One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations. - Churchill, 1935
It is remarkable to see the spell that the Third Reich continues to cast over people three generations on from the war. I’m not talking about skinheads who think they’re cool by giving the stiff-arm salute and barking ‘Sieg Heil’ (often mispronounced), but about ordinary, decent people from across the social spectrum. It is grudgingly conceded by social scientists that many people from all walks of life nowadays feel an affinity with Nazi Germany, although they are mostly advisedly prudent about expressing those feelings openly.
One indication of the widespread sentiment is the number of ‘hits’ period German newsreel footage on YouTube enjoys and the impressive volume of favourable comments it attracts, many of them accompanied by scathing critiques of the conduct of the Western allies during the war. If the balance of feeling expressed is anything to go by, the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ have changed places in the eyes of a great many people, particularly in the context of the air war in which many now regard the Luftwaffe as David valiantly taking on the Goliath of formations of allied bombers intent on mass murder. One can almost hear the cheers every time one of those metallic morphs of Tyrannosaurus is brought down by a nimble Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf bravely darting in through a hail of defensive fire.
All this may seem enigmatic in light of the bad press the Third Reich has been subjected to for the past three quarters of a century. We have all been reminded umpteen times of the dark side of that regime – and continue to be so on a regular basis – and for that reason I won’t be mentioning any of that. The question is what attracts about the Third Reich, not what repels.
The paradigm shifts that took hold from the 1960s saw growing numbers of people adopting a critical attitude to ‘accepted history’. The maxim about the victors writing the history books went from being a fashionable yuppie heresy to now being well entrenched in popular wisdom. The Cold War drew attention to the nature of “our friends and allies” (a common expression at the time) the Soviets, and the large-scale atrocities associated with the reoccupation of vassal states and the Rape of Berlin while the response to the uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia elicited increasing Western public indignation. The shedding of light on the joys of Stalin’s Paradise and the dawning realisation that that most evil of all empires had murdered far more people than the Nazis ever did (yes, do check that out) brought about a growing cynicism towards the alliance that had crushed the Third Reich in 1945. This was added to by a constant flow of revelations to the effect that allied war crimes had been glossed over or sanitised – Dresden, for instance – and that a lot of fibs had been told; for example, the Russians admitted in 1990 that the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish officers, hitherto attributed to the SS, had actually been carried out by the NKVD. (These could become very long lists, but this is not the time or place.) The question “I wonder what else we’ve been lied to about”, hitherto a lurking doubt in the sceptical mindset, found a voice.
I, for one, will never accept the proposition that there was anything ‘moral’ about the decision of the Western allies to side with Stalin’s USSR against Hitler’s Germany. That unholy alliance had a great deal more to do with the threat that a united Europe posed to the Anglo-American-dominated world order than with any ‘moral’ considerations. As for the presence of Stalin’s stooges at the Nuremberg kangaroo court deciding on charges of crimes against humanity, that just makes me puke.
The appeal of the Third Reich to many both inside and outside it before and during the war is not hard to pin down, and brings us right back to the Soviets. The world circa 1930 was an unstable and uncertain place. The First World War had seen the toppling of four empires and the remaining ones were looking shaky. The global economic order was a shambles and the Great Depression looked like its death throes. Hovering in the shadows was the communist threat with Moscow’s operatives and their fellow travellers holding half the counties of Europe to ransom through their pernicious hold on the labour union movement. Collapse at the national and international levels seemed imminent. No informed, thinking adult of the period could be blamed for believing that the whole show was falling apart and the Soviets were going to pick up the spoils.
Enter a ‘third way’ – National Socialism. Germany picked itself up by the bootstraps and did a true phoenix act economically as well as socially, turning the country into an industrial powerhouse and world leader in science and technology as well as a model of social welfarism. The National Socialists won two general elections on the trot, and a modern politician can only dream about the rating voters gave them the second time. Others looked on with envy and some tried to emulate the model. A stock history joke is that in Italy, Mussolini even got the trains running on time. In Holland, almost 40% of the population were behind the Dutch national socialist party at one point.
Then came the war. In the Baltic states, Germany was welcomed as a protector from an aggressively expansionist Soviet Union. In the Ukraine and other Soviet vassals, the incoming German forces were hailed as liberators. National Socialism as the guiding paradigm of a united Europe under German leadership became a pan-European ideology fanned by anti-communism. The Waffen SS, that much maligned (because they were the finest fighting force the world has ever seen) international army spearheading the struggle, recruited the fittest and ablest young men – all volunteers – from all over Europe; there was even a small British SS contingent. As it turned out, Stalin’s USSR was the big winner and for the next 45 years, half of Europe was under Soviet domination and the communist menace gave us, inter alia, Korea and Vietnam. This is what we have inadvertently been ‘celebrating’ on VE Day.
All of this goes a long way towards explaining why many have been taking a fresh look at the history of the first half of the last century, although it does not quite explain the mesmeric effect that the Third Reich appears to exert on a significant – and apparently growing – number of people today in 2015. Wherein lies the allure? One need not look far to identify it, methinks – although the answer to the question will be far from palatable for many. The potent symbolism, the rousing mass rallies, the stirring marching songs, the powerful speeches, the infectious national pride and morale – these all add up to a magnetism that few Europeans can resist. For the Third Reich was White Pride par excellence – and it transpires from numerous comments found on various internet websites that this aspect of it is strongly adding to its appeal in these Politically Correct days when to be White is to be in the wrong. The haunting images evoke a sense of nostalgia and a nagging sensation of Paradise Lost – ‘look at us then, look at us now’ – supplemented by a mounting conviction on the part of growing numbers of Europeans that Paradise Regained remains within reach, as the impressive growth of the European ‘far right’ bears witness to.
Erich Priebke, ex-SS Sipo (security police) and hounded for the last 20 years of his life by ‘Nazi hunters’, said the following in an interview with the ABC (American) just before his death in 2013 at the age of 100:
Q: So do you still consider yourself a National Socialist?
A: Loyalty to our past determines our convictions and our character. This is the way I view the world and my ideals. It is what was once our German Weltanschauung, the way we view the world. It is what still determines my sense of honour and my self-respect. Politics is something different. National Socialism perished with the defeat of Germany and today there is no longer any prospect of its continuation.
That last evaluation is probably true – the European ‘far right’ parties aiming for representation in parliament have done their utmost to distance themselves from the political tsunami that swept through Europe during the 1930s and early 40s. But have we in the West, in rejecting all that the Third Reich stood for, thrown out the baby with the bathwater? I hear few assenting voices, but I see many silently nodding heads.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.