October 18, 2004

Seeing History

As long as you asked...yes, I do like to fancy that I know a little bit about history.

Do you know about Neville Chamberlain?

Neville Chamberlain was the British Prime Minister before our friend Winston Churchill...and Chamberlain is the one most associated by many as Hitler's appeaser. Of course, Great Britain was in no shape to go to war with anybody at the time. WWI had left its mark, and the Depression didn't help matters. Besides simply allowing Hitler to reoccupy the Rhineland, reunite with Austria, and annex the Sudetenland, Great Britain entered into trade agreements with Eastern European countries. These agreements allowed the countries into the British market if they would restrict trade with the Germans. So while there was appeasement, there was also an attempt right from the beginning to contain Germany. These measures, though unsuccessful, were occurring while Great Britain frantically rearmed itself.

Do you know how the Nazis came to power?

Well, let's see. That's a pretty broad topic. Let's just start with the exile of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Germans weren't familiar with democracy. They lived under a monarchy with actual power, rather than a constitutional monarchy where the royal family only shows up to have their picture taken at important events. Kaiser Wilhelm II was important to Germans and their national identity. His exile created a vacuum. The Weimar era after WWI didn't fill that vacuum. Democracy was introduced to a country with no history of democracy. Americans in particular tend to take for granted that there will be support for democracy anywhere it is introduced, but that's just not true. When Hitler billed himself as a new version of Kaiser Wilhelm II, he was able to garner support from nationalistic Germans.

Of course, democracy meant there were political parties in play. The left was deeply divided between the Social Democrats and the Communists. Many of these people had suffered during the Depression and had little money. The right, on the other hand, was made up of big businesses with plenty of cash. The industrialists, tired of labor unions, wanted a return to a strong authoritarian nationalist rule that would bring labor down. Once the Nazis gained support from big business, they had plenty of money at their disposal. The fractured left wing couldn't keep the Nazis from rising to power. It's also interesting to note that the Social Democrats were more than happy to turn the Communists in to the Nazi leaders as the Nazis began taking over. Once the Communists were destroyed, the Nazis focused on the Social Democrats. The left was gone.

Quickly the Nazis suppressed civil liberties. Freedom of speech and the press were eradicated. Police could read private letters and search or seize whatever they wanted, and arrest whomever they wished. All the rights that had been ushered in after WWI were ushered right back out as Hitler worked towards silencing anyone who could challenge his supremacy--Jews, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran leadership, labor unions, intellectuals, etc.

Do you know how they were able to kill tens of millions of people before being stopped?

As I mentioned, Hitler ruthlessly suppressed dissent. The "Night of the Long Knives" illustrates his style vividly. Disloyal SA officers were killed, as well as all of his previous political opponents. Despite the heavy-handed tactics, Hitler was popular with German nationalists. He said he'd get rid of the left and he did. He reoccupied the Rhineland, reunited Austria with Germany, and annexed the Sudetenland. His rearmament provided jobs for Germans. When he was victorious against Poland, his popularity soared. Germans, dispirited after the Treaty of Versailles, were proud once more.

Do you know how they were stopped?

Let's dig slightly deeper than "Our grandfathers went to Europe and kicked his ass!"...a big reason Hitler was stopped was because he stopped himself. Not on purpose, mind you, but because his priorities were a little skewed. Conquering territory is all well and good, but it does create problems with resources. You need them. You need men and food and transportation and a million other things. Hitler's resources were spread thin, and they should have been concentrated on the front lines. Instead, resources were diverted away from the war effort. Where were they diverted to? The concentration camps. Officers and trains and supplies were pulled off the front lines to assist in the killing of Jews. Killing Jews was a higher priority than protecting Germany.

History is a funny thing. You'd think it would be pretty straightforward: this happened on this date, followed by this other thing that this guy did at a later date. But for something so many high school students see as static, history is actually quite fluid. People can see it in different ways. They can read what I've written and apply it to different situations. The "Bush is Hitler" camp can pull out the suppression of civil liberties part and apply it to the Patriot Act. People horrified by Iraq's mass graves can see similarities to Germany's concentration camps. The pro-war group can look at Neville Chamberlain and see Hans Blix. There are many different interpretations of history, and often what you see depends on what you want to see.

Posted by Jennifer at October 18, 2004 09:00 AM


Had he not attacked russia, or rather - if he did not center on taking Stalingrad, things would have been much different. Russia was one of his big problems. Also not re-inforcing the Desert Fox in North Africa when requested.

Posted by: pylorns at October 18, 2004 10:09 AM

Just another example of history teaching us nothing. Humans are doomed to repeat atrocities when they put maniacs and idiots in seats of power.

Posted by: Oorgo at October 18, 2004 12:35 PM

Jennifer, a great post! Most people don't realize how "precarious" history is, and how so many influences merged to bring about what we know today.

Posted by: Brent at October 18, 2004 09:07 PM

Well, I'm just so darn proud o'ya. (Even though Rachel still rules!)

Kirsten (of Lyrics of Life in L.A.) has a qreat quote today (not unlike the one you've closed with) from I-forget-who:

"We don't see the world as it is. We see it as we are."

Posted by: Tuning Spork at October 18, 2004 09:42 PM


Could you provide a source to back up your claim that Britain was frantically trying to rearm itself? Perhaps you meant when it was already too late (like right before Munich) despite repeated warnings from Churchill.

Posted by: MaDr at October 19, 2004 09:19 AM

Thoughtful, informative, and a pleasure to read :-)

Posted by: Harvey at October 19, 2004 09:46 AM

M-Chamberlain was a vocal supporter of rearmament as early as 1934, if memory serves. I'll look it up when I get home.

Posted by: Jennifer at October 19, 2004 10:00 AM

M--I haven't forgotten you. Quickly, here is an article that states British rearmament began in 1936. Munich was 1938.

Posted by: Jennifer at October 20, 2004 05:51 PM


Sorry for the delay. Had a hard time getting back to your site. Browser couldn’t find. Server maintenance? Later I got to site, but got message – Internal Server Error. I’d have been back sooner except for these.

I’m not a historian or even a history buff, and have a faulty memory to boot. I do have a copy of The Gathering Storm so here’s a synopsis:

There were two Chamberlains – Austen (powerful Commons member) was the hawk and supported Churchill. In the mid-30s Baldwin was the Prime Minister and Neville was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Neville was probably as powerful as Baldwin at this time and both had supported and implemented what Churchill termed “a small-scale national defense contribution which had been ill-received by the Conservative Party and was, of course, criticized by the Opposition”. Upon the crowning of George VI in May 1937, Baldwin retired and Neville became PM. Churchill made a speech on this subject (national defense contribution) “which helped him (Neville) to withdraw, without any loss of dignity, from a position which had become untenable.” At this point spending was ramped up, but Neville never fully ceded to the amounts requested and what was approved, he ruled over with an iron fist. Sept 1938 was Neville’s infamous third trip to Berlin. Neville did virtually nothing right even in attempts of appeasement. He left out the Russians and French (until the last minute for them to sign onto what he had negotiated). The worst was his declining Roosevelt’s offer to convene a summit (Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and USA). This many felt could have forestalled the inevitable allowing Britain more time to rearm. Even then, the US’s power was feared, although not to the levels that she would attain after WWll. Neville’s rebuff to Roosevelt was probably the last straw for Eden, whose resignation shook the government.

I’ll freely admit that there is some bias in Churchill’s recollections, but since he generally treated Neville kindly (considering), his writings rely heavily on contemporaneous documents, and his assertions of a small-scale national defense jives with what I’d read elsewhere, I’m inclined to stick with Churchill’s view. You should note that the Gathering Storm relies on Neville’s biography (Feiling).

I’ll admit to a bias of mine. I look with a very jaundiced eye, any more recent day histories of earlier periods. Especially in the last twenty years, I’ve found revisionism to be almost epidemic.

Posted by: MaDr at October 21, 2004 07:34 PM