Consider Germany, one of the most paradoxical and dramatic cases.
During the late 19thcentury, it was widely considered to have the best educational system in the world. If any educational system could inoculate people from barbarism, surely Germany would have led the way. It had early childhood education — kindergarten. Secondary schools emphasized cultural training. Germans developed modern research universities. Germans were especially distinguished for their achievements in science — just think of Karl Benz who invented the gasoline‐powered automobile, Rudolf Diesel who invented the compression‐ignition engine, Heinrich Hertz who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, Wilhelm Conrad Rőntgen who invented x‐rays, Friedrich August Kekulé who developed the theory of chemical structure, Paul Ehrlich who produced the first medicinal treatment for syphilis and, of course, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. It’s no wonder so many American scholars went to German universities for their degrees during the 19th century.
After World War I, German university enrollment soared. By 1931, it reached 120,000 versus a maximum of 73,000 before the war. Government provided full scholarships for poor students with ability. As one chronicler reported, a scholarship student “pays no fees at the university, his textbooks are free, and on most purchases which he makes, for clothing, medical treatment, transportation and tickets to theaters and concerts, he receives substantial reductions in price, and a student may get wholesome food sufficient to keep body and soul together.”
While there was some German anti‐Semitic agitation during the late 19th century, Germany didn’t seem the most likely place for it to flourish. Russia, after all, had pogroms — anti‐Jewish rioting and persecution — for decades. Russia’s Bolshevik regime dedicated itself to hatred — Karl Marx’s hatred for the “bourgeoisie” whom he blamed for society’s ills. Lenin and his successor Stalin pushed that philosophy farther, exterminating the so‐called “rich” who came to include peasants with one cow.
Why, then, did the highly educated Germans embrace a lunatic like Adolf Hitler? The short answer is that bad policies caused economic, military and political crises — chow time for tyrants. German circumstances changed for the worse, and when people become angry enough or desperate enough, sometimes they’ll support crazies who would never attract a crowd in normal circumstances.
Like the other belligerents, Germans had entered World War I with the expectation that they would win and recoup their war costs by making the losers pay. The German government led their people to believe they were winning , so everybody was shocked when the truth came out. Then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech outlining his high‐minded “14 Points,” leading the Germans to expect a peace negotiation. But the British and the French — America’s principal allies — were determined to avenge their losses, and vindictive terms were forced on the Germans. They felt betrayed and humiliated. Germany’s principal military commanders realized that whoever signed the armistice would be hated, so they resigned and let a civilian official sign it (he was subsequently assassinated). As a result, the Weimar republic, Germany’s fragile democracy, was immediately discredited.
Hitler was among those agitating against the Weimar government. He joined the German Workers’ Party that, in February 1920, became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) — later shortened to Nazi. It offered a witches’ brew of nationalism, socialism, anti‐Semitism and anti‐capitalism. The German historian Oswald Spengler influenced early Nazis with his idea of “Prussian socialism.”
Hitler’s main talent seemed to be as a speech maker, so he began giving speeches that appealed to Germans embittered and disillusioned by the outcome of the war. He denounced Jews, capitalists and other alleged villains, vowing to rebuild German greatness.
Historian Ian Kershaw observed that “Without a lost war, revolution, and a pervasive sense of national humiliation, Hitler would have remained a nobody.”
Then came the inflation crisis. Victorious Allies demanded that Germany pay steep reparations, apparently without giving much thought about how the Germans would get the money for that. Trade restrictions made it harder for German companies to earn money through exports. European tariffs generally tripled and were as much as 800% higher than prewar levels.
The German government defaulted on its reparations agreement. Determined to extract reparations from the Germans, in January 1923 the French sent troops into the Ruhr where much of German industry was located. The German government responded by subsidizing those who pursued passive resistance against the French. Consequently, German budget deficits soared.
By itself, reparations would have been daunting, but Germany also had a financially stressed‐out welfare state. Almost 90 percent of German government spending went for a big bureaucracy, social programs, money‐losing nationalized businesses and other subsidies — a portfolio of obligations uncomfortably familiar to us. The German government subsidized municipalities, much as U.S. states are begging the federal government for bailouts now. Germany had a troubled government‐run pension system like our Social Security. The German government provided health insurance for millions of people. There were German government programs for 1.5 million disabled veterans. The government lavished subsidies on the arts. There were government‐run theaters and opera houses. Government‐owned railroads lost money. The German government even operated factories producing margarine and sausages, which lost money.