The Lessons of Hitler


By HERBERT MORRISON, British Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security

Delivered before the Manchester Council of Labour, Manchester, England, February 4, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 409-411.

HITLER has just completed twelve years of absolute power over the German people. He is just beginning his thirteenth year: it should be his unlucky one. It has been a long twelve years to us, but it will look a short period to the historian of the future.

This man has been a curse to his own country, to Europe, and to the world. Hitler's role in world history has been to demonstrate the terrible but logical result of the wrong kind of controls—the regimenting of the masses to serve a powerful clique. In other countries besides Germany, there have been wishful thinkers who have played with the idea that these Fascist controls would serve their interests, keep their workers servile. Now they have had a lesson in what really happens. Hitler, as soon as he had destroyed his enemies on the Left, turned on his friends of the capitalist Right, including those who had financed his campaign for power. And those not destroyed by Hitler now go down with him to ruin. There are morals that the world, if it is wise enough, can draw from his rise and fall.

Hitler was able to conquer and enslave his own country tor three reasons. The first was the economic confusion and chaos in Germany's affairs during the Twenties and the Thirties, The consequences of the last war, the inflation and the world-wide slump, hit Germany in some respects harder than other countries, though other countries shared in many of the misfortunes. We did.

Cartels and big business monopolies dominated the German economy to a dangerous extent, and the more the general social and economic fabric disintegrated, the more the solid dictatorial power of these irresponsible bodies stood out by contrast. Germany had gone through a so-called revolution, which had however left the representatives of the earlier order—the militarist—aristocratic oligarchy—still sitting in many of the seats of great power, in the Army, in much of the governmental machine, and in the Law Courts. There is a good deal to be said against revolutions even when they are carried through to completion. There is little to be said for a revolution which is half-baked.

As a result—and this was the second main reason for Hitler's rise to power — German government was weak, rushed about among these great irresponsible forces of militarism, social oligarchy and business monopoly, it never showed those qualities of leadership, drive and ordered, constructive decision which alone could have saved the Republic and German democracy. Under a succession of coalition government, uneasy partnerships of incompatible groups, the Reichstag failed to rise to its responsibilities, and as representative and spokesman of the nation it showed neither coherence of mind nor firmness of will. A succession of elections and of makeshift governments so weakened the center of political power that there grew up unchecked, and indeed virtually tolerated, a series of rival private armies. Such a development was utterly inconsistent with the ends and principles of parliamentary democracy. These irresponsible military machines were not only the product of weakness in the central government, but immeasurably increased that weakness. And the small regular Army contained elements which were co-operating with one or other of the private armies against the State—particularly that of the Nazis. So a combination of military, political and economic reasons steadily undermined democracy in Germany, and its disintegration was quickened by the growing influence of two great anti-democratic parties both seeking dictatorial powers. One was on the Right, one on the Left; and the Right won.

The third reason for Hitler's successes underlay both the other two, and was in fact the most important and fundamental of the three. It was the character of the German people. If irresponsible private power in various forms could flourish, if German democracy was the poor growth that it was, the reason lay in the soil in which its roots were struck. The German people were unpromising raw material for the successful establishment of a democratic society over a shortish period. In spite of their efficiency in many fields they had a very poor and immature sense of political responsibility. Instead of thinking it a shame that their Republic should go downhill as it did, they seemed to accept ft without any such moral uprisings as would have checked the decline. The German people showed themselves not merely ready to be ordered about but positively liking it. This, incidentally, is the measure of the continuing problem which Germany presents to the civilized world today.

The Inevitable Drift

These, then, were the circumstances and the factors which led to Hitler's power. How did Europe face the growing menace to peace and stability which he represented? It would have been so easy to stop this evil man. The great bulk of people in all nations wanted peace. Thinking of nations as distinct from governments, there were not more than two, Germany and Japan, which were not fundamentally peaceful in outlook. If that overwhelming majority

had had not merely the wish for peace but the will to achieve it, nothing would have been easier than for them to combine. By economic and military force they could have stopped Hitler before his power grew to a point that encouraged him and his gangsters in reasonable hopes of gaining success from an aggressive world war.

But it wasn't done: he wasn't stopped. Nations and their governments were too much afraid of the so-called risks inherent in the use of economic or military force for the protection of peace—risks so much less than those which in fact they incurred by the lack of it. They stood by and watched the inevitable drift to a major war, watching, talking and waiting, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up. And it did: the second World War.

Meanwhile Hitler subjected country after country, often by bloodless victories. During his years of power, and indeed to some extent before them, he exploited two techniques comparatively new in modern history. One technique was used in gaining and holding power at home, the filthy technique of anti-Semitism, a base and brutal device adopted quite deliberately by Hitler and the groups behind him to pervert and poison the mind of the German people and to give outlet to primitive lusts and cruelties which in civilized States are banned or eradicated. The other technique was used to help him in his external aggressions—the Fifth Column technique, the method of deliberately seducing groups of citizens in other countries from their allegiance to their own nation and using them to hollow out the fabric of their own State and prepare it for easy conquest by the Nazis. This technique was used with powerful effect, not only before the war in Austria and Czechoslovakia, but during the war in Holland, Belgium, and Norway, where the original Quisling in person was produced.

There is one thing in which we British can take pride. The Fifth Column technique had no success with us. It was not for want of effort on Hitler's part: but what with a resolute people on the one hand and a determined Government on the other, it never had the shadow of success. When we were in our gravest peril in 1940 the Government dealt vigorously with Fascist organizations here and detained their key members; so also with people of hostile origin and associations. But at the most there were never more than about 1,800 of all sorts detained under Regulation 18B. In spite of efforts to attack and weaken the administration of this Regulation, first because it put these people in and then because it let them out in circumstances which did not involve danger, the policy stood firm. The historian will, I believe, record that the administration of these exceptional powers in Britain was carried out with firmness and determination, yet in an underlying spirit of genuine liberalism. The Government and the Home Office can fairly claim that no actual or potential Fifth Columnist was at any time during the war given a chance to do material damage to the war effort.

Now Hitler faces Year Thirteen. He marked the occasion with a speech. It was the speech of a desperate man on the verge of defeat; it was an urgent effort to keep his people together in face of the ruin that hangs over them—and him. Hitler is doomed.

The extraordinary Soviet victories, remarkable even to eyes which have become accustomed to the spectacle of Russian military prowess and organizing skill, are carrying the Red Armies closer and closer to Berlin. One of Germany's two great centers of war industry and basic supply has been torn from her grasp, the other having been blasted by the bombing of the Anglo-American Air Forces. Mile by mile her territory is being eaten up. In the West, though the turn of the Anglo-American Allies to play their latest and again dramatic share in the struggle has not yet come, we can look back not many months to a victory which in all the circumstances must rank as one of the most creditable and glorious of the whole war—the invasion and liberation of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Southern Holland A large part of Italy is under Allied control. The Germans have been driven from South Eastern Europe, Around Germany is the overwhelming power of the Allied Armies, Above her is an absolute air supremacy in the hands of her enemies. Off her coasts and on the seas of the world is the unchallenged power of the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. Victory may or may not yet be within our grasp; it is certainly well within sight.

After victory one of the first tasks must be, in a spirit of stern and relentless justice, to liquidate the brutes who have plunged the world into a misery and horror unknown since the Dark Ages, if indeed it was matched even then, The conscience of mankind will not suffer the gang of criminals who have ruled Germany to cumber the ground and darken the sun.

Clear Purpose and Firm Will

And now—how to prevent World War Three—a disgrace which will surely occur if mankind is not active and lively in its prevention. What morals can we draw for the future from the circumstances which attended the Nazis' rise to power? There are, I would suggest, three.

The weak irresolution among the nations which gave Hitler his chance must never again give such a chance to such another. We must face the urgent need of making agreements among the nations for a system of world security and for bringing to bear economic and military power for the preservation and the protection of peace. Nor is this a task for governments alone. An international organization only do its job if it has behind it an alert, lively, courageous public opinion in deadly earnest about the task. The men and women in the international assemblies will reflect the mood of peoples. It is for the peoples to keep their purpose clear and their will firm.

The second lesson is for the democratic societies in particular. Both nationally and internationally we must avoid the error of thinking of democracy as a mere external system of political organization. A democratic society is neither an unled mob nor a select body of prominent politicians. A democratic representative system is not a mere calculate device for assessing and recording opinion. Democracy an organism, capable of life and growth, or of decline and decay. The blood in its veins and the energy in its muscles must be supplied by an informed, intelligent, thinking, active electorate. That electorate must be well organized in courageous, public-spirited purpose, under the leaderships of political parties which are ready to lead and ready to be called to public account for their policies and their actions. Governments themselves must be no mere expression of the interests of sectional groups, but public-spirited bodies, tolerant and adaptable in spirit, firm and clear in purpose and free from the corrupting effect of jobbery in any form.

These governments must be ready on the one hand to maintain civil liberties and the freedom of the press, but on the other hand to deal firmly and in a realistic spirit with really dangerous subversive plotters, high or low.

The third lesson, and in some ways it may be the hardest as it is in some ways the most important, is the persistent inter-relationship between politics and economics in the national and international sphere. Ideal political systems in nations or in the world are of little good if, side by side with them the process of getting a living goes to pieces and

economic chaos takes increasing hold. Economic failure means political decay and gives to determined and unscrupulous minorities a chance which they will not fail to seize. The taking of a political world peace must take account of and provide means for the achievement of the maximum degree of economic well-being. Man cannot live by bread alone, but if man's daily bread is threatened by insecurity, by disorganization, and by the unchecked selfishness of powerful groups, nothing can prevent the collapse of societies guilty of such failure.