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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

In echo of Nazism, book reveals similarities between Hitler acolytes and today's German far-right 

Hundreds of wartime essays lifted from storage describe a nationalism that is being repeated today

German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels addressing a Nazi party gathering, circa 1939. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels addressing a Nazi party gathering, circa 1939. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A new book containing more than 80 original testimonies from Nazi party members on why they backed Hitler revealed similarities with the rhetoric of present day far-right supporters, except that Muslim immigrants have replaced Jews as a scapegoat.

Why I Became a Nazi, published earlier this month, contains a selection of 600 essays gathered in 1934 by American sociologist Theodore Fred Abel who offered cash prizes for "the best personal life story of a supporter of the Hitler movement".

To take part, people had to have joined the Nazi party before January 1, 1933, and the campaign was supported by Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Prof Abel used the findings in a 1938 book on the rise of Nazism.

The testimonies have been called a Facebook of the Nazi period and the book is the first time they have been published on such a scale. They stayed in US university archives for decades until a German publisher and historian, Wieland Giebel, found them during research for his Berlin museum on Hitler's rise to power.

Mr Giebel told The National: "People at the time felt excluded and that is a similar situation we have today. Even though we're one of the world's wealthiest and best organised countries now, many still have the subjective impression that they are getting left behind

"In the 1930s, the Jews were the scapegoats. Today it's the refugees."

Many of the testimonies refer to the impact on people's lives of the economic chaos that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War. They also focus on how a strong leader is preferable to the chaos of democracy, about fury at the elites, mistrust of the press, wounded national pride and hatred of Jews.

Those sentiments echoed in the chants of the far-right protesters who marched through the eastern towns of Chemnitz and Kothen in recent weeks. They demonstrated against Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-border migrant policy following two incidents in which Muslim migrants were suspected of killing Germans.

Demonstrators shouted "Germany for the Germans — foreigners out", "Traitors", "National Socialism now now now", "We are the people" and "lying press". In Chemnitz, which saw the biggest neo-Nazi riots in a generation at the end of August, migrants were chased through the streets and assaulted.

Right-wing demonstrators light flares on August 27, 2018 in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. AFP Photo
Right-wing demonstrators light flares on August 27, 2018 in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. AFP Photo

"Fortunately, they don't have a charismatic leader today," said Mr Giebel.

However the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which backed the Chemnitz protests and is campaigning for "Islam-free schools" before an election in Bavaria next month, has ridden a wave of anti-migrant sentiment following the refugee crisis.

It is the third-strongest party in the German parliament and an opinion poll this month claimed it had overtaken the Social Democrats and was now in second place, just behind Mrs Merkel's conservatives.

Linguists noted that the party, whose leader said Germany had the right to be proud of the achievements of its soldiers in the Second World War, has increasingly adopted Nazi-era terms such as “Volksgemeinschaft” (a reference to an ethnically homogenous people), “Luegenpresse,” (lying press) and “Volksverraeter" (traitors to the people).

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Mr Giebel said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer played into the party's hands with a half-hearted response to the rioting and by claiming the "migration issue is the mother of all problems" in Germany.

The sight of the AfD marching together with the anti-immigrant Pegida movement and neo-Nazi supporters in Chemnitz recalled the co-operation between Nazi politicians and the Brownshirts of the Sturmabteilung (SA), said Mr Giebel.

Far-right supporters today had the benefit of hindsight and were ignoring history, he added. By contrast, the fervent Nazis who jotted down their passion for Hitler in 1934 did not know it would lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust.

One of the testimonies was from Gustav Heinsch, a labourer from Berlin, who wrote that he grew up in extreme poverty and could not understand why workers were treated with such disdain by the rich.

He went to demonstrations and heard Jews "talking cheekily about [Field Marshal Paul von] Hindenburg and [General Erich] Ludendorff and the two million dead". He wrote that he recognised "the threat of Jewish intelligence" and its influence on public opinion and that had turned him into the biggest "enemy of Jews".

A 37-year-old baker called Mr Sens wrote: "If one considers that in my best years, through measures taken by the red government, through inflation and an unbearable tax burden any chance of a livelihood has been taken from me, one will understand that a part of the betrayed and antagonised people happily welcome the efforts of the Nazi movement."

Walter Naumann, 34, an agricultural official, wrote: "The Marxist press couldn’t stop stirring up hatred."

Margarethe Schrimpff, of Berlin, wrote: "After all these sad events was there any wonder that the whole of Germany yearned for a man who would sweep out this Augean stable with an iron broom?"

And Gustav Kohlenberg, a trainee civil servant, wrote: "Every gathering of National Socialists was an internal experience, a religious service sometimes."

Mr Giebel said the book showed that Germans must guard against complacency.

"We should not forget that the Nazis were in the minority in 1932. We need a strong state that tackles them and protects us from those who want to destroy it."