Germany, Austria, and the Beginnings of Hitler (Part II of a series)

I mentioned in my previous post that my great-grandfather came from southeastern Austria (actually, as my brother Nate reminded me, the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1910, 100 years ago this year, and that my mother came from Germany a couple generations later.

Austria and Germany are both Germanic people’s, but their history and their characters are very different indeed. I was born in Germany in 1963 and we lived in a very small town in the foothills of Austria until 1966 or 67. I remember nothing of it except perhaps a sound from an air conditioning unit over some nearby building, but I’ve never been clear on that.

In the summer of 2005 I finally went back to that little town, called Hague am Ausruck. It was the epitome of quaint. One street runs up the hill on which the town is located, and on that street are all the shops that fed the town and, I suspect, the hill dwellers nearby. Each was painted a clean pastel, giving the street the characteristically Austrian cleanliness and harmony. Everything about the country seemed musical to me.

Running to and from that main street are three or four tributaries that take you to the houses, none of which were particularly large, but as I recall they were all affectionately tended.

This was 2006. In 1964 it was not so. In 1964 Austria was still recovering from the dual catastrophes of WWI and the ensuing Anschluss and WWII. The once great Empire of Charlemagne had ended in 1918. The rump endured the primal insult of Nazi aggression in the 1930’s.

This National Socialist Germany was the cradle of my mother’s childhood. She lived in Pottsdam, near Berlin, almost an epicenter for the Nazi juggernaut.

For all these reasons, I can’t help but take the story of Hitler’s rise to power personally. I confess that I still love the movie A Sound of Music, if only for the scene in which Max says to Captain Von Trapp that they should be grateful that the Anschluss happened peacefully. Von Trapp jumps at Max with a searing  accusation: “Grateful! Max, I don’t believe I know you.”

Clearly it gave him no sense of gratitude at all that his people made no effort to defend themselves against the invasion. He would rather have died himself.

When Max tells Maria that she should talk to the Captain, Maria’s answer is priceless: “I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”

How Von Trapp would have scoffed at the empty sentiment of a “global citizen!” What do we do, he would have asked, when the Globe determines to oppress us? What do we do when it won’t let us worship at our family altar and won’t let us sing Edelweiss?

The great question of the 20th century has to be, “How did regimes as cruel as the Nazi’s in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Communists in Russia and China, find acceptance among the people’s they ruled?”

To be honest, though, the Nazi question is more important for two reasons. First, the Chinese and Russians came to power through a ruthless cruelty that involved a great deal less acceptance by the people they dominated. Second, we are much closer to the mindset of pre-Nazi Germany than we are to the mindset of pre-Bolshevik Russia or pre-Maoist China.

The disturbing thing about Nazi Germany is that Hitler was not only elected democractically (in a parliamentary system), but that he was elected under circumstances that allowed plenty of time for reflection.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how it came about that Hitler was able to lead the German people with so little opposition.

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