"This is not the story of how Hitler seized power. It's the story of how and why the German people gave it to him." An unusual documentary, to say the least. Almost all of the clauses in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I were intended to humiliate and punish Germany, which had been on the losing side of a war that seemed to sweep up every country in Europe. Germany, with an economy in ruins, would pay reparations for the cost of the war. The nation was broken up into parts. A weak democracy was forced on them. Hyperinflation had made currency pointless. There was chaos in the streets during the 1920s. It was like the end of the world.
Out of this sprang magicians, rabble rousers, and religious fanatics, all promising to bring an end to the disorders. One of them was Adolf Hitler. He became better known after a ludicrous attempt to start a revolution in a beer hall. And he had charisma, a superlative performance artist. He ran for president of the Republic and was defeated. In fact, in none of his campaigns did he receive more than 37 percent of the vote, but the Nazi party was the largest in Europe. And as the misery index rose after the beginning of the Great Depression, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, the same year Roosevelt took office.
Also in that year, someone unknown to this day burned down the Parliament Building in Berlin. Hitler, now in power, at once blamed the communists, claiming the fire was a signal for them to take over the country. The Nazi press spread rumors about communist cells, their intent to pillage towns and cities and turn Germany into another Russia. The people of Germany responded predictably. Instead of a nebulous set of economic and political factors crushing the Germans, it was much easier to demonize a particular group that could be identified with a name and a face -- and this was before the internet increased the power of hate-filled rumors.
Fewer than 1 percent of Germans were Jews, and they were convinced that, as loyal Germans, they had nothing to fear. They were mostly secular and the men had fought alongside Hitler in the trenches. Nevertheless, after the commies were arrested and disposed of, the Jews were next in line, beginning with a boycott of Jewish businesses. But the cleaning up of society wasn't limited to communists or Jews. Any sign of hereditary weakness -- epilepsy or retardation in the family -- led to sterilization. People were plucked out of their social networks for slight signs of discomfort with the dictatorship. So citizens began using the Hitler salute to stay out of trouble. The columns of uniformed troops marching through the streets were now followed by flag-waving civilians. From the diary of Victor Klemperer, a literature professor: "Everyone -- literally everyone -- cringes with fear." The first thing children learned when they entered school was the mandated greeting, "Heil Hitler." All boys over the age of twelve were required to join the Hitler Youth whether they wanted to or not. Propaganda films made the Hitler Jugend seem like fun, all clean outdoor living, exercise, and discipline, kind of like the Boy Scouts except that the lessons learned leaned toward the military because Hitler was the Troop Leader. Of the lessons learned, one was that Germany needed not only pure Aryans but more of them. Of the girls who left home to visit Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, nine hundred returned pregnant. There's a German actor, popular in the 50s and 60s, Hardy Kruger, whose career may have been slightly stunted because he was said to have been "involved in the Hitler Youth." How could he not have been? As I said, it's an unusual documentary because the point of view is that of the German citizenry rather than the leadership. There is an informed (and somewhat purple) narration but no expert talking heads. The films we see, as often as not, are home movies and newsreels. There are multiple excerpts from diaries and personal letters. It's not simple minded. We already KNOW what happened during World War II and we know who was responsible, so as far as this documentary goes it's more interested in explanation than judgment. As a sociologist, that's fine with me.
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