Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eric Kurlander's "Living With Hitler"

Eric Kurlander is associate professor of history at Stetson University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Living with Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich, and reported the following:
Nearly every new book on the Third Reich presumes one basic question: how could the heirs to Kant, Beethoven, and Einstein support Adolf Hitler? How could so many educated, “liberal”-minded Germans be complicit in the twentieth century’s most terrible crimes? Page 99 of Living With Hitler speaks to this question, which lies at the heart of my new book. On page 99 we find one of Germany’s leading liberal feminists and social progressives pulling no punches, criticizing the Third Reich’s discrimination against women in terms of equal opportunity in higher education, hiring, and pay. Particularly interesting is her call for employers “to offer the possibility of half- and part-time jobs … so women who needed extra income might still balance their work and family life for offering flexible working hours.”

The fact remains, however, that Bäumer and her liberal colleagues wanted women to become more involved in the war effort, an endorsement of Hitler’s foreign policy that drew the ire of Allied authorities. At the same time, Bäumer and company argued that discriminating against women in education and employment would undermine the strength of German science, economy, and society. That such participation would help perpetuate, not undermine, the regime goes without saying. Thus, for all their progressive convictions, Bäumer and her colleagues embraced central tenets of the Nazi worldview, from a more socially egalitarian racial community (Volksgemeinschaft) to the aggressive restoration of Germany’s great power status.

In short, page 99 articulates rather well three of the four main claims of the book. First, that there were clear ideological continuities between German left liberalism and National Socialism that made political accommodation more attractive than one might expect. Second, that these affinities were not necessarily reactionary, but sometimes “progressive” in nature. Whether one is discussing the Nazi attitude towards science and technology, the separation of church and state, social welfare, industrial organization, even women and the family, there were more than passing affinities between liberal and Nazi programs. Third, page 99 reflects the ample space for liberal criticism and everyday opposition in the Third Reich, especially before the outbreak of the Second World War. When liberals like Bäumer failed to resist, at least intellectually, it had less to do with fear of arrest than a tacit desire to accommodate specific policies.

What page 99 does not reveal is that most liberal democrats who acquiesced in some aspects of the Nazi “revolution” eventually rejected it because of their individual experience of National Socialism. There were various points at which liberals, confronted by the abject criminality of the regime, reëvaluated their position and turned away from even a tentative endorsement of Nazi policies. It may seem remarkable that liberals rationalized and even defended elements of Hitler’s foreign and domestic policy after 1933. But rather than dismiss their ambivalence as a sign of German peculiarity vis-à-vis the “West,” we should take it as a warning of the susceptibility of liberal democracy to fascism, particularly in times of economic distress and political chaos.
Learn more about Living With Hitler at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue