Prof’s book: Nazis sugarcoated promises

Bei Hu

University sociology professor William Brustein remembers how his aunt burst into tears when he bought a Volkswagen — a German-manufactured car — at age 16.
His aunt, one of nine children born to a Jewish couple in Prague, Czechoslovakia, was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. Currently living in Chicago, she is among some Jewish people Brustein knows who still refuse to use German products or travel to Germany 51 years after the collapse of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
Brustein recently wrote, “Logic of Evil,” a book about the Nazi Party’s rise to power in pre-World War II Germany. The book was published by Yale University Press in September.
“Evil as an outcome … may have very rational, logical origins and beginnings,” Brustein said.
Summarizing the results of a five-year study, he argues in his book that by 1933 the Nazi Party had used sugarcoated promises of a bright economic future to draw many ordinary Germans into its arms.
Brustein’s current book attracted immediate attention. The New York Times reviewed the book two days before its official publication date. Brustein said he attributed this to the shock created by Harvard University professor Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”
In his book, Goldhagen blames the German political culture for nurturing anti-Semitism, which ultimately lead to genocide against European Jews.
But Brustein disagreed with Goldhagen’s conclusions.
“I don’t think the individuals could have predicted as a collective outcome of their act of voting and joining the party before 1933 would have resulted in Auschwitz, or the genocide, the Holocaust,” Brustein said.
Born to a Jewish family, Brustein recalls how discussions of the Holocaust haunted his family’s dinner table when he was younger. As a scholar, he has spent much of his life pondering how a party so evil could have ever won popular support.
His first visit to post-war Munich in 1968, over his aunt’s objections, only added to what he terms “the enigma.”
“I expected to see a very goose-stepping, disciplined people sitting around a beer house, talking about Jews and about the good old days with Hitler,” he said.
“I was always looking for signs for the Nazi past wherever I went, wherever I looked, whenever I listened to people.”
But instead, he said he found people trying to live a normal life.
Brustein said many previous studies about why people joined the Nazi Party are tainted by abhorrence at the atrocities that later occurred.
“The lens that we use to understand Nazism has been shaped by the second world war, and the Holocaust, the evils of Nazism,” he said.
Brustein describes himself as a rational theorist — someone who believes people make decisions based on reason. His book challenges the prevalent belief in academia that those who joined the Nazi Party before 1933 must have had evil motivations, such as advocating the extermination of Jews.
“With civilization comes reason,” Brustein said. “People vote for and join a party as individuals when they believe what the party is promising or offering fits their self-interest.”
Brustein and his students spent six months collecting data in Berlin. For three years, German and American researchers under his leadership analyzed the files of 42,000 Germans who became card-carrying Nazi Party members between 1925 and 1933.
Although some people believe the Nazi Party was a Protestant harbor for the socially misfit, uneducated and unemployed, Brustein’s analyses show that the party brought together people from all walks of life. But blue-collar workers made up 40 percent or more of Nazi membership each year.
The researchers also found that single women and workers in import-oriented industries were over-represented in the Nazi party. Brustein has attributed this to the anti-free-trade rhetoric in the Nazi platform and the objection to married women working outside the home.
Brustein further argues that anti-Semitism played a marginal role in the Nazi’s rise to power. He said Nazism was prevalent in other European countries.
“In fact, if you would ask me to suggest in what country were the preconditions for genocide against the Jews based on popular anti-Semitism more present before 1933. I would say Romania, I would say Russia, I would even say France,” he said. “It was not unlikely that the Holocaust could have happened elsewhere.”