Germany was late to unify. By the time Germany was “Germany” and not a collection of tiny kingdoms to be pillaged at semi-regular intervals by the armies of the great powers of Europe, most of the 19th century had already slipped away. The rush for overseas colonies was over and done with and Germany, though a great power in terms of her military and economy, didn’t feel much like a great power.
She lacked colonies, she lacked seniority in the international system, she was an upstart in a community of real powerbrokers.
It took a war against France (the Franco Prussian War) to really galvanize Germany’s unification and while Bismark was able to build an elaborate and brilliant system of political fakes and double fakes to improve Germany’s position in Europe, that system suffered in that it needed Bismark (or someone as clever as Bismark) to run it.
And so, once Bismark had been kicked to the curb, it wasn’t too terribly long before his elaborate system was ruined by lesser statesmen and WWI broke out.
The problem with WWI was mobilization. The Germans had thought long and hard about how they would survive a two front war in Europe in which both France and Russia conspired against them (Bismark’s solution was to never allow Germany to stand with the minority of the five major European powers) and it depended upon Russia’s railways running East-To-West rather than North-To-South. Russia had trouble mobilizing its army and so the Germans figured they could thump the French (again) and turn around and sucker-punch the Russians before they could get their army into uniforms and deployed to the front.
To do that though, Germany had to jump the gun on war; the moment the Russians started their call to arms the Germans were on a clock and unless the French were prepared to pledge non-aggression, the German army was tempting fate every day Paris wasn’t on fire. The French knew this — everyone knew this — and so they’d fortified the heck out of the border between France and Germany and if this is all sounding rather a lot like how WWII went down that’s because it is.
In any case, Germany rolls through Belgium in order to get around the French defensive because they have to, the international community gets very very very upset with Germany over invading a neutral power (and will paint them as warmongers for the better part of the next 50 years) and the entire war gets blamed on them.
So now WWI is over and it was a long and horrible war. France, in particular, has been scared by the conflict and the experience only compounded their resentment towards Germany after the treaty which ended the Franco Prussian war (in fact, the Germans were forced to sign the treaty ending WWI in the same location they’d forced the French to sign the treaty ending the Franco Prussian War). The terms offered Germany are humiliating and debilitating – arms controls, war reparations, the Versailles treaty piles it all on. The result is that shortly after the war the German economy is in tatters and being kept afloat by the Daws Loans from the US which help to manage the war debt and keep the government solvent. Then, suddenly the floor drops out from under the world economy. The loans are recalled and Germany is thrust into the jaws of the Depression in a way that’s much much uglier than what happened in the USA.
The thing with everything up until this point is that it’s all big forces and sweeping changes which have driven Germany into its state of wretchedness. Even to very powerful and very influential members of the German government there seems very little that could have been done differently. Bismark’s system could not endure long without Bismark; shooting first in World War I was a strategic necessity for Germany; invading through Belgium was preferable to being smashed against France’s fortifications; and Germany was well and truly beaten on the field of battle — surrender was a real necessity. Yet in the midst of all this is this extremely eloquent and impassioned politician who keeps telling everyone that it wasn’t supposed to BE like this.
Germany is great, he says. Germany is worthy, he says. Now anyone can look around and tell you that the German government has, worthy, great, or otherwise, taken some pretty hard knocks and that the German state has failed almost completely in almost every measure by which we might judge a country’s greatness. Still with no colonies to speak of, still an “upstart” power, now shamed with the guilt of a world war and millions dead, still suffering economically under the crushing burden of war debt Germany is far FAR from the great nation that it imagined itself, bright eyed, before the Great War.
So Hitler says that the German people are great, the German race is great. Screw the government – it’s been sabotaged from within by the Jews, he claims. Hitler takes the institution of the German government and lays its failures — the surrender in the war, the economy, everything — at the feet of the people who are not, in his view, of the German race: “Aryan.”
In this way Hitler takes all of the failures and catastrophes above and he pins them, not on Germany or Germans but on a group that he more or less makes up within German society. He draws a bright line between them and says that the folks on this side of the line — the Aryans — are good, honest, hardworking, nobel, superior people to whom the good things they deserve have been denied by the people on that side of the line — the Jews, Gypsies, undesirables, etc.
And that renders the German race – the Aryans – blameless in Germany’s fall.
Being Aryan was a big deal to the Germans because being Aryan meant that everything that had gone wrong in the last generation or so wasn’t their fault; it meant that there was someone to blame for the suffering of their nation, someone to fight, something to do. It took away helplessness and gave purpose to people who were serious need of it.
Being Aryan meant being, not part of Germany disgraced, but part of Germany ascendant, Germany reborn, and Germany triumphant.
It’s a very powerful trap.
Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Harrison (1869–1918) was a British pharmaceutical chemist who gave his life in the First World War to save troops from gas attacks. He tried to join up when war broke out, but was refused as he was in his forties at the time. Later, however, he was accepted into a Pals Battalion. Chemical warfare surfaced after Germany first tested chlorine gas in Ypres in 1915, and when the British War Office gathered a team of chemists to research the threat, Harrison was a key member. In 1916, he produced the first box respirator, and he and his team tested it themselves—they locked themselves in a room with lethal chemical agents to prove the mask’s efficiency. The development and perfection of the mask led to promotions and distinctions for Harrison, but after working tirelessly and exposing himself to horrific hazards, he died from pneumonia only a week before the Armistice was signed. Winston Churchill wrote to Harrison’s widow offering his sympathies and his deepest admiration—because although it cost Harrison his own life, his invention saved millions more.