How did Adolf Hitler, an obvious extremist, con a nation into backing him? This historical essay answers the question, to often unsettling effect.
Hett (History/Hunter Coll.; Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery, 2013) observes that, by design, Hitler entered the German government with only two of his fellow Nazis holding cabinet-level positions. He wanted to appear powerless, it seems, and to give the impression that the right-wingers who had put him into office, who “sought to take advantage of Hitler’s demagogic gifts and mass following to advance their own agenda,” were actually in control of the situation. In the context of the Weimar Republic, whose system of representational democracy inadvertently splintered any organized resistance, Hitler was able to build an effective right-wing alliance that, in time, caused liberals to wonder whether democracy itself might be to blame if someone like Hitler could gain votes. It was “monstrous,” one Berlin paper wrote, that so large a portion of the electorate had supported “the commonest, hollowest and crudest charlatanism,” even as establishment conservatives bridled at having to work with what Paul von Hindenburg called “the Bohemian private”—but did so anyway. One constitutional crisis later, in the form of the burning of the Reichstag—the work, very likely, of the stormtroopers themselves—and democracy was suspended, the fate of the Jews and political opponents effectively settled, and war practically inevitable. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch to find uncomfortable historical parallels in the current political scene, and Hett, though careful to support each of his assertions with scholarship, doesn’t shy away from those possibilities. In the end, he writes, what won Hitler his power was the assent of the disaffected, who forgave him his sins and excesses in the hope that he would provide for them “the fastest and easiest solutions to their own particular problems.”
A provocative, urgent history with significant lessons for today.