Even if British historian and author of the book The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler Laurence Rees insists that history does not repeat itself, it can sometimes be difficult to avoid drawing comparisons between the economic woes faced by the Weimar Republic in the 1930s and the ongoing European sovereign-debt crisis. In an opinion piece for Talkin’Business, Atticus Mullikin reflects on the lessons Europe can learn from this dark page in its history.
“It’s often forgotten that in the 1928 election in Germany, the Nazis get just 2.6 percent of the vote” says British historian Laurence Rees. “So more than 97 percent of Germans reject Hitler. They reject him because they can see him largely for what he is.”
The Aula at Tongersestraat is packed to overflowing as Rees speaks during the annual Tans lecture, entitled The Charisma of Adolf Hitler. All the seats are full, and students are sitting on the floor and the steps and leaning against the partitions overlooking the stage below. Rees continues, “What changes isn’t Hitler. What changes is the situation: unspeakable economic catastrophe. The banks crash, the middle class lose their money, democracy is seen as failing because it can’t get the country out of the terrible economic crisis. Without that economic crisis, there’s no way I’d be writing this book or we’d be having this talk.”
Later, during the question and answer period, I wait for the obvious question. And yet, sitting in a theater of the School of Business and Economics, no one asks it. It was posed to Rees during an interview on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year. “Is it inevitable that if […] the economy of Europe, in total, collapses, then disaster of the sort we’ve seen over the last 70 years […] will follow?”
The warnings of history
When I spoke with him earlier in the day, Rees was very careful to say that “history does not repeat itself” and that you cannot recast current developments with old characters. Rather, history is full of warnings for the modern age that lack specificity.
Perhaps, but it is difficult to avoid comparisons between depression-era Germany and today. Having a drink after the lecture, a friend walks over and says, “Did you hear what he said about German housewives being in favor of Dachau because it got the criminals off the street?” He hands me an article about the far-right Golden Dawn party in Greece clipped from the Wall Street Journal, pointing to a comment from a 70-year-old Greek man complaining that his shop was robbed and the police “don’t do anything”. The man’s wife says, “We’re very afraid at night. After 7, we can’t leave our homes. They hurt people. They rob people.”
Far-right politics on the rise in Europe
Entitled Far-Right Party Taps Anger in Greece, the article also quotes Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who “compared the dire economic situation in Greece to that in Weimar Germany before Hitler’s rise and pointed to the Golden Dawn, which he described as ” right-wing extremist, one might say fascist, neo-Nazi party.” Indeed, far-right politics, while still a small minority of the electorate, are on the rise throughout Europe.
Rees’s narrative is telling: our institutions are more delicate than we think; most atrocities were committed willingly by people who thought they were doing good; Nazis didn’t change people’s minds, but drew existing prejudices to lethal efficacy. It seems the more we learn about the Nazis, the more we know about the fragility of our society.
What is most startling about Greece is not Golden Dawn’s rise, but how quickly financial bailouts have resulted in a devolved (but far from universal) narrative about “lazy, corrupt Mediterranean-types” and “robust, hard-working northerners.” Do a Google search for “financial crisis lazy Greeks” and see what you get. All the while, those people suffering German-imposed austerity in Greece, Spain and Portugal had little or nothing to do with creating the mess. Where are the prosecutions of the rich investors and bankers who created the crisis? Why is Goldman Sachs, which has been accused of cooking Greece’s books, still a prestigious investment bank? Why has this crisis not resulted in massive reforms of the economy? Why, in the wake of both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, have we not learned that economics and ethics are inseparable?
Eric Larson’s recent book In the Garden of the Beast is about American Ambassador to Germany Dodd in the 1930s. Ambassador Dodd’s humble origins are constantly the stuff of ridicule by the “Pretty Good Club”, rich elites in the American diplomatic corps more concerned with throwing lavish parties and making Germany pay its debt than about the savagery of the Nazi party or the people they’re persecuting:
“What most occupied the attention of the [American] state department was the outstanding German debt to American creditors. It was a strange juxtaposition. In Germany, there was blood, viscera, and gunfire; at the State Department in Washington, there were white shirts […] and mounting frustration with Dodd for failing to press America’s case.”
It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.
To say that Hitler was a devotee of natural selection is an understatement. Hitler, Dodd says, wrote, “The world continues to turn whether the tiger eats the man or the man eats the tiger.” But what of the washed-out sentiment, It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Could Hitler not have uttered this phrase as the German armies marched on Prague in 1939?
There is often no “everyone wins” scenario in business, there is always a loser in striving to “remain competitive,” and “letting the market decide” bears a striking similarity to “letting nature select.” It is hard to ignore the economic benefits to the Third Reich of invading Czechoslovakia or driving a war against Russia in order to get to the oil reserves of the Caspian Sea Basin. Was Hitler’s entire eastern colonial enterprise not simply an emulation of the colonial success of the British Empire, itself a largely economic endeavour?
The Swedish author Sven Lindqvist has argued that Nazi genocide was an outgrowth of the colonial age. Contrary to the popular (but far from universal) notion that Nazism represented an historical aberration, it grew directly out of the colonial ethos of the time. From Lindqvist’s Origins of European Genocide:
“The air he [Hitler] and all other Western people in his childhood breathed was soaked in the conviction that imperialism is a biologically necessary process, which, according to the laws of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races. It was a conviction that had already cost millions of human lives before Hitler provided his highly personal application.” James Carroll went further, writing in Constantine’s Sword: the Church and the Jews that the Social Darwinism that influenced Hitler was “the dominant cultural and political idea of the day.”
Indeed, the work of Edwin Black has revealed that American industrialists like Rockefeller and Carnegie promoted eugenics – the science of human breeding – in both the United States and Germany through philanthropic organizations before and after the Nazis seized power, and that IBM helped to organize the death camps. When it was revealed that the company providing graffiti-proof coating to the new Holocaust Memorial in Berlin had also produced the Zyklon-B used in gas chambers during the war, there was a call to ban all German companies that had participated in Jewish persecutions. It became apparent though that this would mean the monument couldn’t be completed at all.
Lessons to be learned
Let us be clear: business is not evil. It is a healthy, integral part of a free society that people should be able to carry out commerce, increase value, generate wealth and exchange goods and services. However, as Rees concludes his lecture to rousing applause, the answer to the question no one in the theater asked about a European economic collapse remains.
We find ourselves on the edge of economic catastrophe in order to continue paying a debt that, in many ways, was never just or legal to begin with. Regular, middle class people are being forced to pay this debt, even as European governments continue to enforce an agenda of privatization and austerity measures are being pushed on countries like Greece against the advice of leading international economists like Noble-laureate Paul Krugman. Golden Dawn received 7 percent of the Greek vote in the last election.
The EU, which Rees tells us grew out of the Coal and Steel Union created to prevent another European war, is full of member-states that have never really moved beyond the simple economic advantage of membership. Now that these advantages are giving way to hardship, the real test of a united Europe begins, and the real lessons of the Weimar era must be applied. Are we really prepared to continue transforming our neighbors into third world nations in the name of market liberalization? Or is it time to apply the lessons of history to imagining a new kind of economy and a new kind of business ethic?