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How Hitler Transformed a Democracy Into a Tyranny


Mostly, though, Fritzsche creates the sense of angry energy through the repetition of one paramount chant that largely distinguishes the Nazis from populists today: “Jews drop dead! Juda verrecke!” This chant reveals a restless, destructive power that permeates the narrative. On Day 61 came the nationwide boycott of Jewish shops, which, combined with the purge of Jews from the public service, created a new line of legal and social exclusion. By the end of the first 100 days, civil servants and other professionals were busy proving that they had no Jews in their families. Meanwhile, violence and intimidation increased. Foreign coverage triggered anti-Nazi protests like one that was held in Madison Square Garden on March 27. The bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg, Otto Dibelius, who was otherwise critical of the Nazis, was outraged at what he considered foreign atrocity propaganda, seeing a baseless rerun of the lurid stories printed during World War I. He little suspected what he was defending.

“Hitler’s First Hundred Days” is essentially a conversion narrative. Violence, spectacle, intimidation and terror were not just aimed at bludgeoning opponents, silencing critics and empowering activists. They were also aimed at turning economic and political crisis into antipolitics and antipolitics into the basis for a fundamentally different, but still broadly popular, legitimacy. Fritzsche’s lens tilts here from the speaker on the podium to individuals in the crowd, like the young architect Albert Speer, who became a convert after hearing Hitler. Fritzsche’s skill is in finding a wide enough cast of Germans to give a sense not just of the faithful, but of the skeptics, the disbelieving and the defeated.

And it is here that the full value of telling his story through eyewitness testimony becomes clear. Fritzsche turns their surprise, ambivalence, enthusiasm or horror into far greater account than most other historians. Just how they were moved, what values they held fast to and which became dispensable, tells him — and us — more than just what kind of witnesses they were. Above all, he works with their sense of the future, the projection screen against which they could measure what they knew was going to happen, but which also held their own hopes. Even Victor Klemperer, the Jewish-turned-Protestant professor whose diaries have been cited more often than any other in the last 25 years, is held up against the mirror of his own hopes and aspirations. As Fritzsche puts it: “A careful reading of the diaries reveals that Klemperer constructed the entries in such a way that he could imagine himself living among Germans afterward, after the collapse of the Third Reich; he found his fellow citizens to be weak, feverish, poisoned and bullied — but not basically criminal or fascist. Klemperer did not let go of his love of Germany, which distorted his view.”

Klemperer may have been reporting on 14-year-old girls disrupting lessons and intimidating their teachers by singing Nazi songs, but even he was not completely immune to the need to construct a future bridge back to the mainstream of German society. Peter Fritzsche has long sought to understand Germany’s cultural and political transformation from the inside. (A previous book is entitled “Germans Into Nazis.”) But it is his capacity for turning the lens back onto the viewer that makes his work so profound and so convincing.

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