Michael Slate Interviews Historian Peter Fritzsche

How ordinary Germans became supporters of Hitler and the Nazis, and complicit in unspeakable horror

July 3, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is from an interview with Peter Fritzsche on April 21, 2017, on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio. Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.

Michael Slate: Historian Peter Fritzsche is the author of Life and Death in the Third Reich and An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler and one that really knocked me out, Germans into Nazis. And we’re talking about how ordinary Germans became supporters of Hitler and the Nazis, and complicit in unspeakable horrors. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Fritzsche: Glad to be here Michael. Thanks.

Michael Slate: Let’s jump right into it. Let’s talk about how Germany became a fascist country, ruled by a brutal dictator for more than 10 years.

Peter Fritzsche: There are two extraordinary events that happened in the early 1930s. One is the huge rise of the votes for Hitler, between 1930 and 1933. He topped out at 37 percent, and in the parliamentary system, coming from nowhere, that’s a huge number. And that gave him a kind of democratic legitimacy. Moreover, he had a press empire. He had thousands of supporters. He had paramilitary troops, so he had real political power that was visible to almost all Germans by 1932, 1933, but he didn’t have everybody. There were millions of socialists, millions of communists, millions of Catholic voters who were not necessarily for Hitler. But within 100 days of the last election in Germany in March 1933, he had completely dismantled democracy, prohibited all political parties and was riding a wave of popular enthusiasm that historians today are still trying to understand....

Michael Slate: This is one of the things I think we really have to dig into because you can see it happening now. It actually has a lot of potential for repetition, here. The whole point of this popular myth around how Nazi rule in Germany was imposed. You’ve argued in your books that there actually was a reason why Germans became Nazis.

Peter Fritzsche: There is a factor of imposition. They did imprison tens of thousands of socialists and communists in 1933. But this was a popular movement and Nazism was popular because it was different. It wasn’t a “big business” party. It was not associated with middle class interest groups and it was not associated in the minds of its voters with socialism, communism, and internationalism. It was a third way that combined, in the minds of Nazi voters, social progressive policies that would invite workers back into the nation, but would also think, “Germany First,” that Germany had been humiliated, [by] the Treaty of Versailles. It needed to gather all its national energies in order to act on the international stage and recover economically. So, the name of the Nazi party is NSDAP. That means “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” That acronym is basically the explanation for why the Nazis were able to profile themselves as a new and different force, especially in economically bad times when people were rejecting what they called “the system,” in droves.

Michael Slate: One of the things that really troubled me is when I’m reading this and I’m studying this stuff and reading your books, I keep thinking, in addition to the people who were really jumping into the Nazis and loving the Nazis, they liked the new society but they didn’t like the Nazis. They sort of managed to find some kind of common ground where they became involved in everything that the Nazis were doing on the ground in the country at the time. This actually means that they accepted a lot of the stuff that was the buildup to and pretty quickly, the horrendous stuff, the unspeakable stuff that was done by the Nazis.

Peter Fritzsche: Yeah, it’s a great question and I make a distinction between Nazis and the Third Reich. And you could love the Third Reich, you could support the national revolution of 1933, but not necessarily love the Nazis down the block. And in a dictatorship it’s much easier for corrupt, nepotistic local leaders to be quite powerful. And there’s no doubt that lots of Germans mistrusted the local Brown Shirts in the neighborhood. But the big revolution, “The National Revolution” as it was called, and the larger project of building a Third Reich, of healing the divisions of German history, of creating a sort of ethnic consciousness that would make Germany strong again both inside and outside its borders—that was indeed widely accepted and won increasing assent. Indeed in 1945, many, many Germans blamed the Nazis for betraying and destroying the Third Reich.

Michael Slate: At the same time as you’re talking about all this, there was sort of this point about people themselves turning a blind eye at best and sometimes actually justifying a lot of horrendous things that the Nazis ended up doing. There were all the people that they took out along the way, but then there were also the Jewish people. Reading your books I sort of got a sense of, OK, but people turned a blind eye to this and then sometimes even sort of welcomed this as necessary.

Peter Fritzsche: Something happened in 1918, when Germany lost the war. [Millions of Germans were convinced that this defeat happened because] it was betrayed from within. And the only way you’re going to get your affluent, peaceable, ethnic community is to slay the enemies that betrayed you in 1918. Who exactly those enemies were, people differed [on]. They could be communists. It could be the Jews. It could be someone else. But they understood that there had to be eradication, cleansing, violence in order to reach the desired community imagined in the golden ages of the past, but also then projected onto the future. So, there was a willingness to accept ruthlessness and a willingness to say, “Well, we can’t have Judeo-Christian morality. We have to think as Germans and determine our actions on the basis on what helps Germany.”

Never before in modern history have people so identified their individuals with the body of the nation. And thinking like that means, if you think in terms of betrayal, if you think in terms of a Germany that somehow was lost could be regained, then you have to move against the betrayers. You have to move against the treasonists. That was the communists and that was the Jews. So, there was a lot of complicity, people were complicit in accepting Nazi violence. I don’t think the Germans would have voted for the Holocaust, but they accepted the exclusion of people who had previously been considered German citizens, because they had an ethnic based idea of the German future.

And this proceeded extraordinarily quickly. Within weeks of when the Nazis won their last election people became experts on the “Jewish Question.” How many percent of Jews should be lawyers, should be doctors. Had Jews proven themselves in WW 1? However you framed the question, the Jews were different. And that was the first step: the violent exclusion of people who are otherwise your neighbors, simply by saying, “Heil Hitler” instead of “good day.” You changed every day interactions. And so the exclusion of Jews from German life, called the “cold pogrom,” happened as much from below as it did from regime proclamations. It wasn’t necessarily, at first, a brutal violence, but it was the exclusion of your Jewish neighbors from the newly defined German community. And people wanted the Third Reich and [were] therefore willing to accept, even if they did think that there were what they called “excesses,” were willing to accept them, because they thought in ethnic terms and the Jews were on the other side.

Michael Slate: In your book Life and Death in the Third Reich, you talk about a lot of towns, a lot of cities where Jews would disappear and or people would see them getting on the trains or being trucked out, and then they would rush to get their belongings, or buy their belongings at a local flea market or take over their apartments, which is a level of complicity that is sort of astounding.

Peter Fritzsche: It’s extraordinary. Now, of course most people weren’t involved in that, but a lot of people were. The fact that Jews were being deported in the fall of 1941, and again in the spring and summer of 1942, was known. Then, often visibly, the Jews were brought to the train stations via buses or marches or on the streetcars. The apartments were then emptied and auctions were held. And auctions were advertised in the newspapers. And then people, you can read this in the diaries, had to make decisions whether they were going to buy Jewish linen and sleep in them or whether they weren’t.

Michael Slate: There are some chilling comparisons with the current Trump/Pence regime in the U.S., and anybody who’s listening to this show had to have thought that well before I just said that. There’s a lot of chilling comparisons with regard to immigrants and oppressed nationalities and deportations, arrests, demonization, police terror, etc. Let’s talk about that.

Peter Fritzsche: I ask my students when I teach my Holocaust class, “Why were people not outraged back then?” What outrage is happening to us today, that our grandchildren will say, “Why weren’t you outraged?” And I have two answers. Specifically, one is our huge prison population, which is four times more than our percentage of people in the world, and the willingness to see illegal immigrants and their families being torn apart. This isn’t yet a mass movement but it is happening here in Illinois. They took the guy who owned the Fiesta Café from a downstate restaurant and held him there for six weeks till there was so much outcry. But this is happening. Go to El Paso. Go to Nogales. Go to the border towns. People are scared. People are being taken because they’re presumed to be illegal and “illegal” under the new administration means also probably more criminal. And that means you’re assigning evil features to a collective group. This is very dangerous.

More dangerous is the idea that somehow we lost America; that America somewhere in the past was great, but it hasn’t been, but it could be again. That means your enemies are small in number but sinister and you have to get rid of them; if only we had not done these, and these, and these things. That creates internal enemies. That kind of thinking is extremely dangerous, that there was a wholesome America and now we’re going to get it back. And we’re going to get it back by eliminating, or getting rid of, or somehow undoing the harm between then and now.

And does that mean getting rid of civil rights? Does that mean getting rid of simple empathy when we talk about 11-year-old children, or 15-year-old children, or 17-year-old children who were, perhaps, not born in this country but belong in it? It’s a whole question of how we define “belong.”

That’s what’s happening.

Michael Slate: Yeah.

Peter Fritzsche: And if you change the definition of “belonging,” you’re policing that new border.

Michael Slate: Wow! Yes. Absolutely! Peter, one more question. When I first approached you about coming onto the show, I wrote to you and told you what I wanted to talk about in this first edition, because you are going to be back in about two weeks, I think. And you wrote back to me: “Remember this; no one could save Jews in 1942 in front of the gates of Auschwitz. You could only save those who would later and at that point unknowingly be murdered if you accepted refugees in 1938. That is, poor, non-English-speaking, possibly communist refugees, and that of course, was not done.” Let’s talk about that.

Peter Fritzsche: It was not done and you can look at the acts of Congress. So, we all would vote. We would all say: “No, no, don’t gas people in Auschwitz!” Of course. You’re not saving people from the gates of Auschwitz. You’re saving homeless, persecuted, lonely, scared people in 1938, with all of their foibles. They’re called refugees, and they could be us.

I was in Syria 10 years ago. I never imagined, could never imagine this. And now, so many millions of the people in that country, perhaps people I met, have no home, and no future.

Michael Slate: Alright, Peter. I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Peter Fritzsche: Well, thank you Michael.



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