Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Promises, Promises


On 13 February the 70th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden was commemorated. The German president, Joachim Gauck, spoke of the people who started the war, but also spoke of the thousands who perished in the firestorms ignited by the incendiary bombs as "victims," that they were as much victims of the Nazis as everyone else, and that they, too, suffered at their hands:

"We know who started the murderous war... we know. And that is why we don't and we will never forget the victims of German warfare. We don't forget when, today, we remember the German victims."

This has become, I'm afraid, the new mantra among Germans, their new way of coming to terms with their monstrous past. Unfortunately it doesn't wash. If they bothered to fact check their own history, they would learn that Adolf Hitler did not come to power because of a putsch or a coup d'etat. He and his National Socialist Party were handed power by the German electorate.

Fascism was nothing new when, in 1928, the Nazis got 800,000 votes in the Reichstag elections. Fascism originated in Italy and was a clear reaction against communism and socialism and the power of labor. In the 1930 election, the Nazis won six and a half million votes. The failure of the communists and socialists, who between them still held a majority of seats in the Reichstag, to see Nazism as a legitimate threat and to form an alliance against it made Hitler's rise to power all the easier. When he was named Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, he was actually the head of a coalition government. But at that late stage, it was easy for him to neutralize his coalition partners because he knew he had a mandate from the people. True to all his promises, since Hitler had never tried to conceal or disguise his intentions from anyone, one of his first acts upon seizing emergency powers was to take steps to crush the German labor movement altogether. What Hitler promised to Germans has always intrigued me, and should stand as a great lesson to anyone seeking to attain political power. As early in the war as March 1940, George Orwell understood Hitler's success:

"[Hitler had] grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all Western thought since the last war, certainly all 'progressive' thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. . . Hitler, because in in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general. common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades. . . All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people, 'I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them 'I offer you struggle, danger and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation 'Greatest happiness of the greatest number' is a good slogan, but at the moment 'Better an end with horror than a horror without end' is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal." (Review of Mein Kampf, New English Weekly, 21 March 1940)

Removing the destruction of Dresden from its context is a stupid exercise. We have to stop engaging in retroactive pity. We need to remember what Auden wrote:

History to the defeated.
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.


("Spain," 1937)


In the terminal months of the war, the German people knew struggle and self-sacrifice, danger and death. They faced and end with horror, and on February 13, 1945, the citizens of Dresden got exactly what Hitler promised them.

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