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The Decade of Appeasement

Seventy-five years after Hitler and the Nazis came to power.

11:00 PM, Feb 6, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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LAST WEEK GERMANY marked the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, on January 30, 1933. Within a decade the Nazi juggernaut had devoured much of Europe, and its death camps had incinerated millions. No nation in Europe bears the shame of Nazism and anti-Semitism more heavily, yet none seems more determined to prevent their recurrence. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier no doubt spoke for many over the weekend: "The memory of the genocide committed by the Germans serves to keep us alert and fight anti-Semitism and racial hatred around the world."

This is a good thing, this mixture of grief and resolve. We will need more of it. For on the very same day last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--in yet another bellicose political sermon--promised that Iran would produce nuclear energy within a year and that Israel would soon collapse. "I warn you to abandon the filthy Zionist entity," he said, "which has reached the end of the line."

All historical analogies are hazardous, of course. Yet it is not necessary to believe that the Iranian president shares Hitler's demonic fury, or that his brand of Shi'a Islam is a kind of Islamo-fascism, to draw useful lessons from Europe's decade of appeasement. Foremost among these lessons was the fatally naïve critique of Hitler, his anti-Semitism, and his designs on Europe.

A member of the SA, the Nazi terrorist militia, recalled the night Hitler was appointed chancellor. Berlin, he said, was transformed from a cold, gray, slumbering capital into a "seething, red, clear burning sea of torches." Thousands chanted Sieg Heil outside the balcony where Hitler stood to receive them. "The mood was a compound of triumph, aggression and strange exultant relief," writes historian Alex de Jonge. "Complete strangers embraced one another, saying, 'At last we are saved.' It was as if the German nation believed itself to have been released at a stroke from political chaos and economic misery." On February 1, in his first radio address to the German people, Hitler pledged that government leaders "would preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life."

Church leaders would swell the ranks of the political faithful. The Protestant "German Christian Movement" welcomed Nazi involvement in their congregations. A coalition of Protestant groups, including Lutherans and members of the Reformed Church, issued an April declaration that was a paean to militant nationalism: "Germanism is a gift of God. God wills that I fight for Germany," they said. "Adolf Hitler's State calls to the Church, the Church has heard the call." Soon church bells bore Nazi swastikas, crosses were draped in Nazi flags, and a new priesthood--the "storm troopers of Jesus"--preached martial sermons of racial purity and holy martyrdom.

The Catholic hierarchy performed no better. Germany's Catholic Centre Party, backed by the Vatican, swiftly supported unrestricted powers for Hitler and the suspension of the Weimar Constitution. The editor of the Catholic journal Augsburger Postzeitung summarized the mood: "The positive attitude of the German Catholics to the new state is no longer impeded by religious scruples." The same might be said of the Holy See, which in April received Nazi leaders Franz von Papen and Hermann Goring with full honors. Within months Pope Pius XI signed a Concordat with Hitler. Intended as a shield for the church, the agreement lent Hitler international credibility, criminalized Catholic political activity, and demoralized bishops and priests who opposed Nazi rule.

Even as these proclamations and agreements were being made, Hitler confirmed his racist and dictatorial passions. The Reichtag fire became a pretext to nullify the rights guaranteed by the Weimar constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly. Police, SA, and SS thugs launched a wave of arbitrary arrests. Hitler staged a national boycott of Jewish shops, lawyers, and physicians. Opposition political parties and labor unions were banned. An orgy of book burning ensued. Within a year, Hitler combined the role of "Fuhrer and Chancellor," effectively ending Germany's experiment in liberal democracy.