A brief history of the first half of the twentieth century
I am talking to senior students of Tokoroa High School this week. They are studying the 'Rise of Hitler' in the context of 'An event in history, its causes and consequences' and they are coming to the Holocaust Centre. I have to assume that they are familiar with the key facts. I am not there to teach them the material that is available to them from textbooks and was, presumably taught by their teacher. I have to somehow relate their topic to the Holocaust, to New Zealand, and to my own personal experiences. We keep being told that it is this personal note that makes the visit to the Holocaust Centre something special. So where should I start? Hitler was just one of a number of dictators who came to prominence in the decades after the First World War. They included Mussolini, Salazar, Franco, Antonescu. Metaxas and Horthy, and perhaps also Dollfus. They rose to power, like Hitler, because society was torn apart by conflict between those who tried to maintain traditional order, and those who wanted to overthrow that, inspired by the Russian Revolution and ultimately Communism. Going back further, the war was caused by colonialism, the underlying belief that industrial capitalism needed colonies for both markets and raw materials. Countries that did not have colonies were left behind and would be eclipsed. To survive, advanced industrial states needed colonies, and they carved up the world into spheres of influence. The war left winners and losers, and a huge number of casualties as well as disgruntled soldiers who felt betrayed, cheated, and disillusioned. The forces on the right, the forces in the middle and the many factions on the left were divided and at loggerheads. The countries became ungovernable and the myth of the supreme commander, the superman, who could restore order became accepted by a large section of society. So what was special about Hitler, and why was his impact on history greater? Compared with other dictators, he was uneducated, with no social status. But he had a vision that he described in his book, Mein Kampf. Being a man of limited education, he swallowed simplified notions of social Darwinism. His vision was founded on superior and inferior races and the right of a superior race, his, the Germans, to dominate and eliminate inferior races. The more irrational Hitler's ideas were, the easier it was to put these across, and their consequences were more lethal. Thus his ruthless treatment of Polish, Russian and Ukrainian people, people who he had hoped would side with him against the oppressive Bolshevik power turned against him as the greater of evils. His medieval superstitious hatred of Jews deprived his Germany of talent that his country very much needed, and concentrating on the murder of Jews in the midst of a war when his efforts should have been focused on pursuing his military aims undermined his war effort. The Jews were like the canaries in the mines, an indication of the disastrous problems facing society, German society in particular, and European society in general. A brief history of Europe is a very rich stew to serve to 17 – 18 year old students, but I hope that they will come away with more questions than answers.