by Tony Wyman
On September 12, 1919,
a nondescript German corporal walked into a sparsely attended meeting of the German Workers’ Party in Munich. Sent there to investigate the group by the German Army, at that time deeply involved in crushing Marxist groups trying to gain power, the corporal sat at the back of the beer hall in which the meeting took place and listened while economist Gottfried Feder gave a speech called, “How and by What Means is Capitalism to be Eliminated.”
Unimpressed with what he heard, the young corporal got up to leave. But, as he walked to the door, another speaker took Feder’s place and began calling for Bavaria, the southern most German state, to break from the rest of the country and join Austria in a new nation called South Germany.
This idea enraged the corporal who railed against the speaker for 15 non-stop minutes, denouncing him and his ideas in front of the small audience of 25 astonished far-right zealots. One of them was party co-founder Anton Drexler, who, upon hearing the corporal’s impassioned speech, proclaimed “He’s got the gift of gab. We could use him!”
Before the corporal could leave the beer hall, Drexler thrust into his hands a 40-page pamphlet he had written called “My Political Awakening,” pleading with the young newcomer to read the message contained within. The next morning, back at his barracks, the corporal did just that and found the author’s words reflected his own thinking about the need for a new nationalist political party that was strongly pro-military, pro-German, anti-Semitic and comprised of working class people, rather than of establishment politicians who, in the eyes of the corporal and Drexler, represented the wealthy class and the industrialists.
Enthralled by the corporal, Drexler offered him membership in the party. Encouraged to join by his military superiors who were not yet convinced the party wasn’t a Marxist group seeking to overthrow the government, the corporal became party member number 555 (the party started numbering members at 500 to make it appear there were more than there really were signed up).
Years later, in a book called “Mein Kampf” that would change the world and lead to the deaths of more than 60 million people (3% of the world’s population at the time), the German corporal, Adolf Hitler, would say about the German Workers’ Party “…aside from a few directives, there was nothing, no program, no leaflet, no printed matter at all, no membership cards, not even a miserable rubber stamp…”
From these inauspicious beginnings, as one of 70 far right-wing political parties vying for power in a badly fragmented German nation still reeling from its crushing defeat in The Great War, the German Worker’s Party, soon to become the Nazi Party, would eventually become the most powerful political force in the world.
How was this possible?
The simple answer is none of the other parties in Germany vying for power had a man like Adolf Hitler, a man whose tactics, cunning and charisma as an orator could capture the attention of the German people and harness their passions and energies as effectively as did the Nazi dictator.
But the real reason Hitler was so effective at marshaling the German people into a malleable and manageable force involved more than his ability to stir crowds into a furor with patriotic speeches appealing to the emotions of people looking for a vision of a better future.
In the book, written between 1940 and 1943 when the world was fully engaged in war on three continents, Hayek wrote there are three reasons why the worst people come to power so often, even in modern, democratic and free societies, and form totalitarian governments that take over and oppress their nations:
“There are three main reasons why such a numerous and strong group with fairly homogeneous views is not likely to be formed by the best, but, rather, by the worst elements of any society. By our standards, the principles on which such a group would be selected will be almost entirely negative.”
Explaining that the most despicable people often end up with the most political power, Hayek asserted that reality doesn’t occur by chance and that most dictators follow a course similar to the one charted by Hitler.
Reason 1 – A Common Grievance: The Lowest Common Denominator Unites the Most People.
One of the aftermaths of the end of World War 1 was the destruction of the German economy and the resulting hyperinflation following the country’s defeat on the battlefield. Largely caused by the war-time decision of Kaiser Wilhelm‘s government to borrow money to pay for the war, rather than to institute a national income tax like the French did, Germany was buried under debt when the conflict ended. Their plan to pay off their debt by winning the war and annexing valuable territory on both fronts failed with their army’s inability to successfully defeat allied opponents.
The result was the government that followed the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic, was forced to pay reparations in gold or foreign currency, since the victorious nations didn’t want German Marks, bills that were rapidly losing their value. The mark, that was valued at 4.2 to the dollar shortly after the war ended, eventually collapsed to the point where it cost 4,210,500,000,000 Marks to buy one U.S. dollar in November 1923, essentially rendering the German currency worthless.
The resulting economic suffering of the German people touched nearly every home and rising costs of goods jeopardized the financial health of all, including even the wealthiest Germans. This shared misery united all Germans in a shared bond, one combined with the commonality of their Germanic ethnicity, making them highly susceptible to propaganda offering them a way out of the dilemma in which they were mired: the Third Reich.
About this, Hayek said, “If a numerous group is needed, strong enough to impose their views on the values of life on all the rest, it will never be those with highly differentiated and developed tastes it will be those who form the “mass” in the derogatory sense of the term, the least original and independent, who will be able to put the weight of their numbers behind their particular ideals.”
In other words, for a dictator to succeed in getting the masses to follow him without question, he must exploit their common and shared misery. In this case, it was the economic disaster the German people were experiencing. And, to get the most of that disaster, Hitler had to “convert more to the same simple creed” by making more and more Germans believe the root cause of their misery wasn’t the choices of their own government and people, but, rather, the unfair conditions ending the First World War, a war the Germans started themselves.
He had to root out and neutralize the diverging opinions of Germans who saw the crisis for what it was, one of the German’s own making, while marshaling the power of the angry and aggrieved masses ready to follow the path of a strong and patriotic leader.
Reason 2 – A Common Cause: A Ready-made System of Values Drummed Into Those With No Values of Their Own.
After the war ended, the German people were exhausted and ready to accept any alternative to the lives they were leading that promised them something different. Reeling from the financial devastation to their economy the war caused and from the 1.8 million dead and 4.2 million wounded they suffered on the battlefield, German morale was sinking lower than their currency.
Faced with the challenge of mobilizing the demoralized German people to act in unity to do the bidding of the Nazi regime, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels knew that, to succeed, he had to give the “Volk” something in which to believe, a common cause driven into their minds that would change the zeitgeist of the German public to one in compliant, fanatical lockstep with the Nazi hierarchy. Hayek said:
“It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused, who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party.”
And that is what Goebbels did, he aroused the German people with a propaganda plan that included 19 principles with the aim of portraying their leader as a veritable god and depicting their future under Hitler’s leadership as the inevitable rulers of the planet.
By targeting poorly educated Germans, those who did not have a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of the economic situation in which the German economy was mired, those who were easily swayed into believing half-truths and outright lies, Nazi propagandists whipped the masses into an emotional frenzy and united them in a common cause by giving them something in which to believe, even if that something was based on falsehoods and demagoguery.
Reason 3 – A Common Enemy:
Among Goebbels 19 points was one, number 18, that specifically created the climate for the Holocaust that led to the murders of six million Jews.
“Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets of hatred.”
This was the real evil brilliance of the Nazi regime: giving the German people a target upon which to focus their hatred and anger. Hayek put it this way;
“…the third and perhaps most important negative element of selection enters. It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative programme, on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off, than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they”, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses. From their point of view it has the great advantage of leaving them greater freedom of action than almost any positive programme. The enemy, whether he be internal like the ‘Jew’ or the ‘Kulak’, or external, seems to be an indispensable requisite in the armoury of a totalitarian leader.”
The brilliance of targeting a defenseless subsection of German society like the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other “outsiders” – was it gave the people a vulnerable target against which they could strike with effect, an easily identifiable enemy that looked, acted and thought differently than the German masses. Had German propagandists spent all their energy on blaming the English, for example, the people would have been frustrated by their government’s inability to do something about the situation.
With the Jews (and others), both the government and common German people could take action. They could make an impact, address grievances, make things right, according to the propaganda.
The Relinquishing of Power
And by capitulating to Nazi propaganda, by giving up their role as active participants in the German government that existed when the country was democratic, by becoming followers of the fascist, totalitarian regime of Adolf Hitler rather than active members of a public exercising self-determination – the German people, at the end of the war claimed they were innocent of the charges of atrocities leveled by other nations against them after the end of the war. They weren’t active engineers of the Holocaust. No, instead, they were merely following orders.
They were, as Hayek put it, able to “imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups.”
And they did, indeed, delegate “their vices” to the Nazi machine that ruled and, ultimately, destroyed their nation. The exhaustion, fear and anger the German people felt after their defeat in World War l, led them to desire change, any change, that made their nation great again and relieved them of the burdens and deprivations under which they were suffering.
Their desire for a new Germany, a proud and strong Fatherland, was so great they were willing to turn a blind eye to the depravities and atrocities their leaders were committing in their names in the belief those crimes were the price they had to pay to get what they wanted.
This is why totalitarian regimes are so subversive and pernicious and why all who believe that nations, as well as individuals, should act morally must oppose them. When the citizens of a nation abdicate responsibility for the actions of their country, when they give all the power of self-determination they possess to a leader and his party, there remains nothing in place to check and restrain the power of the state.
Left without a citizenry to answer to, leaders, even well-intentioned ones, fall prey to Lord Acton‘s warning, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.