Seminar examines the origins of fascism

By Matthew Thomson - Staff Reporter

As abhorrent as Nazism was, Hitler's rise to power came about through democratic processes, a history professor told last week's History Seminar.

Dr. Teri Balkenende spoke about the demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism in Germany, with emphasis on Hitler's development in the interwar period.

Any discussion of WWII Germany must start with the end of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles. In the treaty, Germany lost 30 percent of its land area, including much of its industrial territory and its colonies. 

Also, heavy reparations totaling 269 billion Deutschmarks were demanded of Germany, to be paid to the Entente powers.  By 1923, the Germans could no longer afford the bill, Dr. Balkenende said.

When the German government told the French that it couldn't afford the reparations any longer, the French marched into the Rhine region and essentially annexed the German state. 

This led to the German authorities in the region telling the workers not to co-operate with the French. 

In the short term, this made the French leave the region as it was not worth the cost of the occupation. 

In the long term, it made the German reparations problem much worse as no taxes were being collected. Plus, in this time, little to nothing was being produced in one of Germany's most productive regions, Dr. Balkenende said.

In this same year, Hitler would attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic in his Beerhall Putsch. 

At the time, a great deal of politics was done in beerhalls. The Beerhall Putsch involved Hitler and his party loyalists trying to take control of the government. 

Early on, Hitler seemed to have many government officials on his side as well as the support of the military. 

However, many of the officials got cold feet and Hitler found himself caught between a rock and a hard place -- he could either go forward with his coup and probably fail, or withdraw and his party would die. 

Hitler went forward, and was captured, tried and convicted of treason. He was sentenced to five years, for which he served just six months.

But it was within those six months that Hitler would write the book that would help bring him to power: Mein Kampf, or My Struggle. 

The book expressed many of the racial views that Hitler is known for and many of these views grew out of Germany's defeat in WWI. 

Hitler believed that Germany was "stabbed in the back," which was the idea that Germany had never lost on the battlefield, but actually lost in the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles. 

"Specifically, he believed Jewish politicians and socialists gave away Germany's 'assured' victory," Dr. Balkenende said.

It seems that Hitler's anti-Semitism may go back to his time in Vienna as a young man, when the mayor of Vienna ran on anti-Semitic rhetoric. This man would openly have dinner with Jews and then declare "I say who is Jewish," Dr. Balkenende said.

Hitler did eventually change his strategy and despite being anti-democratic, he ran for office. He eventually became chancellor of Germany. 

Because of the proportional voting system the Weimar Republic used, the Nazi Party won 43.9 percent of the vote and gained 44 percent of the seats in parliament, making it a majority party. 

This led to Hitler and the Nazis taking control of the government, Dr. Balkenende said.

Were the Nazis fascist or socialist? 

The answer is somewhat complex. Throughout the 20s and early 30s, the Nazi Party had both a left and right wing. 

The left wing, headed by Earnst Rohme, was vaguely pro-socialist, however after the Night of The Long Knives in 1934, most of the left wing of the party was either killed or in prison. 

The right wing was entirely in control by that point, Dr. Balkenende said.

Hitler exploited the democratic system to come to power, despite his animus to democratic ideals.   

Dr. Balkenende quoted the frustration of Winston Churchill, who in describing democracy, said "democracy is the worst form of government next to all the others." 

People need to realize the fragility of democracy, for the civil liberties you destroy may be your own, she said. 

Hitler had upended the democratic process, and Germans were to lament that they had allowed it to happen.

Protestant minister Martin Neimoller phrased his lament in a famous poem:

"First they came for the communists, but I did not speak out because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, but I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists, but I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews but I did not speak out but I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. 

And then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me." 

History Seminar will continue in the fall. 

Co-coordinator Professor Tim McMannon is searching for presenters.  If you are interested, contact him at

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