History

Thomas Weber’s Becoming Hitler

I finished reading historian Thomas Weber’s Becoming Hitler: the Making of a Nazi last night. I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

Weber is a German historian, Hitler scholar and professor at Aberdeen University in Scotland. The book, his latest, covers Hitler’s life from the end of WWI in 1918 through his publishing of Mein Kampf in 1925.

Though there is almost no mention of contemporary global politics, and the book was originally written in German in 2016, it’s hard to imagine that Brexit and the rise of Trump in America weren’t an input to the tone.

Here are my take aways:

– All politics are local. From the outside how German regional politics played out isn’t obvious to the casual observer. In reality Bavaria, Berlin, and Prussia were and still are very different places in which Hitler’s message played very differently.

-It struck me as unusual how old Hitler was, 30, before he even considered positions of leadership or even taking an interest in politics. Weber also makes it clear how that blank slate was capitalized by Hitler himself through clear and intentional dishonesty in how he chose to portray his political awakening.

-What I found particularly troubling was that the language Hitler used towards Jews is very present in the language some contemporary conservative voices use in how they refer to liberals as a whole. The tainting of the media. The cosmopolitan elite status. The globalization of resources etc.

-At the risk of stating the obvious, Hitler mattered. There’s been an appropriate movement in Germany towards owning the outcomes of WWII and the Holocaust as a people over the last few decades. But Weber is clear. The socioeconomic and geopolitical situation may have been ripe for demagoguery, not just in Germany but throughout Europe. But only Hitler led to the outcome of Nazi Germany. Hitler’s political views, temperament and goals for Germany were what drove the direction of Nazi Germany. In Weber’s view, it matters what kind of demagogue one gets. Some are worse than others.

-Hitler’s core motivating principal was creating a unified Germany that would stand up to any future attacks by world powers. By 1925, he believed the two things that stood in the way of that vision: 1-The presence of Jews in both in Germany and the global capitalist system. 2-Lack of territory, or “space to live” .

-Hitler, from the beginning believed violence was the preferred path to political  outcomes and he attempted violence, multiple times unsuccessfully, before appealing more broadly in a political sense.

-As early as 1924, Hitler’s strategy required genocide of Europe’s Jews, Poles, Slavs and Russians. It wasn’t something that developed over time through necessity. It was core to the message a decade before the message caught on.

-Though tempting because of the current American socio-political environment and the authoritarian bend of the Trump administration on immigration policy, drawing parallels from Trump America to Nazi Germany require a few leaps not easily taken. One thing Weber would likely say is that it matters how similar Trump the man and Trump the strategy is to Hitler. Whether or not violence is his preferred method for resolving issues. Whether or not genocide is a key tenet of his strategies. After 40 years of Trump the man in the public eye, there’s not much evidence of either of those things. But it is critically important to remain hyper-sensitive to signs of them if they show up.