Historian: Germans have drawn lessons from Hitler
German historian Heinrich August Winkler says that the nation has realized that democracy is vital.
Berlin (dpa) - Germans have drawn clear lessons relevant to today from the events of 75 years ago that brought Adolf Hitler to power, a prominent German historian said Thursday.
"What is decisive is that Germans after 1945 have learnt that rejecting Western democracy leads to catastrophe for them," Heinrich August Winkler told an audience of foreign correspondents in Berlin.
Recalling the events of the so-called "Third Reich" and the moral responsibility carried by Germany as a result helped to buttress democracy today, said the professor, who retired from Berlin's Humboldt University last year.
"One is confronted with the costs of an anti-democratic attitude," he said, adding that Germans in the modern federal republic had developed a kind of "constitutional patriotism" by contrast with the nationalist kind.
Nevertheless, Winkler came out against moves to ban the German National Democratic Party (NPD), the far-right party seen by its opponents as a successor to Hitler's Nazis.
Characterizing the NPD as severely fragmented, he called for the party to be countered by political means. A ban should be a last resort, said the historian, whose publications include the highly regarded The Long Road to the West.
Sketching the events of 1932 and early 1933, Winkler said that in the fraught political conditions of the day, "Hitler could present himself as the advocate of the disenfranchised," profiting from the collapse of the democratic system of the Weimar Republic.
"The fear of civil war became Hitler's most powerful ally," he said.
The president of the day, Paul von Hindenburg, had set aside his aversion to Hitler and his anti-democratic Nazi party partly as a result of this fear.
Various factors had contributed to Hitler's rise, which had not been inevitable, Winkler said.
The Nazis' electoral success - they secured 37 percent of the vote in the July 1932 elections - and the irreconcilable divisions on the left of the political spectrum between the democratic Social Democrats and the revolutionary communists were two factors, he said.
The fact that Hindenburg was surrounded by members of the militarist and agricultural Prussian elite that dated back to the days of the monarchy, rather than by more forward-looking forces, was another.
But Winkler also noted that the Nazis' electoral support had declined to 33 percent in elections in November 1932.
Even the Nazis had realized that the chance of power could slip from their grasp as economic conditions improved and unemployment began to come down from levels around 6 million.
Even after taking power and passing emergency laws following the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were only able to secure 44 percent of the vote in yet another election in March 1933, Winkler noted.
The date January 30, when Hindenburg appointed Hitler, held significance for not only German but for world history, he said.
"If Hitler had not become chancellor, the world we live in today would have been very different," Winkler said.