Tracing the Rise of the Nazis in Nürnberg


Politicians writing a book before running for the highest office in the land is nothing new. Hitler did it with Mein Kampf — the sale of which is still forbidden in Germany.

My latest visit to Nürnberg — with its excellent Nazi Documentation Center — got me thinking about ways that Germany is still grappling with its Nazi past.

Spending the day with my German guide at the Documentation Center was intellectually exhausting. We explored Hitler-mania and the methods used to create the cult of Hitler (such as placing the dictator alongside Goethe and Beethoven in the pantheon of great Germans).

I find that older guides in Germany are less comfortable talking about the Nazi period. My guide was young and had plenty of ideas to share. Looking back on German society since World War II, he said, “There were three generations: the participants, the generation of unknowns, and the current curious and educated generation.” Today’s young Germans see the end of WWII as a liberation rather than a defeat.

The exhibits at Nürnberg’s Documentation Center illustrate how extremists rise in bad times. They offer easy solutions and scapegoats. And they push fear. In Germany’s roaring ’20s, Hitler’s support was at 2%. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, suddenly Hitler had a 37% approval rating.

The exhibits also show how totalitarian societies take over part of the parenting role and give kids hope for the future. Nazi youth organizations created a frame of reference. They dealt with the complexities of teenage life pre-emptively and on their terms.

I asked my guide about the “socialism” part of National Socialism (Nazism). He explained that National Socialism was born in the trenches of World War I. Germany was very developed around 1900, and its workers’ economy should have been ripe for Marx’s idea of a proletarian revolt. But WWI trenches brought together all levels of society (farmers, factory workers, teachers, doctors). The enemy of the people became not the owners of das Kapital, but foreign nations. It was workers as a nation against exterior threats spearheaded by a presumed Jewish conspiracy (as it was believed that Britain, France, and the USA all had Jewish power-brokers). And that’s where the “socialism” in National Socialism came from.

Discussing how post-WWII Europe compares with the mess in Iraq today, we considered how while the Nazi leadership was defeated, Nazi infrastructure survived the war and helped rebuild German society. In the case of Iraq, no societal infrastructure survived Saddam Hussein. While post-Hitler Germany became strong, post-Saddam Iraq faces a more difficult path.

So much can be learned from history. But too often, those who make it took other classes.