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Germany's Red Thread

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A paper written for my Modern Europe class focusing on connecting the German rhetoric of 1914 to WWII.

            Hitlers rhetoric is directly linked to pre-World War I sentiment, but through anything inherent to the German people.  Instead of being a cultural red thread linking the two eras, there is instead nationalistic thread and one mans step outside of time.  Instead of continuing along history, Hitler largely stopped his formation of beliefs with the World War I speeches, propaganda, and nationalism.

            Hitler looked on the beginning of the war with excitement, as a release from restraints, and as a way to prove himself (Eksteins 305-306).  War as a release from morals and constraints was not uncommon idea among segments of the German community, nor is it a feeling that is exclusively German.  Freud goes so far as to say that this reaction to war is natural, and that the set of rules that are cast off in warfare are what is unnatural (Boyer 163-164).  Which makes and interesting point, as the character of Hitler, as developed by the First World War, may have sprouted from nearly any nationality and culture.  Thus culture is not the important aspect of this, but the war experience itself.  Nietzsche speaks of the animal man versus the ascetic ideal man.  This is not speaking of a trait found in one culture, but rather a trait found among all humanity: that man defines himself by his suffering (Nietzsche 298).  This is what was found in the trenches.  Comradeship based on common suffering, shared pain, and communal agony.  As all soldiers faced common threats and suffering, is it not natural to assume that many found a common meaning to their life?  And so if Hitler found meaning in the war, was formed by the war, and based his views on the way in the manner he did, it is probable that others found similar views, regardless of culture or nationality.  And it is likely they carried their definitions from the trenches with them throughout the remainder of their lives.

Prior to the First World War, there was a high level of nationalism in Germany, as in other belligerent nations.  Germans were largely in favor of what they believe would be a short war.  They held demonstrations in favor of the mobilization, loudly sang patriotic songs, and showed much support for the Kaiser (Eksteins 58).  Remarque writes, We were still crammed full of vague ideas which gave to life, and to war also, an ideal and almost romantic character (Remarque 17).  Although the speaker in this case is fictional, this was the sate in which many German soldiers entered the trenches.  They did not know what was in store for them, and most were quickly disillusioned by the realities faced in the trenches.

Hitler, however, held onto the pre-war rhetoric and feeling.  He did not allow his nationalistic pride to decline, nor did he lose the enthusiasm for war.  Quite the opposite.  Hitler instead took his war experience and the feelings of his pride in Germany and transformed them into a vision of a society of the future (Eksteins 307).  The rhetoric of both war supporters and those opposed to the war served to mold Hitler into what he was to become.  On the one hand he was swept up into the war movement, by the Wagnerian aspects of the impending struggle.  Hitler saw things Germanly, and the Wagnerian rebirth of mans society and found a niche in society (Wagner 140).  Hitler fully bought into the mystical notions of the war that were held by many Germans.  Since the German aims in the war were fairly unspecific, it was only natural for many Germans to follow the kultur philosophy and see in the Great War a struggle of a spiritual, mystical nature (Eksteins 201).  On the other hand, those who he believed were opposed to the Kaiser, those who he supposed to be anti-German, influenced him.  These people, he decided, must be Jews (Boyer 200).  Here, in Hitlers pre-war days in Vienna can be seen the roots of his anti-Semitism, leading eventually to the Holocaust.   Hitler felt had cheated throughout his life, whether for his non0admittance to art school or later for feeling like Germany was stabbed in the back.  And since anti-Semitism was the ideology of those who felt cheated it was fairly predictable that Hitler would choose Jews to represent the evil against Germany (Eksteins 318).

What made Hitlers private animosity towards the Jews far worse than basic prejudice was Hitlers inability to separate himself from the German state.  This oneness with the state can be an excellent trait in a leader, provided that leader is benevolent and good.  However, when one mans prejudice becomes state policy, problems erupt.  Prejudice is usually acted out on an individual level, through basic discrimination by and towards an individual (Krupat 2).  However, Hitlers identification with the state turned from being individual prejudice to a national obsession with race (Boyer 206-207).  And thus the Holocaust sprung out, partially, from the rhetoric and writings or pre-war Germany and Austria. 

Moreover, Hitlers inability to separate himself from the state made all attacks against Germany direct, personal attacks.  Much of what he did and said was directed towards a dedication to the state.  The fact that he remained unmarried, suggesting complete devotion to Germany, his growth out of German defeat, and the symbolism he employed tied him so closely to the state and the Nazi party as to be indistinguishable from them (Eksteins 324).  And so when someone insulted Germany, as he had perceived Jews as having done, it was taken personally.  In his own mind, and probably in many others, Hitler was Germany. 

This romantic ideal of Germany was a large part of what drove Hitler.  This too was largely formed in those heady pre-war days of 1914.  The German culture as defined by war was a popular idea, and one espoused by Hitler.  Eksteins states this well when he says:

The war, for German, was, then, eine innere Notwendigkeit, a spiritual necessity.  It was a quest for authenticity, for truth, for self-fulfillment, for those values, that is, which the avant-garde had evoked prior to the war and against those features materialism, banality, hypocrisy, tyranny, - which it had attacked (Eksteins 92).

Hitler had taken this view of Germany and made it his own.  A Germany built on spiritual ideas and forged in the fires of war.  Only through war could these ideals be met.  Only through war could Germany be Germany.  It was this mentality that led Germany to the First World War.  And it was this mentality that dominated Hitlers life and led Germany to the Second World War.

            And so we see a picture not of a German cultural tendency, but one man as a throwback, a return to the past.  Although there are many instances and points where the pre-World War I German culture led to the trenches, the same must be said of Great Britain and France.  The same must be said of all the belligerent nations.  Each nations soldiers went to war for similar reasons.  Each espoused a romantic ideal of war that was not to be found in the trenches.  Each found a similar nightmare of death there.  How then can the red thread linking the pre-war rhetoric, Hitler, and the Holocaust be cultural?  If it was indeed cultural, then it was a European culture that led to it, not a German one.

            Instead of a cultural red thread, what appears is a nationalistic red thread, which is not the same at all.  The nationalism felt by Germans prior to World War I was not lost after Germany was defeated.  Instead it smoldered in the hearts of Germans.  They were forced to accept the guilt for the war, were forced to accept the terms presented to them at Versailles, terms that Germany morally refused to accept (Eksteins 253).  What happened then was that German nationalism, pride in Germany, lay dormant for years.  Germany was forced to accept defeat for practical reasons such as food and survival.  But they still tended to sympathize with radical segments of society that railed against the Treaty of Versailles and proclaimed that Germany had been stabbed in the back (Eksteins 308-309).  When Hitler allowed the German people to once again feel pride in their nation, to see their nation built back up industrially, emotionally, and psychologically, they leapt at the chance.  Thus the defeat of Germany in the Great War and the nationalism it repressed is the continuing thread.  If any other nation had been defeated as Germany had, then it is entirely possible that a similar occurrence would have happened, but centered on a different nation.  Perhaps, if theorizing may be permitted, Churchill or another would have found a scapegoat for Great Britain if they had been soundly defeated and subjected as had Germany.  The nationalistic urge and patriotism of a nation provides a far greater impetus for war, genocide, and support than does culture.

            And through it all, Hitler maintained his stance.  The lessons he learned from the rhetoric that appeared prior to the First World War appeared in his own rhetoric in the years between the war and the Holocaust.  The need for a national scapegoat, which had been there since Bismarck had united the nation, was fulfilled when Hitler denounced Jews (Eksteins 66).  His hatred for Jews stems partly from the anti-war thoughts voiced by some, and partially from the need to support the stab in the back myth he clung to for support.  The pride in Germany, the spiritual ideals clung to before entering the trenches were reused in nearly unaltered form by Hitler years later.  By reopening the door for German nationalism, he brought back German pride and earned support.  With this support and thankfulness came permission and allowance from the German people.  Many Germans were willing to ignore or accept the Holocaust as necessary because Hitler was making Germany a powerful nation again.  Once more they could feel national pride.

            And so the conclusion is that yes, there is a red thread linking the pre-war rhetoric with Hitlers Holocaust.  But it was not a thread composed of a culture.  It was a dormant nationalism: the German pride in Germany was forced to lay hidden for years under the restraints of the Versailles Treaty.  Patriotism and love of a nation cannot be destroyed, as was hoped by some of the allies.  Instead it hides itself and festers, developing into something more powerful than before.  It was an anachronism: Hitler maintained the pre-World War I rhetoric and applied it to post war Germany.  The sentiments that spoke to the pre-war Germans sang to the post-war hidden nationalism and found sympathy.  It was a scapegoat: the myth of the stab in the back and Hitlers beliefs from just prior to the First World War led a nation to destroy.  The Jews served as a way that Germany could, in her own eyes, escape blame for defeat and work out her aggression.  The speeches, propaganda, and ideals that were held prior to World War I found their completion in the Holocaust and the Second World War.  World War I was simply a stopping place on the journey, not the end.