Tuesday 13 November 2012

The British obsession with Adolf Hitler

The BBC has once again aired another documentary on Adolf Hitler. The obsession of British people with Adolf Hitler is a curious affair. You only need to switch on the telly in the UK and you are likely to stumble over programmes on  the Nazis or the Second World War. Most of these programmes are poorly edited and offer only simple historical narratives. Sensational claims and hyperbole is usually the name of the game. The recent BBC programme is sadly no different.

The programme's title and synopsis suggests that it would investigate Hitler's charisma but reverts to a simple historical narrative of Hitler's rise instead. More annoyingly, the BBC programme fails to capture some of the most important aspects of Hitler's ascendancy to power in Germany. In trying to explain the appeal of Hitler to a large minority of Germans before 1933 it points to his charisma without much explaining what that meant.

Historical research over the last five decades on Hitler and the Nazi regime has revealed a far more complex story. One of the most difficult issues to deal with is the fact that Nazism, just as its main adversary communism, offered a serious challenge to the political, economic and social establishment. Both regimes, communism in Soviet Russia (and in Eastern Europe post-1945) and fascism in Germany articulated a consistent anti-elitist message, something that resonated with many people in deeply divided societies. It is no surprise that Nazism and Socialism were of course seen to be two sides of the same coin. Socialism just as Nazism argued that the old elites has failed to govern their countries in the face of immense political, social and economic upheaval.

On top of this, both vile types of regimes set about to obliterate and murder large swaths of the population which in effect produced an unparalleled extent of social mobility. As people were imprisoned and eventually murdered, both socialism and Nazism radicalised the relationships between the masses and the elites. This contributed to considerable amounts of loyalty by many people even when it became clear how murderous these regimes were.

The viciousness of the socialist and Nazi regimes of course correlated with another aspect that produced enormous levels of support amongst the populations. Both offered a simplistic view of human relationships and modern societies. Their visions contrasted with the growing complexity of social and economic affairs in the wake of the First World War. Interestingly this did not extend to the internal workings of either regime, socialism or Nazism. While both pretended to reduce complexity, they created highly differentiated and competing hierarchies of power in the economic, political and social domains.

The BBC programme reflects little of the sophistication of the Nazi movement operating in modern German society and it is rather sad that such a simplistic sensationalist account received support from Ian Kershaw, an eminent researcher and author of an important Hitler biography. But I guess it is this very simplicity that appeals to many viewers. As the murderous Nazi thugs and socialist ideologues knew, reducing complexity is often soothing for the broad masses.

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