More lessons from Weimar: Part 8

Published 11:35 pm Saturday, September 9, 2017

We now have some understanding of the nature of Hitler’s Nazi movement. But when the Nazis began to run candidates for office, and particularly when they had their electoral breakthrough in the 1930-32 period, who voted for them, and why?

Noticing the dates, a crucial factor was clearly the Great Depression, though not in the way many assume. Those hit hardest by the Depression, the unemployed, voted Communist, not Nazi. No, the Nazi voters were disproportionately drawn from the middle class, with the upper classes eventually joining them. And most particularly from small town, rural Protestant areas. They were businessmen, farmers, schoolteachers, civil servants, housewives, retirees, pastors, artisans — all voluntarily voting for Adolf Hitler. Why?

To understand this phenomenon, we have to look beyond the often cited despair over war, revolution, hyperinflation and economic depression. These traumas certainly contributed to, but did not by themselves cause, the anxieties of the times.

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Adding to these disruptions, the Weimar years were an era of “culture wars,” states Cambridge historian Richard Evans. Controversies raged over women’s suffrage, the spread of birth control, decriminalization of abortion and gay rights. While some cried for “sexual liberation” others decried “the looming decline of the family” and “the crisis of masculinity.” In the face of what they labeled “moral anarchy,” the Nazis campaigned for traditional “moral order.”

Also, we need to put the Great Depression into the broader perspective of globalization. The Depression, in fact, was a particularly nauseating plunge in an exhilarating/terrifying rollercoaster of global economic change that actually dated back into the late 19th century. With mechanization, free trade, and the rise of international business conglomerates, entire occupational categories, not simply individual jobs, were evaporating. It was a high risk carny ride with three cautions for the edgy customers — you can’t choose not to get on; once on, you can’t get off; no safety bars allowed. That, ladies and gentlemen, is “globalization.” It should come as no surprise to us in 2017 that people had mixed reactions to this “opportunity.”

In sum, for many the global crash of 1929 just intensified an already existing spirit of disquiet. Politically, a pool of undirected, angry energy was just waiting for someone to give it voice. Yale’s Timothy Snyder is blunt, “Fascism” was a “response to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them.” Fascism took the abstraction of globalization and gave it the face of ethnic and racial enemies fiendishly conspiring against the nation. Those solid middle class Germans, their solid world liquefying beneath their feet, were easy prey for the con.

A look at the groups least likely to vote for the Nazis emphasizes this point. Other than the unemployed, they were the unionized industrial workers and Catholics. The former stayed loyal to the Social Democrats, and the latter consistently voted for their own Center Party. The telling detail is that each group had their own well-developed social/economic safety nets and psychological support systems which helped to soften the blow of the Depression. In the every-man-for-himself storm of globalization, they alone felt they were not alone. Note that this had little to do with ideology. Both left-wing socialist solidarity and center-right Christian brotherhood served to inoculate against the temptations of Nazism. 

How do modern democracies die? Perhaps by having its elites ignore “the real and perceived inequalities” and disruptions that heedless  globalization creates. Then as now, we see, provoking an ultra-nationalist backlash. Then as now, a backlash easily transformed into racial paranoia and scapegoating. Then as now, a gift to fascist demagogues.

Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor