Why Do the Nazis Still Haunt Our Consciousness?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Even now, it is almost impossible to not encounter an article, a book, a film, a documentary, or a fictional treatment of Hitler, the Third Reich, or the Holocaust. National Socialism or Nazism is the most widely researched, discussed, and written about topic of 20th-century historical scholarship on Western civilization. Why is that?

A group of Jews in a concentration camp.
Millions of European Jews were imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the Nazi regime under Hitler, and the event is still remembered with horror in modern times. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Are Nazi Atrocities Worse than Modern Ones?

Is it the horror and the deaths caused by the Nazis that account for the haunting presence of National Socialism in our psyches? There have been, in the years after the Second World War, horrific crimes that parallel the ghastly events that occurred between 1933 and 1945 as a result of the Nazis.

The Soviet Union, under Stalin, destroyed millions of lives and sent millions of other people to concentration camps. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge systematically extinguished a far greater percentage of the Cambodian population than even the Nazis in Europe. Of course, there are also the horrific events in Rwanda and Burundi, which was also a form of genocide.

The impact of these events pales in comparison to the one that National Socialism has had on our consciousness.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Haunting Questions about the Nazis

The reason in part is that, unlike distant Cambodia or the Soviet Union, Germany has always been an integral part of Western civilization. It was, after all, the land of Goethe, and Schiller, of Beethoven and Bach. In the 1920s and ’30s, Germany had the highest literacy rate in the world. It was one of the most highly developed industrial economies, and stood at the forefront of scientific research and development.

Germany’s educational system was the envy of the world and a model for much of the American system. The Germans, in other words, were not distant villagers, living in poverty, undereducated, in an underdeveloped economy. They were not desperately poor. They were, in short, a lot like us.

Thus, behind the interest in the Nazi phenomenon is the haunting question that never goes away: How could a political movement of such sheer barbarism come to power in such a society? If it could happen there, could it happen elsewhere? Was there something fundamentally wrong with German political culture? Was it a unique experience, a unique development, peculiar to Germany?

Learn more about Josef Stalin, the Man of Steel.

The Logical Culmination of German Politics

Some analysts have viewed the Third Reich as the logical, and indeed legitimate, culmination of German political development. There are some who would make the case that the Third Reich is simply the end of a long continuum that starts at the authoritarian social ethics of Luther; that moves through Prussian militarism in the 17th and 18th centuries, into the romanticism, anti-Enlightenment thought of the 19th century, into National Socialist Germany.

A portrait of Martin Luther.
Martin Luther influenced both the social and the religious development of Germany. (Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder/Public domain)

In a sense, until fairly recently, much of the literature about the rise of the Nazis and the Third Reich, has dealt with the problem of German deviation. This is the view that Germany somehow deviated from these healthy Western developments that led to industrialization, a pluralist society, and parliamentary democracy. At what point did it jump the track?

Was it because German intellectual life emphasized on romanticism rather than reason? The argument seemed to be that the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason that so molded the British, French, and American political systems of the 19th and 20th centuries, somehow didn’t cross the Rhine, and that much of German development in the 20th century can be traced to this.

The Speed of German Industrialization

Then, in the 1960s and into the ’70s, a new wave of scholarship began that acknowledged some peculiarities in German intellectual and cultural development, but instead tended to emphasize a change in German economic and social development. The scholars argued that industrialization in Germany appeared late. But, once industrialization began, it spread quickly and thoroughly.

Something that the British took a century to accomplish, the Germans accomplished within two generations. This accomplishment caused Germany to deviate from the French and even the English and American model. They carved out a special German path.

Learn more about the first Industrial Revolution.

The Rise to Power of the Nazis

There were many short-term developments in the 1920s that culminated in the rise of the Nazis. Adolf Hitler was an absolutely obscure personality in the lunatic fringes of German politics and became the Chancellor of Germany. Nobody took his party seriously in 1922, and it went on to become the largest political party in Germany by the summer of 1932.

It was, in fact, the most dramatically successful political development in the world. In 1928, the Nazis got less than 3 percent of the vote; four years, later, it was 38 percent. The Nazis had amazingly come to power.

Common Questions about Why the Nazis Still Haunt Us

Q: Are the atrocities of the Nazis unparalleled in history?

There have been equal, and maybe even worse, atrocities perpetrated by other groups as the Nazis. For example, the atrocities committed by the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, as well as the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi.

Q: Why is it a surprise that Germany gave rise to Nazism?

Germany was a highly literate country, known for its literary and cultural achievements, as well as being a developed industrial nation and known for scientific progress. It is a surprise that such a culture gave rise to the barbaric movement of Nazism.

Q: How quick was the rise of the Nazi party?

In 1928, the Nazis got less than 3 percent of the vote. Four years later, the number jumped to 38 percent.

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