When Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, first saw Donald Trump’s speech launching his presidential campaign, he exclaimed, “That’s Hitler!” Bannon was praising, not condemning, the future president. He instinctively understood how Trump’s theatrics and ideas could seduce people, especially those who feel that their country has been taken away from them and that a glorious past must somehow be recaptured.
My wife’s parents, native Berliners, were teenagers when Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Five years later my father-in-law, along with 17,000 other Jews, was put on a train and deported to Poland. Poland initially refused to accept the deportees, and most were stranded at the border for months. Somehow, both my in-laws survived the war, emigrating to the United States late in 1949. Neither talked much about the war or the Holocaust, and I have often wondered what it was like to suddenly find yourself in a Nazi-governed Germany. According to my father-in-law, the triumph of Nazism was inexplicable. “People went crazy,” he liked to say. That was certainly true in the sense that Germans came to believe patent falsehoods, even abandoning the notion of truth altogether. The result in the end was the utter destruction of their country. Why did the Germans embrace the Nazis? How did a band of fanatics and thieves consolidate power so quickly after Hitler was named chancellor—a position conservative German politicians hoped would circumscribe his actions?
The bare outline of what happened is familiar enough. The Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933, compelled German President Paul von Hindenburg—no fan of Germany’s struggling parliamentary democracy—to suspend civil liberties, essentially imposing martial law. While Hindenburg and assorted politicians deliberated in the chancellery that night, the building was surrounded by the intimidating presence of Hitler’s torch-carrying “Brownshirts,” as the members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) were known.
One of Hitler’s first acts as chancellor was to incorporate the SA, a paramilitary organization accustomed to brawling in the streets with the Communists, into the state’s police force. A group most Germans had viewed as thugs were suddenly perceived as patriots eager to restore order. The first concentration camps were soon filling up with Hitler’s political opponents: Socialists, Communists, and Social Democrats. Before he targeted Jews, Hitler made sure to discredit and then destroy the democratic opposition. Many were subjected to torture and paraded through the streets as enemies of the “fatherland.” Supposedly “incontestably wicked transgressors,” they were “put on public display in order to affirm the virtue and coherence of the community,” historian Peter Fritzsche writes in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich. A nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses followed on April 1. On April 7, Jews were purged from the civil service. In May, unions were abolished. Government, law enforcement, and the courts were now securely in the hands of the Nazis.
How and why did the majority of Germans—long divided along class, religious, and regional lines—come to put aside those divisions and unite behind the Nazi regime? Fritzsche’s Hitler’s First Hundred Days does an exceptional job of putting the reader on the scene and explaining how Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda chief, employed persuasion and pageantry, as well as violence, to eliminate political opposition while winning over the German people. The strategy was simple enough in a sense—call it “Make Germany Great Again”—but carried out with singular determination in a climate of crisis and foreboding. Nazi propaganda relentlessly cast the struggle as one of “us” against “them,” while harkening back to the united Germany that had eagerly entered World War I seeking national renewal. Now, however, the “them” were domestic enemies, not foreign ones—traitors who had conspired to stab the nation in the back and humiliate it in the aftermath of defeat.