Monday, May 09, 2005

Hitler in Chains: 60th Anniversary

[This is an exercise in counterfactual history. What might have happened if Hitler had been captured? I combined issues that occurred after WWI with those after WWII, added in some fantastic elements. Enjoy, ponder, criticize – but remember, it’s just a big “what-if”.]

The Allies did not expect to capture Adolf Hitler, and had no plans for him had he been captured. Late on May 9, 1945 soldiers found him in his bunker, sitting quietly. The film footage of the handcuffed dictator being led away was flown across the Atlantic and shown in theaters almost immediately. At the time it was the ultimate symbol of German defeat, but no one knew the chaos it would cause.

At his trial, Hitler held nothing back. He spoke openly about his intentions: the invasion of Poland, the displacement of Slavs, the killing of Jews, etc. He gesticulated effusively as he spoke for hours without break. The military tribunal failed to restrain his oratories and keep him on subject.

The testimony that came out of the trial, which was broadcasted over the radio by the military, sparked civil unrest. Germans had long ago abandoned the Fuehrer, fighting the war for their own reasons rather than his. When news spread that he had been arrested and would be put on trial, no Germans dared, or tried, to protest. Sentiment had shifted against him: he was a failure.

As the trial approached, apprehension mounted over what Hitler might say. Germans feared that because of Hitler’s words, the public in the Allied nations would demand heavy indemnities. A few politicians – mostly Socialist who had returned from exile – suggested that Hitler should be punished by the German legislature (yet to be formed) rather than by a military tribunal (which operated on new legal ground).

On the stand, however, Hitler implicated everyone. With verve and force he argued that he waged a war that the Germans wanted. The persuasive words he used to rise to power provided fodder for the American newspapers, which quote Hitler at length. Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) drew an editorial cartoon, in which German mothers look on at Hitler with big grins, saying, “That’s my boy!”

The German public was furious. Not knowing how the judges weighed his testimony, they thought the worst of the tribunal and the Allies in general. In early 1947 shopkeepers, bureaucrats and demobilized soldiers protested against the “show trials”. In Berlin the Red Army fired on a crowd of unemployed factory workers who demanded Hitler’s speedy execution. Movement in and out of the area around Nurnberg was prohibited.

However, the protesters turned against each other by March. Several politicians latched onto the trial as a political issue, casting suspicion on opponents. The blame game spread until different social groups and different territories were in conflict with one another. Hate crimes against Catholics increased. The assassination of a Bavarian priest caused a major uproar.

Eventually Germans were forced to confront their involvement in the war and the genocide. Hitler’s execution by hanging was not a lightning rod for controversy like his trial. Germans, individually and in groups, admitted their complacency and complicity, especially how they profited from the deportation of the Jews. Churches in Thuringia created special funds to pay for long term reparations to Nazi victims. In Mainz, Trier and Frankfurt the municipal governments set up special taxes on non-perishables.

Given the state of the German economy during these lean years, little money was actually collected. Jews, who chose to return, might receive large donations of goods that had been confiscated or bought at low cost, but for the most part reparations remained small and local. The need to make amends was heart-felt, but it increased general charity rather than benefitted victims.

The capture, trial and execution of Hitler turned into a new phase of German peculiarity. Germany broke apart, returning to the patchwork quilt of the eighteenth century. Today there are twenty-nine German states, confederated in the loosest sense. South Germany became the major power after Bavaria and parts of Wurttemberg joined Austria at the Munich Conference. Some border communities in the west seceded, casting their lot with Luxembourg.

The welfare state remained limited to those states where the SPD won clear majorities. In Catholic areas outside South Germany the Catholic Church took on a quasi-administrative role as the state’s social welfare apparatus. In Soviet areas the KPD enjoyed the support of a few large magnates in the chemical industries, nationalizing small to mid-size industries to support government programs (they could not afford the migration of large industry). Instead, the social capabilities of cities and towns became more important.

The major exception was in Greater Westphalia, which became a protectorate of the United Nations. The Allies wanted to profit from the coal and steel industries in the Ruhr Valley but feared that they would encourage and finance German militarism. Westphalian politicians, who could be described as Catholic liberals, and UN administrators (mostly from Netherlands and Belgium) proposed the welfare state as a means of gaining the support of the working class for the protectorate. The evolution of social programs has closely paralleled those in the Low Countries.

Because of the ongoing political instability the Allies put most of their resources into controlling territories and less into making economic improvements. America, Britain, and the Soviet Union feared that they might lose control of heavy weaponry by putting it in Central Europe. Perhaps for this reason the Cold War played out in the Third World.

Economic support was meager. Although financial support was promised, little was offered. Germany was a risky investment. Consequently, German states shifted to economies based on agriculture and small industries. Agrarian parties became politically prominent.

Their greatest achievement was the European Agricultural Community, a strong federation of agrarian states in central and southern Europe. South German Catholics reached out to counterparts in Italy and southern France, emphasizing rural values against cosmopolitanism; its leadership in the EAC has allowed South Germany to influence the affairs of the other German states.

If Germans abandoned economic modernity, they embraced cultural modernity, reversing the trend of the nineteenth century. Few of the buildings destroyed in allied bombings were rebuilt. Saying “leave the rubble to the archeologists”, architects projected a bold image of a global avant garde led by Germans. (They have been accused of overcompensation, which if you look at their buildings, is true.)


At 7:15 AM, Blogger Jonathan Dresner said...

Nice stuff -- love the Geisel touch. I think there's a bit of post-Iraq and post-Yugoslavia in this scenario as well. I'm not sure I buy the breakup of Germany, frankly, but I do agree that the active disjunction between Hitler's stated goals and plans and the realities of which many people only became fully aware after the war would have produced quite a shock.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Perhaps I did go to far with that angle. However, I think that in such a situation, the political alliance of Catholics and Protestants would not have emerged, and it might have complicated the transformation of post-war German identity. Perhaps I should have thought more about the Yugsolav example. Thanks for the comments!

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Justine said...

So many NAZIs after the war publicly declared that they were swept up in it all, never really shared the ideology, were overawhed by the Fuhrer. Perhaps Hitler would have said that he just got a bit carried away, and that it was the nations's fault for encouraging him? (just musing)

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Justine, this is a good question, and I obviously don't know. Even the notion that Hitler could have survived is hypothetical in the extreme, given his use of operatic (read Wagnerian) references. I considered whether or not he would deny his involvement (few directives can be clearly attributed to him with regard to the Holocaust, and he often gave metaphorical commands that his generals "understood").

The problem lies in his use of language. Hitler could use inflammatory language in his speeches, but often stopped short of laying out concrete plans. THis was his style, something that he honed in order to appease the German bourgeoisie. The Holocaust, if we look at his words, was always a metaphor.

I feel that he would not uphold the artifice of metaphor given the conditions I imagined. He would try to use his trial to encourage resistance.


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