Did the Nazis allow privatization?
"Nazi comparisons serve lateral thinkers to distort history for political purposes"
You have to know that
- Corona skeptics compare themselves to Anne Frank, Sophie Scholl or simply to the persecuted Jews of the Nazi era.
- This is historically incorrect and mocks the victims.
- Before Hitler came to power in 1933, there was a great variety of opinions - but the mood was heated.
Mr. Wirsching, corona skeptics, lateral thinkers and mask refusers keep drawing parallels to the Nazi era. A girl from Karlsruhe compared herself to Anne Frank because she had to celebrate her birthday in secret. A young woman said on a stage in front of Corona demonstrators in Hanover that she felt like Sophie Scholl, the underground fighter who was murdered by the Nazis in 1943. And in Switzerland, too, recently at a demonstration in Wohlen, demonstrators wear Jewish stars with the inscription "Mask makes you free." As a historian, what do you think of such comparisons?
The comparisons of the lateral thinkers with Sophie Scholl and Anne Frank are scandalous: this is a misrepresentation of history for political purposes. The Nazi past is simply used as a quarry, from which you get exactly the chunks that fit into your own narrative. We know this procedure from dictatorial regimes of turning the image of history around so that it fits into one's own ideology. Anyone who compares himself - standing on a stage - with Sophie Scholl, who was murdered, mocks those affected. Such comparisons, however, are typical of a political direction that tries to rewrite Germany's Nazi past and twist it into a different meaning in a staggered manner.
There are claims that we are in our new thirties. Unconventional thinkers warn that you can no longer speak your mind and that we are facing a new dictatorship. Are there any parallels to the 1930s?
The very concept of the “new thirties” shows how skewed the comparisons are. In the 1930s, a clear distinction has to be made between the period before and after 1933: January 30, 1933, when the Nazis came to power, was a breach of the system. Afterwards nothing was like before.
Andreas Wirsching is director of the Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin and holder of the Chair for Modern History at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Wirsching's research interests include the history of the Weimar Republic, the history of communism, fascism and National Socialism in the period from 1918 to 1945, German and European history since the 1970s, and the history and theory of modernity.
What was the state of freedom of expression before the «seizure of power»?
Until then, the Weimar Imperial Constitution was in effect. And this granted freedom of expression. The pluralism of opinion was very high. In the Weimar Republic anything could be said, but there were many "echo chambers", as one would say today, little papers, circles, from folk to left-wing extremists. They were also quite resistant to other empirical knowledge. In this sense there are comparable tendencies between Weimar culture and today.
In what way?
We have had a transformation in terms of diversity of opinion since the 1990s. By the 1980s there were half a dozen print media and two television channels embodying public opinion or published opinion. Everything else was regulars. The public service, high quality media were very dominant. The new media and the internet have changed that. Today everyone can document themselves unfiltered. This is also similar to the media landscape during the Weimar Republic, where the hegemony of some media did not exist.
So in the Weimar Republic you could perhaps say what you wanted even more freely?
Freedom of expression was guaranteed in the Weimar Republic, but there was a kind of intellectual civil war. Two large camps faced each other. On the one hand the nationalist camp with intersections with the ethnic-racist-national-socialist camp, on the other hand the liberal-social-democratic camp with the republican part of political Catholicism. The two camps collided massively. It was therefore not without risk to speak your mind everywhere. There was a tendency to violence, which can still be seen today, for example in the Lübcke murder case. Political violence was ubiquitous in the Weimar Republic. In addition, political opinion could be fatal after the seizure of power.
One example is Kurt Schumacher, who said before the Nazis came to power in the Reichstag that the Nazis brought out their weaker self. After the seizure of power, it was arranged that Schumacher ended up in the concentration camp.
In the years before Hitler came to power, there was a kind of intellectual civil war. The tone also became more irritable during the Corona crisis. Is a new intellectual civil war looming?
Political opinion battles are currently intensifying. Opinions about what is wearable diverge greatly. Of course, in Western societies today it is possible to freely articulate one's opinion. Another question is what effect this has. The public is always competitive. There is always a hegemonic opinion that tends to conform, and the minority opinion is not heard as often as the other. That is laid out in a pluralistic system.
What happened in terms of freedom of expression after you came to power in January 1933?
Then, very quickly, nothing was like before. The press was brought into line immediately; in the summer of 1933 that was already done. Then there was the terror of the Nazis. Hitler carried out a regular civil war program. There were wild concentration camps and he called in the SA as auxiliary police. That looked intimidating. But all of this was only possible because there was an acceptance of violence down to the deep bourgeoisie, if the violence was directed at the "right" opponent. That was possible so efficiently because the Nazis could build on a not inconsiderable social consensus. In domestic politics, Hitler appeared with a program in which he promised the "annihilation of Marxism". The opponents were also the Social Democrats and Free Trade Unions, not just Communists. The NSDAP made efficient use of this support. It had civil, conservative and aristocratic partners. This is what today's conservatives should learn from history. You shouldn't get involved with right-wing extremists, because when they're no longer needed, the extreme right will show them off. In 1933, of course, this support provided the foundation on which the myth of the legal seizure of power emerged.
The Nazis propagated the legal seizure of power on the grounds that they had not violated applicable laws. The narrative is that the majority in parliament voted for the Enabling Act in March 33. Hitler was thus legally authorized to establish a dictatorship.
But: The Weimar Constitution stipulated that MPs were free and protected. On the day of the vote on March 23, 33, the Reichstag was surrounded by SA troops. The MPs knew that rejecting the law could be dangerous. Also: MPs enjoy immunity. That was just wiped away. Around a hundred communist MPs were not there, they were in a concentration camp, on the run or in the underground. In order to still achieve the legally prescribed number of parliamentarians present, they were counted as present by the President of the Reichstag. It was sleight of hand that had nothing to do with legality.
So the Nazis were sure to win through violence.
Exactly. Hitler himself later also violated the Enabling Act, because it laid down the rights of the Reich President and the Reich Chancellor, for example. After the death of Reich President Hindenburg, Hitler simply took over this office and called himself "Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor" from then on.
Seizure of power by the NSDAP
In 1919, the right-wing extremist National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) was founded in Munich. From 1921 it was led by Adolf Hitler. In 1923 an attempted coup failed in Munich (Hitler-Ludendorff Putsch), the NSDAP was banned and Hitler and other masterminds were imprisoned. For political reasons, the prison sentences were released nine months after the arrest. After the Great Depression of 1929, mass unemployment increased in Germany and with it the popularity of radical parties like the NSDAP.
In the Reichstag elections of July 1932, the NSDAP received 37.4 percent of the vote, making it the party with the largest number of voters in the German Reich. In the Reichstag elections of November 6, 1932, the NSDAP received only 33.1 percent of the vote, but it remains the strongest party. Reich President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Hitler was Chancellor of the Reich, but officially democracy still existed. In March 1933 new elections were due, the NSDAP had the goal of eliminating all political opponents by then in order to gain an absolute majority in the elections.
On February 28, 1933, one day after the Reichstag fire, the “Ordinance of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” came into force, restricting basic rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. After the new elections, in which the majority was obtained with the help of the German National People's Party, the parliamentary seats of the Communist Party were declared invalid. In this way, the NSDAP ultimately secured the constitution-changing two-thirds majority in the Reichstag that it needed to pass the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933, the “Law to Eliminate the Needs of the People and the Reich”. This allowed the government to enact new laws at will. As a result, laws were passed that had the following effects: repeal of the state parliaments, ban or dissolution of all other parties, repeal of all institutions that were not connected with the National Socialist government.
After Reich President Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, Hitler's sole rule was completed. Hitler proclaimed himself "Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor" and had sole power over the legislature, judiciary and executive, and was at the same time the commander in chief of the Reichswehr.
Why did the NSDAP not simply put itself to power but place value on this myth of the legal takeover?
The myth of the legal takeover was important for the continued functioning of the state apparatus. That way, the Nazis could just take it over.
Lateral thinkers and Corona skeptics are accusing the state of seizing power.
In Germany, this was particularly the case with the Third Infection Protection Act, which empowers the Minister of Health to adopt certain measures. AfD and lateral thinker groups said that was a dictatorship. So here, too, you were practicing an essentially intolerable mess of history. We have democratic safeguards, there can be no question of a seizure of power today, neither functionally nor intentionally.
Is there a suitable comparison at all with regard to the situation today?
Another thing is the comparison with the first enabling laws of 1923. At that time there was hyperinflation in Germany, prices multiplied every week, the government was running out of time. In this situation the Reichstag granted the government extraordinary powers. Today critical research says: This led to a deparliamentarization of politics in 1923 and that could have damaged the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic. That was a problematic precedent. Because when the Nazis introduced their law, the concept of the Enabling Act already existed.
So is the situation today similar to that in 1923?
The situation is not the same. But it is legitimate to ask whether such a deparliamentarization might not have problematic consequences today as well. A crisis is the hour of the executive, that's just the way it is. However, governance by ordinance should not take place where it is not necessary, and certainly not take long.
Nazi comparisons are basically nothing new. Has the corona crisis still produced a new type of comparison?
Nazi comparisons are mostly wrong and often politically or even ideologically motivated. What is new, however, is the attempt by the AfD and the circles close to it, including lateral thinkers, to rewrite history with set pieces from Nazi history. Right now, the far right equates today's democracy with the Nazi regime, which is untenable and outrageous.
It is noticeable, however, that it is by no means only right-wing extremists who feel addressed.
Yes, one can speak of middle-class extremism here, a term used by the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. This referred to the NSDAP, which had many middle-class voters. It wasn't just unemployed. That is a phenomenon that can also be observed today. AfD voters are also academics. It is not "just" the losers from globalization or now those who lose their jobs in lockdown.
Why is that?
That is the crucial question. It is partly due to the fact that offers are breaking down that convey a cultural affiliation to our society. We have been in a phase of transformation for around 30 years. The competitive idea of neoliberalism has penetrated all pores of society. The traditional systems have eroded, not just churches, trade unions and associations. Also, for example, facilities such as the post office or train. Small civil servants used to work there, giving them a certain dignity, a function and thus a sense of social belonging. Privatization has all gone. This also applies to the middle classes. Everything is highly competitive. Doing the same job all your life is not possible, it was said one time after another; you always have to educate yourself. Collateral has collapsed. Center extremism is also a response to this.
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