Liberty is never more precarious than in uncertain times. From the Great Depression to the Great Recession, from the Peloponnesian War to the so-called War on Terror, harsh times attract harsh measures—and citizens become only too willing to trade liberty for security.
The inclination makes evolutionary sense, but in the modern world it backfires. The rationale for fear-based traditionalism—the search for refuge in a world full of uncertainty—rebounds and mutates, injecting into the electorate what psychologists have called an authoritarian personality.
Unrestrained, the authoritarian personality is dangerous. It tramples basic liberties in the name of security, censoring out-groups for little more than their arbitrary labeling as the generic “Other”.
Unfortunately, examples of this extreme version of sacrificing liberty for security are plentiful, found in places as far apart in space and time as ancient China and totalitarian Spain. Time and again, tyrannies have stood up on the willing backs of the people. Why? The answer lies within the human psyche. The Nazis’ rise is a case study of the causes of the authoritarian personality, the cures, and—most importantly—the dangerous consequences.
The Nazi Party clinched power largely because of the fears and uncertainties of a people who craved stability.
They preferred, perhaps understandably, authoritarianism to chaos. The consequences, however, were horrendous.
The story begins when World War I ends. As is so often the case when peace is obtained through war rather than peace, one war’s end laid the foundation for another’s beginning. On June 28, 1919 England, France, and the United States forced Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles, a humiliating “agreement” that bankrupted Germany and unfairly gave it primary responsibility for World War I.
Ironically, the treaty’s unfairness provided potent fertilizer for Nazism’s growth. While the establishment of the Weimar Republic gave some hope that Germany could restructure itself as a functioning democracy, out-of-control inflation and guerilla warfare between communists and nationalists soon turned many Germans against democracy.
A once-proud nation faced weakness and impotence. A people poised for European hegemony floundered in mediocrity. The humiliation was palpable. Only radical change seemed able to restore Germany’s prospects. Nazism represented that change.
Indeed, in the same manner in which fear makes humans more authoritarian now—causing them to yearn for a foothold in an uncertain world, and to find that foothold in traditionalism—uncertainty-induced fear drew Germans to Nazism. The party can be considered the material manifestation of the most extreme version of the authoritarian personality.
Conformity held more value than independence; curiosity held less value than unyielding faith.
Obedience and touting the party line were virtues; critical thinking was a vice. The same criteria that mark one as authoritarian were thus an integral part of what it meant to belong to the Nazi Party.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people with an authoritarian personality—60 percent of the population—are somehow akin to Nazis. That would be ridiculous, and—indeed—the authoritarian personality actually yields some positive consequences such as cultural identity and a sense of security.
An argument could be made that authoritarians are a societal glue that fosters, in moderation, social cohesion. However, though the authoritarian personality in moderation is harmless, taken to an extreme this personality type—like any drug—can have nasty consequences. As fear and uncertainty made aspects of the authoritarian personality more salient to Germans living under the Weimar Republic, this is precisely what happened.
Let’s examine the evidence. Though in 1924 the Nazi Party barely had any seats in parliament, by the 1930s the party found broad appeal among key constituencies. Members of the lower middle-class—teachers, public servants, small businessman, and farmers—had suffered most from the harsh inflation of the 1920s. Yet, as newly-minted and precariously-situated members of the bourgeoisie, they feared Bolshevism’s redistributive impulse.
Small businessmen were especially receptive to the Nazi’s anti-Semitism because they tended to scapegoat Jews for their economic woes. The end of the decade and the onset of the Great Depression only made Nazi claims more appealing. The nationalist dream of a unified, strong Germany grew ever more tempting as the country weakened and Bolshevism threatened subversion.
As economic uncertainty increased, so too did the desire for stability. As the desire for stability increased, so too did Nazi membership.
As historians Hetherington and Weiler write, authoritarians are concerned with combating “normative threat”—manifested in Germany by the Bolsheviks. “Those who score high in authoritarianism … are, first and foremost, concerned with maintaining the social order and opposing that which they believe undermines that order.” This distinguishes authoritarians from conservatives; conservatives want to maintain the status quo out of respect, but authoritarians act out of fear of subversion.
Rendered authoritarians by desperation and war-weariness, many Germans were only too eager to give Hitler a try. He was prophetic, a savior. Ironically, though the Nazi Party—through its paramilitary, or “brownshirts”—was a main antagonist in the raging street warfare, key to Hitler’s appeal to a frightened middle class was his vow to restore the rule of law by suppressing communist militias.
The promises worked. Appealing to fear, buoyed by the chaos swirling within the German street and the German psyche, Hitler and his party grew increasingly powerful. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Speaking before a large crowd, beaming with confidence, an exultant Hitler declared:
The great time has only begun. Germany has awoken. You mustn’t act yourself, you must obey, you must give in and you must submit to this overwhelming need to obey.
Hitler’s words go to the core of the authoritarian personality. Authority is cherished for its ability to provide security; curiosity and “freethinking” are derided or feared for their potential to undermine state security. Hitler’s actions soon mirrored his words. During the years that followed, Hitler would use the state’s “security needs” as an excuse to limit civil liberties.
For example, he exploited the Reichstag Fire of February 1933 as a reason to suppress the opposition. (Plausible conspiracy theories suggest the Nazi Party was responsible. If so, the party probably recognized that creating an atmosphere of insecurity would increase its authoritative appeal.)
Thus, though the Nazis did not have the aid of political psychology and convenient labels such as “authoritarian personality,” they demonstrated a surprising awareness of the human psyche. And it helped them gain power. One day after the fire, Hitler pressured Weimar president Paul von Hindenburg to grant him an emergency powers decree suspending civil liberties guaranteed by the Weimar constitution. On March 23, via the Enabling Act, the Reichstag bequeathed dictatorial powers on Hitler; from then on, he would manage the country’s affairs by decree.
At that point the Nazi Party already had near-absolute control. To speed the drive towards a totalitarianism, the Nazis abolished labor unions and political parties and imprisoned political opponents—first in jails, then in concentration “camps.” By the dawn of the Second World War, the transformation was complete; liberty had been traded for security, and the consequences would be a return of the flawed doctrine of might makes right and the deaths of millions.
Nazism’s rise raises questions—disturbing questions—about who we are and what we are capable of. It teaches that our yearning for certainty in an uncertain world holds the potential for great harm.
Of course, we all feel a need for security. And, to be sure, we all feel fear. These are natural, and someone who has an authoritarian personality because of these basic needs should not be stigmatized. Indeed, in moderation the authoritarian personality is perfectly natural (which is why the label “authoritarian” may be flawed).
And yet, danger lurks when one takes these needs to an extreme. Perhaps the greatest lesson of Weimar Germany’s degeneration into facism is that we must always question our biases, think before we act, and use System 2 thinking to keep System 1 feeling in check.
Franklin Roosevelt’s most famous quote seems especially relevant today:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.