Modern Germany fundamentally rejects, and assumes complete responsibility for, the heinous crimes committed under the Third Reich. The Nazis occupy a uniquely menacing place in the Western imagination, the embodiment of humanity’s darkest instincts for racial hatred and barbarism—what Hannah Arendt called “radical evil” in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Whitman uses the word Nefandum, “an abyss of unexampled modern horror against which we can define ourselves.” It is appropriate to be wary of invoking the Nazis, especially in an online environment that has turned the words “Hitler” and “Nazi” into clichés, devaluing their meaning and cheapening the historical lessons to be learned.
Both in public and in private, Hitler expressed disdain for capitalism, arguing that it holds nations ransom in the interests of a parasitic cosmopolitan rentier class. He opposed free market capitalism because it "could not be trusted to put national interests first," and he desired an economy that would direct resources "in ways that matched the many national goals of the regime," such as the buildup of the military, building programs for cities and roads, and economic self-sufficiency. Hitler also distrusted capitalism for being unreliable due to its egotism and he preferred a state-directed economy that maintains private property and competition but subordinates them to the interests of the Volk.
On 24 December 1941 the resistance groups representing the various prisoner factions met in block 45 and agreed to cooperate. Fleming writes that it has not been possible to track Pilecki's early intelligence from the camp. Pilecki compiled two reports after he escaped in April 1943; the second, Raport W, detailed his life in Auschwitz I and estimated that 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, had been killed. On 1 July 1942, the Polish Fortnightly Review published a report describing Birkenau, writing that "prisoners call this supplementary camp 'Paradisal', presumably because there is only one road, leading to Paradise". Reporting that inmates were being killed "through excessive work, torture and medical means", it noted the gassing of the Soviet prisoners of war and Polish inmates in Auschwitz I in September 1941, the first gassing in the camp. It said: "It is estimated that the Oswiecim camp can accommodate fifteen thousand prisoners, but as they die on a mass scale there is always room for new arrivals."
Extensive propaganda was used to spread the regime's goals and ideals. Upon the death of German president Paul von Hindenburg in August 1934, Hitler assumed the powers of the presidency. The army swore an oath of personal loyalty to him. Hitler's dictatorship rested on his position as Reich President (head of state), Reich Chancellor (head of government), and Fuehrer (head of the Nazi party). According to the "Fuehrer principle," Hitler stood outside the legal state and determined matters of policy himself.
In the early years of the regime, Germany was without allies, and its military was drastically weakened by the Versailles Treaty. France, Poland, Italy, and the Soviet Union each had reasons to object to Hitler's rise to power. Poland suggested to France that the two nations engage in a preventive war against Germany in March 1933. Fascist Italy objected to German claims in the Balkans and on Austria, which Benito Mussolini considered to be in Italy's sphere of influence.
According to Schneidermann, Trump designating American media as the “opposition” is the biggest threat to its credibility today, but not merely because the President’s broadsides inflict damage on their own. The trap, Schneidermann says, is for the media to enter into a war with Trump, and forget its job. “There is one professional obligation,” he told me. “To say things that are true.” (For news readers, he recommends the articles on page 7.) The real subject of his book, he added, is that “it’s very easy to be in a collective blindness.” And the past can obscure the future. “Why didn’t the correspondents in the thirties see Hitler? Because they thought he was a German Mussolini,” Schneidermann said. “They said, O.K., we know Mussolini. They weren’t actually looking at Hitler.” In the book, he writes, “Every revolutionary process automatically produces denial. How can we accept the fact that, from now on, the order of things will be fundamentally different from what it always was?”
Persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany followed the Nazi takeover. Hitler moved quickly to eliminate political Catholicism, rounding up functionaries of the Catholic-aligned Bavarian People's Party and Catholic Centre Party, which along with all other non-Nazi political parties ceased to exist by July. The Reichskonkordat (Reich Concordat) treaty with the Vatican was signed in 1933, amid continuing harassment of the church in Germany. The treaty required the regime to honour the independence of Catholic institutions and prohibited clergy from involvement in politics. Hitler routinely disregarded the Concordat, closing all Catholic institutions whose functions were not strictly religious. Clergy, nuns and lay leaders were targeted, with thousands of arrests over the ensuing years, often on trumped-up charges of currency smuggling or immorality. Several Catholic leaders were targeted in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives assassinations. Most Catholic youth groups refused to dissolve themselves and Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach encouraged members to attack Catholic boys in the streets. Propaganda campaigns claimed the church was corrupt, restrictions were placed on public meetings and Catholic publications faced censorship. Catholic schools were required to reduce religious instruction and crucifixes were removed from state buildings.
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, sparking World War II, the Germans converted Auschwitz I from an army barracks to hold Polish political prisoners. The first prisoners, German criminals brought to the camp as functionaries, arrived in May 1940, and the first gassing of prisoners took place in block 11 of Auschwitz I in September 1941. Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to the camp's gas chambers. Of the estimated 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million died, around 90 percent of them Jews. Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, and an unknown number of gay men. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died because of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
But even within a democratic constitutional system, white supremacy in the United States has persisted, ebbing and flowing along the course of history, receding at times and then returning with a vengeance. At the heart of the current white nationalist project is the racial supremacy of people who believe that America was exclusively founded for them. Race madness has taken over the Trump base, and the White House has become home to those who seek racial purification. The project to erode citizenship rights, restrict immigration, and reclaim the American idea as a white idea is already underway. The United States is denying passports to citizens on the southern border. Denying bond hearings to those immigrants—even permanent residents—who are incarcerated. Separating children from their parents. Banning Muslim travelers. Refusing green cards to Americans who need public assistance. Politicians and law professors debate the merits of ending birthright citizenship; while currently a fringe idea, a future Supreme Court decision severely limiting birthright citizenship seems foreseeable. This purification agenda is being carried out by deportation squads roving the country in search of targets. Alarm bells ought to be going off about this program of national cleansing. We do not yet know where this ends.
Early in the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, Anne’s father, Otto Frank (1889–1980), a German businessman, took his wife and two daughters to live in Amsterdam. In 1941, after German forces occupied the Netherlands, Anne was compelled to transfer from a public school to a Jewish one. On June 12, 1942, she received a red-and-white plaid diary for her 13th birthday. That day she began writing in the book: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”
German business leaders disliked Nazi ideology but came to support Hitler, because they saw the Nazis as a useful ally to promote their interests. Business groups made significant financial contributions to the Nazi Party both before and after the Nazi seizure of power, in the hope that a Nazi dictatorship would eliminate the organized labour movement and the left-wing parties. Hitler actively sought to gain the support of business leaders by arguing that private enterprise is incompatible with democracy.
We were first placed in deep rows, ordered to take off our hats and gloves, arid told not to stir. Then some of us had to step out and carry through our rows signs mounted on poles with the following inscriptions: 'We are the chosen people' (with the David star over the inscription); 'We are the murderers of the diplomat vom Rath'; 'We are the destroyers of German culture.' The camp lead evidently coming from Saxony, a slender and somewhat coquettish man with the rank of an officer of the S.S., ordered me to pick up a large paper bag, which an S.S. man put on my head as a cap, and I had to stand like that for some time. This was a harmless attempt at humiliation. Less harmless was the attempt to frighten us through the announcement that we should have to stay in the camp for twenty years. For some these threats were a cause of serious depression even of attempted suicide.
Mindful that no mere visit can convey what the concentration camp was like when the Nazis ran it, I met with survivors. The week before I arrived in Krakow, I had called Jozef Stos, 89, to ask if he would discuss his years in captivity. “If I’m still alive then, sure—it’s my civic responsibility,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m pretty darn old, you know.”
If, up to now, we had interpreted our fate only as a privation of liberty, our experience changed rapidly. We had to jump down from the truck without the aid of a chair, and the request for a helping hand was denied with abuse. One of our comrades, an older man lacking the agility of youth, fell in this enforced jump and hurt the back of his head so badly that his skin had to be sewed with several stitches. Hardly were we standing on the ground when a pack of young men in S.S. uniforms, with yells and abuse, chased us to the other end of the large, inner, so-called inspection ground, which is surrounded by the barracks of the prisoners. Those who couldn't run fast enough were kicked.
The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary—“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”—is often called “inspiring,” by which we mean that it flatters us. It makes us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls—and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true. That gift of grace and absolution from a murdered Jew (exactly the gift, it is worth noting, at the heart of Christianity) is what millions of people are so eager to find in Frank’s hiding place, in her writings, in her “legacy.” It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being “truly good at heart” three weeks before she met people who weren’t.
Then, on January 27, 1945, the Red Army reached the camp. Inside, they found prisoners covered in excrement and starving to death, children who had been used for medical experiments, and other shocking evidence of the Nazis’ crimes. At Birkenau, the guards had failed to destroy some of the storerooms where prisoners’ stolen belongings were stored before being transported back to the Reich. Among the remainingitems were 7.7 tons of human hair, 370,000 men’s suits and 837,000 women’s coats and dresses.
Between 1933 and the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, more than 3.5 million Germans were forced to spend time in concentration camps and prisons for political reasons, and approximately 77,000 Germans were executed for one or another form of resistance by Special Courts, courts-martial, and the civil justice system. Many of these Germans had served in government, the military, or in civil positions, which enabled them to engage in subversion and conspiracy against the Nazis.