This is my translation of Jyrki Iivonen’s column that appeared on Kaleva webpage March 21st, 2014 in Finnish: Historiasta on syytä oppia.
He rose to lead his country in seemingly open elections when a significant part of the people supported him. He presented a very appealing program in the elections. The country had lost a great war a decade and a half earlier, one that it had been starting. Especially bitter was the defeat because the battle was not really in the fields of war but rather in those of economy and politics.
People had paid a hefty price for the war. His country lost the global status build over the years. It had to give up the positions it had held outside Europe. The war that lasted many years and the peace that came after devastated the economy. A majority of people lived in poverty and reflected bitterly the lost times of greatness. According to many, the defeat in the war had led also to a moral decay.
He built his rise to the power on the discontentment of the people. Because of the great war was not lost on the battlefield, he spoke consistently how certain groups and individuals had with their incompetence and treacheries caused the humiliations. The people believed him, because they wanted to have someone take the blame of the defeats and shrunk from looking in the mirror to find the guilty.
His rise to the power was not facilitated only by the power of rhetoric. In addition, careful governing was needed. He formed a political movement that organized local activism and training of youth and women to the tasks relevant in the newer times and that formed an ideological foundation for all the activities. The membership was requirement for all central positions in state and local levels.
His supporters were not content with matching words only. The dissidents were expelled from the political arena. They were ostracized by the media and various means were employed to limit their participation in the elections. The most dangerous antagonists were placed in prisons and few lost their lives while publicly opposing him.
His native country had lost its status as a major power in the war. He felt that tragic fate must be corrected. Many of the former subservient countries were now independent; these should be returned back to the arms of the fatherland. For this purpose he employed the minorities in these countries that had his mother tongue. The defense of the rights of these minorities was his political and moral prerogative.
European governments were astonished by his actions. They held the naïve belief that they could come to a peaceful agreement with him. He, however, saw the cautionary approach of the Europeans only as a sign of weakness that afforded him to achieve his goal by extending harsh demands and by ignoring treaties entered previously.
His country was even given the privilege of organizing the Olympic Games. Those who made that call felt that it would help his people adopt more democratic principles. But this did not happen. He used the Games to bolster the nationalistic mindset in his own country. There were many that said that sports and politics should not be mixed. But when he did exactly that, most of these voices went silent.
He held a hostile position towards the minorities in his own country – and towards many of the neighboring peoples as well. The harsh rhetoric increased his popularity. There were various explanations offered, like that his country and people were not prepared to have democracy. Instead of the western democracy it was suggested that a controlled democracy would be more suited for his country as that already would be much better than the chaos of the previous years.
He still had a problem of having only very few supporters around the world. There were individuals and groups in certain countries that were cheering him, but they were of little international consequence. The grand eastern nation was supportive of him is a limited set of issues, but in the long run this backing could not be relied upon. Nevertheless, this lack of allies did not deter him from driving his cause further.
Because the security of his country was then on its own hands, it had to build proper armed forces that after the peace following the war were in bad decline. The number of armed men had decreased and the equipment deteriorated. When the economic upturn came, significant resources were devoted to the development of the armed forces and international treaties were no deterrent. Even with most of the people continuing to live in poverty, it welcomed this return of national greatness.
After having mustering enough military strength, he was ready to take more concrete steps. He set out to return under the same flag those abroad sharing his language. All possible means were deployed. The world was flooded with false reports on oppressions experienced. This gave direct interventions the cloak of legitimacy. Again his own people supported these actions and shouted slogans on the greatness and rights of his country. Other countries took no harsher stand than before and sought only to find a peaceful solution.
Someone wise has said that he who learns nothing from history is compelled to relive it. The above summary of Adolf Hitler’s climb to power brings this timely warning to our times. We should not ignore the lessons of history, should we?