Which nightmare of modern times would we make disappear if we could? Few people would hesitate to answer “Nazism”—a word that has come to symbolize evil. But like all evil, Nazism was historical, the creature of a particular time, and its development depended upon people who could have acted differently. National socialism—that is what Nazism stands for—appeared in late-nineteenth-century Europe and developed in two streams: one the epitome of fascism, taking millions of lives; the other a tolerant democratic party that respected human rights. Of the two leaders who took the movement in such different directions, one, Adolf Hitler (born 1889), is infamous, while the other, Tomáš G. Masaryk (born 1850), is today all but unknown.
Early national socialists spoke to and for the lower classes, who faced a decline in status because of major economic shifts, and feared that this decline might have to do with foreigners who lived in their country. Like today’s populists, they said that the elites in far away capitals did not care enough to help. Like Hitler and Masaryk, they came to life in the Habsburg heartlands of Austria and Bohemia.
The earliest manifestation of their politics of fear was an 1882 meeting of German liberals in the provincial city of Linz. The mostly young men were alienated by their party elders in Vienna, laissez-faire liberals who hardly lifted a finger for shopkeepers or workers. These elders were also clueless about lower-class German fears around economic advances and the culture of Slavs and Eastern European Jews. At that time, Germans constituted an overwhelming majority in Austria, but only about one-third of the population in Bohemia. Like middle-class whites in our society, many worried about relative decline in status. Bohemia, once dominated by German culture, was in danger of becoming Czech.
The young Germans’ Linz program featured populism’s odd mix of right and left: on the one hand, defense against “foreigners,” primarily Czechs and other Slavs; on the other, economic protection for workers and small businesses. Soon the rebels abandoned liberalism and evolved in different directions: the left, led by Viktor Adler, formed Austria’s Social Democratic party in 1889, while the right, under “Knight” Georg Ritter von Schönerer, took up anti-Semitism, portraying Jews as the ultimate economic and cultural danger. The vainglorious knight proved an inept leader and his popularity was limited largely to students.
In 1903 one of his disciples, the Bohemian German Karl Hermann Wolf, formed a splinter “German workers party” in a town just north of Prague. After World War I, this party became the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). By then, Wolf had faded into the background and was replaced by a young veteran named Adolf Hitler, party member #79. Hitler united the Nazi Party in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and by 1938 had brought the Germans of these lands into one state, the “Third Reich.” But he never forgot the socialism part of national socialism, and instituted social and accident insurance that would be the envy of U.S. workers today.
When Tomáš G. Masaryk was born, the Czech majority of Bohemia were a despised underclass of workers and peasants. By the 1880s they increasingly challenged German dominance, forming their own parties, the strongest of which was the Social Democrats. But in 1898 these Czech followers of Karl Marx committed a major blunder. As internationalists, they sought a solution to Bohemia’s nationality problems, and agreed with their German comrades to divide Bohemia into districts: some controlled by Germans, others by Czechs. Though reasonable in the abstract, this solution violated a dogma of Czech nationalism—that the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, founded in the twelfth century, was a Czech land, one and indivisible. The Czech word for Bohemia happens to be Čechy, implying that the very soil was Czech. Yet for centuries Bohemia officially belonged to the (German) Holy Roman Empire, and Czechs felt their claim was not secure. They also believed that an up-and-coming European nation needed bounded space, not squares on a checkerboard.