Posted tagged ‘Nazis’

Historical complexities

June 4, 2009

Today, June 4, marks the anniversary of the death in 1941 of the last German Kaiser (Emperor), Wilhelm II. Born in 1859 of a German father (Prince Friedrich Wilhelm) and an English mother (Princess Victoria), he was the grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain – apparently her favourite grandson, at her bedside when she died. He became Kaiser in 1888, and ruled Germany until his abdication at the end of the First World War in November 1918. For the rest of his life he lived in exile in the Netherlands, where he died in 1941, ironically when the Netherlands were under Nazi German occupation.

The view of Wilhelm in European history is not flattering. Acknowledged as intelligent and skilled, he was however regarded as weak and, on the whole, unequal to the task that fell on him due to his birth. Shortly after becoming Kaiser he dismissed the wily Bismarck, and what followed in German politics was often confusing and sometimes belligerent. In most European history books Wilhelm, with his craving for German naval power in particular, is portrayed as a warmonger who caused the First World War. He lost power when the German people, tired of a war they were not winning, started to rebel, after he had already lost real power to the generals.

It would not occur to me to suggest an alternative view of history, and I am certainly no advocate for German monarchy or imperialism. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Wilhelm was not the cartoon villain as which he was portrayed during and after the First World War. He was almost certainly out of his depth, but not evil. Some of his early actions, for example, included the repeal of Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, and during the 1930s he made clear his dislike of the Nazis after they had assumed power. On the day of the anti-Jewish pogroms of of the Kristallnacht in 1938 he expressed his shame at being German. In 1940, as the German army was advancing into the Netherlands, he was offered (and after consideration turned down) asylum in Britain by Churchill, declaring that as the Dutch had been good to him he would not desert them in their crisis.

The events of the early 20th century were more complex than popular history sometimes claims, and it may perhaps be argued that a failure to recognise those complexities contributed to the climate in which fascism in Europe could grow and flourish. The need to bathe history in propaganda, which is often felt just after crisis points in international relations, should subside over time. It may be good to review the life and times of Wilhelm II more dispassionately., without of course overlooking the things he did which caused or contributed to human suffering; but in the latter he was certainly not alone.

The dangers of recession

February 22, 2009

I recently came across a political pamphlet which had been distributed at a mass rally. A key passage in the pamphlet ran as follows:

“The end of capitalism is imminent. It has been caused by the natural greed of the owners of capital, and by the reckless behaviour of the banking system, pushing people and firms into excessive debt, and seeking unearned and scandalous personal benefits for the bankers. Capitalism is dead, and we will help to bury it. “

The whole pamphlet was full of righteous indignation about the unacceptable nature of the capitalist system and the pain that its troubles were inflicting on working people; it ended by advocating a popular uprising that would take financial institutions into public ownership and force them to work for the people, rather than for greedy businessmen.

It may be interesting to say a little more about the origins of this pamphlet. First of all, this was not written as a response to current events, it was dated October 1932. Secondly, it was written in German (the above is my translation). And finally, right on the front cover we learn that it was published by the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany, the Nazis. And of course we know that whatever they wanted to do about the events they described, within about three months they were in a position to do it, and much more besides. What followed were some of the most horrific years in human history.

I am of course not suggesting that all those have been attacking capitalism in response to recent developments are in reality fascists. But dramatic economic crises bring all sorts of dangers in their wake, particularly where these crises are accompanied by an erosion of confidence in the key organisational structures of the economy and the political establishment. The conditions today are still, thankfully, nowhere near what they were in the late Weimar Republic, but it is still worth remembering that the risks we run are not just economic and financial.

What is worrying right now is the continuing growth of cynicism and anger, and the strong desire evinced in various public commentary to see someone ‘punished’ for the mismanagement that has been evident. Of course we need a vision and a plan. But as I have suggested before, this needs to be effectively communicated to the wider population. There is much to do, and the time for doing it is now.