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75 yrs on, Germany still haunted by Nazi past

The moral trauma of Adolf Hitler still affects Germany as denying the Holocaust is a crime, so is displaying Nazi regalia or inciting racial hatred even today.

world Updated: Jan 24, 2008 13:37 IST
DPA

A "leap in the dark" was how one journalist described the fateful day 75 years ago when Adolf Hitler came to power.

Within the space of a few months, Hitler's Nazi Party used violence to silence their opponents while the vast majority of Germans acquiesced as they were manoeuvred into enforced political conformity.

What began as a period of optimism and jubilation for many Germans ended in the destruction of their country, a world war and genocide against European Jewry.

The moral trauma of Hitler still affects Germany today. Denying the Holocaust is a crime, so is displaying Nazi regalia or inciting racial hatred.

"There is an extraordinary sense of national responsibility for what went on," says Ian Kershaw, a British historian who has written two biographies of Hitler.

Just how sensitive the Germans are was demonstrated last autumn when a television-presenter-turned-author was vilified for suggesting that not everything in the Nazi era was bad.

The public television broadcaster that employed Eva Herman for 19 years sacked her over statements she made which appeared to glorify family policies under Hitler.

She was also booted off a television chat show for refusing to apologise for the remarks, saying instead: "If one isn't allowed to discuss Nazi family values, then neither can one talk about the German autobahns, which were built during the Third Reich."

How could Germans have thought they'd found national salvation in Hitler is a question often asked today in a society that is still living with the moral trauma of the Nazi era.

Libraries full of books have been written about the Nazi Party and their leader, attempting to provide an answer to the rise and fall of one of the most scrutinised figures in history.

One view is that Hitler came to power as a result of miscalculation by conservative politicians and the military after 37 per cent of the electorate had thrown its support behind his party.

President Paul von Hindenburg swore in Hitler as chancellor on Jan 30, 1933 after an attempt by the previous head of government to form a coalition with a rival to the Nazi leader failed.

"The political leadership at the time underestimated Hitler beyond all measure and attempts to use him for their own political goals failed spectacularly," historian Andreas Wirsching wrote in the news magazine Der Spiegel.

The Nazis played on historic fears and complaints with great effect, blaming Jews for many of the country's woes and promising to tear up the Treaty of Versailles which committed Germany to paying huge reparations after World War I.

At a time of widespread unemployment, the Nazis' clever use of propaganda, posters and film shows captured the imagination of a disillusioned population and gave them fresh hope. It also created an image of a powerful party with strong leadership.

Hours after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, thousands of Nazi stormtroopers staged a torchlight procession through the arches of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate, the flames casting an uneasy shadow on surrounding buildings.

Less than a month later the Reichstag parliament building was in flames. A Dutch communist activist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested, convicted of arson and guillotined. Earlier this month, Germany's federal prosecutor overturned the guilty verdict.

Hitler seized on the incident and persuaded Hindenburg to sign a decree curtailing civil liberties, paving the way for the suppression of thousands of communists and other groups opposed to the Nazis.

This first step on the way towards dictatorial rule was followed in quick succession by the establishment of the first concentration camps and a Nazi-organised boycott of Jewish goods.

In May, the Nazis launched a crackdown on trades unions and staged a mass burning of books by Jews, communists and "degenerates" with the aim of cleansing the country of un-German thoughts.

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) was banned the following month, with other democratic political parties meeting the same fate as Hitler consolidated his grip on power.

Six years later Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, starting World War II. The Holocaust began soon afterwards. The result was a continent in ruins and more than 50 million dead.