This issue—particularly its fiction—is replete with instances of darkness and turmoil in personal lives, and I wonder if this might be because fiction so frequently holds a mirror to the world in which it is created: writers are already metabolizing the historical moment. I've been thinking a lot lately, too, of past turbulences. It might be useful now to look at the previous century, if only to try to avoid repeating some of the same mistakes. The 1900s opened with a set of presumptions that didn't work out. What many assumed was going to be a century of extended peace turned into an almost gothic time of warfare, economic disruption, and darkness: first an unexpected world war, followed a decade afterward by a worldwide depression, and then an even larger world war that stamped and defined the century as the bloodiest in history. Before the century was even finished, a cold war followed, with its several attendant wars and conflicts that comprised not just Korea and Vietnam but also the Chinese Civil War, along with about ten others.
The Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy were nations that could each boast a rich cultural and intellectual history. So how were they taken over, in the 1930s, by heads of state who got 60 million people killed (adding to the 20 million of World War I)? Of course, history is full of brinkmanship and warfare. We repeatedly demonstrate that we can outdo ourselves with destructiveness—and yes, the bombs and [End Page 5] artillery did get shockingly more lethal; all of that is well known. I'm reading a biography of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power, an 1835-page book by Volker Ullrich, that offers some interesting clues to how this man—who wins the gold medal for Chief Lunatic of the Last Century—came to power in Germany.
The short answer is that most of Hitler's ideas and goals were quite apparent. He became a rabble-rouser in his twenties, after barely getting by as an artist in Austria and then Munich. Before World War I, he strongly identified with the radical pan-Germanic nationalist movement, opposing internationalism and agreeing with many fellow Austrians' fears that they were losing their jobs to immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. Ullrich believes that Hitler's extreme anti-Semitism was less obvious during this early period, even though Vienna was full of anti-Semitic movements and opinions. Hitler did not invent hypernationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and all the other hateful ideas that he later pushed so hard. He picked them up from threads in popular culture and refined the use of them, becoming increasingly skillful at molding his speeches to play upon the prejudices and fears of the middle and lower classes of Austria and Germany. After moving to Munich, he made his name as a beer-hall speechmaker, using a range of political positions from the far right to the left, depending on his audience. He eventually named his party the National Socialist German Workers' Party, even though subsequent governmental appointees came primarily from the bases of banking, industry, and the military and had nothing to do with workers. His delusions of German cultural and national superiority played well to both the haves and the have-nots in a country that felt cheated by the Treaty of Versailles, spates of hyperinflation, and the worldwide Depression.
Hitler's modus operandi was to kick out anyone who threatened him, firing them or dismissing their decisions if they occupied a governmental role. One official whom Hitler overrode was a conscientious state auditor who determined in October 1934 that the chancellor owed over 405,494 Reichsmarks in income taxes. Hitler quickly appointed someone to overrule this decision and paid no personal taxes then or later. He also continually escalated the brutality of his regime by killing groups of people through Nazi "street movement" rioting and murder. After the Nazis were fully in power, he continued to use orchestrated riots and began to openly use the SS to eliminate political enemies. [End Page 6]
The Führer slipped into power by appealing to the frustrations of both...