Adolf Hitler’s On-Going Popularity with Students
In Stephen King’s story Apt Pupil, an intelligent high school student becomes fascinated with Hitler and the Third Reich while researching a school project. His fascination turns into obsession and ultimately awakens within him the “dark side” of human evil. Although Hitler died over sixty years ago, he still elicits interest, especially among students writing history research papers. To what can this fascination be attributed?
The Realities of the Third Reich
When Ingrid Piehl came to the United States as an immigrant from war-torn Germany in 1953, she wanted to put behind her the painful images of the Nazi time. Today, approaching eighty, she still blames Hitler and the Nazis for destroying her family yet is amazed that she has seen more pictures of Hitler in America than she ever did growing up in Nazi Germany.
The facilitators of the Third Reich, the many Nazi leaders, party bosses, and civilians that became “willing executioners,” represented one of the greatest anomalies in modern history. A nation with renowned universities, steeped in cultural traditions, and known for its gemutlichkeit devolved into a society that perpetrated the greatest genocide in modern history. Tens of millions died in the pursuit of Nazi goals, including Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, POWs, and Communists.
Fascination Divorces the Realities of Truth
Students focusing research on Hitler and the Third Reich want to know what early influences impacted his character, propelling him to the role of dictator in 1933. The same fascination is not applied to Stalin of Russia or Mussolini of Italy. Was Hitler’s rise to power carefully planned? Was it spontaneous in 1933 due to the self-inflicted fracturing of opposing political parties?
Much like the Charles Lindbergh’s on the 1930s in the United States, people are still awed by the Nazi spectacles such as the Nuremberg Party Rallies, captured as propaganda by Leni Reifenstahl in Triumph of the Will. Hitler’s oratorical skills mesmerized his audiences while military bands kept the people in a patriotic mood. Songs like “Erika” were sung by workers in factories on assembly lines, as evidenced by contemporary newsreels.
The Nazis used ritualistic symbols, some borrowed from Ancient Rome. Today, visitors to the Roman port city of Ostia are startled to see mosaic tiles containing the swastika symbol. Like the Roman legions, Nazi military standards featured the eagle and the wreath of victory. Even the Nazi Party Rally Grounds were inspired by classical themes. Nazi extravaganzas focused on the unity of the party, subordinating everyone to the will of the state.
The state was centered on Hitler. All German families were required to hang a picture of the fuehrer prominently in their homes. A typical question in German schools was, “where does the fuehrer live?” Although some students answered Berlin or Bertesgarten, the correct answer was: “in the heart of every German.” This was also the message of the national anthem, Deutschland Uber Alles. For every German, regardless of where in the world they lived, Germany always came first.
Negative Trends in the Fascination with Hitler
Distance from the events of the 1940s frequently blurs the overriding reality that Hitler was a thoroughly evil leader whose policies were abhorrent. Some Christians at the time saw him as the Antichrist. Yet today, there is a trend to balance his positive characteristics with the later evil. Students tend to emphasize his courage in World War I as well as his political determination in regard to the Putsch. Some refer to his dysfunctional and abusive childhood.
To the extent that society has come to accept such behaviors as legal defense remedies in murder defenses and other heinous crimes, students today apply the same barometer to Hitler. This logic is dangerous and does a great injustice to the millions of victims of World War II.
Klaus P. Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History (New York: Continuum Publishing Company)
Personal interviews with students and Germans that lived in Nazi Germany