The Holocaust Began With Elections

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yad Vashem's Dr. Robert Rozett reminds us that Hitler exploited democracy to come to power. Elections alone do not mean a society protects the civil liberties of the individual, their dignity or even their right to life; but those values must be ingrained in society to prevent future crimes against humanity.

Eighty years ago, at a time of entrenched and worsening crisis, Adolf Hitler came to power advocating the politics of hatred, violence and fear. In the early 1930s Germany was still in the long drawn-out throes of its devastating defeat in the First World War. This was exacerbated by the deteriorating economic woes that struck Germany as hard as any of the nations of the globe. Despite this ongoing and deepening crisis, Hitler did not seize power through a putsch, as many believe, but was named chancellor by the ruling elite following freely held elections.

Hitler and his Nazi party received a plurality of votes in the last free elections for the Reichstag in the German Weimar Republic in November 1932. The Nazis occupied about a third of the seats as the country’s largest party. The Weimar Republic and the democratic system, which had been imposed upon Germany by the victors of the First World War, were never particularly popular among either the elites or much of the masses. By the early 1930s the democracy was greatly weakened through reliance on a special, constitutionally-mandated authority that had been granted the President, the aged Paul Von Hindenburg, and this authority allowed the circumvention of the legislative process. Wielding this power and anchored in the results of the last elections, Hindenburg and his coterie, led by Franz Von Papen, invited Hitler to become chancellor on January 30, 1933.

Hindenburg and Von Papen believed they could manipulate Hitler, giving the Nazis three ministerial positions out of ten, but Hitler quickly gained the upper hand and proved to be the master of manipulation. The Nazi onslaught against the Republic began when they set fire to the Reichstag building, blamed it on the Communists and proclaimed a national emergency in February 1933. To cope with the emergency, the Reichstag enacted special ruling powers for Hitler. This authority helped him consolidate his authoritarian regime. In the summer of 1934 Hindenburg passed away, whereupon Hitler assumed the mantle of president alongside that of chancellor. This spelled the completion of his drive to dictatorship and the end of all vestiges of democracy.

The rest is well known: How the Nazis persecuted all who opposed them in reality or imagination; and how they saved their most vitriolic hatred for their imagined and proclaimed arched enemy, the Jews. Ultimately not because of anything they had done, but, simply, because they were born Jews, millions of innocent people were sentenced to death. The Shoah remains the most palpable symbol of the criminal violence perpetrated in the name of ideology by Germany under Hitler and the Nazis during their twelve-year long regime.

Hitler’s ascent to power, in which the electoral process played a principal role, highlights several important ideas. Elections are not necessarily synonymous with democracy. In particular when they are held in a system that is not democratic, they can be manipulated by the powers that be for their own purposes. Elections by themselves do not necessarily mean that society embraces values that protect the civil liberties of the individual, their dignity or even their right to life. Indeed in the case of the Nazi rise to power, a large segment of the German electorate voted for a party that was fundamentally and overtly anti-democratic. The Nazis scoffed at all of the humanistic core values of the Enlightenment that are associated with democracy, and attributed them to Jewish machinations. From the first the Nazis were blatantly violent in both rhetoric and deed against those who opposed them in truth or imagination. Of course, not every person in Germany in early 1933 embraced Nazi politics, not even a majority. Nonetheless, enough supported them to enable Hitler and his followers to take hold and eventually embark on a murderous crusade that engulfed a large part of the world. This demonstrates that a majority is not necessary for the politics of hatred, violence and fear to come to the fore, only a critical mass.

Eighty years after the Nazi rise to power our world is still beset by numerous crises and the politics of hatred, violence and fear are alive and well in many places. The proliferation and teaching of hatred and fear, and the consecration of violence, remain ubiquitous, especially in the traditional and new media, as well as in schools and even places of worship. Thus it remains essential that we understand that elections alone are far from enough to ensure that government will be fair-minded and just. Teaching the values of respect, human dignity, tolerance and pluralism, must go hand in hand with the electoral process. It is only when these values are immutably ingrained in the fabric of society that we may ensure that freedom and justice truly hold sway, and that the politics of the kind that enabled the Nazis to perpetrate crimes against humanity and the Shoah will flourish no more.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts (Vallentine Mitchell, 2005) and Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, soon be published by Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska Press. 

AP