“We are determined to constitute a government which, instead of constantly wavering from side to side, shall be firm and purposeful, and restore to our people a source of unshakeable authority”
When people believe that they would have rejected Hitler, it’s because they believe that since Hitler’s evil is now obvious to them, it would have been just as obvious then. That’s probably not true. People in the era were persuaded, especially after he took office, that he would just promote Germany, and they didn’t think there would be genocide or world war (for more on that point, see Backing Hitler and Letters to Hitler). As Michael Mann says, “Hitler would not have reached 5 percent of the votes if he had promised either a second world war or the murder of millions of Jews and Slavs” (Fascist 185).
In Mein Kampf (1925) Hitler had explained his goal of a lebensraum (living space) for the Aryan race. Germany would control all of Europe and the US, all lesser races in those regions would be expelled, exterminated, or enslaved, and all the land would be redistributed to Aryans in a kind of plantation system (much like Rhodesia). As Ian Kershaw points out, the basic concept “had been a prominent strand of German imperialist ideology since the 1890s” (Hitler 248). So, much like his racialist theories, this way of thinking about Germany’s “need” would have resonated with a lot of common rhetoric of the time.
Obviously, that plan involved world war and genocide, but people supported him who, at least initially, wanted neither. How did that happen? How were large numbers of people persuaded to ignore what Hitler had promised when he was campaigning? How did people who didn’t like Nazis for their extremism and eliminationist rhetoric decide supporting their candidate would be okay?
Hitler presented himself as a person who cared about regular people, who appealed to the dominant sense that democratic deliberation was inefficient and dominated by special interests. He presented himself as someone who could cut through the Gordian knot of government bullshit and get every real German what s/he deserved. He employed a rhetoric of brave victimhood (you are being brave despite being victimized by them), and incoherent vaguely religious scapegoating (that sort of racial, sort of religious group is in a vast conspiracy to exterminate you),that enabled aggressive action (expel or kill them all) as some kind of self-defense (with various rumors, myths, and misrepresentations of violence against the ingroup). And he had large number of media who would not only perfectly replicate the talking points created about him, but who would inoculate (in the sense it’s used in rhetoric) their consumers against opposition points of view.
Rhetorical inoculation is crucial to understanding how authoritarianism works. Just as giving someone cowpox (a weak version of smallpox) will enable them to resist smallpox if they encounter it, so presenting a person with a weak version of an ideology can enable their cognitive system to reject any argument of that ideology, even much stronger versions. While that might be useful for immunology, it is profoundly anti-democratic in that the whole point of it is to persuade citizens not to listen to anyone who disagrees. It says that you already know what they’re going to say, and it’s stupid. When it works, citizens don’t know any points of view other than their own, but they think they do, and so they’re making uninformed decisions while thinking they’re as informed as they need to be.
Inoculation ensures that we have a citizenry that is simultaneously un- and mis-informed about their policy options.
Authoritarianism works by saying there are two choices: our good set of policies (our ingroup) and everything else, and those two choices are obviously between what is good (rational, moral, clear) and what is bad (irrational, immoral, relativist). Authoritarianism works when it persuades people to make decisions on the basis of group identity. Authoritarianism also always says that the situation of the ingroup is so disastrous that we don’t have time for deliberation. In Robert Paxton‘s words, we are in an “overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions.” And Hitler could count on large parts of his audience believing that to be true—the German government really had had a hard time getting much done or solving its problems; it didn’t seem to be working. Its dysfunctional slough wasn’t the consequence of the depression alone. Mann says, “Germany was not in chaos; its depression was no worse than the American depression” (205). The German democracy wasn’t working because major political groups didn’t want it to work. The elites, Mann says, “still felt they had an authoritarian option” (205). Both the Fascists and Stalinists believed they were better served either the Fascists nor the Stalinists wanted it to work. They set fire to democracy and then insisted that democracy was unworkable because it caught on fire.
He could also count on the support of a lot of wealthy reactionaries and authoritarians, even ones who looked down on Hitler, because they were opposed to the higher tax obligations and restrictions on the rich that they thought social democrats would impose (who wanted a progressive tax to support a strong social safety net), and they felt threatened by the Bolsheviks. They were worried about losing their privileges (Mann). They thought that Hitler, who had a passionate (albeit profoundly irrational) base didn’t really mean what he said and wasn’t that extreme, would be matured by being in a position of power, or could be controlled. They just needed someone “to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it.”
Hitler said: We are not in a bad situation because of having made bad decisions in the past. WWI didn’t start because of Germany having decided to support Austria in a stupid bluff, and our invading Belgium was the fault of England, and it had nothing to do with nationalism and racism about the French and a political system that put too much power in the hands of an individual who might have poor judgment. We’re the real victims here. The Versailles Treaty is evil (and let’s not talk about the conditions imposed on France after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870), and we only lost WWI because of Jews (who are all Bolshevists, especially the capitalists, and who are sort of a race and sort of a religion, and don’t ask too much about that or the whole capitalist/communist thing).
For much of Hitler’s audience, that was tl;dr.
What he said was: you’re in a bad situation; it can’t be your fault. You’re a German, so it can’t be Germany’s fault. IT’S THE LIBERALS. Who are Jews. And Bolsheviks. And international financiers. ALL TRUE GERMANS AGREE. Our government sucks because it isn’t giving you the things you know you deserve, and it isn’t dominating every other country, and GOD WANTS US TO BE THE BEST, and democracy involves letting other people argue and they’re all wrong and so it’s a waste of time because the true course of action is obvious to every reasonable person and so ELECT SOMEONE WHO CARES ABOUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU. And who will insist that GERMANY IS THE BEST. A strong man who will just walk into every international negotiation and dominate everyone and insist that they do what is best for Germany. As far as domestic policies, we need someone who gets people like us, who cares about us. Politicians who say it’s complicated are just trying to line their own pockets. Democratic deliberation is a waste of time–just hand over all the power to a guy who can get things done. And that’s me.
The fact is that that kind of political rhetoric never ends well, but it always looks as though it will. And it looks as though it will work out okay because it appeals to the sense that people like us are good, and so things that people like us support must be good.
I’m trying to make two points here: first, no one supports genocide or world war at the beginning, but we support policies that (unbeknownst to us) tend toward genocide and so authoritarians who think their authoritarian isn’t Hitler because s/he isn’t explicitly supporting genocide are thoroughly missing the historical lesson; second, Hitler’s success came about because he depoliticized politics–he said it wasn’t about political issues, but about whether he was the kind of person people could trust, and therefore they should hand all decisions over to him.
So, the fantasy that a lot of people have now–that they would recognize a Hitler were he to arise because they would never support someone who would advocate genocide and an obviously unnecessary war–is false in that it assumes that they would know what they know now about Hitler. Anytime an individual, institution, community, or culture comes to a disastrously bad decision (such as Germany supporting Hitler), the interesting question is not about the content of their decision (they supported Hitler) but about the process–what made supporting Hitler seem like a good decision?
We all would like to imagine that we would have been running slaves to freedom, hiding Jews, in a cell next to King in Birmingham, standing firm on the bridge in Selma, and that imagined version of ourselves is premised on our knowing what we know about how those actions turned out. Now, we know that slavery was wrong. But how do we know that? If we know that because we consume a lot of media that says slavery was wrong and the people involved in the underground railroad were good, then our method of deciding what is right and wrong is one–what our dominant media says is right or wrong–is a method that would have made us outraged if we had been raised in a proslavery culture.
So, if our method of deciding if something is right or wrong is just asking ourselves if the thing seems right or wrong then we would have supported slavery if we’d been raised in a proslavery environment. In other words, just asking ourselves whether something is right or wrong is a shitty way to determine if something is right or wrong.
Hitler persuaded people he could be trusted—if not trusted to do the right thing, at least trusted not to do the wrong thing, and the March 23, 1933 speech exemplifies how authoritarians do that.