Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short, indeed two-part series on the History Channel’s new series The World Wars. In the first part of our mini-series, we looked at the shortcomings of both “great man theory” history and misogyny. Here, we focus on a main theme of Episode 1 that we can’t quite live with: the radicalization theory.
We are told repeatedly that Hitler was radicalized by his experiences serving as a private in WWI. The same claim is made about Mussolini, but not as often, as he only makes two brief appearances. Both men, but especially Hitler, saw brutality, random violence, pointless and awful death, and other horrors of war, and then Hitler had to suffer through his country’s defeat and surrender (or, as he saw it, its sure victory and inexplicable surrender). All this changed him from an anonymous putz to a demonic fascist.
The problem with this is twofold: first, millions of soldiers had the same experience of the horrors of war but did not turn into monsters; and second, war horror is not a logical explanation for what Hitler became and did. Many men wrote about their horrible experiences in the war afterward. They all suffered in the same way Hitler did. Many of them questioned the social and political status quo, and gave up on religion. But they did not all become fascists overthrowing governments and using murder to establish power. So to repeatedly show Hitler taking in the horrors of war is not adequate as an explanation of his evil. There was something about Hitler’s mind and character that allowed him to drift into fascism, and while that something was present before the war, it really flowered after the war.
The best part of Episode 1, which is really well done, is the sequence after the war showing Hitler begging for work from the army and being sent to monitor a podunk political leftist group, mostly just to get him out of the army’s hair, and sitting there at the meetings, defensive and wary, until he begins to be drawn in, correcting the speakers’ arguments and becoming a leader. The response of the men at the meetings is very natural: here is a man who wants to stand up for Germany and assert its virtues and innocence of war guilt at a time when the whole world is making Germany a pariah among nations. Here is a man who has patriotism and confidence—two things that were very scarce in Germany after WWI—who makes us feel good about our own personal participation in the war and status as war veterans. He’s not suggesting holocaust at this point. He’s just asserting the right of Germans to be proud of being German. At that point, that was a radical but not morally repellent stance. It’s clear that Hitler progressed from this neutral status to his warped plans for a bigger and better Germany that involved the goals of patriotism driven to an illogical extreme of imperial conquest and genocide.
What shaped Hitler was not so much the war as its aftermath. If he had been selling fascism in the trenches he would have been rejected. But in the 1920s, there were men and women who were ready for radical ideas, and willing to be radicalized, as a sort of wild pendulum swing from overwhelming shame to unthinking pride, and all of it based on national identity turned into racial identity. Hitler was not interested in fascism in the trenches, and not even thinking about it when he first attended the political meetings. But he got the idea from the times after the war, and then his personal chemistry and mindset allowed him to take it to undreamed-of levels.
So we’re not buying the idea that The World Wars episode 1 so consistently urges on us, that it was war that made Hitler. It was peace: Hitler was radicalized by a peace he could not accept. If the war made Hitler, it should have made tens of thousands of Hitlers, all over the world, in England and France and the U.S., and perhaps Belgium in particular. Fascism should have swept the world and become the dominant form of government. There should never have been a WWII. Japan was on the Allied side in WWI, experienced no fighting on Japanese soil, suffered few causalities, and should therefore have been safe from fascism after the war. But that was not the case. The fascism that characterized the 1920s and 1930s was a force many decades in the making that was set free to grow in the despair and political chaos and opportunism of the postwar period.
We end our analysis of The World Wars here; we can’t hang on for two more episodes. But if you watch them, let us know. Send a comment and tell us what happened. We’re indebted to an HP reader for recommending we watch Episode 1. (The History Channel is not really on our radar, as it is rarely devoted to history.) We’d love to find out that the series improves, but we’ll leave it to you to let us know.