By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
This year marks the milestone anniversaries of seven events that changed our nation and the world, altering the lives of the witnesses and all that followed.
The Battle of Gettysburg (150 years), Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg (150 years), the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president (80 years), Dr. Martin Luther King’s defining oration in Washington, D.C. (50 years), and the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas (50 years) helped define the American journey and continue to impact our lives. Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power (80 years) and the Battle of Stalingrad (70 years) altered the course of world history in ways that were unimaginable at the time.
On Jan. 31, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Within a year, he consolidated his power, the Third Reich was born, and the course of world history was soon to take a different course.
Three months later, FDR stood on the steps of the Capitol and was sworn in as president in the midst of the Great Depression. Unlike Hitler, who told the German people that the depression was caused by a great conspiracy, FDR told our nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR led the the nation through the darkest days of the Great Depression and World War II. Rarely has there been a sharper contrast between good and evil, between all that was embodied in FDR and what Der Führer represented.
In the annals of military history, there are battles that turn the tide of warfare. In World War II there were two: D-Day, June 6, 1944 and the Battle of Stalingrad, which came to an end Jan. 31, 1943 with victory by the Red Army. It was after Stalingrad when Hitler acknowledged to his close associates that the war might not end as he imagined.
In World War II, it was Stalingrad and D-Day June 6, 1944. This year we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of a battle that took place in Gettysburg, from July 1-3, 1863. The hilly landscape, with outcroppings of rock and names like Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, became a killing field. When it ended, 56,000 were dead or wounded, and Lee’s shattered forces retreated to Virginia. The tide of war had turned and when it ended in April 1865, more than 750,000 men had died, according to recent estimates.
The battlefield was dedicated Nov. 19, 1863, with the grave sites still fresh and much of it still littered with pieces of weapons of war. The words delivered by President Lincoln that day transcend what occurred on that blood-soaked battlefield, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
One hundred years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of youth and vigor, was shot and a few minutes after 1 p.m. the nation and the world were in a state of shock as they listened to the report from Parkland Hospital. After JFK’s death, American politics and foreign policy moved in a different direction. We are left to only speculate what would have happened had he been elected for a second term.
Four months earlier, on Aug. 28, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the mall and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In the shadow of Lincoln, he called upon the nation to complete its work, the promise of equality for all 100 years after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The Civil Rights Movement had moved to the top of the nation’s agenda.
We can never forget the evilness of Hitler, but as we stop and commemorate so many defining events this year, we should be thankful that each generation brought forth people like Lincoln, FDR, JFK and King who in word and deed gave us a better world. Their monuments are less in stone than in ourselves.
An opinion piece by Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
It has been 80 years since Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of the ill-fated Weimar Republic by its aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, a much venerated general who stopped the Russian advance into Germany in the fall of 1914. The old gentleman thought little of the man the papers once dubbed “The Bavarian Corporal,” whose face was known to millions through countless public speeches and National Socialist of Nazi campaign posters that dotted the very troubled German landscape. When asked what he thought of Hitler who was a message carrier or runner in the trenches of France during the Great War, Hindenburg responded, “Under the Empire, I would not have appointed him a mailman.”
Hitler’s appointment set into motion a train of events that changed the world in ways unimaginable on Jan. 30, 1933: the creation of the most brutal dictatorships in history; the Third Reich; the mass extermination of two-thirds of European Jewry; a war that cost the lives of an estimated 56 million people, including more than 30 million in Soviet Russia and at least 20 percent of the population of Poland; the United States emerging as a superpower after 1945; the Cold War; atomic bomb; radar; and near total destruction of Germany, both its physical and moral ruination. Eighty years later, the system he created, Hitlerism, is a synonym for evil, while Auschwitz, not the Reich, is his monument.
In the eight decades since Hitler came to power, he and the Germans have been put under a microscope in an effort to understand how a nation descended into such darkness. Most agree that Hitler seized upon the major currents of his era, when the Germans believed they had been cheated out of victory in the Great War. He used traditional German idealism, and its militarist and authoritarian traditions, to achieve his ends. This being said, his most recent biographer, Ian Kershaw, whose massive two volume work is the gold standard, believes a question still remains: How could a self-styled messiah, an ill-educated beerhall demagogue who was initially dismissed as an oddity come to exercise unlimited power over a well-educated nation known for its poets, thinkers, and scientists in the middle of the 20th century? Some scholars argue that he expressed the deepest desires of his people who were willing to look away when the terrible secrets were revealed. Others maintain he was an aberration. The answer is found somewhere in the middle.
Today, Germany is open and democratic, its rebuilt parliament’s glass dome symbolizing its openness and transparency. Germany is the economic engine of the European Union and led by its first female chancellor, Dr. Merkel. But Hitler and Hitlerism will always be with the Germans and the world and fortunately, we have not tried to bury the past. Instead we have derived lessons from it. The Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Washington is far more than what its name implies. In central Berlin, the recently opened Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe and other memorials are daily reminders of what was set in motion Jan. 30, 1933, the extant concentration camps sitting silently as reminders of what humankind is capable of doing.
For many people, Jan. 30 will just be another day, marked by a small article in the media. But some—the Germans, Israelis and World Jewry—will look at it differently. Old black and white images from a film taken Jan. 30, 1933 revealed the future. In one window, a joyful Hitler can be seen looking down on a Nazi-organized, torch-lit parade. In the other window, Hindenburg, his face frozen. Perhaps Paul von Hindenburg saw the future and had to know there was no turning back. A year later he died of old age and shortly thereafter, his beloved army took a personal oath of loyalty to the Bavarian Corporal, now Der Führer.