It was 80 years ago today: German President Paul von Hindenburg, to many of his countrymen a war hero, but probably too long in office, swore in Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler with the intention that the Nazi leader would assemble a right-leaning coalition Government. Business leaders were generally in favour of this move. Some believed that they had “hired” Hitler.
Many tolerated the brownshirts, the blackshirts, the militarism, the screaming oratory and yes, even the routine anti-Semitism, as unemployment was dramatically reduced and the great inflation did not return. Even the war brought benefits: when Hitler returned to Berlin after securing the French surrender, in the same railway carriage the Germans were forced to board in 1918, he was genuinely popular.
Sadly for most ordinary Germans, the Nazis’ hold on the levers of power was by this point irreversible, and when Hitler’s lust for yet more conquest led to a supremely inadvisable invasion of the USSR, followed by a yet less advisable declaration of war on the USA, they were stuck with a leader who was rapidly losing touch with the real world. Thus the beginning of the lessons from history.
Some pundits, though, have difficulty grasping this idea, and the appallingly pompous Simon “Enoch was right” Heffer is one of them. In the world of the Hefferlump, the far right is resurgent because of the EU. Europe, to him, is “a continent in chaos”. That there is no Communist threat, none of the fantasist “Jewish conspiracy” rubbish, and none of the militarism does not count.
Heffer then tries to tie the ramblings of “Duce” Berlusconi – talking up Mussolini – as trimming towards what he calls the “Hitler effect”. But the situation in Italy was very different, as the dictatorship was far longer established. Francisco Franco also briefly befriended Hitler, but Falangist Spain was nothing like the Third Reich. No, Heffer misses the point entirely by trying to play to the Europhobe gallery.
The lesson that we should instead be learning is articulated by Fritz Lustig in a Guardian Comment Is Free piece, where he briefly revisits his own experience as a teenager growing up in the Berlin of the 1930s and notes the ultimate futility of his family imagining they could “sit it out” without leaving, before concluding that the lesson for right of centre Governments is very straightforward.
And that is that engagement with a party further to the right is not merely a hazardous enterprise, but a situation where mainstream Conservatives can rapidly lose control. Once the Nazis were given any control, they merely took more. And there was no organisation like the EU, no charter of human rights, and none of today’s ability to pass information and react before it is too late.
We’re less likely to see another Hitler, because Europe is not a continent in chaos.