Friday, December 14, 2012

Life was GOOD in the Third Reich

Seriously, it was. Obviously, it wasn't if you were Jewish, or Romani, or openly gay, a Jehovah's Witness or disabled. But how many people are we talking about here? The population of "greater" Germany, including Bohemia, Moravia, Prussia, etc., was 87.1 million people in 1939. The 1939 census of the Reich counted 318,000 Jews, including people deemed to have Jewish blood who would not be counted under Jewish law. Propaganda of the day estimated their numbers at closer to 1.5 million. There were something like 30,000 Romani living in Germany at the time. The number of homosexuals in Germany is difficult to determine, but it's estimated that up to 15,000 homosexuals were sent to the camps. Jehovah's Witnesses were banned, and some were sent to the camps; there were about 25,000 JW's in Germany. It's estimated that about 70,000 disabled were put to death by the Reich. So the persecuted population of Germany would be approximately 458,000 people. For good measure lets double that: 916,000 people. That's 1% of the population of Germany in 1939.

We never think about the 99%. We think about the 1% who died horribly, in a methodical program of extermination, and well we should. But if I asked you, "What was life actually like in Germany under the Third Reich?" you would probably talk about cattle cars, and gas chambers, and forced labor camps. If the experience of the 1% is what life was actually like, then life in America is all about flying private jets to Paris for a romantic breakfast of caviar and champagne. But no, I didn't ask about the 1%. I asked about the 99%. What was life like in Germany for the 99%?

You can get a glimpse of the answer in Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free. But the broad outlines are obvious: 99% of Germans never stepped onto a cattle car, never looked out through barbed wire, were never interrogated by the Gestapo or hauled off to Berlin, and certainly never died in a gas chamber. For 99% of Germans, life under Hitler in 1940 was no different than life under Friedrich Ebert in 1920. In fact it was immensely better! Under Ebert they experienced a hyperinflation so severe that the paper Mark in 1924 was worth one trillionth of its value in 1918. Under the Third Reich, the government resisted the urge to devalue the currency and so kept inflation in check. Hitler's nationalism inspired the ordinary German, not because the ordinary German was a homicidal maniac, but because he was sick and tired of being held completely to blame for WWI, of being forced to pay ruinous WWI reparations, of watching the plight of Sudeten Germans under Czech rule, etc.

In short, hyperinflation was a thing of the past. Reparations, an immense national debt, were repudiated. Guilt over WWI was repudiated, and Germans--the 99% of Germans we're talking about here--felt pride in their nation. Unemployment was down from 30% in 1932, to full employment in 1936, to a labor shortage in 1938. Economically, life in the Third Reich was the best it had been since before WWI.

And remember, these 99% never saw the inside of a concentration camp. They knew that Jews were being "resettled," but the "final solution" was not publicized, and certainly not any of the gory details. No German needed to think about where the trains were headed, once they left the station. The ordinary German was shielded from these horrors, and could easily live in denial that they were going on at all.

Similarly, we imagine Germans being challenged constantly with, "Ihre papiere, bitte!" But did they perceive this as the proof that they lived in a police state? Ask an American, who produces his driver's license on demand for police, who shows identification and removes his shoes and belt before boarding a plane, who shows his passport to return from Canada or Mexico, and who applauds the movement to demand proof of citizenship from hispanics, or the practice by New York City police of randomly stopping and searching people without probable cause. Ask this American whether he lives in a police state; it's obvious how he will answer. These measures are there to protect us from "terrorists," and "illegals," and "gang bangers"! Showing our papers doesn't make us any less free--in fact it's the price we pay for our great freedom. Just so, the Germans thought they were free.

Life was good, for Germans in the Third Reich. For 99% of them, anyway. If any chicken little should object that they were living in a police state, they could rightfully scoff. "Have you ever been taken to Berlin, or loaded on a train, or gassed?" No, of course not. "Has any relative or friend of yours experienced any of these things?" No, most likely not. "So how can you call this a police state?" Germans got up in the morning, went to work, went to the pub, came home, and went to bed. For most Germans, there was no visible sign of a police state, anywhere they looked.

I've been asked before whether I've ever been spirited away to Guantanamo, or tortured, or held without charges, or killed by a drone. I can honestly say I haven't. Nobody I know has experienced any of these things. I've been frisked, rather intimately, in airports; I've had my electronic communication monitored (as has everyone else, whether they realize it or not); I've had to get a passport so I can visit Canada or Mexico; every package I've ever ordered from China or Israel has arrived opened; all of these things are true. But that's just the price of freedom--those measures are all for my own good.

What I wonder is, if the United States were ever to become a police state, how would we know?