Bruno Heilig on how Hitler came to power (1938)

In this 1938 article, Bruno Heilig, an Austrian journalist, explains his views about how Hitler came to power in Germany:

“Articles and books have been published on the subject of Hitler’s career and Germany’s turning to barbarism. They describe in minute detail the comings and goings of the actors of that tragedy; they reveal secrets about political and diplomatic interviews, about intrigues and conspiracies too. They give you a more or less reliable picture of the characters of the leading persons and entertain you, perhaps, with spicy stories about their private lives.

You get splendidly informed, yet you are not satisfied. The more you have learned about the events the more you are puzzled. There was a country with a fine democratic constitution built on the ideas of liberty and self-government. Its people had been glad to get rid of the Kaiser after the Great War, and had elected in the Weimar National Assembly men whose records and programs offered the best guarantee for a radical extirpation of the hated old Prussian ideas.

Then some crooks, fools and weaklings appeared on the stage of history, and liberty was thrown away, and democracy became rubbish. Hitler attained power under observance of a democratic constitution, the fundamental principle of which was self-government and self-determination of the people. He became Chancellor just in the same way as any of his predecessors: by regular appointment. There was no reason why the people should submit to tyranny against their will. They followed the tyrant voluntarily, many of them jubilant.

How did it happen, how could it happen? Germany was in a state of intoxication. Modernize, modernize at all costs, was the only idea that people could entertain. In 1930 the first signs of a crisis became manifest. Workers stood off by machines met with difficulties when looking for other employment. Industrialists and merchants complained of difficulties in selling their merchandise. The position deteriorated month by month, week by week.

In 1931 the crisis was in full swing. The breakdown of the German banks in the summer of 1931 further proved the truth of the theory of the invariable costs. The industrialists and the merchants were unable to meet debts and interest and therefore the banks bad to stop payment. The government rushed in to help the banks, which got accommodation at the expense of billions of marks drawn from the people’s taxes. Seven million men and women (one-third of the wage-earning people) unemployed, the middle class swept away: that was the position about one year after the climax of prosperity. Progress, conditioned as it was, had rapidly produced the most dreadful poverty.

In the first year of the crisis, the number of Nazi deputies to the Reichstag rose from 8 to 107. A year later this figure was doubled. In the same time, the Communists captured half of the votes of the German Social Democratic Party and the representation of the middle class practically speaking disappeared. In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler (chancellor). He attained power, as I said before, quite legally. All the forms of democracy were observed. It sounds paradoxical but it was in fact absolutely logical.

The inevitable effect of poverty on political developments under popular government is stated in this quotation: “To put political power in the hands of men embittered and degraded by poverty is to tie firebrands to foxes and turn them loose amid the standing corn; it is to put out the eyes of a Samson and to twine his arms around the pillars of national life.” I do not believe that the Germans would have followed Hitler in his hates and revenges if the people had been living under reasonably good social conditions instead of being under the lash of so much unemployment and privation.

True, Adolf Hitler may be the particular German specimen of what Henry George calls the most blatant demagogue. But do you consent to Mussolini, the Latin-speaking tyrant? And what about Norwegian, Dutch, French, Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian fascists? Similar conditions will be of the same effect everywhere. What happened in Germany will inevitably happen anywhere that similar conditions prevail. In some Continental countries, it has happened already.

The Nazi regime is not Hitler’s lone achievement. Nazidom has grown organically out of a rotten democracy, and the rottenness of that democracy is the natural consequence of unequal economic conditions. Therefore every country is potentially a Fascist country. Germany is but the type of a development which no country can escape except by the establishment of the equal right to the occupation and use of land. Therefore also there can be no lasting peace even after the defeat of Nazism if the present economic structure of the civilized countries remains.”