Lesson from History
Since Europe inspires us in so many different ways, it is only fair that we also take lessons from mistakes made in the past on the continent.
After the Nazi Party’s electoral victory in 1932, Germany's democracy, writes Ian Kershaw, leading historian of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, in a foreword to George Sylvester Viereck’s interview with Hitler published in the same year in a series titled Great Interviews of the 20th Century, that Germany's democracy that year entered its terminal phase.
It is true that by July 1932, Hitler stood at the threshold of power. At the end of the same month the Nazi Party was at its pinnacle in a freely held democratic contest, gaining 37.4 percent of the vote and making it Germany’s largest political party.
However, by another election in November, there was a drop in votes for the Nazi Party for the first time. Hitler’s rise as chancellor soon after in January 1933, therefore, followed an election setback, and not victory.
In 1932, the votes had gone to the Nazi Party because the army, most industrial leaders and big landholders wanted an authoritarian system. Democracy was seen as unable to resolve severe day-to-day problems. Germany faced economic depression and coalition governments were incapable of tackling endless misery in society. Ordinary people had lost faith in democracy.
However, the loss in votes a little later made Hitler angry and insecure. When he did become head of state in 1933, he wanted to make sure he remained in power.
Hitler created a new ministry of propaganda to spread lies and to impress opinion about the good work his government did. He made Dr. Joseph Goebbels director of this ministry that controlled schools, universities, film, radio and propaganda.
“The national education of the German people will be placed in my hands,” noted Goebbels in his diary.
Now a bit about Goebbels.
As the pages of his diary show, Goebbels began his career as a poet and novelist. He had a PhD in German literature that earned him the title of Dr Goebbels. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a particular passion. Later, he lost interest in academics and feelings of deep inferiority, perhaps due to a club foot and a limp, surfaced. He was happy to bid goodbye to days as a journalist and bank clerk when he had earned nothing. The masochist that emerged seemed to love no other mortal except Hitler. For reasons of his own, Hitler gave Goebbels that desperately needed feeling of self-worth.
The 35-year-old Goebbels, also the youngest minister in the new cabinet, went on to order the murder of millions of people he dismissed as not fit to be alive.
With absolute power at his command, Goebbels destroyed the country’s free press. Hundreds of opposition newspapers were shut down and confiscated. Jewish-owned publishing houses were gifted to ‘Aryans’.
Many periodicals were taken over under secrecy and used to propagate Nazi ideology of divide and rule, of hate, exclusion and murder. Goebbels wielded enormous influence over film, radio and theatre, sharing power over the press with the head of the Reich Press Chamber.
As head of the party’s propaganda apparatus, Goebbels’ influence reached the grassroots through local Nazi organisations.
His ministry took control of the German Press and the guild that regulated who could join the profession. The new editors’ law of 1933 wanted only racially pure editors and journalists and excluded Jews and also non-Jews married to Jews. A clause in the new law forbade editors from publishing anything that weakened the strength of the government.
The ministry controlled content of news and of all editorial pages.
Decisions were taken at meetings held in Berlin and instructions were sent every day to regional and local papers about features that could be published. Those reporters and editors who refused to follow government guidelines were made jobless and even sent to perish in concentration camps.
The irony is that Goebbels was once a journalist. After he was made one of the most powerful ministers in Hitler’s cabinet, he wrote in his diary that any man who still has a residue of honour will be very careful not to become a journalist.
If something similar seems to be happening around us in India today then the least all of us can do is to speak out against it before we face perhaps a similar fate as that suffered not only by Germans but all Europeans when Hitler was at the helm of affairs in Germany.