Revisiting Hitler in today’s age

Revisiting Hitler in today’s age

A rose lying on one of the concrete steles of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust memorial) in Berlin, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. (AFP Photo)

A few minutes past 3 pm on April 30, 1945, one of the most merciless mass murderers of our times fired a single, fatal shot from his 7.65-mm Walther PPK: Germany’s feared dictator Adolf Hitler, running scared of the Soviet army juggernaut rolling towards his city, ended his life in an underground bunker in Berlin’s Reich Chancellory building exactly 75 years ago.

Hitler, the terror titan of the Third Reich, was just 56 when he killed himself, but the enormity of his cruelty against humanity is incomprehensible. In less than four years prior to his death, Hitler’s Holocaust killed six million Jews, including a million children: most of them were gassed to death in concentration camps in Poland.

Hitler hated Jews, calling them devilish and a hurdle in his plans to create an Aryan superior race. Jews were also victimised by centuries of wrongly interpreted anti-Semitic biblical theology. Those who stepped up to the plate, like evangelical pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were bumped off by Hitler. Political pundits even today are flummoxed how the Fuhrer’s 12-year reign from 1933-1945 went unchecked by the world powers for such a long time.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, an outstanding Roman statesman in the first century AD, said, history is the teacher of life, ‘historia vitae magistra’. The itch to become all-powerful autocrats is always there. If the 1930s’ Great Depression made it possible for some like Hitler, it is the Covid-19 catastrophe today.  

Hitler’s COVID-19 moment was the Great Depression when Wall Street collapsed, causing an economic tsunami in Europe where American funds were deployed. Germany was crushed by the Great Depression, with thousands of small businesses shuttered, millions of people thrown out of their jobs, social problems mounting. Germany’s largest bank collapsed.

And that’s when the Nazi party’s rising star Hitler was mesmerising his way into the minds of the depressed masses with what they thought was his redemptive, messianic charisma. They bought his stories of grand plans to make Germany rise like the Phoenix from the ashes, making it the world’s number one superpower with glorious advances in aviation, military, automobile -- even creating their own superior, special Aryan race.

A vegetarian, teetotaller, and a health freak, Hitler would later tell his generals that in his single-minded pursuit to recreate a new Germany, he would crush anyone who stood in his way. He was the all-powerful leader. All instructions could go out only from him. He rebuffed the idea of a second line of leadership, becoming autocratic to the vilest core.

Hitler could not form normal human friendships. He was moody and unpredictable, which some believe could be due to his dysfunctional family: he was born in April 1889 in Austria to his father Alois’ third wife. Alois, an illegitimate child himself, clashed with Hitler often.  

Hitler didn’t study beyond secondary school but took to painting. But he was denied admission into Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts twice. He eked out a meagre living painting post cards and doing odd jobs, leading a lonely, secretive and bohemian existence. He detested Vienna’s cosmopolitan, multicultural, multinational character.

Later, his attempts to join Austrian military service in 1914 failed because of his poor physique. When World War I broke out, he appealed to the king of Bavaria, Louis III, who helped him to join the infantry regiment after an 8-week field training. Germany’s defeat in the war threw the country into a tailspin.

Hitler returned to Munich, the hub of ex-servicemen and critics of the Weimar Republic, where he joined a small German Workers’ Party in 1919 in its propaganda unit. The party, renamed the National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi) in 1920, successfully tapped into the popular resentment. Hitler was learning the ropes of propaganda through the Nazi party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter [‘Popular Observer’]. Nationalist Alfred Hugenberg’s newspapers also helped reach the Nazi propaganda before Goebbels and his gargantuan propaganda machinery.

Soon, industry titans and the deep-pocked business community were pumping in massive funds into the Nazi party to erect a right-wing, anti-communist charismatic leader-led government. Pontificating from the cash-rich financial mountain, Hitler packed his emotional speeches to the masses, especially the poor and the unemployed, assuring them that he was the messiah to save them. His political rivals ribbed him with disparaging terms -- complete petit bourgeois, a Bohemian corporal, etc., – but he was busy galvanising the party, winning big elections and becoming Chancellor in 1933. Within a year, he consolidated the powers of the President and Chancellor into one, becoming ‘The Leader’, Der Fuhrer.

Hitler’s architectural megalomania drove him to immediately plan an imposing New Berlin City, with stately buildings, archways and legislative houses. His favourite architect, Albert Speer, was tasked with changing the face of Berlin with the leitmotif of Hitleresque grandiose nationalism. Speer built a new, grand Reich Chancellery on the site of an old palace in Berlin within a year.

Hitler used the democratic process first to make himself the autocrat. His charisma connected him directly with the desperate masses: from the worker class to the rich industrialists, from ecclesial leaders to socialist intellectuals.

One historian quotes Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador to Berlin in the 1930s, writing about how Hitler “owed his success in the struggle for power to the fact that he was the reflection of their [i.e., his supporters’] subconscious mind, and his ability to express in words what that subconscious mind felt that it wanted.”

From his early 1920s political speeches right up to the mid-1940s, the outline of Hitler’s speeches were simple: start with a deeply pessimistic scenario of the present and end it by projecting a triumphant, glorious future to come, interspersing it with deep injections of anecdotes into the masses’ subconscious.

Hitler is a creepy reminder that there is no shortage of charismatic, authoritarian-minded political leaders prowling the world stages today.

(The writer specialises in public policy, politics and religion)