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.

The Day We Shrunk the World

There’s a common narrative about the meaning of what happened in Hawaii 75 years ago this past week. It sounds something like this. The forces of evil, previously growing unchecked in their pursuit to conquer the world, had finally awoken a sleeping giant. And though they dealt her a vicious blow, they sealed their doomed fates that morning. The forces of the free people of the world answered back and with a clear and decisive victory for good in an inarguable statement of the strength of moral and just authority.

It’s not a bad narrative. And it’s not entirely untrue. There has been no more clear example of the greatness of the American expression of liberty, democracy and capitalism than the conduct of our people, our industry and our government during World War II. And for a little while, those that perpetrated the injustice of pitching the globe into a war that would kill 60 million men and women did suffer harsh and near final consequence. But both our greatness and their destruction were perhaps less permanent than any of us like to admit. Germany and Japan, a within the span of two generations are now the third and fourth largest economies in the world. Their people enjoy a stability and quality of life reserved for a handful of societies in human history. And we Americans, the victors, have found ourselves tangled in near constant war and have enjoyed the spoils of victory much differently than perhaps we would have thought.

A few centuries ago, before he became a musical and then a political debate, Alexander Hamilton pointed to the true consequence of Pearl Harbor, a century and a half before it happened. As he urged the American people towards union and the acceptance of the newly created Constitution, Hamilton pointed to the poor state of Europe after centuries of war and division.

“The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken; of battles that decide nothing; of retreats more beneficial than victories; of much effort and little acquisition.”

Hamilton dreamed of a union unlike Europe, so vast and sturdy that we would be free from threat of external incursions. And he was right. For 150 years, the only material damage ever dealt to us was by our own hand in the bloody war against ourselves to end slavery. But Hamilton could never have dreamed of a world where huge ships could travel the Pacific in a week’s time and launch things called airplanes to destroy an entire fleet of ships in an hour. And he could never in his wildest dreams imagined atomic energy and the horrors of nuclear warfare that ultimately answered them. Pearl Harbor was the moment in time when the world shrunk. And thereafter, no one was ever too big or too united to be free from threat. Pearl Harbor was the stark realization that forever more, anything worth owning was to be owned by someone with the means to defend it.

The lesson of the last 75 years, if we take the time to complete the narrative of what Pearl Harbor means, is one where we’ve realized Hamilton’s vision in painful ways. Where America has fought battles that decide nothing. Where our retreats have been more beneficial than our victories. Where we have exerted much effort with little acquisition.

The world has changed. And the threats have changed with it. Small groups of men with conviction can inflict great injury on world powers. Foreign entities can encroach through cyberspace to impact sacred instruments of democracy. These threats are real and dangerous. But they are very different. And we appear to be content to respond to them with the weapons of centuries past-generals.

Be careful when you respond to different problems with the same answer. National security in 2016 is perhaps not as dependent on military strength as it once was. I say this as someone who spent most of his adult life in the service of arms. I appreciate the notion of service and the benefits of military strength. But we should have learned over the last 75 years that fighting ideas or economic systems with armies, generally just kills our young men and women and not the ideas. And if you staff the team responsible for the security of our people in 2017 and beyond, with generals who fight kinetic wars, as the incoming administration has, then it begs the question, what, if anything have we learned?

Fighting the last war is always how the next war starts. But winning it tends to come with the realization that you’re doing it again.

Well, we’re doing it again.