I was never really a WWII nut. Growing up with living history/reenactment groups and then going to college for history, I was surrounded by people obsessed with WWII. There is something about that war and the American civil war that just seem to bring out the armchair generals in older white guys. The one thing, however, that has always fascinated me about the war is fascism and how it took over Germany like a virus takes over the brain.
How did a democratic nation (albeit a very young democracy) go from that to fascism, secret police, war, and the systematic murder of over six million men, women, and children?
Hitler was democratically elected to power in Germany. He was able to very gently and carefully nudge the country into fascism by exploiting the fact that the country was going through hard times and by masterful manipulation of base human instincts. Sitting atop a sky scraper or watching the space shuttle launch, you may thing that we’re an advanced species, but we’re still beholden to barbaric instincts. These instincts best come out when we’re gathered in a crowd. The hive mind takes over; we revert back to panicky, superstitious, violent animals.
So how does a people know when fascism is taking over a country? In Germany there was never a big announcement declaring: “Attention! We are all now fascist!” No, it happened gradually and before they knew it they were murdering people in gas chambers. Nazi Germany is the perfect embodiment of the boiling frog metaphor. In case you haven’t heard of it, the metaphor is thus: If you throw a frog in boiling water, he’ll jump out; yet if you place the frog in normal water and slowly continue to raise the temperature, the frog will be cooked.
Moral of the story: people won’t be aware of slow change until it is too late.
There was a now famous experiment back in 1967 in a California high school. The Third Wave was an experiment where a history teacher successfully turned his entire class of students into fascists. The experiment took on a life of its own and had to be stopped, but it went to show just how vulnerable democratic societies are to the appeal of fascism.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have the ability to defend ourselves against a gradual erosion of our rights. The “patriot act” for example strips us of many of our constitutional freedoms in the name of “protection.” It passed after 9/11, when all the panicky animals were desperate to be protected. It has passed again every time since. The problem with trying to stop such an erosion is that when you cry out that things are wrong, people look at you like you’re insane. They’re all on guard for a lion, when the true threat is a mouse. “Relax! We’re not fascist, nothing much has changed!” By the time it does become noticeable, it’s too late for anyone to do anything.