While I haven’t yet begun reading any of my snags from the local book store (discussed in the last Dispatches from Kowtown post), I have been doing plenty of research online. Right now I am particularly fascinated by two prominent Nazis, Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher.
Röhm was a true career soldier. A born head-buster, he had participated as a militiaman in the State’s violent suppression of a would-be Communist revolution in Munich, and the city thereafter became the hotspot for right-wingers, racists and grumpy, hateful jackasses of all sorts, including Hitler himself. Later Röhm joined–and later still became leader of–the Nazis’ then fledgling armed unit, the Sturm-Abteilung (SA) or Storm Division. Yes, these were the infamous Brown Shirts, predecessors of the Schutzstaffel (SS) which eventually supplanted them.
By the time Hitler and his party were fixtures and rising stars of the German government, Röhm’s SA–several million strong at this point–which had helped secure Hitler’s power had become a hindrance rather than a help to Hitler’s goal of becoming supreme commander of Germany. The SA was essentially a powerful but undisciplined terrorist organization, and their activities threatened to push Bavaria into outright anarchy, which Prussian-German President Hindenburg vowed to suppress under martial law, which would’ve effectively ended Hitler’s chance of becoming supreme commander. Thus, the SA as such had to go, and Hitler and his other top leaders devised a plan to demolish the entire leadership of the SA by gathering them all under false pretenses in one place and arresting and then executing them in an event later known as the Night of the Long Knives.
What’s most interesting to me about Röhm is that he was a homosexual and quite open about it, as was most of the SA leadership, in fact. Hitler tolerated this at first because the SA served his brutal ends without question. There is even some speculation that Hitler himself, another ex-soldier, may have been in a secret relationship with Röhm. Indeed, they were such close friends that Röhm was the only known Nazi leader to get away with calling Hitler by his first name rather than by the proper designation of “Mein Führer.” However, there is no absolute proof of this. Whatever the case, Hitler hated the prospect of eliminating his old friend and only did so when several of Hitler’s underlings accused Röhm and the SA–probably falsely–of plotting a coup against the aspiring dictator.
So Ernst Röhm, as a prominent representative of the Nazi party, ostensibly stood against whatever the Nazis deemed immoral behavior, including homosexual sex. Meanwhile, Röhm himself and most of his top compatriots were getting it on with each other!
Streicher, although never directly involved in the extermination of the Jews, arguably did more harm to the image of the Jew in Europe than anyone else, most prominently through his propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer which was almost entirely devoted to attacking Jews. Streicher also used his publishing venue to produce anti-Semitic books, including children’s books, some of which he wrote himself. A particularly atrocious example of this is Der Giftpilz (The Toadstool), which painted Jews as murderers, rapists, child molesters and criminals of all sorts and also linked them firmly to the rise of Communism.
And again, the most interesting thing about Streicher is his personal life. Like many ultraconservatives, he was a raging hypocrite. After WWI he became an elementary schoolteacher and was known to have a taste for young adolescent girls. He was also a flagrant philanderer, a thief and even (according to one court case) a child murderer, a crime he escaped punishment for by pinning it on a lieutenant who had supposedly just died by suicide. Hmmm . . . So, as Streicher used his paper as a bully pulpit–literally–to scapegoat Jews by accusing them of all sorts of criminal behavior and immorality, he was himself screwing women and teenage girls, stealing, and was very nearly convicted of murdering a child. And that’s just what we know about through records. Because he also held the important position of Nazi Gauleiter, the head of the regional branch of the party, a position that conferred on him an almost unlimited degree of power, it is likely that many of Streicher’s more heinous activities were outright suppressed.
Although never assassinated like Röhm, Streicher’s shameful behavior eventually became such a thorn in Hitler’s side that he had Streicher stripped of his leadership position and real political power, leaving him merely to continue publishing his inflammatory rag. He would eventually be convicted as a war criminal during the Nuremberg Trials and hanged though.
These two men are prime examples of the fact that fascists and moral bigots are quite often guilty of projection. How better to cover up your own socially unacceptable behavior than to accuse some vulnerable and already disliked or distrusted ‘out group’ of the same offenses, thus directing scrutiny away from yourself? I suspect that many of history’s greatest tragedies have at their heart just these kinds of psychological cover-ups and insecurities. We humans can go to great lengths to quell our cognitive dissonance, including that caused by any unpopular tastes and behaviors on our part. This can manifest in a variety of ways, but one of the main ones is through scapegoating. Another is violence. It seems often to be the case that the most puritanical cultures manifest these traits, and the most puritanical members of those cultures are the worst culprits of all.
Invariably the catalyst for such actions is fear–fear of others, and fear of themselves. In the Germany of the 1920s and early 1930s, great change was happening very quickly. The Weimar era brought to Germany a republican government. And moreover, the Industrial Revolution caused an urban explosion, which in turn led to changing social and sexual mores, a fact that frightened many in Deutschland, a nation that had long been a place of tradition and conservatism. After all, it was Germany which gave birth to Martin Luther and his no-nonsense, back-to-basics brand of theology that came to dominate in northeastern Europe. After the First World War, because of Germany’s debts and high inflation, there was also the ever-looming dread of financial collapse, not to mention fear that Germany could become another Communist state like Russia. In addition to fear, there was also anger over their loss in WWI and the rules imposed on them by the winners which included reparation costs and limits to the size of their standing army. The Jews, a once-nomadic people who were increasingly playing a part in German life, were a visible and easy target to which to attach the blame for all of Germany’s problems, real or perceived.
Philosopher and historian Eric Hoffer, who wrote extensively on fascist psychology and the rise of fascistic states, once said, “You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.” I would go so far as to extend that by saying that you can discover what your enemy is hiding about himself by what he accuses you of.