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.
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