I’ve had the strange privilege of visiting Auschwitz, Babi Yar, the sites of the Vilnius and Warsaw ghettoes, and a number of other places – and there are so many of them – associated with Nazi atrocities. What the Nazis did once they’d gained control within Germany and beyond is so horrific that we inevitably focus on that rather than on how they rose to power in the first place. But how that rise came about is something that we need to understand, so thank you to BBC 2 for this three-part series, being shown to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.
Please don’t ever use the word “Nazi” to describe present-day politicians: however unsavoury some of them may be, they aren’t going to order mass executions or send people to gas chambers, and comparing them to those who did is an insult to the memory of the millions of people murdered by the Nazis because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or politics. A row’s already broken out over the choice of presenters for this series. But please be aware of how quickly democracy in Germany was destroyed, and of what that led to; and please don’t ever let anything like this happen again. I thought that the focus of this first episode was very narrow, though. It was all about political manoeuvring, and said hardly anything about how the Nazis actually gained the support that enabled them to become part of that.
In 1928, the Nazi Party won just 2.6% of the vote and 12 seats in the Reichstag. In 1930, it became the second largest party, with 18% of the vote, and in 1932 the largest party, with 37% of the vote. In 1933, non-Nazi parties were banned. In 1934, Hitler was confirmed as sole leader of Germany, combining the positions of chancellor and president. How could the Nazis, a fringe extremist party led by an “Austrian corporal”, seize power and impose a dictatorship, in so short a space of time? And then cause a war which led to the deaths of eighty million people, many of them by genocide?
This was about the destruction of democracy, the rise of the Nazis, not about war or genocide – which I don’t think anyone could have foreseen even in 1934. It had a very narrow focus: I was expecting it to start by talking about the Treaty of Versailles, the issues over reparations, and the Great Depression, but it started off with the events of 1930, with virtually no background information. And it was all about political manoeuvring and machinations: next to nothing was said about how the Nazis won the votes that got them the parliamentary seats that got them into a position to be part of that. Maybe that’s coming in later episodes?
It was shown as a docu-drama, with interviews with various different experts interspersed with actual film of the time but also with a lot of dramatisation. It’s a very emotive subject, and I did wonder if a docu-drama might not seem a bit flippant – especially when, early on, they showed what was supposed to be Hitler’s apartment, featuring cushions with little swastikas on them, like something out of ‘Allo ‘Allo . But I think the format did work OK.
The argument that the programme was making was that the Nazis were able to come to power because two right-wing Establishment politicians, Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen, both thought that they could use the Nazis’ popularity and numbers in parliament to gain power for their own blocs. Nothing much was said about economic issues, reparations or rearmament, and next to nothing was said about how and why the Nazis’ share of the vote increased so much. It was all about the political machinations.
It wasn’t that any of it was inaccurate. It was just so … narrow. The BBC presenters did at least have the decency not to compare any present-day politicians to the Nazis. I’m disgusted that so many people haven’t. Do people seriously think it’s appropriate to compare any politician or political party with whose views they happen to disagree with the people who perpetrated the worst genocide the world has ever seen? It’s also unfortunate that next week’s episode is going to feature a political commentator who’s expressed support for the spraying of graffiti on the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. Everything seems to turn into a row these days. That sounds worryingly like the “Everybody’s cross these days,” line from The Sound of Music. It wasn’t intended to.
In 1930, there were 14 parties represented in the Reichstag. As often happens, the major parties, rather than even thinking about forming a grand coalition, looked to the extremist parties for support. Karl von Schleicher, a close ally of President von Hindenburg, concerned about the growth in support for the Communists, wanted to use the Nazis for support against the Left. But the Nazis were not a fringe party by this stage. They’d won 18% of the vote in the 1930 election. The programme just didn’t explain the social, economic and political factors which led to the growth in support for both the Nazis and the Communists. There was a brief mention of “hearts and minds”, and there were a few shots of Hitler shaking hands with people during the 1932 election campaign, but that was about it. And the stormtroopers were mentioned, but more in the context of von Hindenburg wanting to use their brutality to achieve his own ends than in the context of what they were actually doing.
Anyway. Von Hindenburg wasn’t at all impressed with Hitler. Hitler wasn’t very impressed with von Schleicher. And the programme’s insistence that the rise of the Nazis was all about political machinations wasn’t very impressive at all, at this stage. On to the 1932 election, in which the Nazis’ share of the vote rose from 18% to 37%. Where were the explanations of why this happened? Maybe they are coming in a later episode?
The focus then switched to Hans Litten. The BBC described him as a Jewish lawyer. To be accurate, he had links with both Judaism and Christianity, being the son of a Lutheran mother and a father who’d converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, and showing interest in both religions. He successfully prosecuted a number of stormtroopers, and cross-examined Hitler for three hours in court, showing that the Nazis were indeed using violent, illegal methods against their opponents. He eventually committed suicide after five years of imprisonment and torture in Dachau. The programme returned to him later, talking about how he’d uncovered evidence that the Nazis had infiltrated the police and the judiciary – but didn’t go into how they’d infiltrated the police and the judiciary, because all the focus was on political game-playing.
Von Schleicher persuaded von Hindenburg to appoint his mate Franz von Papen (there were an awful lot of “vons” here, showing the extent to which German politics was still dominated by aristocrats) as chancellor. The Nazis, by now the largest party in the Reichstag, were entitled to appoint the speaker/president of the Reichstag, and chose Goring. At this stage, von Papen persuaded von Hindenburg to agree to the dissolution of Parliament and the suspending of elections. This wasn’t the doing of the Nazis: it was the doing of von Papen, with all sorts going on in terms of reparations, rearmament, the economy, and clashes between von Papen and the Social Democrats in Prussia. None of this was explained – instead, all we heard about was how it was stopped by parliamentary procedure, with von Papen bizarrely unable to get a word in edgeways to get Parliament dissolved before Goring had called a vote of no confidence.
At this point, November 1932, it was all about von Papen. The Nazis lost seats in the election, the second Reichstag election in six months, and were also struggling financially. Yet, in January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor – because von Papen, who’d had a big falling out with von Schleicher, needed coalition partners. The programme rather strangely claimed that von Papen was hoping to ruin the Nazis by giving them power in the hope that they’d make a mess of it and ruin themselves. It was more a case of a political bloc without a working majority needing support, and thinking that it could control its coalition partners.
Von Schleicher had been appointed chancellor, but, unable to form a government which could command control of the Reichstag, resigned after only a couple of months – and was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 … and this was as far as this episode took us.
The point of the programme was apparently to show that politicians’ desire for power for themselves and their allies meant that they were willing to work with extremists. That’s a fair point, and something that we often see – not so much here, where the voting system, whilst far from ideal, means that fringe parties are unlikely to win many, if any seats. But we’re not talking about a fringe party. Even in 1930, the Nazis won 18% of the vote. By 1932, they were the largest party in the Reichstag. Whatever von Schleicher and von Papen were doing, the Nazis would never have come into it had they not been able to get that amount of representation in the Reichstag in the first place… and the programme just said next to nothing about how and why they were able to do that.
So the whole thing felt a bit wide of the mark, really. It was supposed to show how Nazism took control of a nation, but practically the entire programme was about just four people – von Hindenburg, von Schleicher, von Papen and Hitler. And the whole point was that, in 1930, Germany was a democracy. So what happened was about 67 million people, or at least those of voting age. Showing pictures of cushions with little swastikas on them does not explain why 37% of the electorate voted for the Nazis. Could have done better, BBC 2. Could have done better.