What was going on in Rudolf Hess’ mind in his final years? Was he haunted? He committed suicide aged 93 in 1987 in Spandau Prison in West Berlin.
TV documentaries about the Nazis and their atrocities are peculiarly commonplace and popular even today. These documentaries understandably demonize the inhumanity of the perpetrators of those crimes. But demonization creates a distance and ‘otherness’ that implies ‘we could never do that’. Dehumanization conveniently and dangerously dismisses a rigorous and deeper analysis. Perhaps unanswered questions explain the on-going fascination with Nazis. Perhaps our demons still haunt us? In this piece, I seek to redress the history of 20th Century Germany with two key elements that have, I believe, lacked adequate attention and give us greater insight. It is in no way an apology for Nazi war crimes.
Before we look at those two elements, let’s start with a fact of German history that is well known. Unlike its western neighbours, Germany only achieved a comparable level of national unity after Prussia emerged from the Franco-Prussian wars in 1870 and later evolved into the German Empire that entered the 20th Century.
The German Empire was an absolute monarchy and it’s third and last autocrat was Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild. His birth was difficult and left him with numerous disabilities:
Modern medical assessments have concluded Wilhelm’s hypoxic state at birth, due to the breech delivery and the heavy dosage of chloroform, left him with minimal to mild brain damage, which manifested itself in his subsequent hyperactive and erratic behaviour, limited attention span and impaired social abilities. The brachial plexus injury resulted in Erb’s palsy, which left Wilhelm with a withered left arm about six inches (15 centimetres) shorter than his right.Wikipedia
Wilhelm II ascended the throne of the Second Reich in June 1888. In March 1890, Wilhelm II dismissed the German Empire’s powerful longtime Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and assumed direct control over his nation’s policies, embarking on a bellicose “New Course” to cement its status as a leading world power.Wikipedia
This ‘New Course’ was hemmed in because Germany was a Johnny-come-lately to the game of global colonization. There wasn’t much territory left that hadn’t already been claimed by its European rivals. Apart from a few far-flung pockets, it had only its immediate surroundings to look to.
His tactless public statements and erratic foreign policy greatly antagonized the international community and are considered by many to be one of the underlying causes for World War I.Wikipedia
The average German individual had little to no say in the general direction their autocrat(s) took them. Not all agreed.
The outcome of WW1, the punishing Treaty of Versailles and the resentment it created is well-known.
However, by the Roaring ‘20s, during the Weimar Republic, the people were enjoying a rare taste of democracy, liberty and the good life. The Nazi Party was unable to gain any electoral momentum whilst the times were good.
Then the Great Depression broke out. Too often this economic ‘bust’ is characterized as a foible of the free enterprise system. True, an environment of opportunistic speculation is bound to ride up and down; the 1890s had seen a similar, though not so severe downturn. Since then we’ve only seen recessions and even the 2008 Global Financial Crisis did not have as wide-ranging effects on as many people. This is a testament to the refined control that international financial and commercial powers have developed.
The causes of the Great Depression are numerous, but much can be squarely laid at the feet of the Federal Reserve Bank of the U.S.A., which “caused a shrinking of the money supply which greatly exacerbated the economic situation” (Wikipedia). The hardship this brought to indebted Germany broke confidence in the Weimar Republic, democracy and saw the Nazi party gain 30% in electoral success. The length of time it took to return to financial stability contributed to the Nazi’s success. Hitler’s Lebensraum or ‘living space’ turned its sights on eastern European – Slavs being seen as an inferior race – hence the war started in Poland. The rest, as they say, is history – a turbulent history born of widespread and unbridled hope, ambition and greed that to my mind only serves to further confirm the good sense of a steady state economy, in which fantasies and delusions of grandeur have no part to play.