Liberals under Nazism: lessons for today?

It's a common belief that German liberal democrats fled their homeland at the rise of Nazism, or at least resisted Nazi policies. Not so, says historian Eric Kurlander in "Living With Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich," published in August by Yale University Press. Many liberals stuck it out, even prospered. Kurlander, an associate professor of history at Stetson University, wonders at their actions and asks what their conduct might teach us about the rise of authoritarian regimes.

GUEST BLOGGER: Eric Kurlander

History books are very much a product of their times. And this book, conceived and written in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War, Guantanamo, and Katrina is no exception.

The questions are clear: How could liberal Germans-- the heirs to Kant, Beethoven, and Einstein-- tolerate the Third Reich? How could Germany's last remaining Democrats endorse Hitler's Emergency Decrees, which suspended habeas corpus, or the Enabling Act, granting Hitler power to enact legislation without parliamentary consent? Why did liberals defend Hitler's foreign policy, including the preemptive attack of Poland that initiated the Second World War?
How did they react as the state systematically disenfranchised, arrested, and murdered thousands of German citizens and millions more ethnic minorities?

"Living With Hitler" attempts to answer these questions by looking at the experiences of German liberals -- namely the leaders of Germany's liberal Democratic Party -- during the twelve years of Hitler's rule.

It shows, first, that German liberals shared many beliefs with their Nazi rivals, and therefore favored some of Hitler's policies even as they opposed National Socialism in other respects. Like the Nazis, the liberals detested Communism and the Versailles Treaty, advocated a right to national self-determination for all ethnic Germans, and possessed nearly unbounded optimism toward science and technology. They supported the Third Reich's Keynesian response to the Great Depression, a moderately interventionist welfare state, and corporatist arrangement between capital and labor. In terms of women's issues, health care, and family policy, there were more than passing affinities between liberal and Nazi programs as well.

Second, and despite understandable misperceptions to the contrary, the Third Reich provided ample space for liberal criticism in public life and across civil society, especially before the outbreak of the Second World War. Liberals did encounter pressures to conform and occasionally the threat of arrest. Yet these kinds of pressures -- including the necessity of joining Reich organizations, eschewing "minority" hires and clients, or toeing a politically palatable line -- were not qualitatively different from those imposed, for example, on Wall Street or in the American South in the 1930s.

That is not to downplay the escalating persecution experienced by individuals on the margins of the "people's community." Liberals simply did not face the same risks or challenges as Communists and Socialists, the disabled, or the putatively racially inferior. Hence, when liberals failed to resist, at least intellectually, it had less to do with fear of arrest than a tacit desire to accommodate specific policies.

Only when confronted by the abject criminality of the regime did many liberal democrats turn away from even a tentative endorsement of Nazi foreign and domestic policies. Indeed, some Democrats acquiesced to the 1933 laws limiting Jewish involvement in the civil service, education, and the professions. But as anti-Semitic persecution worsened many liberals did what they could to defend or assist Jewish friends and associates.

German Democrats, therefore, reacted similarly to their liberal colleagues in France, Great Britain, and the United States. On an individual basis they expended substantial time, money, and effort helping Jewish colleagues. On a conceptual level, however, their own prejudices and preoccupations made it difficult for them to marshal a coherent liberal alternative to Nazi anti-Semitism.

It may seem remarkable that liberals rationalized -- much less embraced -- elements of National Socialism. But their ambivalence, I would argue, is less a sign of German peculiarity vis-à-vis the United States than it is a warning of the susceptibility of all liberal democracies to fascism, particularly in times of economic distress, political polarization, and global instability.

Take the nearly perfect storm of the 2001 recession and 9/11 attacks. As the political right played Sorcerer's Apprentice to apocalyptic fears of terrorism, socioeconomic dislocation, and ethno-cultural decline, liberals witnessed the erosion of their increasingly conservative middle class constituencies -- the same constituencies that abandoned German liberalism in the wake of the Versailles Treaty and the Great Depression.

Desperate to remain relevant, American liberals refused to trust their better judgment. With remarkable complacency, they countenanced tax cuts for the wealthiest; facilitated a preemptive war against a country that posed no direct threat to the United States; and pushed through the 2001 and 2006 Patriot Acts: not dissimilar from the 1933 Emergency Decrees or Enabling Act, these laws allow the Executive branch to suspend habeas corpus, detaining, arresting, and -- apparently -- torturing individuals in the name of national security.

Like their German predecessors, American liberals could provide idealistic reasons for these illiberal responses to the challenges of the early 21st century. Many were seduced by the Wilsonian conviction that America can make the world a better place through the force of arms (It was the very failure of Wilson's utopian ideals at Versailles that led to the rise of Hitler.)

The Patriot Act was not the first time, many pointed out, that some of our constitutional rights were subordinated to national security in the face of war. Others were motivated by the same emotional patriotism and uncritical devotion to the state that clouded the vision of many German liberals in 1933.

Unfortunately, our current administration faces the challenges it does today in large part because liberal politicians, journalists, and intellectuals failed to oppose, indeed, in some cases helped to sponsor, a succession of authoritarian, imperialist, and xenophobic policies that emerged during the first half of this decade.

It is undoubtedly a cliché to remind the reader that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. But I would like to think that American liberals who read "Living With Hitler" will recognize something of themselves in their German counterparts. Perhaps they will act with greater courage and conviction in facing current challenges, like overhauling our faltering health care system, dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, or withdrawing a quarter million troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then again, perhaps they will not.

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 28, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Comments

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Well, there are liberals by their words and liberals in action. Most people just aren't going to put their lives, families and their property to fight big, bad governments.

Posted by: cmecyclist | October 28, 2009 7:48 AM

...risk their lives...

Posted by: cmecyclist | October 28, 2009 7:52 AM

Obama and Hitler were elected basically for the same reasons. Both had charisma and great oratory skills. Both preached change. Both came forward during bad economic times and both promised everything would be alright if they were given a chance. Hitler began to seek full powers immediately and got an Enabling Act giving him full dictatorial powers. Obama has the House and the Senate on his side and four liberals plus one swing vote on the Supreme Court. Hitler began to institute laws taking guns away and attacking opposing media. Obama tried to get the guns but failed when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against him, and is attacking Fox News for pointing out his failings. Hitler appointed henchmen to do his bidding and report to him directly. Obama has appointed powerful Czars to report to him directly.
Hitler started public works programs and built up his military and the economy started to improve. Obama bailed out corporations and cut back on the military and the economy has not improved. Hitler had a Hitler Youth Program. School children in America are being taught to admire and love Obama.
The German People did not realize that having a dictator could meant that they were subject to will. The American people don't seem to worry that a one-party controlled system with Obama at the top is a dictatorship in lambs clothing.

Hitler was appeased. Obama is an appeaser. Hitler made a deal with the U.S.S.R. and then double-crossed them. Obama made a deal with the Russians and they have double-crossed him.
Hitler started WWII because he was able to gain the Rhine, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland without the Brits or the French firing a shot at him. Obama could through weakness allow a war to start in the Middle East.
FDR gave in to Stalin at Yalta. Obama is giving in to Putin now.

Germans lost their country because the gave all the power to Hitler. American could lose our country giving all powers to Obama as well.

Posted by: mharwick | October 28, 2009 7:26 PM

"That is not to downplay the escalating persecution experienced by individuals on the margins of the "people's community." Liberals simply did not face the same risks or challenges as Communists and Socialists, the disabled, or the putatively racially inferior. Hence, when liberals failed to resist, at least intellectually, it had less to do with fear of arrest than a tacit desire to accommodate specific policies."

We see the same today when it comes to abortion, which disproportionately effects African-Americans and Hispanics. More than a third of all African-American pregnancies are aborted. In facilities owned by groups such as Planned Parenthood, which originated from the racist eugenics and sterilization programs (which Nazi leaders wrote letters of support to). To this day, we see pro-choice advocates use language similar to the Nazi's 'unpure' and 'undesirables' with 'future criminals' and the 'unwanted'.

Yet liberals are willing to ignore the evil of abortion and its disastrous effect on the African-American population, because it serves their liberal, sexualized, exploitative media empire and the destruction of the traditional family model.

Posted by: cprferry | October 29, 2009 9:09 AM

While one's first impression might be something of surprise, noting the glaring contrasts in the focus of the preceding comments which follow the author's, in truth it would be naive to expect other than such extraordinarily conflicting interpretations, not only of the book, but the author's own comments addressing the relevance of his book with respect to contemporary America. Given the nature of American politics today and the general intellectual disengagement of the "average American" the few who make an effort to affect the process, seem to be driven to extremes to make up in extremism for what is lacking in universal involvement. Accordingly, should we be puzzled by the fact that while the author's own views, which, for simplicity's sake, one could label, at least by inference, as "liberal" (in an American political context, not in its classical context), blogger mharwick presents a well-written argument, which would likely make an excellent attachment to his or her resume for a position as an analyst for Fox News. Blogger cprerry is apparently so consumed by a single issue, his or her political affiliations and other beliefs, as such may exist, aside, a single matter of grossly subjective, if not totally questionable, relevance is the sole impetus for the comment. In my opinion, while cmecyclist apparently states the obvious, whether or not somewhat of an oversimplification, the point made is clearly the most objective and while undeniably brief, best mirrors one central focus of both the book and the author's preceding comments regarding same.

Posted by: ckatlantis | October 30, 2009 1:28 PM

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