Adolf Hitler was born 120 years ago on April 20, 1889. Is another Hitler possible? I was recently asked that question in connection with my research into the social catastrophe that swept Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. I started to think about Hitler's improbable rise from complete obscurity. A late bloomer, he gave no hint of political ambitions until he was into his thirties. The context was a country shaken to its foundations by the First World War, revolution, and a dictated peace. By 1923 Germany had experienced years of social upheaval capped by a massive inflation that wiped out the savings of solid citizens. To Hitler and his small following, the moment seemed right to take power, but their coup late that year was easily suppressed. The Weimar Republic then found a precarious normality. When Hitler was released from prison, he saw that the only hope of getting into power was via the ballot box. Yet despite tireless efforts, the Nazis mustered less than three percent of the vote in 1928, the last elections before the Great Depression hit. They were energetic, demonstrative and violent, but politically inconsequential and would have stayed that way had the stock market not crashed.
In Germany a succession of weak governments mishandled the recovery and made things worse. In the 1930 elections the Nazis shocked everyone when they became the second strongest party in the Reichstag. Two years later no less than 230 Nazi deputies won seats and almost 38 percent of the vote. Hitler was now Germany's dominant political personality, growing still stronger as the economy unraveled and banks failed. Unemployment soared to almost 40 percent on the eve of his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933. Electoral support for Communism also grew, and for good citizens that "Red threat" was almost as alarming as the jobless figures. Voters bet on Hitler to get their country out of the depression. The political elite thought he would be manageable and become more moderate, but soon Hitler carried out a "legal revolution," and roared out of control. If there had been no major crisis, Hitler would have remained an eccentric and politically marginal misfit. No depression, no Führer.
Is another such figure possible? We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the Nazi phenomenon could only have happened in Germany, and that, as we are not Germans, it could not befall us. The most significant factor underlying the spread of Hitler's brand of extremism was political gridlock, along with persistent and seemingly insoluble economic problems. In our own day, it could be that our economy, rather than bottoming out, is still, as in 1929, at the beginning of a greater downturn to come. Today people in government and business are struggling to understand how best to cope. Globalization and the evaporation of our manufacturing base make it arguably even more difficult to find solutions. If unemployment, real shortages, and desperation were to grow, then extremist movements almost certainly would form. This scenario is not far-fetched. Moreover, other crises from abroad could intrude. Our neighbor to the south (Mexico) is being pressured by the drug cartels, and that country's collapse into anarchy could have disastrous consequences for the United States. Social anxiety has broken into lawlessness in Europe and even in China. To the combustible mix we must add the real possibility of the failure of a nuclear state (Pakistan) under attack by the Taliban. I'll leave rogue states like Iran and North Korea out of this picture lest it be thought I am unduly negative. But we cannot overlook the threat posed by international terrorism.
Even as we try to cure what's wrong with our economy by pouring more of the present and future generations' wealth into overcoming it, we make ourselves vulnerable to the fallout from a terrorist attack such as took place on 9/11. The stimulus packages that are already straining our resources would then be found utterly inadequate. It is true that much has changed since the 1930s, so that the responses would necessarily be different but also unpredictable. Nonetheless, one could plausibly argue that new political figures would emerge. Authoritarian regimes or highly invasive systems that might arise in our future need not take the form of strongmen like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. Instead we might face "softer" versions, such as in the form of creeping "statism" or a bureaucracy that encroaches ever more into our lives in the name of fixing capitalism, redistributing the wealth, and ironing out social conflict. It is important to read about how nations in the past dealt with severe social crises and reflect on what paths, in our present circumstances, we should take and avoid. Our duty as citizens today is to become more active and watchful. Our freedoms are precious and we must protect them as the heritage our forefathers passed on to us.
Robert Gellately's most recent book is Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe, published by Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books. He teaches history at Florida State University.