A Warning From History

Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 2 May 1935

xraydelta’s focus is the topic of business performance, but occasionally there are diversions to topics both whimsical and weighty.

Organizations exist within a societal context. For some time, several decades in fact, the presumed context for business was one of growing general mobility, of goods, people and ideas. A global-spanning network of container ships, commercial airlines and, most especially, the internet, have been both the beneficiaries of a so-called “flat earth” as well as catalysts for that mobility.

But nothing guarantees the continued existence of mobility or freedom of thought. Indeed, nothing guarantees the continuation of any particular community or way of life. Entire societies were there once, and then they were not.

Within the business context we speak of change, leadership, and communication. But one can also look at these topics within societies. In the context of selling soap, a car loan, or a hamburger, the use of artful imagery and appeals to basic human emotions are not particularly interesting or new. But when applied to the arena of human liberty and political power they take on a different level of importance.

Consultants, professors, and MBAs produce great quantities of material on business concepts. Business people consume these books, journals, podcasts and courses with the aim of gaining ideas, insights or simply the ability to carry-on a decent conversation at the next business social mixer.

A suggestion: in addition to delving into the details of your business sector or reading the latest “7 habits of ___ book’, invest a bit of that time to build some knowledge of our recent past, a past that contains forces just as important — arguably more so — than topics like Moore’s Law, blockchain technology, or the “7 immutable laws of ___”. If nationalism of a kind that restricted the movement of goods, people and ideas were to take hold around the world, then many business ideas and forecasts conceived under one set of assumptions about how the world works and will work in the future would be turned upside down.

One area of our recent past worth exploring as a window onto forces we may soon face today, is the last major rise of global nationalism, during the 1920s and 1930s. Your correspondent traveled to Munich, Dachau, and Berlin earlier this year to try to better understand the roots of National Socialism in Germany. Studying this part of history is greatly aided by the vast amount of books, films and museums dedicated to this topic by the German people themselves. Obviously it is not feasible for many people to travel to these places and time is limited. Here, therefore, are some recommendations on materials I think are useful sources on this era of history.

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The Nazis: A Warning from History, is a BBC production from 1998. It is recommended as a good introduction to the many issues and lessons from a time not so long ago.

The following are some quotes from the narration of Episode 1: Helped Into Power

55 million people died in World War II. And during the war Hitler authorized a policy unique in all history. The mechanized extermination of an entire people. All this was possible because the Nazis ruled Germany. How could it be that a cultured nation at the heart of Europe ever allowed such a man and the Nazi party he led to come to power?

Leading Nazis explained their success easily. It was inevitable given what they called the superhuman qualities of their leader, Adolf Hitler. But the true reasons for the Nazis rise to power are not that simple and are much more alarming.

As the surviving troops (returned from the frontlines of the First World War after Armistice) to the newly democratic Germany, they took their bitterness with them. It would grow and flourish into Nazism in the south of Germany, in Bavaria.

Bavaria is a picture-book land famous for its lederhosen and its beerhalls. But at the end of World War I in this traditional heartland of Germany, conditions existed which would create a revolution. After the war the allies continued to blockade Germany, and the returning troops who marched through Munich, the capital of Bavaria, were shocked to discover how their families were still suffering.

Politics were polarized. Conservatives and socialists each became radical in the face of crisis. With the whole of Germany in turmoil in the spring of 1919, the unrest in Munich resulted in a left-wing takeover of the city, the Raterepublik. This culminated in April 1919 in the Munich-Soviet Republic. An attempt to create a Soviet-style government of the city only 18 months after the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union.

Government troops were sent in the squash the rebellion and there was open fighting on the streets of Munich. The anti-Semitic prejudice of those on the right was further fuelled by the fact that of the leadership of the Raterepublik most were Jewish.

“In Germany the impression gradually took hold that Bolshevism and Judaism are basically the same. I find it very natural that a generally anti-Jewish attitude became widespread.” Fridolin Von Spaun, a volunteer for the Freikorps, a right-wing mercenary group.

“To be completely honest, face to face with Hitler I was never that enthusiastic about him and his moustache. But he could enthuse me through the power of his speeches.” Emil Klein, Nazi Party member, 1921- 1945.

The Nazi Party began to spread its appeal into the countryside. One agricultural student, who was to become a chicken farmer, found in the Nazis an expression of his own obsession with the mystic relationship between German blood and German soil.

“The yeoman of his own acre is the backbone of the German people’s strength and character. Cowards are born in towns; heroes in the country.” The words of another Bavarian, Henrich Himmler, chicken farmer and later commander of the S.S.

(After being sentenced to 9 months for an attempted coup) it seemed by 1924 that Hitler and the Nazis had become an irrelevance. In the mid-1920’s the German economy had recovered, as inflation was reduced to single figures.

There were those who disapproved of the Weimar decadence. They joined non-political groups like the Wandervogel who called for a return to an older, simpler life. One small political party sought to capitalize on this longing for old-fashioned values.

“The way from these Youth movements to the Nazi movement wasn’t particularly difficult. We had little tents and we would build camp fires and in the evenings, we’d sit around the camp and sing to the guitar. And here was a group, here were people who said ‘Germany first.’ The slogan was Germany awake!” Bruno Hahnel, Hitler Youth Leader 1927 – 1945.

The fantasy of a world Jewish conspiracy was openly preached by the Nazis and believed. And along with their anti-Semitism went their belief that violence was an indispensable part of the political process. The party had its own para-military wing, the brown-shirted storm troopers whose job was to protect Nazi meetings, to intimidate the followers of other parties, and to drum up support.

But now, seven years after Hitler had become party leader, the Nazi party was failing dismally in the great struggle. Despite the obvious enthusiasm of the party faithful, the Nazis could not get themselves elected to power.

In the 1928 election, the Nazis got just 2.6% of the vote. The Nazis were a tiny fringe party, almost a joke. And yet just four years and eight months later Hitler was Chancellor of Germany. The Nazis were helped by circumstance.

A sudden drop in world agricultural prices brought poverty to the countryside, and the Wall Street crash heralded a world economic slump. German unemployment rose to 5 ½ million in 1931.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, they did. The five major banks crashed in 1931. More than 20,000 German businesses folded. Now the middle class was suffering.

In the economic crisis, the Nazis vote increased. They still said the same: Versailles was a crime, Jews should be denied German citizenship, Marxism should be destroyed and Germany must be reborn. Their message hadn’t changed; it was just now more Germans were ready to hear it.

And in this economic crisis people who had never seen or heard Hitler still voted Nazi. In a remote town in German east Prussia like Neidenburg in 1928 the Nazis got 2.3% of the vote. In 1930 their vote leapt up to 25.8% Yet Hitler didn’t visit here and there was no Nazi organization in the town.

But it wasn’t just the Nazis that were doing well. The Communists started to pick up votes too. Something sinister was happening to this new democracy. It seemed to be splitting apart as voters rushed to the extremes.

Hitler said that he was the strong man that could solve the economic crisis at the head of a dynamic party that promised it would destroy Germany’s internal enemies and rebuild the country around national unity.

“That winter, I saw Hitler for the first time. There was a huge crowd there. I can only explain this with the desperation and poverty caused by the mass unemployment it was really terrible. And in this situation Hitler seemed to be the bringer of salvation. He said, ‘I will get you out of this misery if you all join in.’ And everyone understood.” Jutta Rudiger, Nazi Party member, 1931 – 1945.

The Nazi party proposed little in the way of detailed policies. But it offered order, discipline and the personality of Adolf Hitler.

“Suddenly I noticed Hitler’s eyes resting upon me. And that was one of the most curious moments of my life. And the long gaze that he had given me convinced me completely that he was a man of honourable intentions. I can only say that I am glad that I saw Hitler’s most beautiful side. Surely there must have been dark sides but I saw his wonderful side”. Fridolin Von Spaun, Nazi Party support 1933 – 1945.

Powerful figures on the traditional right still felt they had to negotiate with Hitler. They too wanted to eliminate democracy and destroy the Communists. Without Hitler and the Nazis they had no access to mass support. A former Chancellor, the aristocratic Von Papen, came up with a deal.

Hitler could be Chancellor if, Von Papen, was Vice-Chancellor and there were only two other Nazis in the Cabinet so that they would by surrounded by more traditional conservatives. The theory was Hitler would be tamed.

As a result, President Hindenburg offered Adolf Hitler the Chancellorship on January 30, 1933. Von Papen crowed, ‘We’ve hired him.’

“We didn’t fully realize what this would mean. We believed that we could still control him through parliament. Madness. Total madness.” Josef Felder, Social Democrat MP, 1932-1933

“If I think of the businessmen and all the others, they were all proud, and if they weren’t proud, they still expected something from Hitler coming to power.” Emil Klein, Nazi Party member, 1921- 1945

“There were a few Storm Troopers who had Jewish girlfriends and therefore a lot of German Jews thought ‘We’ll it’s not going to be so bad. Look at this, they have Jewish girlfriends; they can’t hate us all. It’s heartbreaking.” Eugene Levine, son of Communist Leader.

“Yet the danger is always there, when there’s a crisis, that people appear who claim to be the fount of all wisdom and that they can bring salvation to everyone.”

Immediately after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, one of Hindenburg’s closest comrades from World War I, General Ludendorff, wrote to him:

“I prophesize to you, solemnly, that this accursed man will take our Reich into the abyss.”

Books

If understanding the rise of National Socialism in Germany is the topic, then recommending a book is made difficult by the fact that most books on Nazi Germany combine the rise to power of the Nazi Party with the conduct of the war. Both topics are huge and the result of combining them are either very long books or intimidating multi-volume sets.

For example, William L. Shire’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1959, was one of the first books I read on this topic but, at over 1,200 pages, it is both very long but also too short in some ways. Even 1,200 pages is not enough to convey the magnitude of events but it does have the advantage that Shire lived in Germany until 1940 and is therefore able to convey many events from a direct and personal perspective as a journalist.

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The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans has the advantage that Evans’ coverage of Nazi Germany is split among 3 books. This book covers events up to about 1933 when Hitler was made Chancellor and explores how the on-time fringe party and its leader seized the levers of power of the continent’s largest nation.

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There are several books about Adolf Hitler, his background, how he built the Nazi Party, eventually gained power and then proceeded to achieve his vision for Germany, first through political means and then through military acts. These books, due to the large-scale of events, are lengthy. But a classic two-volume set is by Ian Kershaw. Volume 1, Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris, focuses on the formation and rise of the Nazis.

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Kershaw has also produced a single-volume version of the two-volume set.

There are some detailed statistical analyses of the voting patterns in the German elections up to 1933, studies that seek to understand who voted for the Nazi Party and why. One publication is The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1933 by Thomas Childers. However such a book is aimed at those seeking to study the politics of pre-World War II Germany in fine detail and is not very accessible.

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Into what kind of future are we headed? Businesses can no longer assume that the world will continue to operate as it has for the last few decades. They should not assume that people will look at all the facts and “act rationally.” These documentaries and books make clear that some very smart people got things terribly wrong roughly 90 years ago.

18 June 1940. House of Commons

Churchill stands in the face of an impending onslaught:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’



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