The Weimar Republic was doomed from the start. World War I left Germany in a precarious position. The Treaty of Versailles ended outright aggression but it also left the German economy crippled and saddled its people with a government they never quite believed in. Worse, it stipulated that Germany take full responsibility for the most devastating war in human history.
This week on War College, Jason Fields–the show’s co-creator and digital editor at the Holocaust Museum–returns to walk us through how the Nazis came to power during the interwar years. From the beer halls to Hugo Boss and the Night of Long Knives, Fields tells the story of how streetfights and national shame led to “blood and soil.”
By Matthew Gault. Produced by Jason Fields and Matthew Gault
Below is a full transcript of the show. We apologize for the poor formatting.
This is a special transitional episode of War College, whether you’re a new listener or a veteran. We ask you to stick around after the episode is over and we’re gon na tell you about some changes that are coming our way and I promise it’s all good stuff. On August 11th, 2017 white nationalist marched through the streets of Charlottesville Virginia the estimated 200 Nazis and Nazi sympathizers carried torches, and she had a chance, such as Jews will now replace us and blood and soil. We’Ve heard these kinds of slogans before here today on War College is Jason fields: digital editor of Holocaust Museum, former opinion editor at Reuters, my friend and co-creator of War College Jason, it’s fantastic to have you back on the show. You know if you enjoy this half as much as I do, then I will enjoy it twice as much excellent. So my first question is: after this episode: will you please come back and help me host the show again? You know you had me at please rolled beyond thrilled excellent, so that that listeners is one of the changes. Jason is coming back to the show it’s going to be a co-production between he and I we will fill you in on some of the other stuff. That’S going on at the end, but first, let’s, let’s dig into this topic. You know wards and history. Buffs, like us, and our listeners grew up learning about World War, two right, the battles, the Holocaust, the personalities all this stuff was all over television and our history texts. The lesser-known story is the the lead-up to that war right, the interwar years between World War, one and World War. Two and Jason and you’ve been working at the Holocaust Museum now for awhile you’ve been digging into a lot of this stuff and it’s it’s. It’S kind of crazy because you and I have been talking and planning this episode for for about a month now, if not longer, and then this happens this week and it’s very bizarre timing yeah. It is just to say that you know this is not a show produced by the Holocaust Museum. I’M actually here in my capacity as friend of the show today and then co-host with Matt. You know what I’m gon na say is based on what I’ve learned as almost a journalist view of this subject: okay, what’s the difference between a journalists view and a historians view as a journalist, I get a chance to actually talk to a whole bunch of different Historians and to gather their opinions, do a bunch of reading on my own and then come up with an analysis. It’S not going to be the same richness of history that you would get from just interviewing a single source who will have an incredibly in-depth piece of information about, maybe even just one village I mean when it comes to Holocaust history. You would not believe how specialized the field can be. On the other hand, if you’re looking for sort of a broader view of the sweep of history, then I’m an educated, amateur and you know can’t hurt to talk to me alright. So what was germany like after World War? One? You know what kind of situation are we talking about we’re talking about a country that was absolutely devastated and in more than one way, people may not realize that World War one was in some ways. It was the first total war, the German economy. Everything in Germany was turned over into the war effort. Civilians were counted upon to work in factories and even eventually to go without food in order to supply the military. Similar things were actually going on in Great Britain and also in France, and of course, in Russia, things were even crazier in the deprivation and scale of you know. The deaths during the war for Russia were terrible and then, of course, the Bolsheviks took over in 1917 and ended the war for Russia. Long story short, though Germany’s economy is destroyed, its military is just absolutely shot and there are a lot of people asking for a lot of answers as to why they lost, and so you’ve got a bunch of young men with wounded pride in the streets in forming Militias right there weren’t just Nazis. No, the nazis actually appeared very quickly after World War, one ended, but they weren’t the only group. One of the reasons why the Germans had such a hard time. Accepting the defeat of Germany was that they had actually succeeded on the Russian front and the deal that they did on the Russian front. Left them to focus on the Western Front right where France and England and then eventually the u.s.. They fought some terrible battles, but they never took over German territory. So how come they lost? What do you mean? We lost I’ve, never seen a Frenchman on German soil right. It wasn’t okay to just lose. So this myth started going around the myth of the stab-in-the-back groups like the Nazis and other groups. At the same time running around they were poor. These young soldiers, just immobilized, didn’t have anything to do completely shell-shocked after four years of horrible war and telling themselves we didn’t lose. So what happened? That’S where you start to get the myths about it was the Jews or a cabal here at home. They betrayed the soldiers on the front lines and signed a peace treaty, so you have a whole bunch of these different militias that are operating in Germany, they’re actually called free, core and they’re battling each other. They are acting like little war lords in certain parts of Germany. It’S a mess. Was there fighting amongst these groups? Yes, I mean there was near-constant battling, especially between the right-wing and the Communists, communism back. Then I I know it’s it’s almost strange to talk about it. As a threat now, because, though cold war’s been over for almost what what is it, I mean 25 years a little bit more than that people don’t realize that communism was really honest-to-god viewed as a threat, I’m interested in the distinctions and the levels of violence between Then, and now at this point, there’s no comparison, there’s been one tragic death and more people injured. That level of violence would most certainly have been a slow day in the vimar republic, which is what followed the collapse of the German Empire in 1918. Things were much much worse than they are now in the United States. The chaos that people experienced everyday food shortages that people dealt with were much more severe than anything we have in the United States, and you know, as things went on as time went on, we also had the complications of economic depression. Taking people who are already dissatisfied now not sure where they’re gon na eat looking for someone to blame or someone to support and pushing them out into the streets in mass numbers, that’s not where we are in the United States. Let’S talk about the government. Let’S talk about the Weimar Republic, then how stable was it? What was it like? Why weren’t they doing anything about these arms? You know paramilitary groups in the streets. Well, they probably would have liked to have done something about them. Varma Republic was weak. It had a very Western Constitution, it was a constitution that would appear liberal by pretty much any standard, but unfortunately not enough people bought into it. If that makes any sense, can you elaborate on that? So people didn’t think of it as their legitimate government. They felt that it was something that had been imposed upon them by the victorious Allies that it was not necessarily the form of government that Germans wanted for themselves. They didn’t believe that the parties in power necessarily represented their views and, as one party after another was unable to maintain a majority long enough to like even survive a full term. There were many political parties. Thirty-Some-Odd and governments fell all the time. People could be forgiven for not knowing the name of their chancellor at any given moment because it probably wasn’t the same chancellor. They had the month before. So if you can just imagine that level of disorder, I mean, even with all the comings and goings at the White House here in the United States. It’S not the same so after a while this thing that people didn’t feel was particularly legit again with they didn’t value it at all. They didn’t think the government could function and it certainly wasn’t helping to deal with the economic issues. So that’s what I mean by losing faith in it and we’ve we’ve been teasing the economic issues. Depression hit really hard here in the States. How did it hit in Germany? It’S hard to say how? Much worse because there were people in the United States who were literally starving to death and in large numbers I mean we have hunger in the United States. Now it’s not again, it’s not the same. It’S very hard for modern people in the United States to picture what things were like and to have. It was like 26 percent unemployment at certain times here in the United States in the cities it was above 30 percent Germany. If you can picture it was actually worse plus they were still paying off the debts they owed from World War. One the world was still counting on Germany to pay them back for the damage done during the war. Do you think it’s fair to say that punishment that the victorious Allies lay it on Germany after World War? One was too harsh and led to you and led to global instability. Definitely every single historian. I’Ve talked to things that some people feel that the Versailles Treaty, but the effect of it, was exaggerated that it was even used as an excuse by the Nazis as they took power and during their elections. It was gave them something to rail against. But I think overall, it was viewed and still is viewed as a treaty, unlike any other, Germany was forced to shoulder an enormous burden. Financially speaking, it also had to accept – and this may seem just like a formality, but they had to accept all of the blame for the war. I mean which is kind of unusual. That’S not in most treaties. To actually have someone say: oh no, no you’re actually responsible for starting it and all the people who died. You can see that yeah, it didn’t make the Germans happy. It also created Poland, which had been part of Germany for about a hundred years. Not all of it some have been held by Russia and some of it by the other Baltic states, but there had been no independent Poland for over a century, so Poland was created a lot of that territory had been German. Germany was really upset about that. So, in that sense, it created something in a world order that was certainly unstable, all right, so this movement starts in kind of the beer halls right and what is it? What is it offering talking to historian? I actually asked the question: you know: what’s the difference between a brown shirt stormtrooper – and you know one of those really slickly dressed SS officers right I mean I just was. I was really curious. I I didn’t understand exactly if there was a real line or you know, here’s how it was explained to me. Okay, so the stormtroopers, the guys walking around in the brown uniforms which, by the way they look military they’ve, got nothing to do with the military whatsoever. They were actually just a whole bunch of brown shirts lying around. Apparently. Is that then the Nazis decided to give out to people and they were yeah Malkin tents, people who never found their footing after the war. Yes, beer halls were a great recruiting ground. What did the party offer to these people? Well, it offered to get them back their dignity. It promised to get them back to work. It promised them that they were better than everyone else. They created this nice, warm environment for people who weren’t very nice, but they could feel like they were at home and that they were the superior Aryan race and so that they had something to crow about. Of course, you know they were pretty much your average lout. So it’s pretty funny and on the other hand, the SS right. We all know the SS, because they’re the ones in the black uniforms with lightning bolt wounds, they’re actually called runes on their collars. And they look great because those uniforms were actually created by Hugo Boss, who you may know that you know they still have incredibly expensive suits in his shops, which are in malls all over the world. Well, he was a great designer and he created the SS uniforms and those guys were sometimes from sort of a higher class, and it was a more professional group, but neither one of these were actually military organizations. They were paramilitary organizations that owed their allegiance to the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler and they were Street brawlers. So these Street brawlers are walking around the streets in these uniforms before they become official government agencies. Yeah yeah, I add first, I just didn’t get it. I will admit that after Charlottesville and then I remembered back to the Freeman uh in Montana years ago and the militias that were starting up in the 90s or Timothy McVeigh’s militia, all that I realized hey, they wear uniforms. Do they wear surplus gear? It’S a great way to create a sense of unity and belonging right, yeah, also really great for intimidating your enemies too right now, they all seem to share a specific haircut. Another another thing that you and I were talking about off the air is that the Nazis were openly anti-democratic. How open were they with what they were going to do and what their plans were for for the government? That’S another thing that really surprised me yeah. Apparently the Nazis said openly that we can fix this, we’re the only ones who can fix this, and at that point they were referring to the economic depression and also morale and everything else. We we are the only ones who can fix this. We cannot do this through a democratic system. The Weimar Republic is broken vote for us. We will take charge, make Adolf Hitler your dictator, and we will get stuff done for you and sure enough. You know and how popular were they, how what percentage of the votes were they taking in? So this is something that I find really interesting because they started off after the first world war and they it. You know 19, 19, 19. 20. 21. 22. They really didn’t register. They just had a couple of percent in a couple of pretty out-there parts of Germany, places that were very, very rural. It built as the depression got worse and also they were fantastic with propaganda, as you’ve no doubt heard, they took their message to Germans in a lot of original way. Hitler actually flew. He was the first person to actually Barnstorm has a politician really. I didn’t know that yeah, apparently he you know he chartered a Luft Hansa plane and they would take him from one stop to the other where he would give speeches. So everyone in Germany knew who he was in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily have known the other candidates, so his popularity really starts to rise as things get worse, as his message gets out there more, as the government that is in place, looks less and less Able to accomplish anything, their popularity goes up to 15 %, then 20 %. Finally, when the depression is pretty much at its height in 1932, they hit 37 %. Now, that’s not a majority. On the other hand, it was by far the largest minority in Parliament. They never won a majority, at least not in an election that wasn’t rigged so the following election. Just a few months later, because again that coalition didn’t hold the Nazis got something like 33 percent. That was when the people who were in charge of the government – and there was also an elected president by the way over the chancellor, so it’s sort of like having the Queen in a you know above the prime minister in the UK, now, okay, so someone had To be Chancellor, which again, it’s like Prime Minister, so the president on the advice of other people in the cabinet picked Hitler and they made him Chancellor, the idea being that they could control him. You know they thought well we’re conservative he’s conservative, we don’t like Jews, he really hates Jews, but we think he’s a crazy man, but we think by putting him into this office, will actually still keep control of the situation. You may be aware that that didn’t work out right right, yeah there was some. There was some fires and some other things, and – and it got a little hairy there for for a few decades right, and these paramilitaries stayed out there too, even when the Nazis controlled. The actual armed forces they’d never let go of their paramilitaries. The brown shirt stayed out there on the streets eventually after something called the night of the Long Knives, they were really brought to heel and the SS took over and became the more prominent entity. But these paramilitaries, that only responded to the party and to this ideology, were on the streets in uniforms. Scaring people to death every minute of the day that one of one of the things I’ve always have been curious about. This is why normal people didn’t fight back. In any kind of violent way, why wasn’t there any kind of insurgency or were the Nazis, the insurgency and one of the other one of the things that I think about is the firearm situation, because that’s one of the one of the things you hear from conspiracists Right is that after Hitler came to power, he took everybody’s guns. You speak to some of that yeah briefly, I mean he didn’t take everyone’s guns, that’s first of all, just not true. I read a scholarly article on this and I spoke with the person who wrote it and guns. While Hitler spoke about taking away handguns from some people, he actually never did. There were active gun clubs, hunting clubs, various sportsmen clubs that had rifles and handguns for the entire Nazi period and in fact he encouraged average Germans to participate and use firearms on a regular basis because he wanted the populace ready to fight a war. So Jews eventually did have their guns and they were banned too for owning handguns. That is absolutely true. It was actually quite a bit into what the museum calls. The Holocaust Museum considers the Holocaust who actually have begun in 1933, because that’s when Jews were the persecution of Jews became official government policy, but even Jews were able to keep their guns for quite a while, and essentially that’s not it. That’S not what stop people from standing up. I mean there are a lot of reasons why people didn’t stand up. There was a secret police. There were also the fact that, after a while things were going pretty good, I mean you know, things were getting better. The Nazis were given credit for what was going on in the economy. Everyone had something to hate, it was the Jews. They could agree on that people felt part of something. It’S just that what they happened to be part of was the Third Reich. If people really like to tell us that, there’s all these parallels right to America now and really what I’m hearing from you is that there’s not it rhymes a little bit, but it’s not history repeating itself. Do you think that’s accurate well, one other thing that not just the museum but other groups that study threats. You know violence of various kinds, instability. There are certain things that you look for, and there are some signs that some historians, this isn’t actually me. There are some signs that they see as parallel. That can it’s not necessarily, though, along the lines of hate or white nationalism per se. The bigger threats according to historians right now, is that the institutions of the government may be somewhat undermined. That’S the larger concern at the moment. Our government institutions are like our economy. It takes a certain amount of belief to make it work and, as you more and more people failing to believe in the system, the system itself becomes less real. The system is a whole bunch of abstract thoughts, organized into a bunch of books represented by a bunch of people, eventually a whole bunch of people carrying weapons to enforce its edicts right, but without a real belief in the institution, things start to fall apart. So that’s the concern. It’S not that we’re there. We not may not be close to being there, but if you even start seeing the first cracks, historians and everybody else are gon na start to worry. I think that’s a good place to wrap up and, as usual, another thrilling and slightly depressing episode of War College. It’S how we do. It is how we do it: [, Music, ] listeners. Thank you so much for sticking around to the end of the show. As you heard up top, there are some changes coming to War College. The first and biggest we’ve already told you Jason, the co-creator. The show is coming back to host with me. War College is growing up. We’Re gon na expand a little bit. We’Re gon na make the show even better. First of all, you can still follow us on Twitter at war underscore college, but now, in addition to that, you can also follow us on Facebook and engage with us directly and talk to us about what you liked about. The show and give us feedback and give us ideas for what you want to hear about, so that is at facebook.com forward, slash War, College podcast and we’re also gon na be launching a website. That’S going to start next week with the next episode, which is going to be a lot of fun, it’s all about nuclear pop culture and we will announce the website during that episode. It’S going to be the planting page for War College. The place you go to get out the updates about everything, that’s going on Jason and I will be writing a little bit more in depth than we normally do for the episodes currently and we’re also going to have extensive footnotes there, as well as transcripts of every Episode, which is, I know, something that people have been asking for, so we are excited to to launch the next era of War College. You all have been with us through a hundred episodes and two years, let’s make it a hundred more