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It all looks inevitable in retrospect: an offering

History at 30,000 feet: The Big Picture

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Mar 31, 2009, 2:20am Top

'What if" can be seen as indulging imagination instead of dealing with the situation as it actually played itself out. But it is tempting in retrospect to view history as inevitable and ineluctable, deterministic rather than replete with contingency.

The following makes my point more eloquently and more potently than I could:

I have the beautiful 1942 Simon and Schuster edition of Tolstoy's War and
Peace (dustjacket missing). There is a very long foreward by Clifton
Fadiman. It is chilling, downright terrifying, to contemplate what reading
this book meant in 1942. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler was investing
Russia. The Nazis had been pushed back, but were still strong. The outcome
was very much in doubt. Despite the time required to type it, I wish to
share with you a long paragraph. Says Fadiman:

"At this writing, the titanic battle of Russia, a part of the general
battle for the soul of man, is far from a decision. Hitler's retreat, while
obviously not strategic in the sense he had planned is, on the other hand,
far from being the rout that some wishful thinkers would make it out. But it
represents a physical and moral defeat, the proportions of which probably no
one knows except the German General Staff. Certainly the back of Fascism
does not appear to be broken, as Napoleon's back was broken after Moscow.
Napoleon's dream died with his dying legions in the snow. Hitler's dream --
the same vision, dreamed by a people instead of a single tyrant -- is by no
means dead. We do not know (unless faith is knowledge) whether Hitler will
retrace completely the mighty Napoleonic parabola or whether he will succeed
temporarily in his nightmare design of covering our planet with an Egyptian
night. If he should fail, a new Tolstoy may arise fifty years hence to
chronicle the vast drama of his rise and fall. If he should succeed, that
new Tolstoy will not arise. For there will be no novelists and no poets. The
humane and philosophic view of life from which supreme works of art spring
will have been blotted out."

Mar 31, 2009, 2:36am Top

that is rather chilling. especially (as i think i read your point) since we now think of Hitler's unsuccessful Russian campaign a mirror image of Napoleon's debacle.

not really on the point, but this reminded me of something i saw on PBS many, many years ago. it was the anniversary (30th?) of Shostokovich's 7th Symphony, the 'Leningrad Symphony', which was first performed in New York while the siege of Leningrad was still in progress.
they had invited all of the original orchestra members to participate (expenses paid) in a tribute concert, leaving vacant the chairs of those who had passed, with only their instrument present. it was very eerie, and brought home ever so briefly the dubious joy that the original performance must have inspired.

Apr 1, 2009, 6:38pm Top

I guess what interests me are Tolstoy's own views on the subject. It's been a very long time since I read War and Peace, but if I remember correctly, he essentially rejected the "great man" view of history in favor of seeing events as sort of inevitable based on the mass of people and their will--that it was inevitable that western Europe would try to conquer Russia and inevitable that Russia would resist and triumph. (And, I should add, I don't much agree with this. I don't think France would have tried to take over the rest of Europe without Napoleon.)

In another thought, I just read an article that said, in reference to Germany's attack on Russia (specifically, the battle for Moscow), that Russia and Stalin came very close to losing and only prevailed because Hitler made even more mistakes than they did. For example, sending the German army into Russia in June without winter clothing might have made sense to Hitler but turned out to be a terrible mistake, as they weren't "done" by winter and therefore many suffered/froze to death.

Apr 1, 2009, 7:32pm Top

The big mistakes Hitler made was: 1) fighting a two-front war 2) not being up on Napoleonic history 3) see 1 & 2 above

Apr 1, 2009, 7:47pm Top

I agree that there are many things of great interest about WWII -- I am eternally fascinated with the war on many levels -- military, political, moral, and on a personal level because Hitler's minions killed all the family members I had remaining in Europe except one. Tolstoy too: I love his writings, and am interested in his philosophy of history.

But I offered that quote as an illustration of the felt sense of contingency at that moment. No one knew who would win. The prospect of a Nazi victory and a Nazi-dominated world was very real. What-if's, counterfactuals, address the real possibility that things could have gone differently. That is not just a parlor game. It seems to me that events acquire a sense of inevitability -- things happened that way because they had to -- when in fact, the possibilities were many.

Recall Stephen j Gould's belief that if the earth's history could be run again, we would never twice wind up with the world we now have and much of its current forms of life.

Apr 2, 2009, 8:21am Top

This is related to the present day belief that the allied were predestined to win but in reality Great Britain almost folded and had it not been for the US intervention we would live in a very different world, right now.

The US administration had it's hands full and didn't want to spend energy and money on a war fought in another part of the world.

In this light, was it really that foolish of Hitler to fight a two-front war?

And how would the world look like, if? That too we can learn lessons from, I think. The allied forces did nor win because they were more morally 'true' or because they had 'god' on their side, but because they fought together, among other things.

What worked for Hitler in the initial stages - the industrialisation of the weapons industry, among other things, and research focussed on weaponry - worked well for the allied, later on. Bombing the industrial bases within Germany worked to stop all German efforts in that regard.

Apr 2, 2009, 8:51am Top

My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that Hitler lost to war by invading Crete. I cost him his elite paratroopers, frightened his generals so they never again used paratroopers effectively, the men and material that was lost at sea on the way to Crete was critical and most important, it delayed the beginning of his Russian invasion. With the time and material wasted on Crete the Germans could have easily captured Moscow or made it past Stalingrad into the mid-eastern oil fields.

Apr 2, 2009, 8:56am Top

I sort of agree.

But also I don't. Because Given who the people involved were, the state of the world at the time and the inofrmation available to them, the decisions they made were the only ones they would make. If you re-ran the scenario and put the same people in the same place, then I believe you would get the same decisions being made - because they were rationally made decisions, rather than the rolling of dice implied in Gould's quote. Maybe with hindsight not the best decision, but at the time they looked like the best decision taking all the myriad of factors into account.

Now if the world had been different such that Hitlar had the information and supplies to provide cold weather clothing the outcome would be different - but so would the scenario, russia would have had longer to prepare, the Indians would have blockaded the cotton supplies or... These are not isolated events, they are networks, and other than as pure fantasy you can't change one variable without altering a host of others.

Apr 2, 2009, 11:53am Top

I definitely agree. With #8, that is. For me this isn't an exercise in alternate history or a contra-factual one, but of trying to perceive a pattern. And my point of view is not about military tactics, which I leave to those interested, but about economic and political motives, and about social structures.

Together all those different point of views can build a whole. And only if we question them can we find what holds up to scrutiny.

Apr 2, 2009, 12:00pm Top

>8 reading_fox: Yes, that's why I have no interest, really, in alternate (or alternative, I don't want to get into that discussion again) history. "What if . . . ?" doesn't interest me; it's hard enough to figure out what really happened. I'd much rather puzzle over what happened and why, insofar as we can determine those things.

I mean (just to go a little way down this path), even if Hitler had conquered Russia, would that have mattered if the United States developed the bomb first and used it on Germany?

But I do appreciate the original post's point--in the midst of these experiences, it all looked very different indeed and not at all inevitable. One can imagine the same feelings during the American Revolution--being a Tory/Loyalist must have made a lot of sense to many people.

Apr 2, 2009, 12:32pm Top

I suddenly realise that for me possibly it could be that my lack of interest in 'proper' history is because I'm less interested in the "whats" than in the "whys". The "what" is just factoids to be interpreted against a wide backdrop.

And in the case of wwII the most interesting "whys", imho, is "how came Hitler/Mussolini/Stalin/...", which asks the question not only about what put them in power but also what held them there, what made people fight (on ANY side); and "what made /whoever/ lose momentum", which begs a lot of questions.

Why was that attack on Crete so fatal? Not from a military perspective, but rather from the perspective of "what costs a loss, in trust?" the answer to which tells us trust is vital.
And from the Japanese side of the war we can learn that fear of a superior is no way forward either as it breeds brown-nosing and boot-licking, which is counter-productive as it hinders the process of evolution and development which is critical to human survival through history. Which can only be understood if put to question.

There's a method to the madness of humankind's survival.

Apr 2, 2009, 6:41pm Top

I have always wondered what if Hitler had succeeded in Moscow. Russia and the former Soviet Union... imagine if Hitler had been ensconced therein. It is a complicated picture, but on no level a pretty one, and god knows the picture was bad enough. It boggles the brain.

Or what if fear of one's superior had indeed pushed the higher minds in Germany, or Russia, or Japan, to develop the bomb either concurrently with the United States, or before it.

Or simply if Britain had listened to Halifax and not followed the brutal, pig-headed course that Churchill advocated.

I believe there were variables that might have gone differently. That everything would play out exactly the same in every detail is very hard for me to imagine. Chaos theory, entropy, flapping of a butterfly's wings, and all that. It might be as simple as a person stopping to tie his shoe, and therefore slowing long enough to run into a colleague with an interesting idea, that he would not have met or talked with that day (or ever again, if said colleague met his death that afternoon) for any other reason. Or someone waking up late and being therefore in a bad mood that day. Sometimes fate can turn on these little coincidences alone.

I think that's what Gould meant. But I am no expert on Gould. And of course fate is not determined by little coincidences alone. And yes, yes, okay, fate may or may not exist... ;)

It doesn't change anything that happened, but I hope we can realize how precarious the balance is sometimes, and not just proudly assume that the godly will prevail et al. Most of the time who was godly is determined by who survives to write the history books anyway.

Edited: Apr 2, 2009, 7:14pm Top

Since we're on the topic of WWII, I realize it kind of looks like a longshot with our 20/20 view, but as has been mentioned re: the "Gould theory", nothing would ever happen the same way twice...so...

What if: Hitler was killed in WWI like, in all reality, he "should have" been? Not "should" as in "the bastard deserves it" but rather, the numerous times where he was in one of these situations he would later recount he "miraculously survived" in the trenches. Does Germany still spark WWII?

In my estimation, the answer is a "probably" followed up by a "and they would probably have won." Imagine the industrial, political and military potential of Germany undivided by the pointless bloodshed of the Holocaust. Additionally, they'd have been able to draw on Jewish men in the country for military enlistment. Don't forget, many Jews served with distinction during WWI and this actually helped give them a false sense of security after the right-wing psychopaths took over the goverment that all the vitriol they were shouting about Jews was just hot air; they'd never do anything to bonafide war heroes, right?

Anyway, I think this assumption we tend to have that every German in 1935 hated all the Jews is a bit misleading. Racism no doubt existed, but there's a difference between racism and genocide (look at the US military at the exact same time period). At the same time, I still think that some form of extremist group seizing power in Germany of the 30s is still relatively likely given the unnecessarily harsh terms of the Versailles treaty, it just need not necessarily have been the Nazis with their racist agenda.

Without (s)Hitler and his henchmen, who knows how differently it all would have turned out? Would the US have entered a war with a European power like Germany if they didn't feel they had an obvious moral high-ground? Hell, even go so far as to argue that a WWII Germany sans-Holocaust would actually have one up on the Americans.

EDIT: Of course it all also could have been avoided had I been more productive when I travelled back in time to 1940s Nürnberg:

I wanted to kick his ass but his entourage was too huge!

Apr 2, 2009, 11:02pm Top

I’m thinking that this discussion crystalizes two different attitudes about how to think about history. I'm no expert, so if there is someone who has insight into how scholars have put this together, by all means, edit my provisional effort here.

I am aware that trying to lay this out here is to set upon an impossible task. The greatest philosophical minds have considered issues such as these – from Hegel to Spengler to Toynbee, etc. – and explained their theories in dense hundreds of pages instead of a post. And I have a very incomplete grasp of the complexities of the arguments. But the issue arises in the discussion, so apologies for the inadequacy of the effort:

A. On the one hand, were events to somehow run again, history would have gone basically the same way because
1) people in power make decisions as rational actors utilizing the same information, and making the same decisions regardless (people are predictable) or
2) history is the product of large-scale forces that would be very difficult to change regardless of individual human actions, depending, as it does on the powerful momentum of vast political, economic and social forces.
History is largely deterministic in nature, and is deterministic even if somehow the underlying individual human actors turn out to be unpredictable in nature.

B. On the other hand, history might have gone very differently than it did, as it depends on numerous contingencies, including that human behavior and the human mind is imperfectly predictable, and that small or random initial events may lead to large subsequent alternate consequences. Perhaps one might even invoke the inherent causal uncertainty, at least on a subatomic level, that contemporary physics requires. History is subject to multitudes of contingencies and as such is nondeterministic.

Please correct any incoherence in my characterizing these positions.

Personally, I imagine that there are elements of both views acting in history at different scales. The relative proportions of each (and maybe there are many other philosophical approaches also acting and relevant) may differ depending on the time scale involved and the historical issue at hand. For example, the question “Would the US have abolished slavery eventually absent the Civil War?” might contain more of the first view than the question “Would the US inevitably gone to war against Saddam Hussein?” (Consider the resolution of the 2000 election.)

Apr 3, 2009, 2:19pm Top

I am very reluctant to post this because I am so ignorant and this is so complex, so if I sound stupid please just pat me on the head and push me to one side while you all continue to debate it.
But it put into my mind the question of whether great personages move history or whether, instead, historical developments are inevitable consequences of great movements of societies and economics. Is that what you are all discussing, at all?

Weinberg says in A World at Arms if I recall correctly that the Versailles Treaty wasn't really all that unfair to Germany - the contention that it was unfair was propoganda, comparable to many other examples of Nazi propoganda that was disseminated to serve Hitler's purposes - and that Germany was in fact relatively well off economically. I am not sure, but I think Weinberg would say that WWII was incited by Hitler and that it might not have happened without that single evil and deranged individual. At least, I came away from that book feeling that in this case anyway history was profoundly affected by a single individual who changed the course of the world in many many ways, and that without him things would have been radically different.

Edited: Apr 3, 2009, 4:00pm Top

>15 kokipy: Don't be shy, I think that's exactly what we have moved into discussing. I agree that when we have a single person who combines ambition and the ability to get others to follow (Alexander, Caesar, William of Normandy, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin), history results. I just don't buy the argument that these individuals happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some kind of inevitable movement or conflict. People's decisions affect events, if not always as they plan.

I also recently read something that argued that the Versailles Treaty wasn't as bad as it is sometimes assumed to be--that those who created it did the best they could in many ways.

Apr 3, 2009, 3:12pm Top

I just read an interesting discussion about the Versailles Treaty in That Sweet Enemy. As I remember it, the terms were doable for Germany until the late 20s. France, on the other hand, was devestated by the war and had a hard time coming back economically.

Apr 3, 2009, 3:51pm Top

So, what we have to discuss then is if Hitler was unique in his beliefs and convictions. Having not studied wwII but the times that lead to it I'd say no. He wasn't unique. He draw heavily on the Blut und Erde movement, which he didn't instigate, and there was corresponding nationalistic and aryan tendencies visible in Sweden (which is where I'm from). You only have to look at poster art and literature and films from the early 20th century to realise racism was prevalent and part of the basic values. Check any swedish encyclopaedia from the twenties or such for entries such as Afrika (Africa)/Afrikan (African), not to mention local minorities as the Sapmi (also known as Lapps). We also neutered people who were not deemed good breeding material.

Humans frequently define themselves as what we aren't, drawing negative boundaries that makes what aren't like us allowed prey. Hitler did something horrible, but others have done the same, earlier and later in history and time. Only the volume made it more memorable, but Stalin, the Red Khmers, Idi Amin, Rwanda etcetera are names that would ring a bell anywhere.

(Talking of Stalin the similarities between the two of them are stunning. Just look at Soviet 'art'...)

It's my belief that most wars are fought primarily not for reasons of religion or race, but for power. Power to decide, but also for economic power - whose factories, whose industrialists (that is, in previous times) would sell their produce, would own the market.

For a modern adaption look no farther than the explosion of privately owned security and military sector companies in the US, these last 10 years, all of which has huge economic loss to take if the interventions US runs around the world would cease. I say this not as a political statement but as a matter of fact, at least as far as I understand things.

Of course the wwII might not had happened even so, had there not been a Hitler. But he did not appear out of vacuum. So. I say both elements (socio-economic/political powers AND individuals) are at work.

Apr 3, 2009, 4:04pm Top

Or, as Rhett Butler memorably said, "All wars are money wars."

Alas, I don't think he was wrong, although there are plenty of other factors. But somewhere someone is looking for profit.

Apr 3, 2009, 4:23pm Top

Yeah, like you say - plenty of factors. But whatever started it economy, politics and pride keeps 'em going...

Apr 3, 2009, 4:59pm Top

Yes, I agree Hitler was not unique in his beliefs, but he may have been unique in his charismatic appeal to others with those beliefs - a catalyst, without whom what?
This view is of course inconsistent with Tolstoy's view of Napoleon - he seems to not to believe in the great personage theory.
It puts me in mind of another piece of fiction, on a very much slighter scale: Connie Willis' The Bellwether

Apr 3, 2009, 5:10pm Top

Busifer I think you are right in that Hitler did not come to rise in a vacuum, but nevertheless I really wonder if a totalitarian regime based almost entirely on racist fearmongering would necessarily have been the one to arise from the rubble, so to speak. As I mentioned before, assuming that "only Nazis were racist" is silly; but the real question is if a regime which used this angle to seize power was an inevitability. While I know everyone has a different opinion on the matter, I really think that it wasn't inevitable. Given the harshness of the Versailles treaty which, I must respectfully disagree with a few posts above, left Germany in tatters economically despite the very real assumption by the populace that they were actually "winning" the war at the time of armistice, I really believe the Weimar government was doomed to failure.

But the hatred that arose amongst the populace could have been directed at any number of things. Unfortunately in our history, Hitler gained power and directed the peoples' anger towards the Jews. But imagine a group with the same charisma--which, for all Hitler's evil faults, he was nothing if not a charismatic individual--that directed the Germans' feeling of hatred and resentment towards, for instance, England and France, instead of a racial minority.

Busifer, I hope I'm not co-opting your point too far from where you originally intended it, but I think what you say about the preexisting racist sentiment in Germany and Sweden in the early 20th century sort of goes along with what I'm trying to say. Sweden may have had some racist ideas, but you never had a straight up "holocaust of the Saami" as far as I know; from what I know of Swedish history, your relations with them are roughly parallel to Americans' with our own native inhabitants. And all of us Americans likewise know full well the extent of civility proffered to African-Americans really before the 1970s (and in some areas, even today.)

Preexisting racism in Germany, in my estimation, need not have led to the Nazis taking power and murdering untold numbers of people. The fact is that Hitler was the right man at the right place and right time and picked the right agendas which suited his own personal beliefs, and played off the underlying racism of the early 20th century world.

Apr 3, 2009, 8:40pm Top

Absolutely! I don't think Germany was unique at all in its prejudice against Jews; plenty of other nations/peoples/individuals, including the United States at the time, were also. And look what happened to Japanese-Americans here. Not on the same level as what Hitler did to the Jews (and others), but not coming out of enlightened acceptance of all races, either.

Regretfully, things haven't changed all that much--there was just a horrific shooting in a city near me, 14 dead, and the fact that the shooter was likely an immigrant already has people making stupid statements about how they should go back to where they came from--ignoring that the people he specifically targeted to shoot were in a citizenship class. And oh, never mind where all the posters forebears came from. Argh.

Apr 3, 2009, 9:09pm Top

In the words of the almighty Chris Rock, in describing people trying to blame all kinds of things in peoples' backgrounds which may or may not lead to school/public shootings:

"Can't anybody just 'be crazy' anymore???"

Going on a shooting rampage has nothing to do with one's race, and everything to do with what's going on upstairs.

Anyway, yes I'm glad we're agreed on the unfortunate state of global racism in the 20th century, and its lack of uniqueness to any specific area. Let's not forget what Henry Ford thought of the Jews...

Edited: Apr 3, 2009, 10:26pm Top

The Hedgehog and The Fox is an interesting book on Tolstoy's theory of history. It is based upon an analysis of War and Peace. The title comes from a line from a Greek poet Archilochus.
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" According to the author Tolstoy wanted to believe in a central all-embracing system of history i.e. be a hedgehog. But when Tolstoy looked at history he could not help but see how all the small details of individual actions, decisions and moments of the past go together in a rather haphazard way to form the ongoing course of human affairs that is history. Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog.
The author, Sir Isaiah Berlin, does a great discussion on the basic fallacy of "systems" of history (the hedgehog approach) in an essay "The Sense of Reality" in a book by the same name. That essay has a good discussion on the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler and Stalin showed that history is not necessarily a progressive process. Hitler proclaimed that he was seeking to undo the effects of the Enlightenment and return to a pre-Christian Volkish past.
I guess my point is that at best we can know some of what happened in history. We can never know all of the facts that make up history and therefore we can't really know what would have happened if simply one fact was changed. Lack of knowledge also means we cannot form an abstract theory of history that can explain the past or predict the course of events in the future, such as Hegel thought he did. Berlin makes the point better than I do.
He is an excellent author on the history of ideas, particularly the Enlightenment and the Romantic philosophy.

Edited: Apr 3, 2009, 10:45pm Top

>25 wildbill:
The essay is reproduced in Berlin's terrific collection, Russian Thinkers

>13 Feicht:
Feicht, Feicht...Surely you know that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing!

>14 stellarexplorer:
I have a hard time believing we are all in agreement about this post...

Apr 4, 2009, 3:26am Top

#22/23/24 - Battling a headache, so I'll be short... I don't think we're disagreeing. I just want to add that Hitler did not rise on a racist agenda alone - he also managed to deliver on jobs to unemployed, industrialising the german economy.

A contradiction in itself, as the values he rallied people around were archetype rural/nuclear family, etcetera. But most people vote with their wallet - what gives money in MY pocket can justify a lot of atrocities. You just need to close your eyes, right?

Apr 4, 2009, 8:51am Top

Either close your eyes or convince yourself that the victims deserve it so as to feel you also deserve your good fortune.

Apr 4, 2009, 11:08am Top

Oh Busifer, I totally agree. Despite his racist craziness, and the perceived readiness of 1930s society to go along with it, I still believe nobody would have been with him if he didn't promise to "make Germany great again", via fixing the economy, getting everyone back to work, and punishing the people who hurt Germany a generation earlier. This is why I believe that anyone charismatic enough who offered all of these things to the people could have risen to power and taken over the government, and that the murder of countless Jews need not be seen as an inevitability.

Apr 4, 2009, 12:03pm Top

Anti-Semitism was rampant in all of Europe long before Hitler. In France it was a strong force in the Dreyfus case, pogroms in Russia and Russian Poland were used by the government to release public unrest. Hitler learned much of the political value of anti-Semitism from the election campaigns of the mayor of Vienna before WWI. Hitler's anti-Semitism was different in degree but not in kind from a centuries long hatred of the Jews.
I think that one of the prime factors in Hitler's rise to power was his anti-communism. The Communists and the Nazis were two of the most powerful political parties in Germany. The communists had their gangs of street bullies similar to the stormtroopers. In the 1932 elections the communists were the third largest party in the Reichstag and the Nazis and the Social Democrats lost votes from the previous election, (I looked it up).
The people with property were afraid of the communists taking power. When Franz von Papen engineered Hitler's rise to Chancellor through President von Hindenburg he thought he was using Hitler to stop the German communists. Many of the people on the right held their nose from the stench of anti-Semitism preached by Julius Streicher in order to defeat the communists.
One factor besides the economic reparations in the Versailles treaty that made it odious to the Germans was the war guilt clause. The Germans had to agree that they alone were responsible for WWI. This had great psychological impact on the Germans and contributed to their hatred of the treaty. Another significant fact was that when the armistice was signed there were no foreign soldiers on German territory in Europe. This contributed to the myth of the November criminals which led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic.
Hitler's rise to power was an incredible combination of people, events and what-ifs piled on top of each other precariously that illustrate how events that look inevitable in hindsight were in no way inevitable as they occurred.

Apr 4, 2009, 12:51pm Top

>30 wildbill:
That last sentence sums up a substantial part of history IMHO.

Edited: Apr 4, 2009, 4:58pm Top

>31 stellarexplorer: Pardon my ignorance. I saw it used in #11 after "whys" but it is not clear to me what IMHO means.

Apr 4, 2009, 4:58pm Top

"In my humble opinion" I believe.

Apr 4, 2009, 5:45pm Top

Good points, Wildbill. We also shouldn't forget that the first people actually thrown into concentration camps were, in fact, Communists. Just goes to show you to what extent Hitler and his cronies co-opted the German government though, seeing as the Nazis started out as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. They were just one of the many worker's parties originally, but he managed to make it into what he wanted.

Another thing you reminded me of is how German Antisemitism before Hitler was largely seen as very mild when compared to the hatred levelled against the Jews by other peoples. When the first German tanks rolled into Poland and Russia, apparently many Jews welcomed the Germans because they remember how Germany used to be the place you could go to in order to flee the abhorrent pogroms of the Czars.

Edited: Apr 4, 2009, 8:10pm Top

Large numbers of Eastern European Jews fled west, many into Germany, starting in the late nineteenth century. Following WWI, emigration further westward became more difficult, and even more so as the US imposed massive immigration restrictions for Eastern and Southern Europeans in the 1920s.

The most visible of these immigrants were perceived to be from the Russian Empire, Romania and Galicia. There was a large contrast between these Eastern Jews, who predominantly dressed in traditional garb, spoke Yiddish and were observant, and assimilated urbane "native" German Jews. The influx (and its political use by those who found it expedient) exacerbated the preexisting antisemitism in Germany, and reinforced stereotypes about the "otherness" of Jews.

Still, Feicht is right that despite these conditions, Germany was considered a safer place for Jews than were the places from which they were emigrating.

Apr 4, 2009, 10:40pm Top

The thing is, like you elude to Stellar, these "Orthodox Jews" from the East really had it tough because they're getting screwed by the Russian Empire, and then in Germany they even got discriminated against by other Jews who were very well assimilated into German society, and didn't want any negative reactions against themselves by the rest of society.

This isn't directly related, but I always thought it was an interesting point that while these right wing bastards were whipping up trouble about the degradation of German society by the Jews, it wasn't until after the war started that there was even much contact with Jews. I remember the guy at the Wannsee Conference Center in Berlin was telling me that in 1935, Jews made up like an infinitesimal portion of the German population; this was the time when they were still theoretically attempting to simply "deport" the Jews as opposed to murder them. But sadly all bets were off as soon as they got into Polish territory where the number of Jews was much higher.

Oh by the way, if any of you guys are interested in this stuff, I highly recommend Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men if you haven't read it yet. Great book which explains through the example of just one of the Einsatzgruppen how regular people were able to get sucked into taking part in the Holocaust even if they didn't want to at first.

Apr 4, 2009, 11:01pm Top

Yes, according the rough-and-ready research I just did, the German Jewish population in 1920 was around half a million out of a total population of 65 million. The proportion may have risen slightly after due to those still managing to immigrate from the west.

But I believe only about 200,000 German Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, because of Jewish flight out of the country. So by 1935, I'd guess the proportion of Jews was smaller. I just finished Einstein in Berlin, a fascinating story of Einstein's years in Berlin 1913-1932, admixed with the history and politics of Berlin and Germany during that period. Einstein left quietly weeks before Hitler took power.

Apr 7, 2009, 9:59am Top

#22"But the hatred that arose amongst the populace could have been directed at any number of things. Unfortunately in our history, Hitler gained power and directed the peoples' anger towards the Jews. But imagine a group with the same charisma--which, for all Hitler's evil faults, he was nothing if not a charismatic individual--that directed the Germans' feeling of hatred and resentment towards, for instance, England and France, instead of a racial minority"

Possibally the holocaust might not have been inveitable. But if the German's resentment had been chanelled towards France as above I can't see how that would have made WWII any less inevitable - perhaps with a French Holocaust instead.

What could a beaten population be aimed at as motivation to rise? - and make no mistake, the 20s in Germany was very hard for at least some substantial segments of the population.

Apr 7, 2009, 10:31am Top

I'd want to add the euthanasia project already under way in Germany when WWII started, so they had an established way to do away with undesired people; the Nazis systematically tried to 'delete' everything they did not agree with.
The step from art over disabled and criminals to race, belief and ideology isn't that big, if your already minded that way...

Apr 7, 2009, 12:50pm Top

I believe I recall correctly that Weinberg suggested in A World At Arms that the euthanasia programs directed at the elderly, the infirm and the mentally ill had as an additional purpose desensitizing the people who committed those crimes to committing mass murder, so as to make the Final Solution run more smoothly.

Apr 7, 2009, 1:26pm Top

Robert Jay Lifton in The Nazi Doctors emphasizes that the genocide of all "undesirables" was looked on as removing an unhealthy growth from the society. Homosexuals, people of abnormally low intelligence, anyone with a congenital defect that effected the purity or strength of the race was to be removed like a cancer in the body. It was not by accident that the selections made when the trains came into Auschwitz and the other camps were made by doctors.
Lifton's discussions with the doctors who participated in this process and bought into this rationale are chilling. I found the book very interesting but have never been able to finish it.
It should also be remembered that in some areas of Europe outside of Germany the Germans simply gave the local populations permission to kill all of the Jews and found many volunteers. One of the areas I recall reading about was Lithuania.
The first portion of the genocide was accomplished by groups of men with trucks and machine guns. They would round up the Jews, have them dig their graves and them line them up and shoot them. One of the reasons the camps were built is because this up close and personal mass killing had a bad effect on the men in the killing groups. The camps were much more impersonal and the Jews were forced to do much of the work of dealing with the dead bodies from the showers. The camps were also much more efficient. I recall reading a memo from Eichmann about being able to process thousands of "units" in a day.
What happened in Germany and many other areas including America proves to me that race is a very dangerous concept. When I have to fill out a form and I am asked for my race I always put down "human".

Edited: Apr 7, 2009, 1:37pm Top

@ Readingfox: The thing is, the reason the Jews were able to be "exterminated"--at least, in the minds of the racist Nazi hierarchy--was paradoxically also what made them such a minute threat in the first place: the tiny portion of the population that they comprised. Even after the Nazis overran Poland, Czechoslovakia and areas of Russia which had a much larger portion of Jews, they still were small enough in number that they were able to be "rounded up," as it were. This is precisely why I believe there never could have been a "French Holocaust" along the same lines as that of the Jews. There were simply too many French to throw them all in death camps, or even to conquer and use as slave labour. I really see conventional war as the only plausible outcome. Mind you, it could/would have been horrific and bloody, as war is, as they say, hell. Perhaps even something along the lines of the Japanese in China in the 30s. They essentially waged all-out, almost Roman Empire style war against the Chinese people, but even so it's not as if they could've tossed a net around the country and "captured" all the inhabitants. Nor could the Germans have done the same in France.

Of course this is all just historical speculation anyway, so really, who knows? But that's what makes it so interesting! :-)

Busifer: The Germans were indeed euthanizing people when the war started but we can't forget that other countries were doing similar things, and they didn't even have blasted Nazis in charge. Some of the things the American government sanctioned from the 20s thru the early 50s is just chilling, chilling stuff.

Kokipy: An interesting hypothesis indeed, but from what I understand, the two were not directly related in the way Weinberg suggests. The horrible actions against the elderly, deformed, or mentally ill may very well have lead to a desensitization which made it "feel okay" to certain individuals to rationalize mass murder against the Jews, but I don't think that was the plan at the outset. Rather the one may have ended up helping the other, without having been the original intent.

We have to remember that even people within the Nazi hierarchy were sickened by the visceral assault on the senses that was organized mass murder. I recall a story (I believe it was from Browning's Ordinary Men) where Himmler himself was visibly shaken by the murder of a number of Jews in conquered Ukraine and resolved that "there has to be another way".

Taken in sum, there was certainly a widespread belief that certain "degenerate aspects of society" had to be eliminated to create the great "Thousand Year Reich" that Hitler and his henchmen dreamed of, but I just don't buy that they planned it out in a way which "worked themselves up to" being able to kill thousands. In reading books like the aforementioned Ordinary Men, it really comes to light how haphazard a process the Final Solution really was.

EDIT: Wildbill you posted while I was typing this one up but I must say, well done :-) And you mention how originally they thought they could just execute the Jews one by one on a face to face basis, but quickly found out how flawed this idea was. A major theme in Browning's book (I'm not his publisher, I swear!)

Apr 7, 2009, 1:41pm Top

Let's not forget that in this country during the thirties, forties and fifties, the eugenics movement had some success with sterilization. A means of limiting society to only acceptable individuals. Then there was the American genocide from the 1600's to the early 20th century.

Eugenics was seriously considered as a means of population control, in more ways than one.

Apr 7, 2009, 2:31pm Top

#43 (and #42/answer to me) - Same in Sweden, and some of the most vocal advocates were (famous, here in Sweden) social democrats.

Apr 7, 2009, 3:30pm Top

As to the horrors of wwII I think anyone who have actually seen soap made of human remains and lampshade made of human skin, as of the exhibition at the museum in Dachau (Munich) has a hard time believing the upper echelons being sickened by the practise of killing of the undesired.

Anyway, systematic discrimination against Jews have a long history in Europe, and I do mean a LONG one. So aiming at the Jews were practically a) populist and b) like shooting on a sitting duck - just pick a target the populace would probably agree with without thinking "I might be next" and you're home...

Edited: Apr 14, 2009, 12:03pm Top

When the first German tanks rolled into Poland and Russia, apparently many Jews welcomed the Germans because they remember how Germany used to be the place you could go to in order to flee the abhorrent pogroms of the Czars.

I would be very cautious attributing such motives to a pre-Holocaust population of 3.3 million Polish Jews. Given such a large population one must recognize a wide spectrum of political, ethnic and national ties.

There were by no means "many" Jews who welcomed Nazis. There are isolated cases of individuals who did so. To put the situation in perspective there were also Jews who welcomed the Russians, not just as saviors from the Nazis but due to support for communism, political affiliations, lack of Polish identity, family ties to Russia, etc. The situation was not simple; the Jews were between a rock and a hard place politically. It remains a sensitive issue for many people.

Apr 15, 2009, 4:35pm Top

30: With regard to France, don't forget that there French chanting Better Hitler than Blum (the Jewish Prime Minister) in the late 1930s at a time when France's army was still more powerful than the German army. French anti semitism certainly didn't help France in the pre war period.

Jun 20, 2010, 4:46pm Top

"But whatever devious course your future history may take, impress it always upon your descendants that the path has been marked out, and that at its end is a new and greater Empire!"



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