Authority and Leadership in Germany
“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face-to-face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” ~ Remarque, All Quite on the Western Front.
Germany in the time preceding World War I was a country that considered itself marginalized and in possession of limited power. Those who headed the government determined that the only way to turn this small country into a world power would be to engage in aggressive actions toward the rest of Europe. In order to get the people of Germany behind them, the government of Germany began a campaign of propaganda that would play on the German people’s sense of nationalistic pride to commit acts of violence. War is not government policy or which man is morally superior. Rather it is a small platoon of men who are trying to kill or be killed by another small platoon who is only a matter of yards away. This lesson was unfortunately not learned well enough after the First World War ended and Germany engaged in warfare against the western world once more, resulting in the death of six million Jews and many other innocent people as depicted in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Patriotism, according to Remarque is born at the fireside and dies on the battlefield and charismatic leaders with wicked intent can abuse patriotism to propagate and further acts of evil; the leaders who are chosen will determine the fate of the nation.
In the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, author Erich Maria Remarque writes a story about the fallacy of patriotism. His protagonist heads out to fight in the First World War on the side of Germany, firmly indoctrinated by the idea that his duty is in the fight and that the Germans are morally right in their cause. He learns that what happens on the battlefield is nothing like what happens in the classroom. There were two forms of nationalism that pervaded the country of Germany both during World War I and then in World War II (National). The first form was the desire of subjected or objectified people to gain independence from oppression. When a people feel that they have been oppressed by a bigger government or another country’s power, it is a common occurrence that these peoples will decide to revolt against their oppressive government or their international enemy in the attempt to gain autonomy. The second form of nationalism is the desire of an independent nation to attain power through domination of other countries and to grow their power base in this manner. Following the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s, Germany became a united country with a strong economy and possessed a large military force and led to Germany’s position as a world power in Europe. In the period from 1890 until the beginning of World War I, Germany took on an aggressive attitude towards neighboring European countries and began a campaign of domination. The war officially began on June 22, 1914 when the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. German officials used the incident to spur the Austrians into war with the Yugoslavs and pledged support. The leaders of Germany were all similar in character such as the fictional example presented in Remarque’s novel.
The main character of All Quiet on the Western Front is Paul Baumer, a young German man who believes too much in what he has been told by his government. He meets his military superior and explains, “The leader of our group, shrewd, cunning, and hard-bitten, forty years of age, with a face of the soil, blue eyes, bent shoulders, and a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs” (Remarque 2). While the grunts were expected to fight in the dirt and offer themselves mind and body to the cause, those in positions of power used the war to further their own ends, safe in the knowledge that they themselves were safe from the trenches. Germany’s involvement in World War I began on August 3rd of 1914 when the country declared war on France, claiming the French had infringed on German territory.
The people of Germany almost unanimously supported the war. The propaganda had them believing that Germany had been forced into war by outside forces. In the universities, students were encouraged to sign up and fight on behalf of the German nation. This unfortunate truth was seen in All Quite on the Western Front. At one point, Erich Remarque writes:
For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturityâ€¦to the futureâ€¦in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirsâ€¦The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces (6).
The reality experienced by those who went to war could not be equated to the propaganda. Those who went to war could no longer believe that Germany was better off for going to fight or that the nationalistic ideals had anything to do with this death.
The leadership of Germany did not fare better after the First World War. Determined to rebuild itself both to its citizens and to the world at large, the people allowed the National Socialist (Nazi) Party to take control of the German government and elected one Adolf Hitler to lead Germany into a new promised golden age. The Holocaust is one of the most horrific periods of world history and it is still so confusing to people exactly what happened and why. Adolf Hitler was a horrible man who was determined to turn the world into a graveyard. His actions are explainable in that he was looking for a scapegoat, a group on which he could blame all Germany’s problems. Before him, Europe had a long history of anti-Semitism and distrust of the Jewish people. He was not the first leader who tried to use this group in such a way. However, he was adamant not just about the expulsion of Jews, but of their complete annihilation.
Somehow, Adolf Hitler convinced the people of Germany that he was a just leader and convinced men in the military and in his secret service that the extermination of the Jewish people was a fair and logical solution to the country’s economic problems. After the war, many people who had worked or been otherwise involved in the concentration camps and the genocide used the excuse that they themselves were not responsible for their actions because they were “just following orders.” Some claimed they were acting out of fear for their own lives if they disobeyed and others unemotionally stated that they were following the orders of a leader who they believed in and thus it was the leader who was to blame if those orders were morally or ethically wrong. The leaders of Germany decided that to be Jewish was to be an enemy of the state, even more dangerous than spies. This does not make sense as Primo Levi discusses in his book. When he was taken into custody, he tried to make his captors identify him as a Jew in the belief that it would give him less punishment than being a political dissident (Levi 13). Such an action would be logical only if Levi were dealing with logical people. The leadership of Germany during World War II shows that one does not need to be logical to be in positions of power.
Evidence given by Holocaust survivors, such as Primo Levi, shows that although they themselves were ordered by an evil man, the leaders of the camps were nonetheless themselves capable of vicious action. Those in power at the camp would “be cruel and tyrannical, because he will understand that if he is not sufficiently so, someone else, judged more suitable, will take over his post” (Levi 91). Within Germany during this period, cruelty and bloodlust became a characteristic to be admired so long as those emotions were focused to the populations within the concentration and death camps. This horrific period in world history indicates exactly what can happen if a leader is given unquestioned power. Sometimes, power is granted to a man who will prove to be ill-fit for such a position as is the case with Hitler. However, what is all the more terrifying a thought is that despite the fact that so many claimed to understand that the Fuhrer was an inhuman monster and unimaginably evil, they still followed orders.
In Germany over the course of two wars, the government tried to convince the people that they had a destiny, that the German people were predestined by God to become a world power. Consequently, men would have to fight and some would have to die, but it was for the greater good. The men who sacrificed themselves did so for Germany and for the generations that would come. The ideology was believed by those who took up arms. That is until the young men got on the battlefield. Believing in the greater Germany did not stop bullets from invading their bodies nor did it stop them from experiencing mental fatigue and devastation. The moral that Remarque was trying to impart on his readership was that propaganda and ideology is for peacetime. Those who fight are too concerned with survival to worry about the moral right or the propagation of the Fatherland.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: If this is a Man. New York, NY: Touchstone, 2007. Print.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.
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