Rick Steves’ Europe


Germany’s Fascist Story

Traveling across Germany, we learn how fascism rose and then fell, taking millions of people with it. Visiting actual locations — from Munich to Nürnberg to Berlin — we trace the roots of Nazism in the aftermath of World War I, when masses of angry people were enchanted by Hitler. We explore the totalitarian society Hitler built, and see the consequences: genocide and total war.

AIRED: November 24, 2020 | 0:26:16

-Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe.

No, actually, this time, it's the worst of Europe.

In this special episode,

we'll travel together through Germany

and learn from the hard lessons of fascism

that this country learned from nearly a century ago,

and why it matters.

Thanks for joining us.





As democracies are being threatened throughout the West

by the rise of angry populist masses

and wannabe autocrats, thoughtful travels reveal

that history is speaking to us.

Traveling through Germany today,

you see many reminders of the rise and fall of Nazism

and the devastation wrought by its fascist leader,

Adolf Hitler.

In this episode, we'll travel to places

that evoke those terrible times in Germany,

and see a few of the sites and memorials

that recall that county's fascist nightmare.

We'll learn how in Germany fascism rose and then fell,

taking millions of people with it.

Along the way, we'll learn from Germans

whose families lived through those times.

-See, you do not trust in anybody any longer,

after the burning of books.

-...and see how Germany guards against

the rise of fascism again.

Throughout Germany, we'll see sites related to fascism.

We'll start where Hitler got his political start --


Then we'll visit Nuernberg,

the site of his notorious political rallies;

Berchtesgaden, home of his getaway the Eagle's Nest;

and Berlin, the capital and site of German fascism's downfall.

In 1918, World War I ended,

leaving 10 million dead and Europe in ruins.

The chaotic aftermath of the war created fertile ground

for the seeds of fascism.

Nowhere was that more true

than in defeated and devastated Germany.

After World War I, Germany was in a shambles.

After a humiliating defeat

and the loss of over 2 million men,

they were forced by the Allies to pay costly war reparations.

Their emperor had abdicated

and was replaced by a weak democracy.

The economy was terrible: Unemployment was high

and inflation was out of control.

Germans had no faith in their government

to get society back on track.

In this vacuum of power, a fringe movement --

claiming to be the champion of the oppressed -- emerged.

They dressed in intimidating brown-shirt uniforms,

roamed the streets in gangs,

and wanted to restore Germany's national pride.

They called themselves the "National Socialists," or "Nazis."

Their leader: Adolf Hitler.

Those early Nazis found a natural base here in Munich.

While a pleasant and idyllic city today,

this capital of Bavaria was known for its conservative

and nationalistic passions.

Nazi street gangs violently attacked unwanted outsiders:

Jews and Communists.


In 1923, in a beer hall like this,

the original Nazi leadership gathered their followers.

They were impatient and eager to take power.

Hitler waved his pistol in the air,

and called for the revolution to begin.


Hitler led the ragtag revolutionaries in the beer hall

into the streets of Munich,

planning to overthrow the government.

But that attempted revolt,

called the "Beer Hall Putsch," failed.

After a bloody confrontation,

the police crushed it here at Odeonsplatz.

Hitler was arrested and sent to jail,

and it seemed that Germany's fascist movement was finished

before it got off the ground.

Unable to overthrow the government by force,

Hitler resolved to take it by political means.

While in prison, he wrote "Mein Kampf" (or "My Struggle"),

which preaches his message of uniting all ethnic Germans

and giving them more space to live.

Once out of prison, Hitler managed to take power

within the existing political system.

Shaping his National Socialist Party

into a political entity,

he put forward a populist strategy:

rousing a disillusioned workforce,

reviving a struggling economy,

and fixing what was considered a weak government.

At first, the boom times of the Roaring '20s

blunted his populist message,

but then the Great Depression hit in 1929,

the working masses were angry again,

and Hitler's promises gained traction.

Fascism was now taking root in Germany.

-[ Speaking German ]

[ Crowd cheering ]

-So, Hitler promised jobs, jobs, jobs to everybody,

and, of course, people needed jobs.

-Hitler promised the people everything --

everything they wanted.

He promised them a bright future,

he promised them work,

he promised them Lebensraum, -- "living space"...

-[ Speaking German ]

-Hitler was a powerful, mesmerizing speaker.

-[ Speaking German ]

-People were taken by Hitler's speech --

not so much by the beauty of his arguments,

but by his sheer fanaticism, by his anger,

by his rage, and his repetitive rhetoric.

And people -- eyewitness accounts --

describe it as a barbaric, primitive effect.

-He repeated a lie endlessly,

and he didn't make it a small lie;

he made it a big lie

and he kept hammering it into their heads.

He also dumbed it down as much as possible.

-His simplistic promises were made to order

for his political base:

[ Cheers and applause ]

more prosperity, and expanded borders

for more room in which to live, or Lebensraum.

-[ Speaking German ]

-Fascism is perceived as a strong movement

with simple answers for complicated problems.

-He blamed Germany's problems on scapegoats --

like Jews and Communists --

and fears that the communist revolution in Russia

would spread to Germany.

In 1932, the Nazi Party won only

about a third of the seats in parliament.

But Hitler managed to put together a ruling coalition

and was appointed Chancellor in January 1933.

Suddenly Adolf Hitler was heading a new German government.

Then, just a few weeks into Hitler's rule,

under mysterious circumstances, there was a fire

in Germany's parliament building, or "Reichstag."


A disaster like this, which many historians believe

was actually the work of Hitler's people,

is an answer to an aspiring dictator's prayer.

With this "national security emergency,"

Hitler now had his excuse to crush the Communists,

silence moderates,

and create laws giving him sweeping new powers.

Suddenly, in Germany, there was no middle ground:

you were either with Hitler... or against him.

Hitler followed a playbook that has inspired autocrats- -

left and right -- ever since.

Hitler proceeded to consolidate his power

in the most ruthless ways.

He locked up the few courageous politicians

who voted against him

and established his total control

of the German government.

This poignant memorial remembers

those who tried to resist Hitler's power grab.

The German equivalent of congressmen and senators,

they were quickly silenced.

You can see the dates they were arrested,

sent to concentration camps, and executed.

Hitler had hijacked Germany's democracy.

He was given extraordinary powers

to temporarily suspend democratic procedures

in order to get things done.

A dictator now in charge of a mighty industrial nation,

Hitler and his team begin to lay out his plan

for Germany and the world.

Inheriting a German economy

suffering from the Great Depression,

including an employment rate of nearly 30%,

Hitler quickly turned to improving the economy.

He accelerated the previous government's policy

of large public works

and infrastructure projects financed with deficit spending.

As a result, employment increased dramatically

from 1933 to 1936.

Despite this new focus on jobs, and the German worker,

the Nazis had no use for labor unions.

-Well, fascism basically hates everything communist --

or Bolshevik, as they call it --

so they would not like trade unions.

They were not within the frame of the fascist movement.

-One year into their government,

they declared May Day a holiday for the first time;

the unions celebrated...

and the next day, when they were hungover, more or less,

they smashed the unions.

-Despite having the term "socialist" in the party name,

Hitler was a friend of industry.

He privatized many industries,

and the corporations that had supported his candidacy

continued to back him.

-Corporations would support the Nazi Government of Germany

because it was good for their profits.

-With all this economic activity and employment,

Hitler re-energized Germany.

-... zwei Schichten kannte, den Bauer und den deutschen Arbeiter.

[ Crowd cheering ]

-Much of Germany was swept up in Hitler's charismatic vision

and the country had a common purpose.

Everywhere he went, crowds adored him.

Women swooned when his car drove by.

[ Cheering ]

In clubs called the "Hitler Youth,"

boys and girls pledged their allegiance to him.

-A little boy in 1935, when he looked at Hitler,

he would see a god-like person.

He was somebody who would elevate the German people;

he would elevate the people of this boy

to become the perfect master race running the planet.

-Hitler became known by a new title,

which meant he was their leader, their ührer .

-[ Speaking German ]

-The idea about fascism is to have a big community

that all operates exactly the same way,

and to have a common opinion that covers all.

-There was one phrase that was called

"Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer" --

"one people, one empire, one leader." Full stop.

-There was a dark side to all this Nazi conformity.

Individuality was lost.

-Individualism doesn't even exist in fascism.

It doesn't exist in any aspect.

It doesn't exist in art,

it doesn't exist in lectures at university,

it doesn't exist in newspapers and press...

-For the Nazis, the city that most embodied

their sense of national unity was Nuernberg.

Nuernberg, so steeped in German history,

was nicknamed "the most German of German cities."

That's one reason it was a favorite of Hitler's

to showcase his nationalistic pomp and pageantry...

to inspire all of Germany to get on board.

[ Crowd cheering ]

-There were three German Reichs , or empires.

The first was medieval -- it was called the "Holy Roman Empire."

In fact, the emperor's castle still towers above Nuernberg.

The Second Reich was 19th century --

the creation of the modern German state

by Prussia under the leadership of Bismarck.

And it was here in Nuernberg,

that Hitler declared the Third Reich --

a powerful German empire to last 1,000 years.

When Hitler took power, he made Nuernberg's Zeppelin Field

the site of his enormous Nazi Party rallies.

Today, the stark remains of this massive gathering place

are thought-provoking.

German tour guide Thomas Schmechtig

is joining me for some insight.

-Sieg Heil!

-For several years,

increasingly elaborate celebrations of Nazi culture,

ideology, and power took place right here.

Fascist dictators understood the propaganda power of big rallies,

where they can manufacture the adoration

of their people, bask in it,

and then broadcast it to the rest of the population --

as Hitler said, turning the "little man"

into part of a "great dragon."

-[ Speaking German ]

[ Crowd chanting ]

-Imagine, Hitler stepping out of that door,

overlooking the masses -- 200,000 people being lined up...

He used propaganda to create a new community --

in fact we even have a word for it:

It's called " Volksgemeinschaft ".

-Inspirational images

from Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda movie

"Triumph of the Will"

were filmed at the 1934 Nuernberg rallies,

and then shown in theaters

and schoolrooms throughout the country.

The goal -- to bring a visual celebration of the power

of the Nazi state to all 70 million Germans.

ürnberg shows the enormous power

of fascism's secret weapon:


Looming over a now peaceful lake in Nuernberg

is another remnant of the dictator's megalomania:

his huge, yet unfinished, Nazi Congress Hall.

Hitler, who believed he would create a new civilization

based upon fascist values,

modeled this building after the ancient Roman Colosseum,

but even more colossal.

-Imagine 50,000 leading Nazis in here, one third higher,

covered by a roof, a window inside the ceiling;

sunshine would've fallen down to the podium.

Once a year, one speech of Adolf Hitler.

-Another stage set for this propaganda show

was Hitler's mountain-capping Eagle's Nest.

This alpine getaway, just south of Munich in Berchtesgaden,

was used to soften Hitler's image

against a majestic, almost theatrical backdrop.

His visits were lovingly filmed to show him

as the embodiment of all that was good about Germany:

healthy, vigorous, respectable...

everyone's favorite uncle.

Set in the scenic foothills of the Alps,

it was built in 1938 as a mountain retreat

for Hitler and his guests.

A stone tunnel crafted with fascist precision,

leads to Hitler's plush elevator,

which still whisks visitors to the top.

Because it was in this corner of Bavaria

that Hitler claimed to be inspired

and laid out his dark vision,

some call Berchtesgaden "the cradle of the Third Reich."

Hitler may have stoked Germany's economy

and put people back to work,

but it was becoming clear that whatever benefits

fascism might bring to its political base,

it had a darker side -- and it came at a huge cost.

Despite its veneer of respectability,

and its popularity among ordinary people,

the thriving fascist state

relied on increasingly brutal repression.

Hitler continued his ruthless creation

of a totalitarian fascist state.

The free press was silenced,

as were intellectuals and universities.

Art was expected to be naturalistic,

and Germans to be depicted as blond, blue-eyed,

and wholesome.

Books that caused people to question the Nazi agenda

were forbidden and publicly burnt

with delight by Hitler's supporters.

-If you have some books, titles, of those books

that were burned the night before,

and you invite some people, they can argue against you

because you have those books in your private library.

And even your roommate has an argument against you.

You do not trust in anybody any longer

after the burning of books.

One famous German writer and author said,

"Once you're burning books,

very soon you are going to burn people."

-Artifacts and posters in Berlin's German History Museum

illustrate the Nazi notion of a master race.

Anyone who didn't fit their model

could be viewed as an enemy of the state,

and sent to concentration camps.

The Nazis required those they imprisoned to wear badges

that identified their status: Political trader, law-breaker,

foreigner, homosexual,

and a catchall, "Asocial" --

anyone who would not conform.

A special badge, the yellow Star of David,

went to Hitler's lowest of the low: the Jews.

-The Nazis believed that the German people

were the master race,

the toughest, the strongest, the bravest, the smartest.

They said, "We should be running the planet;

we just can't do it because this conspiracy,

the Jewish 'world conspiracy' is in the way.

And without them, if we deal with that conspiracy,

then we will achieve our rightful status again."

-[ Chanting in German ]

-The Nazis started putting their anti-Semitic ideas

into action as early as April of 1933,

when they organized a boycott of Jewish businesses.

-He specifically blamed one group, the Jewish people,

for ruining things for everybody else.

-For him, it was clear his scapegoat was the Jews.

They were the source of all evil in Germany, and in the world,

and he wanted to kind of get rid of that evil,

and that's what he worked for.

-Then in November of 1938,

the Nazis lead a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany.

During Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass,

as it was called,

Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked.

7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed,

and over 1,000 synagogues were burned.

And 30,000 Jews were arrested and put in concentration camps.

This was a turning point from earlier

economic, political, and social persecution

to physical beatings, incarceration, and even murder.

It was the beginning of Hitler's "Final Solution."

Today, Berlin's Topography of Terror exhibit

stands on the rubble

of what was once the most feared address in Berlin:

the headquarters of the Gestapo secret police

and the elite SS force.

It was from here that government employees

managed the Nazi State

and dispassionately coordinated its most ruthless activities.

The efficient and heartless bureaucracy

behind Hitler's crimes

gave rise to the expression "the banality of evil."

Fascism in Germany turned ever more hateful and militaristic.

And fascism in Italy, under Benito Mussolini,

had been firmly rooted since the 1920s.

Italian fascism practiced similarly militaristic

and expansionist policies.

Peace in Europe was under threat,

and war seemed inevitable.

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began.

The military might of Germany seemed unstoppable.

Employing their fast "lightning war" technique,

called Blitzkrieg,

Hitler's mighty tanks and high-tech air force,

the Luftwaffe, swept across Europe.

France fell quickly,

and suddenly Hitler was playing tourist at the Eiffel Tower.

Soon, nearly all of the Continent

was under direct or indirect fascist rule.

With their "Final Victory" seemingly inevitable,

the Nazis tightened the screws within their own society.

The evils of fascism were incremental.

As its small evils became big evils,

German society managed to be oblivious to its own atrocities.

At first, concentration camps

contained people who didn't conform.

Then, they became forced labor camps.

Eventually, the Nazis built death camps --

which were located outside of Germany

and therefore farther from public view.

With what the Nazis called the "Final Solution,"

the entire Jewish population was targeted for extermination.

In total, approximately 6 million Jews

died from Nazi persecution.

2.7 million of those died in death camps.

Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland was the biggest

and most notorious concentration camp

in the Nazi system.

Seeing the camp can be difficult.

But Auschwitz survivors want tourists to come here,

to try to appreciate the scale

and the monstrosity of the place in human terms,

in hopes that this horror, known as the Holocaust,

will never be forgotten.

To finally defeat fascism --

the alliance of Hitler and Mussolini --

it took a massive and heroic allied effort

led by Britain, America, and the Soviet Union.

Germany was overwhelmed as the combined military might

of the Allies closed in on the Third Reich.

Finally, the Nazi capital of Berlin

was liberated by Soviet troops.

And Hitler finished his life here in Berlin.

Deep underground, in a bunker below my feet,

with his capital smoldering in ruins,

the dictator committed suicide.

Finally, in the spring of 1945, the war in Europe ended.

The death toll was staggering.

In addition to 6 million Jews the Nazis killed

hundreds of thousands of so-called "undesirables,"

over a million political and religious prisoners,

and nearly 9 million Soviet and Polish citizens.

Europe's experiment with fascism left the Continent devastated,

with entire societies needing to be rebuilt.

Germany had to be reconstructed inside and out.

The sweeping impact of fascism can be felt to this day

in the many memorials across Europe

that remind us of those horrific years.

In Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

is a touching and evocative field

of gravestone-like pillars.

It's designed to cause people to think

and to ponder this horrible chapter in human history.

A common refrain at many of these memorials

is "Never Again."

But even today,

in well-established democracies throughout the West,

societies are facing many of the same emotions,

frustrations, and inequities

that, a century ago,

opened the door to fascism in Europe.

-If I ask myself "could it happen again?" I would say no...

but it has happened in Germany,

and it might happen again.

-Fascism happened here in Germany,

in the center of civilization,

in the land of Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller.

And if it could have happened here,

it can happen anywhere in the world.

-Today Germany deals responsibly

with the legacy of pain it brought Europe.

Germany knows the importance of a well-informed electorate.

Every schoolchild learns of the Holocaust

with a visit to a concentration camp,

and Nazi documentation centers in major cities tell the story.

But perhaps most important is the preservation

of government by the constitution

and the rule of law,

and not by the dictates of a charismatic

all-powerful leader.

-One of the things that you can do to make sure

that something like this will not happen here

or in other countries,

is not trust people that promise you very easy answers

for very complicated problems.

It never works.

-As we've seen through the story of fascism in Germany,

a charismatic leader rose to power

through the democratic process

and then seized extra-constitutional power

by unlawful means.

When citizens allowed this, individual freedoms and rights

soon fell by the wayside,

and democracy was lost.

While democracy was restored to Western Europe,

it easily could have been lost forever --

and the cost was millions of lives.

As history continues to unfold around us today,

it's important to remember that freedom and democracy

are not guaranteed.

We are all participants,

and we are all responsible.

The story of fascism in Europe

has taught us that strong and charismatic leaders

can capitalize on fear to lead a society astray.

Democracy is fragile.

It requires a vigilant and engaged populace.

And if you take freedom for granted, you can lose it.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves.

Until next time, travel thoughtfully.






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