Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Hitler

Hitler
Adolf Hitler Saluting, 1934

 

[quote]Try explaining Hitler to a kid.

—George Carlin[/quote]

I hope it goes without saying that a list of influential people is not synonymous with history’s greatest individuals. Influence, or having an effect, can certainly be negative. Indeed, many people on my Top 30 list had negative effects. In the name of defending France, Joan of Arc (#27) extended a war that killed thousands. Constantine (#23) had heretical Christians killed. Ask the Swedes what they think of Peter the Great (#26) or the Saxons of Charlemagne (#21). Gregory Pincus (#25) and his birth control pill continue to be morally questioned by millions. Philip IV (#29) had the pope—the pope!—kidnapped. Still to come are the actions and some negative ramifications of people like Martin Luther, Napoleon, and Christopher Columbus. People can be undeniably influential while still being pretty bad.

This month, we arrive at the worst of them all. Adolf Hitler’s meteoric rise to most powerful man in European history left the world scrambling to contain his evil. He unleashed atrocities on an unprecedented scale. Interestingly and, perhaps, appropriately, his most important effects were almost all inadvertent—the reverse of what he wanted to happen.

Ultimately, as the planet reorganized around him, it grew stronger and more united than ever before. Adolf Hitler tried to take over the world, but, with the formerly disparate global community pressed into cooperation during and after his reign of terror, he may just have saved it instead.

To save time, I’ll skip over Hitler’s early biography. For those interested, surely there are enough books on it. What you must know is that he was a soldier in World War I, a conflict Germans were confident they would win and shocked that they lost. Worse, a devastating Treaty of Versailles (1919) not only forced upon them debilitating reparations{{1}}, a restricted military, and reduced land and population, but its infamous “War Guilt Clause” identified Germany as the cause of the deadliest war the world had ever seen.{{2}} An angry but depleted Germany had no choice but to accept. Among its angriest citizens was a wounded soldier who had won two stars for bravery. His name was Adolf Hitler.

It’s impossible to sufficiently describe Germans’ emotions in the years following the war. The German Empire, which lasted from 1871 until 1918, was feared across Europe. When it lost, its citizens felt some combination of shell-shock, depression, frustration, indignation, embarrassment, and rage. Hitler tapped into that torrent of emotions for political gain.

A few months after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, a 30-year-old Hitler joined a fledgling political party as its 55th member. Its members called themselves the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazis for short.{{3}} Hitler used his war experience and gifted oratory to recruit more members. Within two years, he was chosen as their leader. The German word for leader was fuehrer; the title remained until his death 23 years later.

As it is today, a party’s popularity was essential for political power. At the First World War’s conclusion, the victorious allied powers—democrats all—forced upon Germany a representative government.{{4}} They pushed Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate; in his place was the new Weimar Republic, a government that was forced to accept the dreadful terms of the Versailles Treaty. The new government, understandably, faced heavy criticism from many Germans. When the economy soured (as it did around the world), many in Germany blamed its weak government for their depression. However, little could be done to fix it. The Kaiser’s abdication created an enormous power vacuum and dozens of new political parties tried to fill it. Each had seats in the Reichstag—the German legislative branch—and all were far short of a majority. The result was gridlock and yet another complaint of the German people.

Hitler and the Nazis seized on these problems. He lambasted the Versailles Treaty, skewered the meddling democratic foreigners, denounced the Weimar Republic, and threatened other political parties.{{5}} His words were music to the ears of Germans who spent their childhoods living in a country that was a feared power, and the last few years in the doormat of the civilized world. Hitler’s rising rhetoric seduced members into the Nazi Party at astonishing speed. In 1923, however, a premature power grab in Munich known as the “Beer Hall Putsch” landed Hitler and conspirators in prison.

While in jail, Hitler penned his notorious Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle,” outlining his concerns and ideology. His “struggle” mirrored that of the German people, and when he was released a year later, he was as popular as ever with his party. Similarly, the Nazis were more popular with the German people. They may have used aggressive language (from the party’s inception, they proclaimed their desire for Germany to be Judenfrei—free of Jews), but they embodied what all Germans wanted: confidence, energy, and a sense of purpose.

Hitler championed the German cause, its destiny to be great, and the greatness of Germans themselves.{{6}} Theirs was the superior race, and he pointed to two thousand years of history as evidence.{{7}} Germans flocked to this confident fuehrer who promised a return to greatness. The party grew from the 55 members when he joined to 25,000 members in 1925. By the close of the decade, the party was 180,000 strong.

As it increased in size, the Nazi party gained strength in the Reichstag. As the depression fully set in, the party reached its tipping point, claiming over 10 million members in 1932. In a country of 66 million, all other parties paled in comparison. In the Reichstag election of 1932, the Nazis won a plurality and were able to elect the head of the Reichstag—the chancellor. It didn’t surprise anyone that they chose their fuehrer. In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler, through a constitutional process, became Chancellor of Germany.

His government epitomized the fascist 1930s movement started by Benito Mussolini in Italy. Hitler controlled the press; allied industry, the military, and government in a symbiotic union; co-opted clerics to toe the Nazi line; used domestic and foreign crises to strip liberties and crystallize national unity; and, most famously, used political and ethnic scapegoats to channel German anger against those who were different from the “Aryan” race. As promised, all political opponents were “swept away” through oppression, imprisonment, and even murder.

When a revived Germany did experience an improved economy, Hitler became a cult-like figure adored by millions. He stopped reparation payments to the Great War’s victors. Unemployment fell, fortunes rose, and, whether out of devotion or fear, Germans increasingly followed Hitler’s policies. He demanded strict obedience and usually got it.{{8}} By 1936, he was fully in control of German government. As German industry once again hummed, he restarted the war machine and turned his eyes to Germany’s borders.

At this point, one might wonder how other countries were reacting. After all, the Western powers—chiefly the U.K., France, and the U.S.—were the ones which had come into Germany and forced a new Western-style democracy. Moreover, the terms of their Treaty of Versailles restricted the German military and forced the reparations that Hitler now ignored.

The answer, simply, is that countries had their own problems. They, too, suffered from the Great Depression, and all were war weary. Hundreds of thousands of compatriots were lost, farms were ravaged, and treasuries were emptied. War was seen as a last resort. Meanwhile, the United States had quickly returned to its isolationist policies after the First World War and didn’t even sign the Versailles Treaty. It, too, suffered from the Depression.

Hitler took advantage of these timid dispositions. In March of 1936, he ordered troops into the Rhineland, a territory in western Germany that the Western powers ordered demilitarized as part of the Versailles Treaty. The West did nothing. In October, he formed an alliance with Mussolini and Italy. The West still did nothing. In November, Hitler entered into an alliance with Japan. And again, the West did nothing.{{9}}

In 1938, Germany took control of the Austrian government, reuniting the two leading antagonists of World War I. The Axis then controlled the heart of Europe, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. When Hitler declared his intention to reacquire the Sudetenland, a former region of Germany that had been given to the new country of Czechoslovakia after the war, British and French leaders met with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich to come to an accord. The Munich Pact allowed Hitler to claim the Sudetenland if he promised it was his “last territorial claim.” He agreed,{{10}} and poor Czechoslovakia’s western half was surrounded. The rest of the country was soon compelled to join the German Empire.

In 1939, it became clear that Hitler was playing chess as the West played checkers. That summer, he signed a “non-aggression” pact with political opponent Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union.{{11}} The two rivals also agreed to partition Poland between them. In September, Hitler invaded the country from the west and then Stalin from the east. In three weeks, Poland was torn apart. Britain and France had seen enough. Europe and its colonies were once again plunged into global conflict. World War II had begun.

Hitler’s strength increased throughout 1940. In April, Denmark and Norway fell before his blitzkrieging military. In May, Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium also looked up at the Nazi flag. In June, in perhaps Germany’s proudest moment of the war, Paris surrendered to Nazi commanders.{{12}} The following year, Hitler added Greece, Yugoslavia, and the whole of North Africa to the growing Axis. By the height of his power, he controlled more of Europe than anyone in history, including the Roman emperors, Charlemagne, and Napoleon.{{13}}

Nineteen-forty-one proved to be Hitler’s high water mark. In June of that year, his zealous visions of conquest led to his betrayal of the non-aggression pact with Stalin. The Nazi army steamrolled into eastern Europe but could not break the Russian spirit by winter. As both sides hunkered down for a long, cold conflict on Germany’s eastern front, Nazi casualties, from warfare and the elements, mounted.

Worse still for Germany, one of its allies, Japan, launched a surprise attack on a U.S. naval base in Hawaii, bringing the Americans into the war. Germany had no choice but to also declare war on the new enemy of the Axis. By January, the U.S. and its enormous industrial capacity sent fresh troops and arms to Britain and joined the Allied Powers in the European theater. Later that year, a loss in El Alamein, Egypt and the disastrous, six-month Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted into 1943, proved to be two decisive defeats that made it clear Hitler’s empire was on the decline.{{14}}

Germany met its end at the hands of Hitler’s hubris. For more than two years after Stalingrad, he continued the war despite the inevitability of his country’s defeat. Millions died on both fronts as the Soviets pushed from the east and the Americans, British, French, and others from the west and south in 1944. Even as his country ran low on men, ammunition, and gasoline, Hitler prioritized the supplies necessary to carry out his “final solution”—the annihilation of the Jewish people. As his war crumbled around him, he kept the trains to extermination camps moving and the ovens lit.

By 1945, the Allies closed in on Hitler. His final murder was himself. On April 30, he committed suicide. Eight days later, the Allied Powers celebrated V-E Day—Victory in Europe. Hitler was dead. Germany was defeated. The world was ready to begin anew.

Which brings me to the fact that our current world would be a very different one without the influence of Adolf Hitler. And that his bottomless evil, while having countless negative effects, gave birth to important positive ones as well.

Negative effects first. Six million Jews—of the nine million in Europe—were killed, including one million Jewish children. When one considers that the current Jewish population is about 14 million, one understands the irrevocable damage Hitler caused on the global Jewish community. Moreover, we should remember that Jews weren’t the only victims of the Holocaust. Russian prisoners, Polish civilians, political opponents, Romani, homosexuals, the handicapped, Africans, and anyone else deemed inferior to the “Aryan race” joined them. Everywhere Germany went, Nazis hunted for more prey. Men, women, children—it didn’t matter. As early as 1933, Hitler had organized his concentration camps like a CEO oversees a business. It was the most efficient slaughter in history. He set extermination quotas. The Nazis kept records. They rifled through possessions to steal valuables, fillings, and hair. These were not the acts of spontaneous war-time aggression. They were planned, systematized, and smoothly executed.

Of course, the death toll of Hitler’s regime wasn’t limited to the Holocaust. World War II claimed 60 million lives, or about 2.5 percent of the world’s population. Millions more lost limbs, homes, and sanity. World War II was the deadliest conflict in the world’s history and hopefully its future as well.

It’s extraordinary that one man could instigate such misery, especially one whose background was so mundane. He had no political experience, no money, no connections, and no substantial military rank. Across history, all powerful leaders had at least one of those things. But not Hitler. And yet, it can be argued that no man had ever more influenced his era. While the people still to come on our Top 30 have had proven ramifications since their time—consequences I deem more impactful than Hitler’s in the last 70 years—I don’t think any of them more affected their own time than the man who was the driving force behind 60 million deaths and a reorganization of global geopolitics.{{15}}

The world’s response is where Hitler’s effects turn inadvertent and, surprisingly, positive.

His evil was reminiscent of medievalism, only it was combined with modern technology. It’s a shame that in a century of science offering advances in the fields of medicine, communication, food production, and so much more, a madman could rise to the heights that he did and use some of the latest technology to promote racism, bigotry, and religious persecution. It was supposed to be a more civilized era. Indeed, we almost forgive the Alexanders, Caesars, and Khans, as they were products of their time. But Hitler was from twentieth century Germany, an enlightened country that had given us Bach and Beethoven, Kant and Goethe. While Germany raised Adolf Hitler, it also groomed Albert Einstein. Despite this progressive home, Hitler tapped into the tribalism we hoped we had shed centuries ago.

His malevolence begged the question: how far removed from the Dark Ages were we? Was the next Hitler waiting around the corner?

The world feared the answers to these last two questions were “Yes.” At the height of the war, countries across the globe summed up their collective courage and might to contain and eliminate him. It is still the greatest example of geopolitical heroism and teamwork in history.

Just as important, however, is what the international community has done since then. The creation of the United Nations might be the most important development of the last century, and, a millennium from now, it could very well be considered the most important step ever taken by mankind.{{16}} Before the U.N., wars were getting bloodier and deadlier—the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean, the Russo-Japanese, and then each of the world wars. Thanks to industrial technology, each seemed worse than the last. The trend was terrifying, and with the introduction of nuclear weapons, many expected a Third World War inevitable and likely apocalyptic. But the U.N., formed by 51 countries just six months after V-E Day, now includes 193 nations.{{17}} Never before in human history had there been such international cooperation, friendship, and stability. Our weapons are deadlier than ever, but most motivations or means to use them internationally are squashed early enough that they don’t become concerns. Through discourse, disagreements are settled. The U.N. monitors the world’s security, trade, human rights, and much more. The lack of a global conflict since its inception speaks volumes for its effectiveness.

And we haven’t had another Hitler. He killed people not for their actions, but for who they were. Just because they existed, thousands of Jewish children were murdered, and Hitler looked internationally to hunt more. The long tradition of a warmonger bent on conquering the world and killing “others” died with him. The world was so horrified—and, even, ashamed—that countries took measures to ensure that another Hitler would be nearly impossible. Potential sequels—Pol Pot and Slobodan Milošević, for examples—were up to the barbaric task but their damage was dramatically smaller in scope.

A final argument for his importance, although I usually avoid its kind, is that his acts seemed neither inevitable nor expected. It seems like so many other figures on this list did something that was either imminent or bound to happen eventually.{{18}} Hitler, however, seemed uniquely driven to commit these atrocities and was talented enough to seduce a country to follow him.{{19}} Think about the popularity of socialism and communism over the last 150 years. Same with capitalism and democracy. They’ve been around the world, are still practiced today, and have had lots of people to thank for their rise and endurance.{{20}} But Nazism? Not only was it isolated to Germany’s empire, but, with the exception of recent fringe sects who either claim or are accused of Neo-Nazism, it scaled and fell from its peak with Adolf Hitler.

He had other sizeable inadvertent effects. He wanted Germany to rule the world, but the country was partitioned for 45 years after the war and ended up with less land than it had before him. Hitler abhorred democracy, but Germany has become democratic and a champion of liberalism. He hated communism, but communism continued to strengthen in the Soviet Union and then China, each of whom became major world powers. He wanted to exterminate the scattered Jewish population, but the Jews were given a state of their own three years after his death. It can be argued, quite pleasingly, that Adolf Hitler was one of history’s biggest failures.

Like evil, however, even failures can change the world, and he is evidence of both. Between his atrocities and the progress the world has experienced because of him, Adolf Hitler deserves to be the 17th most influential person in Western history.

[[1]]Which, by the way, they only paid off three years ago.[[1]]

[[2]]On this last part, they had a point. World War I started when a Serbian shot an Austrian archduke, and Austria-Hungary consequently declared war on Serbia. Germany was allied with Austria so, honoring the alliance, it entered the conflict on the side of its ally. Serbia was allied with Russia, whose entrance would have brought Russia’s ally, France, into the war. Germany, not wanting to be fighting two super powers on two fronts, determined that declaring war first and knocking one of them out was its best course of actions. Roughly one million triggered alliances later, the world was at war. Since Germany was by far the strongest of the “Central Powers,” the country outlasted its allies and killed more of their enemies than anyone else. The victorious powers decided to take out four year of frustration on a surrounded Germany, and the Treaty of Versailles was born. Germany was solely blamed for World War I’s 20 million deaths, which I’m sure can mess with a country’s mindset.[[2]]

[[3]]In German, the party read as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; “Nazi” stems from abbreviating the first word. It’s worth noting that they weren’t actually socialist, but since socialism was increasingly en vogue, especially as the depression set in at the end of the next decade, throwing that into their name seemed good for popularity. However, the first adjective in the party’s name—nationalist—was completely accurate.[[3]]

[[4]]After Russia withdrew late in the war following its Bolshevik Revolution, it was France, Britain, and America that primarily led the Allied Powers to victory in World War I. (Italy was also helpful after being initially expected to join Germany and Austria-Hungary through the Triple Alliance, which it never did) These democratic governments dismantled the autocracies of their opponents (the Germans had their kaiser, the Austro-Hungarians their emperor, and their other major ally, the Ottoman Empire, had a sultan).[[4]]

[[5]](Audio here.) “Our opponents accuse us National Socialists, and me in particular, of being intolerant and quarrelsome. They say that we don’t want to work with other parties. They say the National Socialists are not German at all, because they refuse to work with other political parties. So is it typically German to have thirty parties? I have to admit one thing – these gentleman are quite right. We are intolerant. I have given myself one goal – to sweep these thirty political parties out of Germany. They mistake us for one of them. We have one aim, and we will follow it fanatically and ruthlessly to the grave.”[[5]]

[[6]]Audio: “In ourselves alone lies the future of the German people. Only when we ourselves raise up our German people, though our own labor, our own industry, our own determination, our own daring and our own perseverance, only then shall we rise again. In days gone by, our Fathers, too, did not receive Germany as a gift, but created it themselves.”[[6]]

[[7]]In the ancient world, there was the fear that the Germanic tribes put into the heart of the Roman outpost. There was the First Reich, or “Empire,” which was the thousand years when the Holy Roman Empire stretched across central Europe. Most recently, there was the awesome power of the recently passed German Empire, or Second Reich. Hitler foreshadowed another German Empire, or Third Reich, with nearly every speech.[[7]]

[[8]]Audio: “The great time has now begun. Germany is now awakened. We have won power in Germany. Now we must win over the German people. I know, my comrades, it must have been difficult at times, when you were desiring change which didn’t come, so time and time again the appeal has to be made to continue the struggle – you mustn’t act yourself, you must obey, you must give in, you must submit to this overwhelming need to obey.”[[8]]

[[9]]That’s not entirely true. Germany and France did send protests. I’m sure they were strongly worded.[[9]]

[[10]]Almost certainly with fingers crossed behind his back.[[10]]

[[11]]While Hitler hated Stalin and despised communism, he knew that Britain and France would only tolerate so much more. He tried to ensure that the only power to his east, the U.S.S.R., would not intervene and leave Germany in another two-front war.[[11]]

[[12]]It must be noted here that the U.K. resisted heroically. The Germans reached the English Channel with relative ease, and thousands of soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk onto the island of Great Britain. In the coming months, Hitler tried to soften the country by unleashing his fierce Luftwaffe, while tireless British pilots did all they could to stave them off (the “Battle of Britain”). The British people, led by their resolute Prime Minister Winston Churchill, did not surrender. Churchill knew that Britain needed to hold out as Europe’s last hope against the German menace. He hoped the U.S. would eventually enter, and the use of Britain as a base of operations would be essential in the liberation of Europe. And so, once more, the English people resisted a foreign invader, just as they resisted the Spanish Armada and Napoleon. The British pilots were hailed as heroes. Churchill’s famous evaluation has stood the test of time: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”[[12]]

[[13]]Indeed, he often fashioned himself as the next coming of each of them. Napoleon, in particular, was an idol of his. Historians have drawn many comparisons between the two, which Hitler would love and Napoleon would detest. More on that in an imminent entry.[[13]]

[[14]]Stalingrad went down as an unmitigated disaster for Germany. One of the bloodiest battles in history, it claimed nearly two million casualties. Any residual Nazi momentum was gone and they never regained footing in eastern Europe. It should never be lost to history that the heroics of the U.S.S.R. on the Eastern Front in World War II was just as important as the western Allied assault after D-Day and the American gallantry in the Pacific.[[14]]

[[15]]It’s worth noting that while I suspect others on this list will gradually fade from influence, Hitler will not. Assuming we don’t have a conflict deadlier than the Second World War, he’ll be the last great conqueror, murderer, and subjugator. When I update this list in a thousand years, perhaps Hitler will be ranked considerably higher.[[15]]

[[16]]It should be noted that it was not the first international body whose purpose was to maintain stability and peace. The Congress of Vienna of the early nineteenth century and the League of Nations of the period between the world wars each showed European cooperation. Neither, however, were long-lasting, effective, and progressive like the U.N. has been.[[16]]

[[17]]Only Vatican City (which is an observer state), Kosovo, and Taiwan don’t belong. Palestine is also an observer state.[[17]]

[[18]]Pincus’s birth control pill was due. If Thomas Jefferson (#24) didn’t write the Declaration of Independence or purchase Louisiana, someone else would have. Henry Ford (#20) was the first to capitalize on mass production and scientific management, but surely that was bound to happen as well. Almost all of the inventions of Thomas Edison (#18) were imminent, and all took place in an explosion of innovation. Still to come on our list, the actions of people like Darwin, Luther, and Columbus were probably all inevitable. That being said, this list intends to reward those who did something, no matter how certain those achievements were.[[18]]

[[19]]Things weren’t just bad in Germany; they were bad everywhere.[[19]]

[[20]]I’d say that socialism is particularly thankful to Karl Marx, and he has therefore found his way onto our list. Democracy and capitalism, however, were gradual, and neither has a particular catalyzer.[[20]]