Adolf Hitler

The avatar of fascism posed the century's greatest threat to democracy and redefined the meaning of evil forever

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And yet. There are, in all these givens, elements that escape us. How did this unstable paranoid find it within himself to impose gigantic hope as an immutable ideal that motivated his nation almost until the end? Would he have come to power if Germany were not going through endless economic crises, or if the winners in 1918 had not imposed on it conditions that represented a national humiliation against which the German patriotic fiber could only revolt?

We would be wrong to forget: Hitler came to power in January 1933 by the most legitimate means. His Nationalist Socialist Party won a majority in the parliamentary elections. The aging Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had no choice but to allow him, at age 43, to form the new government, marking the end of the Weimar Republic. And the beginning of the Third Reich, which, according to Hitler, would last 1,000 years.

From that moment on, events cascaded. The burning of the Reichstag came only a little before the openings of the first concentration camps, established for members of the opposition. Fear descended on the country and squeezed it in a vise. Great writers, musicians and painters went into exile to France and the U.S. Jews with foresight emigrated toward Palestine. The air of Hitler's Germany was becoming more and more suffocating. Those who preferred to wait, thinking that the Nazi regime would not last, could not last, would regret it later, when it was too late.

The fact is that Hitler was beloved by his people--not the military, at least not in the beginning, but by the average Germans who pledged to him an affection, a tenderness and a fidelity that bordered on the irrational. It was idolatry on a national scale. One had to see the crowds who acclaimed him. And the women who were attracted to him. And the young who in his presence went into ecstasy. Did they not see the hateful mask that covered his face? Did they not divine the catastrophe he bore within himself?

Violating the Treaty of Versailles, which limited the German army to 100,000 men, Hitler embarked on a rearmament program of massive scale: fighter planes, tanks, submarines. His goal? It was enough to read Mein Kampf, written in prison after the abortive coup of 1923 in Munich, to divine its contours: to become, once again, a global superpower, capable and desirous of reconquering lost territory, and others as well.

And the free world let it happen.

His army entered the Rhineland in 1936. A tangible reaction from France and Britain would have led to his fall. But since nothing happened, Hitler played on the "cowardice" of democratic principles. That cowardice was confirmed by the shameful Munich Agreement, by which France and Britain betrayed their alliance with Czechoslovakia and abandoned it like a dead weight. At every turn, Hitler derided his generals and their lack of audacity. In 1939 he stupefied the entire world by reaching a nonaggression pact with Stalin. Though they had never met, the two dictators appeared to get along perfectly; it was said that a sort of empathy existed between them. Poland paid the price of this unnatural "friendship"; cut in two, it ceased to exist as a state.

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