Though Michael Haneke’s recently released film “The White Ribbon,” which won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, focuses on one small German village, in 1914, the director has made it clear that the issues it raises are much larger. “Why do people follow an ideology?” the director asks in the film’s official press release. “German fascism is the best-known example of ideological delusion,” he adds, and while his film is not an explanation of German fascism per se, he certainly encourages viewers to ponder the relationship. In the opening scene, the narrator even says that he hopes the story about to unfold might “clarify things that happened later in our country.”
In the rest of the film, viewers are greeted with haunting images of parents that whip their children for the most modest infractions, a pastor who does the same for boys caught masturbating, and spousal arrangements so dominated by imperious men that it makes one pain for the days of burning bras. Haneke has said he wants viewers to come to their own conclusions about what the film means. But at least one possible suggestion seems obvious: a society dominated by authoritarian figures is bound to fall under the sway of despots.
But is that a sufficient explanation for the how the Nazis came to power? Variants of the idea have long circulated among the general public and even historians, but few scholars today are willing to accept it. In fact, in recent years scholars have largely moved away from the idea that the appeal of the Nazis can be traced to any distant past, let alone psychological theories, and are much more likely to emphasize the strange fortuity of Hitler and his party’s rise. In so doing, they not only appear to discredit Haneke’s theory of Nazism, however obliquely made, but also challenge some widely held beliefs about Nazi Germany itself.
“It’s an open question whether a majority of Germans were ever Nazis in an ideological sense,” Adam Tooze, a professor of German history at Yale, told The Jewish Week. He highlighted some better-known facts to buttress his point, such as the one that Hitler never gained more than 37 percent of the popular vote, and that he never actually won an election. But Tooze emphasized less apparent ones, too, like the idea that even as Germans grew more supportive of the Nazi platform after they conquered Paris in 1940 and victory seemed imminent, anti-Semitism was only part of their appeal. To be fair, he said, the related idea of Aryanism—that all Germans shared the same blood and were therefore equals—was widely embraced. But it was not because of whom it excluded, but rather whom it included.
“What the Nazis are saying is that we’re all part of the same racial group,” Tooze said. “For workers”—and Germans who felt excluded from power — “this was a major upgrade.” He noted that Jews, barely 1 percent of the German population, suffered terribly under Aryanism, but it actually expanded the tent for millions of other Germans.
A related point is also made by the British historian Richard Evans, whose trilogy about the Nazis published over the last decade is perhaps the most authoritative to date. “If the time-traveller invited the contemporary to guess which it would be”—to exterminate its Jewish population—“the chances were that he would have pointed to France, where the Dreyfus affair had recently led to a massive outbreak of virulent popular anti-Semitism,” Evans writes in “The Coming of the Third Reich.” He adds, “that Germany, with its highly acculturated Jewish community and its comparative lack of overt or violent political anti-Semitism”—prior to the 1930s—“would be the nation to launch this exterminatory campaign would have hardly occurred to him.”
While Evans highlights some continuities dating to German unification in 1871, particularly Prussian militarism, he stresses the unique circumstances after the First World War that made the Nazis’ rise possible. Before the worldwide depression hit Germany in 1930, the Nazis’ extreme nationalism lent them only fringe appeal. But when it became clear that the liberal Weimar republic, Germany’s first democratically elected government, was unable to handle the country’s financial problems, not to mention the lawlessness that transpired, Hitler’s message of German regeneration became especially appealing. Add to that the lingering humiliation of defeat and the onerous reparations imposed after World War I, and one begins to understand how a radical agenda might gain force.
Scholars of modern Germany also say that the spin-off field of Holocaust studies has distorted the picture of what Nazism stood for. A large part of the Nazis’ original appeal, which was limited to begin with, was the empowerment that their ideology afforded a disillusioned public. Moreover, the anti-Semitic strain in Nazi ideology, which was evident from the start, did not make the wholesale annihilation of Jews an obvious conclusion. The Final Solution, the plan hatched in 1941 that called for the extermination of Jews, only evolved as the nation descended into an all-encompassing war and the Nazi leadership reasoned that they offered no material benefit to the war effort.
Many Germans were not particularly enthusiastic about the genocide but went along with it because it was couched as part of the greater effort of national regeneration, said Peter Fritzsche, a historian at the University of Illinois and author of “Germans into Nazis.” “You can’t have a line item veto on the national project,” he said. He did not discount the idea that Nazi propaganda against Jews and the promotion of racial hygiene made their removal more palatable, but it placed it within the context of a larger mission. As Mary Nolan, another German historian at New York University, put it: “one has to look at anti-Semitism, but given how prevalent it was throughout Europe, why did [the Holocaust] not happen elsewhere?”
But popular films like “The White Ribbon” feed into suggestions that brutality and violence were the main appeal of Nazism, while downplaying the attraction of their ideology of empowerment. In addition, scholars say many popular understandings of Nazi Germany incorporate largely discredited ideas about Germany’s supposed long history of virulent anti-Semitism. “In some circles” of Germans who supported the Nazis, said Fritzsche, “it would have been more radical for a Protestant boy to marry a Catholic girl than a converted Jew.”
Fritzsche also emphasized the revolutionary program of the Nazis, which seems at odds with any theory that connects their appeal to maintaining the established order. Haneke’s film does so by its very nature, as it focuses on an emblematic baron-run estate on the eve of the First World War. But Fritzsche argued that anyone trying to understand the Nazis’ success must contend with their radical, forward-looking ideology. “The Nazis were trying to get people to move in a different direction. They saw themselves as revolutionary and not connected to the old and the authoritarian” structures, he said. Haneke is “explaining sameness; he has to explain difference.”
Still, historians know well that their own theories are often in flux and can point to some of their colleagues’ work that might support Haneke’s film. For one, leading postwar British historians like A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper argued that Nazism was the logical conclusion of centuries of German history, which they argued resisted democracy in favor of national unity and strong leaders. In the 1970s, other fashionable theories employed Freudian ideas about sexual repression into their theses. And even as late as the 1990s, scholars like Daniel Goldhagen gained best-seller status by tying the Nazis’ racist ideology to centuries of German anti-Semitism in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”
But historians today say that Goldhagen’s theory, to take the most recent case, is mostly frowned upon. “Historians don’t take Goldhagen seriously,” Atina Grossmann, an historian at Cooper Union said. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t both continuity and rupture” in explaining the Nazis’ rise.
Other scholars also pointed out that the people focused on in Haneke’s film — German children in a small northern village, in 1914 — would have likely voted for the Nazis in the early-1930s. But the reasons would not have been those suggested by Haneke’s film. Tooze emphasized that Nazi ideas that called for a return to the soil, connected to the idea of “lebensraum,” or living space, might be especially appealing to rural Germans. But rural Germans made up just a third of the population, and the older generations among them were not likely to support Nazis anyway. “It’s representative of only one section of German society,” Tooze said about looking at any one segment of society. “You can’t generalize from that particular experience Germany as a whole.”