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ibstubro's avatar

In your opinion, how did the Nazi party come to national prominence in Germany, and why did the general German population allow the atrocities to occur and continue?

Asked by ibstubro (11756 points ) February 9th, 2014

This is an admittedly agenda based question, designed to explore how poor human behavior exists with the tactic permission of the best of human behavior.

Err on the side of caution and give them the benefit of the doubt only work if both parties have decent intent. If a good person errs on the side of caution and gives an evil person the benefit of the doubt, they are enabling evil, and in a way, committing evil.

Sins of commission and omission apply.

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25 Answers

keobooks's avatar

I wish my grandmother was still alive. She lived through the rise of the Nazis in Germany. She is a war refugee. She also actually heard Hitler speak in person. She said it was scary—the reaction of the audience was scarier. Her father was in the Weimar Republic government, so he was one of the first to vanish into a concentration camp or an open grave (nobody in the family knows) before the war actually started.

Anyway, there was a vacuum of power in Germany. The Weimar Republic was a really weak government with lots of loopholes in the constitution. Hitler used two of the loopholes to get into power. He was appointed by a chancellor. He was not elected. He used an emergency loophole to take over the government by force because it was in the constitution that he could do that and he claimed that the financial situation was so grim it needed to be treated as an emergency. (And honestly, it WAS that bad…)

One reason the attrocities were allowed to happen is because the population was literally scared to death of Hitler. The phones were tapped. My grandmother actually had a conversation with a soldier who was listening in on her line and helped her with her math homework. Children were being indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and encouraged to turn their parents in for treason. My grandmother said that everyone either had a family member or knew someone who had a family member just go missing and it was scary. You never knew if someone would come in the night for you.

Also, she said that the radios and newspapers were so heavily censored that few people outside the Nazi party had any clue of what was going on. My grandmother was shipped around in a train to go work in fields across the country. She saw Jewish cattle cars going by and assumed they were going to work in different fields. I believe her when she says she and her family had no idea what was going on in the camps.

Coloma's avatar

I don’t see it that way. If a good person gives an evil person the BOTD this does not make them a party to, or enabler of evil. It only makes them trusting and perhaps naive.
There were plenty of germans that did not agree with Hitler just as there were plenty of americans that did not not agree with slavery and many risked their lives harboring and aiding the “enemy.” We cannot blacklist an entire group over the actions of a few.

CWOTUS's avatar

If you’d like to understand this, I can suggest an excellent modern work of non-fiction, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. This book is a well-researched and documented account of the American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, during the 1930s. Dodd was no one’s first choice for the post, but after receiving several other refusals, FDR finally found Dodd, who had some fond history and experience within Germany, a strong appreciation for classical German culture, had academic credentials and fluency in the language – and a desire to return.

At first, Dodd was openly sympathetic with Hitler’s attempts to raise Germany from the abject humiliation and (he felt) unjust persecution for The Great War, and his primary mission from FDR was to insure Germany’s continued payment of its “war debt” from the Versailles Conference. That peace treaty had ended the war and saddled Germany with a huge burden of repayment to the victors – which it could not possibly accomplish. As time went on and Dodd learned how Hitler was taking control of the government, what his aims were and what it was costing Germany and the world, he learned differently. However, at that point he was a Cassandra: no one in the State Department believed that things were as bad as he said they were, and their only counsel to him was “make sure there is no default on the payments”.

I read this book, and enjoyed it very much. I learned a lot, and it was a fascinating and easy read.

For a more scholarly and contemporary look, there’s always William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”.

The primary thing to learn – as it usually is from these accounts – is the truth of the statement from Edmund Burke that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”

ibstubro's avatar

Fantastic perspective, @keobooks!

I had no intent to black list, @Coloma. I was just framing a long-standing question.

I will order and read your book, @CWOTUS. Excellent review, and spot-on.

johnpowell's avatar

We talked a bit about this in a econ class. The reparations for WWI sent Germany into a state of hyper-inflation. They just printed more money to pay the bills. Our instructor showed us some currency from the time where you could see zeros added after the currency was printed.

Wives were hanging around outside factories to collect wages since people were being literally paid by the hour. People had to spend right away for any sort of purchasing power. In 1923 The dollar was 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

Long story short. This was around when Hitler rose to power. He promised to stabilize things. And he sort of did.

Coloma's avatar

@ibstubro Gotcha’.

Cruiser's avatar

@CWOTUS thanks for all the references!

ibstubro's avatar

That’s some serious inflation, @johnpowell. And another good bit of perspective.

flutherother's avatar

When societies are stressed as in Germany after the First World War people look for extreme solutions to their problems. In a similar way the destabilisation of Cambodia led to Pol Pot’s rise to power.

stanleybmanly's avatar

What flutherother says is of crucial importance. Only I would change extreme solutions to ANY solution. The principle reason that Hitler managed to co opt German laws and institutions with the willing cooperation of the the bulk of the German population was that the French insisted that Germany be bled dry with reparations as a condition of the armistice ending World War I. It was a mistake not to be repeated at the close of WW II and it is important that we retain and teach to the lesson. Democratic traditions and institutions don’t count for shit when your children are hungry.

kritiper's avatar

By ignorance, because the general German public wasn’t told about what was being done to the alleged unworthy, by revenge , for what the Germans suffered after WWI, and by pride in their country and themselves.

bolwerk's avatar

@keobooks’ answer is probably pretty spot on. I would add:

1) What people knew. There is some debate over what exactly the general population did know, and how much deniability or disbelief or suspension of disbelief (DDSD – don’t know what to call it really; see #3) the public might have plausibly been conjured. I personally have trouble believing the general public didn’t at least have some inkling about the brutality, if not the extent, and there are photos of Germans being marched through death or at least concentration camps, especially in the east.

2) Politics

2a) More effective political coalitions after Bismarck were able to win power by uniting the conservatives and the more right-wing liberals with Catholic-dominated Center Party – until Hitler. People like to say Hitler didn’t win an election, which is arguably true, but the uncomfortable truth is the National Socialists and another right-wing nationalist German National People’s Party (DNVP) together won a majority at least in 1933. The NSDAP + DNVP vote was one of those rare times when the Center Party was unnecessary to form a functional government in Germany.

Modern politics hook: the Christian Democratic Union that emerged after the war has arguably been closest to a dominant party in Germany since. Its ideology probably resembles the Center Party most accurately, but it has a broader appeal.

2b) The trade union-dominated “moderate left” elements broke up, favoring either Stalinists or the Nazis themselves. The other “moderate left” faction, so-called left-liberals, who were probably akin ideologically to the type of socially permissive urban yuppie who voted for John Kerry, were probably by themselves too small to matter much at the end of the Weimar.

In the case of the left-liberals, “left” should probably be taken to mean “civil libertarian” and “not nationalist.” Economically, they were relatively right-wing, at least by today’s standards. I think it’s fair to say these factions re-emerged as the modern German Social Democratic Party.

3) Conditioning. It goes without saying the Third Reich’s atrocities happened against the backdrop of confusion, war, obfuscation, propaganda, and even other regimes’ (mainly Stalin’s) atrocities. There is a geographic reason for the DDSD above. The epicenter of the holocaust’s death machinery was more in eastern Germany, now lost territories (not the later state of East Germany, but Germans from now lost eastern territories, mainly Prussia). Many eastern Germans who were closest to it were closer to the more brutal eastern front and then were themselves victims of mass expulsion to the west a few years later, and I think there is still a lot of unspoken displeasure about that even today. I really wouldn’t be surprised if people from the east knew more than people from the west because of better front row seating, but people from the east might also have significantly more trauma related to what was going on.

4) Aftermath. Unfortunately few people asked this question in 1935. A significant population ended up in the postwar German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the severe RWA conditioning continued for several more decades. Between the trauma of the Depression, the war, the postwar partitioning, and finally the uncertainty of the Cold War, what survived of the German population as a whole probably had trouble reflecting on Third Reich until the 1990s – I imagine most of the people posting here remember that decade.

@Coloma: my German family used to say Americans had more civil courage than Germans. Hard to imagine someone saying that after 9/11 though. :-\

ibstubro's avatar

Good point, @flutherother.

I wondered who wanted Germany broken, @stanleybmanly. I also wondered why we helped so much with rebuilding Japan at the end of WW2. I’m learning all kinds of stuff.

Presumably a sizable number of people knew, @kritiper, being related to someone directly involved in committing atrocity?

Good information as well, @bolwerk (Yes, I read every word.) It’s hard to believe that the German government could round up enough sadists to man the camps.

kritiper's avatar

@ibstubro – Very possibly true. But who was Mr. Hans Average Everyday German citizen to question the government with all of those Brown Shirts running around??

Paradox25's avatar

I’m much more knowledgable about WWII than WWI, but I think that the latter may provide a clue to how Hitler rose to power. The Treaty of Versailles placed great restrictions on Germany after WWI, and angered many Germans. The resulting bad economy and temperament of the German people likely helped Hitler rise to power. Hitler used this German resentment to his advantage, with his power of captivating speeches and propaganda. The Nazis did a good job of spreading hateful propaganda against various cultures and peoples at time when Germans were most vulnerable. I really believe this can happen again, today, even in the industrialized world.

ibstubro's avatar

Hitler gave the German people something real and tangible to lash out at, in other words, @Paradox25? I agree that it could happen again, if a large number of people are oppressed. That was a lot of the danger of Russia during the Cold War, in my opinion. That someone would channel the people’s anger and whip them into a frenzy.

keobooks's avatar

That’s what my grandmother said was so frightening about hearing Hitler speak, @ibstubro She said that he would start up with innocuous stuff most people could agree with and could slowly work the crowd into a frenzy and people would start cheering and screaming over stuff that was really radical. She said you could feel a strange energy in the air when he spoke.

His rant against the Jewish people was based on a lot of fears that people already had against Jews. My grandmother swore up and down she wasn’t anti-Semitic, but you could tell she was very uncomfortable around Jewish people. She also didn’t like most Polish people either, but that was probably for different reasons.He could take a pre-existing prejudice and blow it out of proportion to the point that people were raving lunatics.

I look at pictures of him and see this short, greasy haired guy with a bad haircut and a funny mustache.When he talked, he sounded like a really bad parody of what a German person sounds like. I can’t believe that he had the amazing charisma my grandmother said he had. But then you watch the videos,, and somehow, that screaming really does something to the crowd.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Fear aside, looking at it from the standpoint of the average German in that time, Hitler had in a few years taken Germany from a near failed state with an absolutely ruined economy (at one point people were burning their paper currency in their fireplaces because it had more worth as kindling than as money) to a stable country with a solid economy (granted one rested upon building for war) and transformed the country into a world power. It’s hard not to see how average German wouldn’t, if not fully support, at least be complacent abount the Nazi party and their actions.

There’s also, as someone else said, the matter of how much the people really knew. Most concentration/death camps were in the eastern territories (such as Poland) and/or tucked well away from major population centers.

ibstubro's avatar

Yes, and when you think that the German’s were being abused and not in charge of their own economy, you see how the screaming stirred the crowd. Basically, they wanted their country back and that was what Hitler promised.

Bush II largely rode the 911 wave to re-election. Imagine if Joe McCarthy had ridden a loophole into the White House. National pride is like any other ‘group’ emotion – semi-easily manipulated.

You’re lucky to have talked with your grandmother about it, @keobooks. I’m sorry that I didn’t have better conversations with my great grandmother, who was a sweet old woman that had lived a complex life. Packing a gun to hang laundry in the lawless state of Texas.

ibstubro's avatar

Great post, @Darth_Algar, and valid point. The German people were so desperate for something positive they were willing to make excuses for, and ignore, the hints of evil things afoot. In America, I know a lot of people that were converted to Republican by Ronald Reagan. They were just sick of the inflation and American failure, and wanted a well spoken grandfatherly guy to tell them that things were going to be okay.

Above, I also drew a Hitler/Joe McCarthy parallel I think is valid here.

bolwerk's avatar

@ibstubro: my grandfather was drafted as a war correspondent on the eastern front. He certainly witnessed brutality (said he never killed anyone himself), though I was always afraid to ask what he knew of the Holocaust while it happened. Actually, my grandmother was banned as a result of Stauffenberg’s bombing of Hitler because she was staying with that household at the time.

I would dispute it was just the French who wanted to bleed Germany. To some extent I think all the WWI allies felt reparations were just revenge for “causing” the war. The French may have had a particular bone to pick because of Alsace-Lorraine, but they weren’t unique. Also, this attitude didn’t end with World War II. Henry Morganthau* was the Treasury Secretary during the war and he argued Germany should be reduced to a de-militarized, de-industrialized agrarian state. It might have happened too, had Stalin not wanted to make a massive land grab in the east that pushed Poland westward into what were German territories – some of the richest agricultural land. The Marshall Plan was adopted instead for the western occupied parts of Germany and Germany became more of a “western” country.

* His son, Robert, retired as Manhattan district attorney in 2009 having been one of two men who dominated the office since WWII. The show Law & Order had more DAs than Manhattan has had since 1942.

scrappy1215's avatar

The following is a general, oversimplified view, but I think it applies. People, particularly hungry ones, believe what seems to be a solution to their problems and woes. The German people were no exception when they accepted the Nazi’s and Hitler. The changes also began gradually with the ones easier to influence, children, and built from there until they were a strong enough faction to become dictatorial. They used propaganda techniques and fear to stay in control. This could happen anywhere, really.

bolwerk's avatar

Not quite sure I buy it, @scrappy1215. Least of all, it ignores the intense social frustration fascism feeds on. Germany had bad currency, but it also still had bread and some of the best agricultural land in Central Europe. But lots of impoverished places don’t see fascist governments.

Replace “hungry” with “humiliated” and you might have nailed it though.

longgone's avatar

“Why did the general German population allow the atrocities to occur and continue?”

I’ve often wondered about that…until I realised that I allow atrocities to continue every single day. I know what’s happening in Syria. I know, I hate it – but you don’t see me catching a flight and helping to get people out of there. Why not? Well, for one, I’m comfortable here. I have friends and family I don’t want to leave. Another big motivator is wanting to stay alive…and I’m guessing both these reasons applied to people in Nazi Germany as well.

LostInParadise's avatar

I very much appreciate the historical details in several of the above posts. What happened in Germany is not unique, though it really hits home because Germany is a Western nation. It makes you wonder what it would take for the same thing to happen here. Other examples of mass extermination are the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao and Cambodia under Pol Pot. Though not on anywhere near the same scale, the “disappearings” that took place in Argentina under Peron bear mention.

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