Past Is Prologue

How Nazism Exploited a Basic Truth About Humanity

When you have nothing to live for, you’ll let anyone tell you what to believe

Adolf Hitler welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Carl Jung once made the tragically accurate statement that Hitler was akin to the mouthpiece of the German people’s collective unconscious.

It is more common to think — as well as nicer to think — that Hitler was simply a madman run amok on Germany and that his influence alone spoke for all of Nazism’s crazed, manic, and ruthless aspects. “He was evil,” people say, their eyes widened, their heads shaking in disbelief, and they leave it at that.

And while it is certainly true that Hitler was an evil man, this cannot account for the whole of the frenzy that swept Germany at the time. It conveniently goes unmentioned that while he wasn’t elected in a direct national vote, Hitler came to power in a constitutional manner. A sizable portion of the nation had rallied behind him completely by their own accord. Hitler’s Nazi party had long been in the making, first coming into the picture shortly after the first World War, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that membership really started to climb. Hitler’s vision for Germany was different from the looser politics of his predecessors, and it was arresting — undeniably galvanizing. The strength of this vision eventually dampened the will of other political parties as more and more people fell under the spell of Nazism. That said, it is not sufficient to pile all explanations for the rise of Nazism on a single, deceased man and to bemoan such a tragedy as a shameful pocket of history that simply “cannot be comprehended.”

I don’t think that’s true at all; I think most of us don’t want to understand it because in doing so, we might have to face some uncomfortable truths about the dark parts of ourselves and humanity at large. (But more on this later.)

Crippled by the aftermath of WWI, the Germans were weak and apathetic, societally a bit disbanded. They were robbed of the intense fervor of war almost overnight, and what arrived in its place was humiliation; a crushing defeat. They were a proud people, and this sort of merciless crumpling of their honor bred resentment—resentment that festered in the souls of the nation’s individuals.

Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

Economic ruin and chaos only exacerbated that hopelessness. It is important to remember that Hitler did not invent, but rather capitalized on, all the nationwide resentment that fueled the Nazis gaining power and plowing over Europe in the coming decade(s). It is, if you put yourself in their shoes, quite easy to imagine how the German people could have become bitter and vengeful when the rest of Europe after WWI had gutted the entire country of their savings, their well-being, and their sense of national honor.

Hitler merely channeled those emotions that had been brewing under the surface of the mass psyche in an exploitative manner that, as we know, led to wretched calamity. If anything, Hitler preyed on what the masses wanted rather than using brute force to get people to subscribe to his vision. He shrewdly served as a placeholder for national resentment and positioned himself as the national voice accordingly — amplifying, coalescing, and clarifying, and channeling this resentment into a veritable, formidable movement.

The Germans wanted two things at this crucial juncture in history: They wanted revenge, but they also lusted after structure. Structure has long been a particular feature of the so-called German identity — historically speaking, order, rigidity, and efficiency have been stalwart cultural values. Post-war Germany lacked order and was too disillusioned to practically and successfully collect their revenge and channel it without the help of a fervent, charismatic leader.

That such an extremist movement arrived on the front lines of the German political scene and was allowed to completely restructure the nation is telling. The Germans were so eager for a new, robust identity that an overwhelming majority essentially sacrificed themselves to the Nazi ideal. This ideal was mediated through a variety of organizations (think Hitler Youth or the Women’s League, for example). Proper German politics, artistic taste, scholarly pursuits, and even child-rearing practices became heavily circumscribed. All this to say, the bridge to a new society was narrow. And those that did not comport with the Nazi ideal weren’t going to make it across that bridge.

Citizens laid down their individual identities at the feet of Hitler, sacrificing themselves for the Third Reich’s collective identity. In many cases, their moral consciences proved hardly resilient to the repugnant aspects of Nazism and thus, were effortlessly overrun. (And that should be a warning to us all.)

Such is the inherent danger of strongly identitarian ideologies, particularly when the people in question do not have durable, self-aware identities themselves and a certain moral culpability to match.

The arena of the stadium packed solidly with Storm Troopers and SS Men, carrying swastika banners, as 120,000 persons at the tenth Nazi party Congress. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Strong undercurrents of obedience, duty, and conformity ran through German culture, along with a kind of Prussian puritanism. Germans believed in the superior ideals of hardening themselves to the world and carrying out duty above all else. Nazism intensified this strict and rigid culture, engendering paranoia among the people. Paranoia, it should be noted, is an aspect of every totalitarian society because it is a check for conformity, a subtle means of control. And thus, in Nazi Germany, individual identity was often obliterated both horizontally (via conformity) as well as vertically (via the authoritarian call to national duty above all else).

What is so chillingly remarkable about Nazism’s success was that it flipped the conventional political script. Instead of espousing promises, like most political figures and movements attempt to do, Hitler promulgated demands.

Imbued with a revolutionary and transcendent sense of purpose, they were blind to the hijacking of their minds.

He did not address the public from the podium, lavishing them with lofty promises of this or that, so much as he called upon the German people to throw themselves into the Nazi effort for the sake of their homeland. And they did. It was unprecedented, a profound psychological feat. The response he gained from the people was fevered and enthusiastic. He spoke to them with religious-style charisma, and they gave him their souls!

The kind of collective demands made of the German community in this era must have been very psychologically satiating. Indeed, all indications suggest many Germans welcomed this grafting of purpose onto their lives with open arms. Imbued with a revolutionary and transcendent sense of purpose, they were blind to the hijacking of their minds.

Hitler did not so much have to “win people over” with political schmooze and intellectual persuasion. No, he acted as the emotional underbelly of the German people writ large. Subsequently, Germany transformed into a veritable Nazi war machine and all of daily life became inundated with Nazi politics. Society was absolutely stricken by the power of politics. Anything else — moral concerns, original thinking, opposing opinions — had been intimidated into hiding.

What strikes me as a bit haunting about Nazism, in particular, is that so much of the nation willingly identified with this extremist system that carried out ethically contemptuous deeds. They believed in it exuberantly and of their own volition. (Which is to say, not purely out of state coercion, as in many other authoritarian systems.)

What, then, does that tell us about the human condition? Perhaps that we are more easily overcome by a vigorous ideology that gifts us with purpose than we’d like to think. There are ways to prevent this, and grounding yourself strongly in your own moral identity is a significant one.

In applying these revelations to the present, if so many of us feel purposeless in our daily lives, are we not more susceptible to this sort of thing? Even more so if we’re ineffectual and lackadaisical and don’t have strong personal belief systems? A society is in profound danger if the people that constitute that society do not have a healthy individuality coupled with a moral identity and a vigilant self-awareness.

And so, here is my somewhat challenging final question: Why do you think Nazism happened? How could an entire nation be caught up in such a collective frenzy, and how could they do such evil things in good conscience? How do they go along with it? The answers lie in confronting the dark recesses of the human condition.

Decades removed from this catastrophe, people automatically feel inclined, with a weary sigh and a confused shake of their heads, to lament, “I just don’t understand.” It’s as if they’re some exemplar of unsullied human morality that fundamentally can’t comprehend the dark, destructive impulses that threaded through Nazism 80 years ago. What does that really mean — not understanding?

If you can’t recognize the monstrous part hidden inside of you and subsequently tame it, who’s to say you won’t become a monster yourself?

There’s reason to be skeptical of people that trot out this line too frequently; it’s very telling if they do. “I don’t understand” is not a satisfying answer at all to these quandaries. And it’s not even an answer; it’s a nonanswer. It’s a refusal to engage with anything even mildly distressing about the catastrophic and evil impulses in humanity.

Nobody wants to believe that if they lived in 1930s Germany they would have been swept into the Nazi movement themselves. Nobody wants to entertain that notion! They step away from it, they’re taken aback, suddenly their reasoning abilities escape them; they cannot coexist with this question, so they throw it out the window as oh-so-conveniently indecipherable. (Granted, not all of those in Germany at the time did fall under the spell, but the majority did and many eventually joined the cause though they at first were adamantly against it.)

If you can’t recognize the monstrous potential hidden inside of you and subsequently tame it, who’s to say you wouldn’t become swept up in such a fray? It’s a perfectly absurd thing, if you think about, to hypothetically insinuate that you have no capacity to comprehend the evil things mankind has done. Who are you to think you’re immune from that? You’re human, so you’re guaranteed to carry some fiber of evil inside of you, and if you can’t accept that, who are you, God himself? If you sit still long enough and honestly, carefully, think — think, that is, not impulsively judge — I believe you would understand. There’s a capacity for evil in everyone and, frankly, an appetite as well; the timeline of history itself is already flagrant evidence of this.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Though we may not want to face this haunting truth, it is reality. And we will do ourselves more damage if we avoid awareness of this notion and neglect to recognize this part of ourselves in our private, individual minds. Humans have the frightening capability to become very dangerous creatures indeed. Better for us to tame that nature individually than to be manipulated by someone or something into wreaking havoc on history’s stage.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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