Nazi Germany – radicalisation of a nation
Despite the recent downfall of the Islamic State, the term radicalisation is still largely associated with religious extremism. In The sexual radicalisation of Elliot Rodger, I wrote that religion is only one of several possible ‘radicalisation narratives’. Others include sex (Elliot Rodger), race (2015 Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof) and a combination of race and politics (Nazi Germany).
In that post I also described how people who become radicalised follow an eight-stage emotional process beyond a point of no return to reach a place devoid of empathy for their supposed enemies and where violence is perceived as the only solution to their problems.
In this post I’d like to examine something I hadn’t thought of before—how this eight-stage emotional process, which often maps closely to the behaviour of radicalised individuals, maps against the collective psyche of the German nation as it became radicalised in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The origins of German radicalisation can be traced back to victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany in 1871. The new nation saw itself as the latecomer in the scramble for empire and craved a German equivalent to British India. But too many of the white spaces on the world map had already been claimed by their adversaries; they had been denied a place at the European ‘top table’. This led Germany’s embryonic national psyche to experience the first of the eight emotional stages of radicalisation: discrimination.
Germany’s territorial ambitions led to the founding of the German East Africa Company in 1884, which became a fully-fledged colony the following year. But German ambitions of a major empire in Africa were never realised, pushing their radicalisation to the second stage: frustration.
World War 1
Thwarted in Africa, Germany turned to Eastern Europe as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914 gave Germany the pretext it wanted to attack the moribund Russian Empire. But the war didn’t go to plan. By the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17 food was scarce and expensive. Needing a scapegoat, ‘Jewish speculators’ were blamed for withholding supplies to profit from German misery. This engendered a sense of victimisation in Germany’s wounded national psyche.
Next came the crucial fourth emotional stage of radicalisation: humiliation. It is perhaps the most powerful force acting on the human spirit, the one thing that is truly unbearable and pressures us into lashing out. The Free Dictionary defines humiliation as an act of degradation. The Germans could stand losing the war. They could stand making reparations to the Allies. What they couldn’t stand was Article 231 of the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty, the ‘war guilt clause’ that laid the blame for the ‘war to end all wars’ solely at their feet.
After that Germany went into free fall. Its twin grievances—lack of space and profiteering by a rootless international Jewry—festered along with a sense of unrealised superiority. Geography professor Karl Haushofer coined the term lebensraum, ‘living room’. Hans F. K. Günther’s The Knight, Death and the Devil (1919) posited the Aryans as the master race and inspired the creator of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.
In Himmler’s Crusade, Christopher Hale describes the result: ‘Germany’s catastrophic defeat and humiliation after 1918 had completely transformed nationalist passions. The state itself seemed defiled by the incompetence of politicians and their abject capitulation, and this conviction prompted the secret crystallization of a new kind of Reich, an inner national soul separate from the normal workings of the state.’
The phrase ‘secret crystallization’ is needle-sharp. After being humiliated, the radicalised individual emerges as if from a chrysalis with a profound sense of aloneness and aloofness. So it was with Germany. All it needed was someone to draw together the strands of discontent. That someone was Adolf Hitler.
After being humiliated, the radicalised individual emerges as if from a chrysalis with a profound sense of aloneness and aloofness. So it was with Germany. All it needed was someone to draw together the strands of discontent. That someone was Adolf Hitler.
In the 1920s and 30s Germany hurtled through the maelstrom of stages five, six and seven of radicalisation: rejection, alienation and indoctrination. It turned its back on the world, culminating in its departure from the League of Nations in 1933. German national politics turned violent. The old order was overthrown; the radical politics of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party swept to power.
Hitler’s Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’) knitted together all the grievances that had festered in the German bosom since its unification into a single, cohesive vision. After half a century of reverses, Germany’s ‘inner national soul’ was receptive to his message. The exact mechanics can be found in Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. On 1 September 1939 Nazi forces entered both Poland and the eighth stage of radicalisation: perpetration.
I am clearly cherry-picking some of these data points. Yet there is an arc here, an emotional trajectory visible in Germany’s path from unification to the outbreak of World War 2. Growing resentment, isolation, aloofness, an unrecognised superiority, and an entitlement to violence to redress these intolerable insults.
This is the process of radicalisation, whether individual or collective. We should be wary whenever we see this combination of emotions.