The world is filled with tyrants and dictators, individuals who by demagoguery and violence can control an entire country and who wreak death and disaster on its citizens. So why offer a class on Adolf Hitler, who for 70 years has been widely recognized as the epitome of evil? In part because Hitler’s rise to power was a unique and cataclysmic world event, and in part because it offers insights into the process by which one of the world’s great countries can be captured, captivated and destroyed by the will of one man. Dr. Peter Clark, historian and journalist, has immersed himself in the story of Hitler’s rise and fall, and is offering his unique insights and reinterpretation of the rise of the Third Reich in a one-time class at UC San Diego Extension. Here’s what he has to say about his upcoming course…
For centuries, Germany was the land of titans in all fields of human endeavor (Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Beethoven and Einstein to name just a few); this wasn’t some backward country ripe for takeover by a committed elite of revolutionaries or reactionaries. Between World War I and World War II, during the Weimar Era, Bertolt Brecht in theater, Walter Gropius in architecture, Marlene Dietrich in film, Arnold Schoenberg in music and Thomas Mann in literature led the assault of modernists on the smug bourgeoisie conventions of the period. How could such a culture also produce Adolf Hitler, a nobody from the homeless shelters of Vienna, whose mind was filled with the intellectual garbage found in the world’s flophouses? And, yet, Hitler, the Austrian-born fanatic, did become chancellor of Germany in 1933; Hitler did ignite the sparks that touched off the bonfire of deaths in World War II; and Hitler was the architect of the most barbarous assault on humanity ever known to humankind—The Holocaust. Again, how could this possibly have happened?
What many scholars have failed to take into consideration is that the masses in the cities were seeking some outlet for their lonely existence in apartment houses and small homes whose rooms seemed more like cells for imprisoning humanity. Radio was in its infancy, TV did not exist and there was no Internet or Facebook. Hitler’s passionate oratory lifted him to what today would be termed “rock star” status. In fact after watching the film “Triumph of the Will“—Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the Nuremberg Party Rally of 1934—both Mick Jagger and David Bowie anointed Hitler as the 20th Century’s first rock star. Lonely and lost souls flocked to hear a Hitler “concert.” A contemporary who had a front-row seat to Hitler’s meteoric rise from a nobody to the most influential person in the world stated, “What Hitler could do to a crowd in two or three hours will never be seen again in 10,000 years.” Somehow we must account for this charisma in explaining how many in Germany fell under the influence of this Austrian spellbinder.
Many historians and talented journalists and informed history buffs condemn ordinary Germans for not standing up to Hitler’s gangster regime and his treatment of the Jews. But ask yourself this: If you had lived in the Third Reich and opposed the Hitlerian regime, what would you have done? In the 1930s, would you have openly protested against the government-sanctioned discrimination against the Jews? During the war, if you learned about the industrialized death camps in Poland, would you have tried to organize others to oppose such barbarism? Hitler’s Germany was not an open society like Great Britain, France or America. Would you have risked possible death to you and your family to take a moral stance to show your compassion for the defenseless Jews? If you had lived in that era, would you have kept your personal dissent strictly within the walls of your family home, or would you have taken it to the streets to stand up to the Nazis?
Last, but not least, could it happen here? Do the Occupy Wall Street protestors have anything in common with those in Germany who dissented from Hitler’s Germany? What about the Tea Party rallies? Is there any example of dissent in American history that even approaches the acts by a few brave Germans who dared to risk their lives and the lives of their families to protest against Hitler’s savage attacks on the Jews?
Take a fresh look at how Adolf Hitler rose from obscurity to become the leader of the most educated, artistic and intellectually vibrant culture of his era and then turned Germany into an instrument of terror that engulfed the entire world in Triumph of Evil: How Hitler Became Hitler, as well as determining what we should have learned from his terrible reign both as individuals and as a society.
Peter Clark earned a Ph.D. in History and Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to UC Berkeley, he also attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, Goettingen University in Germany and the London School of Economics. He is a graduate of Boalt Law School and practiced law for two years in Southern California. He has taught numerous courses in various subjects for UC San Diego Extension, including courses in English, Russian and American literature. His favorite author is Jane Austen, who has absolutely nothing in common with Adolf Hitler.