Since 1999 I’ve developed very close ties to German filk fandom and lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the country. It’s been hard for me to reconcile what I’ve seen with its Nazi past; few Germans give the impression of the kind of people who’d support a brutal dictatorship. This weekend I’ve read Irmgard A. Hunt’s On Hitler’s Mountain, an account of the author’s growing up under the Third Reich, and it provides a number of clues.
She mentions the historical facts. World War I, the Versailles Treaty, and the hyperinflation of the early Twenties resulted in national humiliation and a miserable economy, and people wanted a leader who would make Germany great again. However, it also took people with a certain character to opt for tyranny. The nation, and the fragmentary states which preceded it, had a long tradition of authoritarianism. Hunt writes: “The ground rules in a German family were the same as in the German state: Punish independence, rebellion against orders, and speaking up … instead, foster unquestioning obedience, submission, orderliness, and hard work.” Even long after the war, she writes, her mother “was still thoroughly conditioned to look to leadership, to the government, rather than to her own individual responsibility, let alone to personal activism, to guard the freedoms and guide the politics of the new republic.”
Even so, her family members sound like people I might have liked apart from that one overwhelming issue. Her mother supported the NSDAP, not out of hatred of Jews or desire to conquer the world, but from simple acceptance of authority. Most Germans were unaware of the mass killing of Jews in the concentration camps, but they accepted the criminalization of dissent, believed the government’s lies, and evaded the moral significance of the actions that were public. Peer pressure was often more effective than the threat of arrest; people didn’t want to be considered unpatriotic.
It’s remarkable how, according to Hunt’s account, support for the Nazi government evaporated once it collapsed. A strong leader who ceases to be strong is nothing to his former followers. People looted Hitler’s and Göring’s retreats, near her home town of Berchtesgaden, after the Allies drove the Nazis out.
Have today’s Germans left its authoritarian past behind? Not entirely. Most still believe in a strong welfare state to take care of them. Some still believe in the “Aryan” state, though they’re an unpopular minority. Right now the US seems to be in greater danger than Germany.
What I’ve gotten out of the book is the importance of the culture and general mood in letting “nice” Germans support Hitler. If more people had spoken out, they might have swayed the people who passively accepted him. It’s important to say something when bad things are happening; you never know what indirect influence you might have.