chronicle of rallies, speeches, and marches held by the various parties. This part is rather boring and seems to miss the point -- I rather doubt the Nazis won simply because they held four rallies with three brass bands each in April of 1932. Rather, the victory was primarily ideological and strategic: * First of all, the patriotic, militaristic character of the town was shrewdly exploited by the Nazis, who took every opportunity to wave the flag, point to the Imperial Army as the true soul of the nation, and identify the Nazi cause with a rejuvenated military. * Both from tradition and for fear of Communist encroachment, the Democratic Socialists espoused Marxist rhetoric (though they were centrist in practice). This alienated the sizable middle class of the town and made a centrist governing coalition impossible. The Nazis crafted their message to be primarily anti-Marxist, stirring up fears of violent revolution by anticlerical fanatics. * As unemployment rose, the right-wing parties stymied every effort of the Socialists to reduce unemployment with public works projects. Though unemployment was never very high, the unemployed were very visible, waiting for the dole and at the soup kitchen. Thus fear of a worsening economy tilted sentiment away from the ineffective Socialists and conservatives, toward the parties that were agitating for decisive action, i.e. the Nazis (and to a lesser extent Communists). * Violent clashes between militia groups on the left and right (the Socialist Reichsbanner and the SA Brownshirts) further polarized the situation. Once blood had been spilled, prospects for a centrist governing coalition evaporated, and conservative fears of Bolshevik violence escalated. Soon the thuggery of the Nazis seemed to be only "safe" course to prevent Communism. * Finally, the tradition and commitment to democratic principles was simply not well established. Hence neither the electorate nor the right-wing parties flinched when Nazi rhetoric made clear their desire to stamp out dissent and bring strong, "uniting" leadership to the country. It is at the end of the book that the simple failure of democratic society is made clear. As the Nazis consolidated power, they began shutting down both the left-wing and right-wing independent newspapers. One would like to think that in countries with well-rooted democratic traditions, this would bring such a hue and cry that the experiment would end there. Instead, the conservatives acquiesced utterly. Then the Socialist party was banned, and again the conservatives did not object; when the conservative parties themselves were banned, people were upset but the train was already off the tracks. Martin Niemoller indeed.


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