Jewish World Review March 21, 2005/ 10 Adar II, 5765
Haunted by history
Some critics thought the movie, with several strong and believable acting performances, tried to humanize Hitler. Others speculated about why the filmmaker wanted to lend complexity and inevitably, sympathy to those surrounding Der Fuehrer who were eager to die with him rather than live in a world without National Socialism. A good filmmaker with a wonderful cast can weave an illusionary spell that goes well beyond analysis.
"Downfall" was controversial enough here, but it set off an even greater debate in Germany, one that continues with the publication of "Hitler's Volksstaat," a new best-selling controversial book about the Third Reich by German historian Gotz Aly. The professor offers an original theory about why Germans so willingly followed Hitler to ruin. It's a theory with economic relevance today. Germans, he says, accepted Hitler's evil because he introduced social policies that benefited the majority of the German people. Ordinary "good" Germans were "seduced" by National Socialism's heady mix of "high-speed history making" and generous state handouts.
There's more than a few remnants left in German welfare policy today. Many Germans eagerly condemn Hitler's fascism but won't examine the other reasons why the Third Reich succeeded for a season. The book is especially timely because German unemployment is at the highest level since the 1930s, with more than 5.2 million unemployed.
Gotz Aly sees antecedents for this in Hitler's policies that undercut a work ethic, running up debts that would have to be paid by others in the future. Hundreds of finely tuned laws were aimed at "socio-political appeasement." Thus was the foundation laid for the modern German welfare state. Tax incentives for married couples stem from 1934. With generous benefits from the state, women no longer had to work outside the home. Hitler doubled the number of paid holidays: "He promised Germans everything and asked little in return." The Schroder/Fischer government, he says, "now faces the historic task of bidding a prolonged farewell to the German community of the Volk (the people)."
Hitler's appeal to greed and sloth, to increase German prosperity without requiring Germans to work for it, led into the Holocaust because confiscating Jewish property seemed to make sense to the greedy. The public face of the annihilation policy was "the modern, cozy and obliging welfare state." Hitler, according to this theory, was engaged in a constant game of give and take, in which "he established the redistributive state par excellence."
This book has not yet been published in America; I have read excerpts in English. I visit Berlin occasionally to visit family, and the economic problems are quickly evident even to the casual visitor. Cultural life in Berlin is lively and fascinating, but the economy, which must in the end support the culture, is flat, stale and sinking; productivity grew at a rate of only 1 percent over the last decade. Regulations designed to protect those who work penalize those out of work and inhibit hiring. German businessmen are overwhelmed by the high cost of doing business. Inflexible rules, enforced by a burgeoning bureaucracy, discourage entrepreneurship.
My daughter's husband has a landscaping business, for example, but no matter how hard he works it's difficult for him to employ workers because regulations and restrictions are so rigid. Many of their friends are unemployed. My twin granddaughters are not yet a year old, and face a dismal choice of mediocre public schools.
Gotz Aly's analysis surfaces as some Germans are beginning to look hard at their welfare state and the inhibiting market restrictions that will require a drastic overhaul in attitudes before the nation would be up to answering a version of John F. Kennedy's famous challenge to Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask instead what you can do for your country." Many of the problems arrived with reunification of East and West, but others stem from a more painful part of their history.
Thomas Childers, a professor of the history of the Third Reich at the University of Pennsylvania, observes that "facts don't change, but we do, and our perspective on them changes as we learn new things." In a global economy that will not reward sloth and dullness, Germany with a robust economy is in the interest of all of us. But hard questions are beginning to demand answers.
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