To comprehend at all the monstrous insanity that was the Third Reich, an understanding of its origins must at least be attempted. There is no doubt as to its factual origins, but the apparent collective acquiescence of the German people to the madness seemingly defies explanation. How were they able to accept the perverted ideas put forward by Hitler and the Nazis, when their truth could so easily be verified against the original ideas? The investigation will be long and tortuous, but it is always the historian’s hope that, if ‘why’ questions can be answered then, possibly, the same madness will not happen again.
There was no German state or country as such until relatively recently. The Holy Roman Empire, from out of which it grew, is usually misunderstood and the easiest way to cut through the obscurities is to give it a definition, such as ‘a collection of states under an Emperor, formed for mutual defence and the dispensing of justice, and speaking one German language.’ The key here is the language in common. Each state was autonomous but to save the people from unbridled power, they had recourse to a central court. And, from the common language, a common culture could be expressed, building a history of the German people but not by any means building a German state. Each of hundreds of petty Princes, Archdukes, Grand Dukes and Counts saw to that. In the 11th and 12 centuries the states numbered about 300 and by the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 they had increased to 350 but it was the influence of one man that effectively ensured this fragmentation continued for another 200 years. That man was Martin Luther.
Luther is seen as the man who codified Protestantism and he was certainly, from his translation of the Bible and his sermons, the one who created the modern German language. But he was not so far ahead of his time that he advocated democracy. He strongly supported the princelings and this, combined with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, saw that there was no progress towards a unified state. In fact, serfdom was re-imposed in some states and the people sank back into a general anonymity from which they had appeared to be emerging prior to the Thirty Year’ War.
It took until about 1750, but then active questioning did begin as to the identity of the Germans, their history and their future. Starting with Herder and Carl von Moser, books and writings were published and discussed which started to turn peoples’ thoughts in the direction of national unity. No one yet was advocating changing the Empire but people were thinking and talking at all levels of society. What did finally tip the balance to nationalism was the outcome of the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon. The quite rightly named Napoleonic Wars lasted 22 years, from 1793 to 1815, and by the end most people in the Empire supported the idea of a nation state, of a Fatherland. In finding that they did not like having a foreigner dictating over them, a true nationalism was born. The Wars of Liberation in which they fought would have been non-starters without this ‘patriotism’ because no single state in the Empire could have opposed Napoleon alone.
The next important contribution to the debate came from the writings of Fichte. Although no one yet advocated openly the creation of a German state Fichte, in again taking up the matter of language, developed the idea that the Latin countries such as France, who had only copied the old Roman tongue, were not capable of expressing new ideas. Germans on the other hand had always had their own living language with which they formulated every new concept. Fichte even went so far as to suggest that only Germans had the ability of free thought, because of the language. He also pointed out that the resentment of the French occupation was because the Germans had always had, under the Empire, the right to individual freedom and this freedom had been maintained over the centuries. Hitler and the Nazis took the views of these early writers and so perverted them that they became virtually unrecognizable. Fichte and others based their writing on the idea of freedom and the development of a national identity, still within the bounds of the Empire. And they and the people believed in democracy. The Nazis took only the idea of nationalism and twisted it into a kind of world ‘nationalism’, that is, the domination of the world by one nation, with no freedom and certainly no democracy.
Beside the work of these undoubtedly sincere authors, who were active during the early 19th century, Hitler took in the actions and writings of others writing at the end of the same century who were in many cases intellectually dubious; in fact, we would now class them as the ‘lunatic fringe’, their ideas harmless on their own but very dangerous in powerful hands. Nietzsche is a noted philosopher and it is unfortunate that he is popularly known only for his idea of the creation of ‘uebermensch’, the superman, and a master race. Hitler took this idea to make racial purity one of the main pillars of his policies, and the race referred to as the Aryan, with all others subject to them. Another extreme influence on Hitler was the writing of a man whose distorted view of history became central to Hitler’s aim of world domination. He was an Englishman with the ill-fated name of Chamberlain, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who eventually became a German citizen, married Wagner’s daughter and became an early Nazi advocate. His view of history was as a racial conflict in which the Teutons would ultimately be victorious because of their racial superiority. Their main enemies were the Catholic Church, the Jews and the non-German races, in particular the Latins. This is a strange way of presenting history because politicians must usually persuade the populations of warring states, from which armies are drawn, that the enemy is the other country. Something such as the whole Catholic Church or all Jews is a difficult concept to put over, even for skilled propagandists. But Chamberlain’s views worked very well for Hitler, and were used by him to justify anti-semitism, and the need for racial purity.
Descending lower into madness we have Guido von List and Joerg Lanz von Liebenfels. List’s particular aberration was in imagining some fairy-tale German past where the Aryan race were ruled by the Armanenschaft, the heirs to the Sun King. This cloud-cuckoo land had been destroyed by the Catholic Church but the heirs still existed in various bodies, such as the Knights of the Templar. List also had specific suggestions to bring about the restoration of this fairy story, namely: the systematic persecution of non-Aryans; certain government positions open only to Aryans; marriage forbidden between Aryan and non-Aryan. Many people, including public figures, took in this stuff whole, possibly looking for some sort of religious belief, especially as List adapted Wagner’s tales of the old Nordic gods and their religion, into his ideas. He also, incidentally, claimed to understand the runes of the old Aryans, one of which was the swastika. In the general rise in the interest in the old ways, the idea of the quest for the Holy Grail reappeared. The nationalists, the voelkisch movement, saw a need for the revival of the old Orders, to protect the race, all as part of a religious apparatus that the established religions could not accommodate. One such Order was founded by Liebenfels. He named it the Order of the Temple and bought a castle as its headquarters. He also chose the swastika as its symbol because of its supposed mystical powers.
Some early Nazis, most importantly Himmler, were strong supporters of this semi-religious, occult movement as epitomized by Liebenfels’ Order, and brought many of its ideas into the party. Hitler did not appear to have any belief in it but he could see the use of the pageant and the symbolism, and put these to telling effect in the mass rallies to come. And he took List’s racial ideas and reproduced them in the infamous Nuremberg laws of the 1930s.