This is Part II of my Poland series based on our recent trip. Part I consisted of some early to mid-twentieth century history which helps as background for my impressions.
# 1: The United States played a larger role in Hitler’s rise to power than I had realized.
The United States and Hitler
I was taught in school that Hitler could have been stopped by a strong League of Nations, and the League lacked power because the United States refused membership. Congress decided to return the U.S. to an isolationist position following World War I.
It’s a reasonable assumption that Nazi Germany would not have been able to flaunt the terms of the Treaty of Versailles so completely if the League of Nations had included the U.S., but it’s not a certainty. It is well accepted, however, that Hitler rose to power on a wave of economic hardship and dissatisfaction with the established leadership.
The citizens of any region will be unhappy with their government if they believe they are being treated unfairly. They will support a leader who shares their frustrations publicly, especially if he or she promises to fix those problems. This may happen on the continental, national, state or local level, and rural and metropolitan areas will often have different feelings about certain situations because they have different cost-benefit considerations.
Today in the U.S., for example, there are ethanol fuel mandates. Farmers, seed companies, ethanol distillers, and politicians with rural districts like them because they produce demand, moderate pricing and generate votes. Car owners (lower gas mileage & higher corrosion) and people with high corn-based diets (Latin Americans and their descendants in the U.S.) don’t.
But what if it’s not just one region or one industry that believes it is being treated unjustly? What if it’s an entire nation? If almost all people in a country feel that they are victims – and the current leaders accept the status quo – a person who promises a way out of the untenable situation may win the right to lead. That’s true even if he or she is considered extreme by the “establishment” and the media.
Donald Trump’s popularity seems to fit this description, but he’s no Hitler and today’s U.S. is not 1930’s Germany. Trump’s proclaimed injustices are not universally accepted by those in the United States. These include illegal immigration, free trade agreements, a burdensome tax code, loss of manufacturing jobs, unreasonable treatment of Muslims (for Trump, this means that it’s unreasonable not to treat them as potentially dangerous because of their faith), etc. In post World War I Germany, on the other hand, the Treaty of Versailles was considered unjust by almost everyone, including those who insisted that Germany adhere to its dictates.
There were several portions of the treaty which offended Germans, but the huge financial payments to the winning powers (reparations) affected life most dramatically. The economy was struggling after the war. France, the United Kingdom and other countries put high tariffs on imports from Germany in order to protect domestic manufacturing jobs which they felt were threatened by low German prices. So Germany wasn’t able to use exports to improve their economy and raise the money for the required payments to France and the other injured parties.
The German government felt their only option was to print huge sums of paper money to pay for reparations and government services. As a result, the German currency lost value rapidly. Hyperinflation was so bad that the German people were forced to spend all their money as soon as it was received because the its buying power would be considerably less within hours.
And then there was the Great Depression. Like the recession of 2008-2009, it resulted from risky lending practices by banks, primarily those in the United States. When the shock of the October 1929 stock market crash hit, a large number of banks went out of business and the populace lost their own money. They couldn’t buy much of anything because they didn’t have currency; businesses went bankrupt, the depression deepened and unemployment soared. The Great Depression hit the U.S. very hard.
One of the first actions taken by the federal government at the start of the Depression was to recall the loans made to Germany. This was a devastating blow to a struggling German economy and led to even more pain and strife for its citizens. Unemployment skyrocketed and millions were out of work.
Adolf Hitler was a dynamic speaker who appealed to the disenfranchised, especially the unemployed, young people and members of the middle class who felt they were falling behind. (This makes me think of Donald Trump again.) He promised to return Germany to its prestigious position on the world stage and the Nazi party won the largest number of seats in the Reichstag (German parliament) in the November 1932 elections. The party went from 3% of the Reichstag in 1924 – five years into the hated Treaty of Versailles restrictions – to 33% in 1932 as a result of the hardship brought on by the Depression. Hitler became chancellor in January 1933.
The U.S. banking system is largely at fault for causing the Great Depression, although many wealthy Americans also behaved poorly. The federal government also recalled the loans it had made to Germany. These factors certainly contributed to the Nazi’s 1,000% increase in Reichstag seats from 1924 to 1932, and to Hitler’s rise to power.
While a more powerful League of Nations and/or a determined United States may have acted as a strong deterrent to Hitler’s actions once he became chancellor, the Great Depression mired the U.S. in its own problems and the rest of the world became less of a priority. Consequently, the Nazi party took universal actions which lessened the German people’s shame and humiliation as written into the Treaty of Versailles, and Hitler’s power and Germany’s military might grew in tandem.
World War II may not have happened if:
1. The Treaty of Versailles had not been so punitive for Germany,
2. France and the U.K. had not imposed high tariffs on imports from Germany,
3. The League of Nations had more power to stop German actions that were in opposition to the Treaty of Versailles,
4. U.S. banks and wealthy Americans had not caused the Great Depression,
5. The United States had not called in loans made to Germany at the beginning of the depression, or
6. The U.S. and/or the United Kingdom had taken an aggressive stance against German aggressions
Other nations share the blame for allowing Hitler to run amok, so to speak, but the U.S. had more to do with it than I had realized.