The citations in this writeup are presently referring to a course packet from Grinnell College. I will replace them with more useful references soon; in the meantime, please message me if you want a full reference.
With his rise to power, Adolf Hitler drew on the extant forces of Nationalism, forged in the French occupation of Germany in the early 1800s, and of Socialism, refined through the numerous upheavals of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Joined in the climate of international economic depression and German defeat and with the strong will of a uniquely driven demagogue, a newly powerful machine was born. Couched in Bismarck’s unilateralism, Nazism disregarded normal measures for complete domination, a domination somehow accepted peaceably.
Early indications of nationalist doctrine and its causes are seen in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder at the close of the eighteenth century. His history of the world (1784-91) concluded with a section detailing his conclusions on the roles of languages, races, nations, and peoples in the development of humanity, noting in particular lingual distinctions between “active peoples” and “cultivated peoples” and indicting unsuccessful peoples for “not exercising the right that God gave them with the divine gift of reason” and overthrowing despotism (8A, 136). While Herder does make some statements that seem terribly inflammatory today, he is also very optimistic about the potential for improvement, encouraging the Jews to assimilate and “contribute to the good of the state” (138) and calling for historians to look with a mind that “must free itself from all presuppositions. . .and judge dispassionately” (135). His attempts to promote concern for racial identity had particular resonance in the context of Germany’s status at the time, a fragmented region split among various large and small states and intermingling with Frankish and Slavic peoples in some areas. The notes to value diversity might easily be co-opted to hold up a particular race as superior; even Herder falls into this trap by setting up dichotomies of the weak nations enduring with “patient indolence” under despots and the strong nations working to “energetic improvement” (136). Worse yet, he indulges in the same judgment that he had previously decried by classifying Africans as “close to the ape” (136).
While it is impossible to say whether Herder’s positions are the cause or the symptom of strong racial identity in Germany, by the time of Napoleon’s conquest and subsequent French occupation, resistance writers had adopted the position of self-determination for the German nation, not the liberation of the Prussian state. Characteristic, perhaps, of a people shamed by submission to foreign invaders, pamphlets by Ernst Moritz Arndt in January 1813, shortly after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, call for a rally of the people to the Fatherland. Arndt alternately holds up the exemplary nationalism of the Russian people and invokes a glorious German past, in Frederick the Great, in an attempt, it seems, to unify the German people in embarrassment and indignant revolt against the French. Quite naturally, he demonizes the occupation: “hatred of the foreign, hatred of the French, of their trinkets, their vanity, their lechery, their language. . .must unify all Germans. . .must allow German bravery, German liberty, German discipline, German honor and justice. . .” (4Db, 147). The dichotomy here is unmistakably encouraging a battle of races, not of states.
While the foundations for nationalism are certainly apparent in the works of Herder and Arndt, it was not until the rise of Bismarck in the latter half of the nineteenth century that nationalism came into its own as a basis for political power. Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister under Kaiser William I and later the first Chancellor, used his great personal power to implement nationalist policies of military expansion and Kulturkampf – a purge of the enemies of the Reich. Shortly after his September 1862 appointment, Bismarck addressed the House of Representatives, criticizing parliamentary government by saying, “The great issues of the day are not decided through speeches and majority resolutions. . .but through blood and iron” (6Gb, 209). While this comment provoked strong resistance from the left, by 1866 he had gained enough support to split the Progressive Party with the formation of the National Liberal Party. The new party formed as many representatives broke ranks to support Bismarck’s Indemnity Bill, granting the Kaiser and Minister authority to spend 154 million Taler without parliamentary oversight. With the emergence of National Liberalism, it is apparent that there had developed a cult of personality, exhibited in Bismarck’s call for the Bill’s passage, “Even though it has often been said, ‘What the sword has won, the pen has lost,’ I have complete confidence that we will never hear it said, ‘What the sword and pen have won, has been destroyed by this rostrum!’” (6Gc, 213). By directly challenging the right of the House of Representatives to oppose him, Bismarck counts on and receives abnormally complete trust.
The competition between peoples from Herder and Arndt appeared again in the policy of Kulturkampf – “Culture Struggle” – in 1872. Responding to the 1871 formation of the Catholic Center Party, Bismarck mocks claims by the Church to proportional representation by “confession” and concludes that the minorities will have to be satisfied with the majority and the protections it offers, to wit:
But we cannot concede the claim by religious authorities to the permanent exercise of a part of state power, and insofar as they possess a part thereof, we are compelled in the interests of peace to reduce that part. . . (6Ia, 219)
When an anarchist expelled from the Social Democratic Party made an attempt on the Kaiser’s life in 1878, Bismarck had the premise to mount another campaign for further centralized power, enacting the Anti-Socialist Law, which denounced the Socialist movements for anti-democratic demagogy and placed limitations on their organization. His justification called for German countrymen to resist the violent Russian Socialists and to look to the strongly Germanic Kaiser (6Ib, 222). Again, Bismarck personally took responsibility, vouching for the conditions of the worker and taking steps for top-down amelioration.
Altogether, Bismarck’s time as Prime Minister and Chancellor served to focus the preceding tendencies to nationalism and infuse them with his own powerful personality to create a political platform of central control and authority. The success of Bismarck certainly enabled the subsequent rise of National Socialism, in which the ascendancy of race founded a personal dynamo for German nationalism, drawing authority from the similar actions of Bismarck and Frederick. While Nazism needed the prior example of Bismarck for widespread acceptance, its doctrine and draw was more complex.
Nazism as a theoretical creation drew, as Hitler described in Mein Kampf, those in favor of improving social conditions, but opposed to the apparent disregard of the Social Democrats and Communists for the German Nation. Hitler’s own experience with Social Democrats was terribly negative, “they rejected everything: the nation…the Fatherland. . .the authority of the law. . .schools. . .religion. . .morality. . .There was absolutely nothing that did not get dragged through the muck” (12G, 410).
Significantly, before attributing the problems of the SPD to the Jews, Hitler’s argument parallels Bismarck’s complaints that the SPD uses demagogy to undermine the state. While the Nazi party drew socialists wary of Marxism’s and Communism’s rampant internationalism, the theoretical body of Nazism was no more than Hitler’s personal beliefs; party theoretician Alfred Rosenberg had no influence on policy, and Gregor Strasser’s resistance to Hitler’s direction was thoroughly rejected and ultimately quashed.
It seems likely that a party along the lines of the National Socialist party would have formed as the natural product of a line of nationalist thought and Bismarck’s absolutist policy, but the primary draw of Nazism, the personality cult of Hitler, allowed it to rise to success. Certainly, Hitler’s personal prowess was no product of a longtime evolution, but rather a driven man who managed to succeed by pushing scapegoats and nationalism, both appealing to the defeated.