Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Sobering $3.50 History Lesson

I actually felt a little hesitant about picking up a book about Adolph Hitler at the Green Valley Book Fair Saturday. But I've always been intrigued by the man who was able to persuade so many of his people to follow him into the dark abyss of hyper-nationalism and anti-semitism.

At a mere $3.50 (Green Valley's bargain price), the highly readable "The Life and Times of Adolph Hitler", an award- winning work by James Giblin, proved to be a great help in my better understanding Hitler, the times in which he lived, and the masses who became so devoted to their Fuhrer.

Just to be clear, I'm not posting this because of the results of the recent election. There are no perfect parallels in human history, and it's always a mistake to identify any political figure as being "just like" another. But we should also be careful to avoid the "nothing like" fallacy. And I was as interested in learning more about the mindset of the people influenced by Hitler as I was about the man himself.

In Giblin's closing chapter on openly Neo-Nazi groups who still revere Hitler, he addresses the question of whether another charismatic figure like Hitler could rise to power today:

"Much would depend on the political and economic conditions prevailing at the time. If a country experienced a sudden economic and spiritual collapse, as Germany did following World War I, and as the entire world did during the Great Depression of the 1930's, then a call might go out for a savior--a leader who could restore the country's pride and fiscal health and inspire new hope for the future in its despairing citizens."

Throughout my reading I was impressed by the role Joseph Goebbel's political propaganda campaign played in Hitler's success. During election season, the two of them traveled tirelessly throughout Germany, with a major speech scheduled for each day, and sometimes more. Radio broadcasts and ads were used extensively, and 50,000 propaganda discs were mailed to people who owned record players (p. 64).

Key business firms hurting from the economic recession also played a key role, with CEO's of major corporations like Krupp, Siemens, Mercedes Benz and I.G. Farben (chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate, including Bayer) throwing their support behind Hitler (p, 69).

But most disturbing was the support of the churches (including many in my own Mennonite denomination, though that wasn't referenced in the book), in spite of Hitler's clearly unChrist-like rhetoric. In July of 1933, the Vatican signed an concordat with Germany in which it agreed not to interfere with German politics, and the German church ordered its bishops to swear a pledge of allegiance to the regime which included the words, "In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and the interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts that might endanger it." In other words, they pledged to remain silent no matter how many judges Hitler arbitrarily replaced, no matter if he withdrew from the League of Nations or declared war on nearby nations, and no matter what kind of atrocities were committed against Jews, Gypsies and dissidents considered enemies of the state (p. 80)

Not everything about Adolph Hitler was evil. In his personal life, he refrained from the use of alcohol or tobacco, was a vegetarian, loved art and music and expressed affectionate toward children and animals. He was clearly a power-driven individual with delusions of grandeur, and may have evolved into a psychopath, but he was also a human being as worthy of love as any creation of God.

I recommend this book as a reminder to everyone, in every society and in every community of faith, to learn whatever lessons we need from this tragic era of world history.
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