Rise of Nazism and Enlightenment Thought

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HIST215 – Later Modern Europe,1789-1939
Assessment Task One

Research Essay

The rise and subsequent take-over of power in Germany by Hitler and the Nazi Party in the early 1930s was the culmination and continuation not of Enlightenment thought from the 18th and 19th century but the logical conclusion of unstable and cultural conditions that pre-existed in Germany. Hitler’s Nazi Party’s clear manipulation of the weak state of the Weimar Republic through its continued failure economically and socially, plus its undermining of popular support through the signing the Treaty of Versailles all lead to the creation of a Nazi dictatorship under the cult of personality of Hitler. This clear take-over of power and subsequent destruction of any vestiges of democracy and political opposition in Germany coupled with an ideology that preached ultra-violent racial hatred of Jews and extremely nationalistic fervour lead to Nazism clearly representing the anti-thesis to Enlightenment ideals of individualism, the ‘general will’, tolerance, self-development and individual thought. Nazism preached a completely polar opposite to the views of Enlightenment and pursued them with a vigour that would drag the whole world into another worldwide conflict, of which it was only just recovering.

One of the fundamental differences between Enlightenment thought and Nazi ideology is the role of the individual within that of the community. Enlightenment thought bore out the idea of the rights of the individual and of the ‘sovereign.., formed entirely of the individuals who compose it, it has not, nor could have, any interest contrary to theirs’[1] and that each of these citizens is a private person whose life is independent of the state which it serves[2]. This clearly places the individual as within a society that it has the right and obligation to serve, but within which the individual also holds rights separate from the state. Not only this but that the state cannot have any interest or ideals opposed or separate from those of the individuals that make it up. What Nazism proposes is an extreme form of this individual within the state and their subordination to the will of the state. In the Programme of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party), the original name for the Nazi party, point 10 clearly states that: ‘The activities of the individual may not conflict with the interest of the general public’[3]. This programme published in 1920 clearly shows the beginnings of what would become a Nazi regime that would ruthlessly carry out its aims of being a one party dictatorship that controlled the will of the German people. The way that the Nazi regime carried out these aims was through the effective, controlled and precise use of propaganda. As pointed out by David Welch in his article on Nazi Propaganda and the Volksgemeinschaft (The national or people’s community) the ‘political function of propaganda was to co-ordinate the political will of the nation with the aims of the state’[4].

What this targeted ‘re-education’ of the German people achieved was an end to free thinking for individuals and the ability to question and confront what the decisions that their government made. This is in direct contradiction with Enlightenment thought as propounded by Emmanual Kant who proclaims that the motto of the enlightenment is ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’[5]. The Nazi regime as directed by Hitler completely opposed this idea and consistently bombarded the German people with ‘propaganda [that] must address itself to large masses of people and attempt to move them to a uniformity of opinion and action’[6]. This reliance of the German people on the propaganda machine of the Nazi party flies in the face of one of Kant’s main points that this is the easy way in which to live, to is easy to use a book for understanding, or a pastor as a conscience, and no longer have to think for oneself[7]. Couple this intense program of...
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