People today still wonder how Adolf Hitler could gain power in a civilised country, and in just twelve years, bring it to its knees. Hitler didn’t arrive from nowhere to become Chancellor in 1933. His political life began over thirteen years earlier, when he attended his first meeting of the DAP (German Workers’ Party) in September 1919. And Hitler didn't come to power because an entire nation had been hypnotised by a “man of destiny”. The German people didn't vote the rebranded NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) into power; Hitler was manoeuvred into position as Chancellor by other politicians and businessmen. Hitler took control of Germany in a set of circumstances that had been developing since the end of World War I.
Germany had been held responsible for causing the war, and she was forced to pay massive reparations. These measures, formally enacted in the Treaty of Versailles, were believed by many to be deeply unfair. The way the war had ended also rankled. Many returning soldiers, including Hitler, believed that Germany had not been defeated on the field of battle, but had been betrayed by the politicians who signed the Armistice in November 1918. This was known as the Dolchstoßlegende, or the “stab in the back” legend. After the war ended, hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers became members of the Freikorps (Free Corps). These armed groups were used by the new Weimar government to put down communist uprisings throughout Germany. The fear of communism, together with dissatisfaction with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, especially Article 231 (the “war guilt clause”), proved to be fertile ground for Hitler. Although the NSDAP were a minor political group throughout most of the late twenties, Hitler’s anti-communist, anti-Jewish message took root within the party faithful, and by the time Hitler challenged President Hindenburg in 1932, he had gained 37 per cent of the vote. To Germans who had suffered the ignominy of defeat in 1918 then endured the loss of international status inflicted by the Versailles Treaty, followed by the French occupation of the Ruhr, the hyperinflation of 1923 and the economic collapse of 1929; to people who for years had worried about the presence of communism inside their country, Hitler told them what they wanted to hear: Join with the Nazis, and all would be well. A chief goal of Hitler’s demagoguery was to present a positive, forward-looking narrative.
After Hitler became Chancellor, the Nazis began to bring the whole of German society into line with the ideas of the Führer. This policy was known as Gleichschaltung. At grassroots level, Nazis infiltrated every part of society so that nothing could exist that was not in accordance with Nazi ideals. At governmental level, the Nazis used the Reichstag fire on 27th February 1933 to bring in emergency legislation that removed personal liberties “for the protection of people and state”. This allowed the Nazis to suppress any political opposition. Thousands of Germans were arrested and tortured on the basis of the Reichstag Fire Decree. On 23d March, the Enabling Act was passed, which gave the Nazis complete political power. The circle was now closed. For anyone living in Germany, there was no escape.
There was resistance, however. Some people disagreed with Hitler, and they paid for that with their liberty, their health, even their lives. History tells us that in any oppressive political or social system, there will always be such strong characters. In Europe today, we have Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff and Geert Wilders. In America, there are a handful of public figures like Sarah Palin, Allen West and Michele Bachmann who will speak about the doctrines of Islam, and who will stand up for Israel against her enemies. And there are, as we all know, powers in Europe and America that are striving to silence those voices. Austrians like Sabaditsch-Wolff might not have to worry about being shipped off to somewhere like Mauthausen-Gusen anymore. But nowadays, camps aren't necessary. People who speak out against prevailing doctrine can have their finances, and their lives, ruined through a simple lawsuit. Sabaditsch-Wolff, Wilders and Palin have all been attacked through their respective nations’ courts. The mainstream media can also smear anyone who doesn't toe the party line on Islam, and on Israel. Although the means have changed, the goal remains the same: Silence any dissenting voices.
But if people can’t speak freely, how can the truth be known? John Stuart Mill argued that any dissenting opinion may turn out to be true - so that opinion ought to be heard. To deny that is to assume infallibility, and that’s a claim no politician, journalist or judge on either side of the Atlantic can make. Mill also argued that a dissenting opinion may contain much that is false, but it could also contain parts of a larger, overall truth. So only by listening to that dissenting voice will those truths become known. People in positions of power and influence who ignore Mill’s straightforward (and very well-known) arguments for freedom of speech have chosen to pursue an agenda without concern for the truth.
It goes without saying that the persecution of people like Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff and Geert Wilders can’t be directly compared with what the Nazis did, not if one is thinking of what lay at the end of the Nazis’ road of destruction: The mass murders in Poland, the racially-inspired brutality in the East, the death camps. But those horrific events occurred in the latter years of the Nazi empire. Germany was heading down a slippery slope long before that. Sondergerichte (special courts) were set up inside Germany in 1933, and the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) was set up in 1934. Thousands of German citizens were imprisoned by those courts before the Nazi regime crashed and burned in 1945.
Hitler was a bum, a lazy bastard who simply would not work and who eked out a living of sorts drawing posters for shop windows. When he lived in a homeless shelter in Vienna, nobody could have predicted that he would set in motion events that would ruin Germany, and start another war. In the 1920s, Hitler was a mouthpiece for one of the many political parties in Germany, and no one could have known what the words “Treblinka” and “Auschwitz” would mean to us today. Even after the NSDAP had some electoral success and Franz von Papen and his cronies levered Hitler into power in 1933, they thought that they could manage him. Again, no one really appreciated what was about to happen. The question then, is not whether events today are comparable to the moral depravity exhibited by the Third Reich in its death throes, once the war was lost. What every freedom loving individual living in the West ought to consider is: Can any events in our democratic societies today be legitimately compared to events occurring anywhere along the German continuum between 1918 and 1939? If points of comparison can be made, then we really need to start worrying.