History Class Gave Hitler a Free Pass

Did Hitler come to power on a Monday and subsequently start slaughtering Jews on a Tuesday? The answer is obviously no but we are primarily taught in school about the events of WWII-not how we got to WWII. Usually our history class did a hop skip and jump to the juicy parts to keep our teenage selves from getting bored. Most people’s history knowledge is best described as someone who watched Titanic but only skipped to the sex scene in the car, the naked painting on the couch, the boat sinking, and Jack falling off the door in the water. I am in this same sinking boat with most people and that is why I wanted to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Larson is an excellent writer because he makes nonfiction read like fiction. If you are not the type to read history then you should try Larson-I promise you will not be bored. In the Garden of the Beasts follows the American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his family while they lived in Germany between 1933-1938. The book primarily details the rise of Hitler and the atmosphere of Nazi Germany through the diary of Dodd and Dodd’s daughter-Martha. This family was able to detail what life was like in Nazi Germany and how Hitler slowly morphed into the monster we know of today.

In 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany. He did this through subjugating his competition and rallying his people behind the cause of German nationalism. Shortly after Hitler was elected he began to use the Gestapo to put fear into the hearts of Jews, Communists, and anyone who did not see exactly his way. People oftentimes were beaten in the streets or were reported missing for no apparent reason. Even Americans were beaten on many occasions for failing to give the Hail Hitler salute and observing the ceaseless military parades. Furthermore, the Nazis openly passed laws that disbanded Jews from marrying non-Jews, working in certain jobs, and using certain facilities in the city. All these things were well known around the world yet no government spoke up against Hitler’s practices? Why was this? In America it was because of greed and homegrown antisemitism. Firstly, America didn’t want to upset Hitler by condemning these early actions because Germany owed the US a lot of money. The debtors were focused on collecting their interest and Germany was having difficulty making their payments. Secondly, the US had specific immigration policies in place that prevented Jews from coming to the country because there was a clear dislike of Jews among many state officials. This atmosphere was similar in other Western countries and is one reason Hitler was allowed to continue these preliminary policies.

What about the German people? Why didn’t they stop Hitler? Some Germans did try to go against Hitler but most of them were killed or imprisoned for their treason. Most Germans in those early years thought Hitler was not going to last long in politics and would actually step down. Hitler slowly became more forceful in his control over the population and eventually everyone was afraid of espionage and being taken in by the Gestapo. Living in Germany during that time was stressful and scary no matter who you were-no one felt comfortable. It was this atmosphere that allowed Hitler to take full control when President Hindenburg finally passed away. At anytime during those early years Hitler could have been stopped. His policies were disliked by most people in and outside of Germany but nothing was done. Students are taught that the US came in triumphantly, stormed Normandy, defeated Hitler, and freed the Jews in the concentration camps. But when you really look into the details is the US not partially responsible for WWII? Hitler many times over broke the Treaty of Versailles but no Western country stepped in? The reasons for these are many: an isolationist attitude, fear of losing interest payments, the Great Depression, hypocritical racist policies in the South, etc. We can’t go back and change history but what we can do is learn from history. And how can we do this? We need to teach and learn about all the scenes that took place to understand how we got to that point. Without context, Rose getting painted butt naked by her lover, could be Rose getting painted butt naked by her kidnapper. Why is this important today? In America at least, there are still groups of people who are disenfranchised and political leaders who want further disenfranchisement. It seems we want to get right to the action and skip all the details-maybe that is why history repeats itself.

The Sexiness of Conspiracy

Was 9/11 a conspiracy by the US government to gain more Big Brother control and garner immense profits for a select group of politicians? Do Jews have a secret mission to take over the world by orchestrating wars and social upheavals? Was Princess Diana murdered by the royal family, the communists, the mob? These are all mainstream conspiracy theories that I read about in my most recent book Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch. Let me first preface that I was a guy who was dazzled by the 9/11 conspiracy popularized by the film Loose Change. The facts, expert opinions, and mesmerizing footage in the film all convinced me that 9/11 was a conspiracy. I did not become a 9/11 conspiracy evangelist but I did voice my opinion if it ever came up in conversations with friends or family. This was my attitude until I was introduced to Voodoo Histories and was able to read the history, psychology, and societal obsession with conspiracy theories.

There are conspiracies for each and every generation. Back in 1903, the famous Protocols of Elders of Zion was published and hugely circulated for the next 50 years; fostering antisemitism by famous people like Henry Ford and you guessed it-Adolf Hitler. Pearl Harbor was the conspiracy of the 1940’s which convinced a huge group of people that FDR was a very evil man. The JFK assassination, MLK assassination, and moon landing were all conspiracies associated with the 60’s. After that was Princess Diana, Da Vinci Code, and 9/11. I missed a lot but those are some of the big ones. As you can see, we as a society love the conspiracy theory. I did to, until I learned about how prevalent they are and how easy it is to pick apart each and everyone of them.

I learned that conspiracy theorists use a few convincing tools to give validity to their hypotheses. First they attempt to bring supposed experts to the table who agree with the conspiracy. These experts many times are not experts but rather only hold high degrees and have limited applicable experience. Second they cite a source, that cited a source, that cited a source, so there is very little truth left from the original fact (think of that game where you whisper a message down a line and it changes from person to person). Third, when authorities try to disprove a conspiracy, they are said to be naive or are in someway being controlled by the conspirators.

The other important reason why conspiracies are so common is our affinity to story telling. Conspiracies are sexy, different, out of the norm,and humans by nature like drama. Also, conspiracies come about whenever there is social or political change. These changes usually propagate conspiracies by the losing party: transfer of government control, transfer of societal morals, or transfer of group power. Losers go down kicking and screaming and many times use conspiracies as a poor-sport anthem. Also, conspiracies are very profitable for those who write about them-Google all the materials surrounding The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Lastly, conspiracies make us feel smarter, more researched, and more caring then the stupid sheep who believe in the status quo.

In the end, conspiracies are harmful because they shape a very inaccurate picture of history, create unneeded paranoia, and many times create resentment to certain groups of people. The Protocols of Elders of Zion framed Hitler’s thinking that Jews were inferior and needed to be exterminated. My advice is to critically access all information, look at the credential’s of the authors, and think of the unrealistic probability of the conspiracy hypothesis. Understanding accurate history will make you better informed to make political, social, and individual decisions that will make you wiser in the end.

Summed up Learning Sentence:

The sheer number of conspiracies out there shows that humans love a story and the arguments against each conspiracy are more convincing then those for the conspiracy.