Posted tagged ‘Churchill’

A Day That Lives in Infamy: Remember January 30.

January 30, 2008

(This post winds up on a science-ish blog because of my long history with Albert Einstein, in the course of which I did the work that enables me to write what follows.)

As this New York Times piece reminded me, seventy five years ago, this was a truly bad day. Just past noon (about six hours ago, Berlin time) on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler took an oath administered by President Paul von Hindenburg, and assumed the office of Chancellor of Germany.

That this would be a disaster was obvious to some. General Erich Ludendorff knew both the players in that disastrous moment. He had been, with Hindenburg, the leader of the de facto military junta that ran Germany in the last years of the so-call “Great” War, and he had conspired with Hitler in the Beer Hall putsch of 1923. After Hitler became chancellor, Ludendorff wrote to the President in despair: “I solemny predict that this accursed man will cast our Reich in the abyss…Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”

Albert Einstein also undertood what Hitler’s rise meant, much earlier than most. He and Winston Churchill, then in the political wilderness, commiserated in the summer of 1933, and that September, Einstein’s frustration with the world’s myopia burst out in a newspaper interview: “I cannot understand the passive response of the whole civilized world to this modern barbarism,” he said. “Does not the world see that Hitler is aiming at war?” (From Abraham Pais, Einstein Lived Here.)

Einstein, of course, was right, which doesn’t surprise me — I hear he was a pretty smart guy.

But what I want to emphasize here is one lesson I learned in the writing of that tome that seems to me to have resonance in other circumstances, even ours now, perhaps.

That is: Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship was a disaster—but not an inevitable one.

He certainly did his part to reach that pinnacle, but there were literally dozens of points at which he could have been stopped – even up to the last months and weeks. The outcome turned on many factors of course, but certainly among them were the inaction of those who might have defended the German republic throughout its troubled birth and early years; and then, at the end, the disastrous folly of those who were trying to destroy it for their own ends – and hoped to turn Hitler to their purposes.

From which I conclude:

It doesn’t only require active, purposeful malice to incinerate a civil society (h/t Balloon Juice). Aloof disdain and especially pure self-interested stupidity act as accelerants to the bonfire. (I had a couple of links there – but I don’t want to Godwinize this post, so fill in the blanks as you will).

Remember January 30.

(If you want a little more on the background to the tragedy or errors that propelled Hitler to power, go to the jump for an excerpt from my bookthat talks a little bit about the disastrous choices made by a range of German political actors in the early thirties that created the opening Hitler took. There is a lot more to the story, in versions written by many others, of course – but this gives a bitter taste of the events in question.)

Image: Brandenburg Gate Quadriga at night. Photo by Johann Gottfried Schadow, used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

Update: tweaked a little for readability (horrible word).