The Story of Fascism in Europe
In this one-hour special, Rick travels back a century to learn how fascism rose and then fell in Europe — taking millions of people with it. We'll trace fascism's history from its roots in the turbulent aftermath of World War I, when masses of angry people rose up, to the rise of charismatic leaders who manipulated that anger, the totalitarian societies they built, and the brutal measures they used to enforce their ideology. We'll see the horrific consequences: genocide and total war. And we'll be inspired by the stories of those who resisted. Along the way, we'll visit poignant sights throughout Europe relating to fascism, and talk with Europeans whose families lived through those times. Our goals: to learn from the hard lessons of 20th-century Europe, and to recognize that ideology in the 21st century. (Rated TV-PG)
Why Rick Produced ‘Fascism in Europe’
Travel experiences are like seeds that grow in ways impossible to predict — like producing a TV special called "Rick Steves' Fascism in Europe," debuting fall 2018 on public television across the USA.
For decades, I've gathered impressions about Europe's experience with fascism in my travels. Riding up the elevator to Hitler's mountain-capping Eagle's Nest retreat on a mountaintop in Bavaria, I noticed the precision of the stonework. As those imposing doors slammed open and shut, they seemed to demand obedience. In Rome's EUR, standing before the central palace of Mussolini's planned city, I looked into the eyes of mighty, bleached-white statues that left me reeling with the feeling that it's all for one in lockstep, and that individuality is to be consumed by the state. In Nürnberg, stepping into the gilded "Green Room" under the towering tribunal platform from where Hitler stoked the masses at his rallies, I imagined a charismatic despot getting prepped for his speech that would amp up both the fears and the anger of an entire nation.
These powerful sights — the physical remains of that period — inspired me to weave their important lessons into this one-hour special. It's travel on TV, as viewers have come to expect from the Rick Steves brand...and much more.
The memory of these dark times is as important as ever. And the people who lived through Europe's fascist nightmare — the destruction of Europe, the Holocaust, and the ultimate, heroic Allied victory — are like flickering candles keeping the memory of those dark times alive.
A few years ago, while walking the beaches at Normandy and making a pilgrimage to concentration camps in Poland, it occurred to me that the last of those candles are flickering out. And for those who respect the value of learning from history, the passing of the last people with a firsthand, living memory of Hitler and the Holocaust puts us at a kind of crossroads. Future generations have a responsibility to keep those lessons alive.
Insightful observers note that the rise of fascism took Germany and Italy by surprise — and it could take any nation by surprise today if conditions line up in the same way.
"Fascism in Europe" — while chillingly engaging and thrilling to watch — also has a practical purpose: to help us learn from Europe's experience and to show how, even today, would-be autocrats follow the same playbook in their attempts to derail democracies. It's a case study in how fear and angry nationalism can be channeled into evil, and how our freedoms and democracies are not indestructible…in fact, they are fragile.
Visiting Germany, Italy, and Spain, we talk with Europeans whose families lived through fascism. We explore the still-stern remains of fascist societies and ponder the powerful memorials built in the wake of their defeat. And we learn just what fascism — which rose from the rubble of World War I 100 years ago — looks like. From our perspective in 2018 — with extremist movements on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic — watching this special program is an hour well-spent.
Francesca, who works almost full time with my tours when in Rome, has contributed generously to my guidebooks. Popular with my readers, Francesca understandably books up quickly; if she's busy, she'll recommend one of her colleagues.
Stadio dei Marmi
Mussolini's "Stadium of the Marbles," part of the sports complex called the Foro Italico, is adjacent to Rome's modern Olympic Stadium (which now hosts soccer games most weekends except in summer). Catch Metro line A to Flaminio, then tram #2 to the end of the line (Piazza Mancini) — or, if you're coming from Termini station, take bus #910; from the Vatican, take bus #32 from Piazza Risorgimento.
In the late 1930s, Mussolini planned an international exhibition — the 1942 Exhibit Universal Rome (E.U.R.) — to show off the wonders of his fascist society. But those wonders helped bring on World War II before II Duce's celebration could happen. The unfinished mega-project was completed in the 1950s, and today it houses apartment blocks, corporate and government offices, and big, rarely visited museums. Despite its grim past, E.U.R. is now an upscale district with a mix of businessmen and women at work — and young people enjoying its trendy cafés.
Georg, who has helped me generously with my guidebooks, offers three-hour walking tours of Munich, among other options.
A cultural connoisseur and public-radio journalist, Holger is also available as a guide in Berlin — when he's not leading one of my group tours (tel. +49 (0)163-345-4427, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Nazi Rally Grounds (Reichsparteitagsgelände)
Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect, designed this immense complex of buildings for the Nazi rallies. Not many of Hitler's ambitious plans were completed, but you can visit the courtyard of the Congress Hall, Zeppelin Field (where Hitler addressed his followers), and a few other remains. Figure an hour round-trip from the Documentation Center for the full circuit. If you have less time, just look into the courtyard of the Congress Hall from the perch at the end of your Documentation Center visit and then walk the short way around the lake directly to Zeppelin Field and back.
In the 1930s, after becoming the German Chancellor, Hitler chose the Berchtesgaden region as the place to build his mountain retreat, a supersized alpine farmhouse called the Berghof — the Nazis' answer to Camp David. His handlers crafted Hitler's image here — surrounded by nature, gently receiving alpine flowers from adoring little children...no modern arms industry, no ugly extermination camps. In reality, Obersalzberg was home to a huge compound of 80 buildings — connected by extensive bunkers — where the major decisions leading up to World War II were hatched (some of which are open to visitors as the Obersalzberg Documentation Center and Bunker).
Some mistakenly call the entire area "Hitler's Eagle's Nest," but that name actually belongs only to the Kehlsteinhaus, a small mountaintop chalet on a 6,000-foot peak that juts up two miles south of Obersalzberg. While a fortune was spent building this perch and the road up to it, Hitler, who was afraid of heights, visited only 14 times. Today, the chalet is basically a three-room, reasonably priced restaurant with a scenic terrace, 100 yards below the summit of a mountain. On a nice day, the views are magnificent. If it's fogged in (which it often is), most people won't find it worth coming up here (except on David and Christine Harper's tours, which can make the building come to life even without a view). Bring a jacket, and prepare for crowds in summer (less crowded if you go early or late in the day).
Home to Picasso's Guernica, the Reina Sofía is one of Europe's most enjoyable modern art museums. Its exceptional collection of 20th-century art is housed in what was Madrid's first public hospital. The focus is on 20th-century Spanish artists — Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Gris, and Tàpies — but you'll also find plenty of works by Kandinsky, Braque, and many other giants of modern art.
This exhibit sits on the site of what was once the nerve center for the Gestapo and the SS, the most despicable elements of the Nazi government. This stark, gray, boxy building is one of the few memorial sites that focuses on the perpetrators rather than the victims of the Nazis. It's chilling to see just how seamlessly and bureaucratically the Nazi institutions and state structures merged to become a well-oiled terror machine. There are few actual artifacts; it's mostly written explanations and photos, like reading a good textbook standing up. And, while you could read this story anywhere, to take this in atop the Gestapo headquarters is a powerful experience. The exhibit is a bit dense, but WWII historians (even armchair ones) will find it fascinating.
"Auschwitz" actually refers to a series of several camps in Poland — most importantly Auschwitz I, in the village of Oświęcim (50 miles west of Kraków), and Auschwitz II, a.k.a. Birkenau (about 1.5 miles west of Oświęcim). Auschwitz I, where public transportation from Kraków arrives, has the main museum building, the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, and indoor museum exhibits in former prison buildings. Birkenau is on a much bigger scale and mostly outdoors, with the infamous guard tower, a vast field with ruins of barracks, a few tourable rough barracks, the notorious "dividing platform," a giant monument flanked by remains of destroyed crematoria, and a prisoner processing facility called "the Sauna."
Site of Hitler's Bunker
A short walk from Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe are the buried remains of the Führerbunker. Though this site is part of history, there really isn't much to see here beyond an information plaque placed near a parking lot — and that's on purpose: No one wants to turn Hitler's final stronghold into a tourist attraction.
A pilgrimage for many, this house offers a fascinating look at the hideaway of young Anne during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The Anne Frank House immerses you, in a very immediate way, in the struggles and pains of the war years. Walk through rooms where, for two years, eight Amsterdam Jews hid from Nazi persecution. You'll see actual artifacts: the secret bookcase entry, Anne's movie-star cutouts on the wall, and her diaries. The thoughtfully designed exhibit offers thorough coverage of the Frank family, the diary, the stories of others who hid, and the Holocaust.
Crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm, 9,387 brilliant white-marble crosses and Stars of David glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives to free Europe on the beaches below.
High in the Guadarrama Mountains outside Madrid, a 500-foot-tall granite cross marks an immense and powerful underground monument to the victims of Spain's 20th-century nightmare — its civil war (1936–1939). Shortly after this TV special was filmed, the Spanish government announced plans to exhume Franco's body for reburial in a more modest spot.
This Holocaust memorial, consisting of 2,711 gravestone-like pillars (called "stelae") and completed in 2005, was the first formal, German government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. The monument was criticized for focusing on just one of the groups targeted by the Nazis, but the German government has now erected memorials to other victims — such as a Roma/Sinti memorial nearby in the Tiergarten, and a memorial to the regime's homosexual victims, also nearby. The memorial itself is free and always open, but the information center underneath (also free) it is closed on Mondays.
Nazi Documentation Center (in Nürnberg)
This excellent museum meticulously traces the evolution of the National Socialist movement. Special attention is paid to Nürnberg's role in the Nazi movement, including the construction and use of the Rally Grounds, where Hitler's largest demonstrations took place. The museum is housed in one small wing of Hitler's cavernous, unfinished Congress Hall — the largest surviving example of Nazi architecture. The building was planned to host the mammoth annual Nazi Party gatherings. Today, it has been symbolically cut open by its modern entryway — exposing the guts and brains of the Nazi movement. Inside the museum, the exhibit is a one-way walk; allow at least two hours. WWII history buffs should allow an extra hour for the various 10-minute videos that play continuously throughout the exhibit, offering excellent insights into the mass hypnosis of the German nation. Exhibit descriptions are in German only, so the English audioguide is a must.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Fascism. We hear this word a lot lately. But just what is it? The word comes from the Latin word for this: a fasces. The idea? Well, you can break one stick easily. But when you bundle them together, they become very strong. And when a dictator convinces an entire nation to march together in lock step, they feel strong too. And, in fascism, the ax symbolizes that it's unity with discipline…brutal if necessary. I'm Rick Steves. And in this special program, we'll learn from the hard lessons of fascism in 20th-century Europe. Thanks for joining us.
With some thoughtful travel, we'll see how entire nations were first mesmerized and then led astray by their fascist leaders. Our journey will take us back nearly a century to learn how, in Europe, fascism rose and then fell — taking millions of people with it.
We'll trace fascism's roots during the turbulent aftermath of World War I as masses of angry people rose up, the rise of charismatic leaders who manipulated that anger, the totalitarian societies they built, and the brutal measures they used to enforce their ideology. We'll see the horrific consequences: genocide and total war. Along the way, we'll talk with Europeans whose families lived through those times…
Francesca: …and we have to be vigilant…
…and visit sites related to fascism.
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.
Imagine Germany after 1918. For four long years, they'd fought bravely — lost over two million men, and then surrendered. Veterans limped home to a country in shambles. Their emperor had been toppled, replaced by a weak democracy. Their nation was humiliated with especially harsh terms of surrender — including an Allied demand for Germany to pay costly war reparations. Cynical Germans were convinced their own leaders had sold them out and surrendered too early…they called it "the stab in the back." The economy was horrible — people needed jobs…terrible inflation wiped out savings…it took literally a wheelbarrow of nearly worthless currency to buy a loaf of bread. Germans had no faith in their government['s ability] 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. The book remains potent to this day — particularly for Germans, like Andreas Clemens.
Rick: Could Germans just buy this?
Andreas: Until recently it was illegal to buy or sell it in Germany.
Rick: So, if I was to read the Mein Kampf, what's the writing like?
Andreas: Well you can see that Hitler had problems with grammar — part of it is gibberish; it's very hard to get through. The book is one of the most published books in history, and every German household had that book. And they probably tried to read it and they gave up 10, 20 pages in.
Rick: And this, I would imagine, lays out the main points of the fascist future. What are those points?
Andreas: He's saying that democracy doesn't work, that it's a flawed system that can be manipulated by outside forces for their own gain; he's blaming communists for it — ultimately at the end of everything it's the Jewish "world conspiracy," so Jews are behind everything that's wrong with the world; that he has a solution for that, and the solution is fascism or National Socialism…and that he can make Germany strong — he can unite the country; he can unite the master race and get us back to our rightful status.
Hitler may have been locked up in prison, but he was tapping into ideas that had already been percolating in places around Europe. One of those was the country where the fascist ideology would first come to power: Italy.
In the center of Rome, capital of Italy, stands The Victor Emmanuel II monument. With its Altar of the Fatherland, it was designed to celebrate the greatness of Italy. And facing this monument, on Piazza Venezia, nationalists would gather to honor their nation.
In the 1920s and '30s, tens of thousands of Italians would fill this square to hear rousing speeches delivered from that balcony. The speaker proclaimed the greatness of Italy and promised them a glorious future. And the people followed. Once a rabble-rousing journalist, this charismatic speaker became their leader — "Il Duce." The man was Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini's rise, like that of Hitler, had its roots in WWI.
Alfio: 1918 is the end of World War I. There was a lot of discontent in Italy after World War I. The country was in pure chaos: very high unemployment, a lot of strikes, and was almost on the verge of a communist revolt.
Francesca: There was great disappointment — even the fact that Italy was on the winning side — it felt like it didn't get enough out of the peace treaties. They talked about the "mutilated victory" — that is the equivalent of the German "stab in the back." And so there was that and all the veterans coming back having fought in the trenches — for what?
Alfio: All the soldiers coming back from the battlefields were not really welcomed back. So there were a lot of street fights, and basically the soldiers came together in this party called "Fasci di Combattimento," and they had a leader, which was Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini capitalized on a deep-seated frustration among Italians. Italy was still a young nation, having only united in 1871. The surge of nationalism that came with unification left Italians hungry for greatness, but feeling disappointed. Its parliamentary democracy was weak, and ineffectual, and the economy was terrible. And, as with Germany, the Italians had just suffered through World War I — and people were angry about the way it was fought, and the way it was finished.
Mussolini seized this moment to launch a new movement: the Fascist Party. While Fascists won only a handful of seats, they were a potent political force — and a paramilitary one. Fascism was not just an ideology, but a campaign of physical intimidation. Gangs of armed, black-clad war veterans called "squadristi" — nicknamed "the Blackshirts" — wielded violence against their political opponents.
Francesca: Fascism starts as violence. I mean, how did fascism start? These were gangs of, in most cases, veterans of the war. They went around the streets beating workers up, beating up the socialists. This is how it started.
Alfio: The Communist Party was a threat during the end of World War I, and actually the Fascist Party was formed because of the clashes.
The Blackshirts broke strikes, expelled socialist mayors, and gave their base the promise of action. In 1922, some 30,000 Fascists descended on the nation's capital in a show of force — the so-called "March on Rome." Without firing a shot, Mussolini was handed the reins of power. Suddenly, Italy was under fascist rule with a bold — if politically inexperienced — new leader.
Piazza Venezia became the stage for a new, amped-up kind of nationalism. Mussolini loved big rallies, and from his balcony, offering big promises and simple solutions to complex problems, he whipped his followers into a mass frenzy.
Mussolini: …è già stata consegnata agli ambasciatori… ["it has already been delivered to the ambassadors…"]
They interrupted his speeches with chants of "Duce, Duce, Duce" — "leader."
Francesca: What I understand now is that it was like a collective dream. It was like hypnosis. Standing in the crowd of thousands of people all focused on one man, who was terrific at using his body, his facial expressions, and language, to reach their hearts.
Mussolini: … aveva Cesare, e Virgilio, e Augusto. ["…at a time when Rome] had Caesar, and Virgil, and Augustus."]
Alfio: They were going ballistic — even for a hand gesture, or a facial expression. Mussolini was an actor and when he eventually showed up in that window, and he stood in his typical posture, with his imposing chin, for Italians he was the personification of a greater Italy.
Francesca: He promised an Italy that would be great, that would be modern, that would be finally unified. Where there would be work for everybody.
For his first 15 years, Mussolini ruled with dictatorial power and impressive success. He pumped up the economy, created jobs, and invested in infrastructure.
Alfio: Costruire, costruire, costruire. Build, build, and build.
Francesca: In the beginning, I think Mussolini was able to garner so much favor because it really did seem that he was making this a modern country. A lot of building, a lot of modern infrastructure, jobs, homes — so, on the surface at least, it did seem like he was actually getting things done.
Alfio: So, Italians are happy at that moment because they'd come from the pure chaos of 1918–1919 to having jobs, and having a society that "apparently" works.
He energized Rome with grand projects like this Olympic stadium [the Stadio dei Marmi], which is still in use today.
Francesca grew up hearing stories of Mussolini. She shares some local insight.
Rick: This is an impressive stadium.
Francesca: Mussolini built this stadium to promote Rome for the Olympic Games, but also to promote sports and physical prowess as key elements of fascist ideology. These statues represent athletes, but they also represent the new fascist man. A man who is physically strong, proud, disciplined, but is also willing to support the fascist dogma: believe, obey, fight.
Rick: Believe, obey, fight.
Francesca: So these mosaics were inspired by ancient Rome, and they proclaim the greatness of the leader, and the achievements of the fascist Regime — military events, Roman salutes — and for emphasis, things were repeated: Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce.
Rick: Look at that… 10 "Duce"s.
Francesca: In fascism, belligerence is celebrated. Look at this: molti nemici…molto onore. "Many enemies…much honor."
Alfio: Mussolini's ego is…immense. In fact, one of the mottos was, "Mussolini ha sempre ragione." "Mussolini is always right."
Francesca: He certainly had a vision of himself as a Man of Genius with a capital G — a man who had a superior vision of society and the world.
Alfio: He truly believed he was a new Roman emperor. He wanted to somehow recreate this new Roman Empire. And he couldn't stand that Italy was not important any more in Europe.
Mussolini championed the revival of the glory of ancient Rome. He created this grand "Boulevard of the Imperial Forum" for stately and military processions between the Colosseum and his office in Piazza Venezia. He lined it with imposing statues of emperors. Absolute rulers enjoy each other's company.
Mussolini built a futuristic city at the edge of Rome called "E.U.R." This planned city is the architectural embodiment of fascism. The uniform buildings and the logical, grid-plan streets celebrate order and conformity, while echoing a powerful past and promising a glorious future. The centerpiece is called the "Palace of Italian Civilization."
Francesca: So, the Palace of the Italian Civilization was intended as a celebration of the Italian people and their many talents. But there's something about it — this monolithic starkness it has — that also reminds us that fascist ideology requires individuals to give everything up for the State.
With a populace tired of dysfunctional government, Mussolini rose to power with the promise of action. And throughout Italy, imposing architecture, like this train station in Milan, seemed designed to remind all that the state is more important than the individual, the state gets things done, and, of course — with the leadership of Il Duce — the trains will run on time.
Francesca: His famous sentence, "Trains are on time" — so an appearance of success…at what cost? The cost of personal freedom.
Alfio: People didn't have a choice to accept Mussolini as their leader. It was against the law to talk against the Fascist Party. Not even journalists were independent to write exactly what they wanted to.
Francesca: There was this famous fascist motto: "Everything for the State, everything within the State, and nothing against the State."
While Mussolini was forging the first fascist state in Italy, back here in Germany Hitler was taking notes. Once out of prison, he played on many of the same themes as Mussolini: 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.
Georg: So Hitler promised jobs, jobs, jobs, to everybody, and of course people needed jobs. That was exactly what they wanted to hear.
Andreas: Hitler promised the people everything, everything they wanted. He promised them a bright future, he promised them work, he promised them Lebensraum — "living space"…
Hitler was a powerful, mesmerizing speaker.
Holger: People were taken by Hitler's speech — not so much by the beauty of his arguments, but by his shear fanaticism, by his anger, by his rage, and his repetitive rhetoric. And people — eyewitness accounts — would describe it as barbaric, primitive effect.
Georg: What he was telling people was a disaster, but the performance he delivered was a big artistic show.
Andreas: He repeated a lie endlessly, and he didn't make it a small lie; he'd make 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: more prosperity and expanded borders for more room in which to live, or Lebensraum.
Andreas: Fascism is perceived as a strong movement with simple answers for complicated problems.
Georg: Giving simple answers and simple solutions — that's exactly what people wanted to hear, because they gave them the hope that it will change soon. Not in 10 years, but now.
He blamed Germany's problems on scapegoats — like Jews and Communists…fears that the Communist Revolution in Russia would spread to Germany. People were singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles…" — "Germany, Germany above all, above all the world"…and they trusted Hitler to take them there.
In 1932 the Nazi party won only about a third of the seats in parliament. But Hitler managed to take power. He put together a ruling coalition — partnering with conventional conservative politicians who figured they could control him. After struggling to find an alternative, German President Von Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler Chancellor in January 1933. It was the only way he could form a government with a parliamentary majority. 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 silenced. You can see the dates they were arrested, sent to concentration camps, and executed.
Holger: I think the rise of Hitler was done with a mix of two things. One is fascination, and the other is terror. So basically, give people something that they can believe in, by false promises; the other thing was, that whoever does not fit in will get beaten up, or put in prison, or killed.
Andreas: A lot of the Third Reich was actually based on violence, or at least the implied threat of violence.
Georg: There was a private army Hitler had. He had terror on the streets. He had a big protection of his political movement…
Andreas: And of course, people knew about concentration camps in Germany — for political enemies — and they were supposed to know, so they would keep their mouths shut.
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 began to lay out his plan for Germany and the world.
Inheriting a German economy suffering from the Great Depression, including an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent, 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.
Georg: The autobahn is probably the best-known example — the highway construction program of Adolf Hitler — that gave a lot of jobs to people.
Andreas: The autobahn was actually invented before the Nazis — one or two years before that, but the Nazis accelerated the construction of the autobahn to bring Germany to a more modern age.
Georg: They didn't have the money. It was all financed on credits — on a future war.
Andreas: Of course, these autobahns were empty, because until the war started hardly anybody could afford the cars.
Despite this new focus on jobs, and the German worker, the Nazis had no use for labor unions.
Holger: Well, fascism basically hates everything communist — or "Bolshevik," as they called it — so they would not like trade unions. They were not within the frame of the fascist movement.
Andreas: And so, what the Nazis did 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 hung over, more or less, they smashed the unions.
They replaced the now-abolished unions with the Nazi Party–controlled German Labor Front, which all workers had to join. Hitler spent large amounts of state money on a comprehensive state welfare program called the "National Socialist People's Welfare." 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.
Andreas: Corporations would support the Nazi government of Germany because it was good for their profits.
Holger: I think, you know, bigger corporations — the steel industry in Germany for example was a big one — they were afraid of communism for sure, but they also actually supported Hitler, because it was easier for them to make their business within a stable government.
One German industry that boomed was the auto industry, and one of the world's most famous cars was born during the Nazi era.
Andreas: The VW was the idea that it's an affordable car for everybody, that would then fill these Autobahnen.
With all this economic activity and employment, Hitler re-energized Germany.
Hitler: …weil ich zwei Schichten kannte, den Bauer und den deutschen Arbeiter. ["…because I knew two ranks: the German farmer and the German worker."]
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. In clubs called the "Hitler Youth," boys and girls pledged their allegiance to him.
Andreas: 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 that meant he was their leader, their Führer.
Holger: He coined the phrase himself, the Führer, the leader, as also establishing himself as a bit of new god for Germany. So, he was not part of democracy anymore — he was a god-like figure.
Georg: A fascist system needs a Führer. It's the big hero. It's a saint. It's the one and only [figure] people believe in.
Andreas: He has the vision for everybody and the others will follow him.
Andreas: Fascists believed in a fascist system — you can unite everybody that believes in the system. And it will be a strong — a powerful — system that can achieve complicated goals.
Georg: 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.
Holger: There was one phrase that was called "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer" — "one people, one empire, one leader." Full stop.
But there was a dark side to all this Nazi conformity. Individuality was lost.
Georg: 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, in [the] press…
Holger: Individuality was something that was deemed unfit for a German, basically, so what mattered was the Volksgemeinschaft — the society; the common denominator of the German people.
Georg: All people who tried to make it any different in their private life, in their professions, in the way to express their opinions — they all had to be stopped.
For the Nazis, the city that most embodied their sense of national unity was Nürnberg. Nürnberg, 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.
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 Nürnberg. 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 Nürnberg, that Hitler declared the Third Reich — a powerful German empire to last a thousand years.
When Hitler took power, he made Nürnberg'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.
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."
Thomas: 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 Nürnberg rallies, and then shown in theaters and schoolroom throughout the country. The goal? To bring a visual celebration of the power of the Nazi state to all 70 million Germans.
Nürnberg shows the enormous power of fascism's secret weapon-: propaganda.
Andreas: The media in Nazi Germany were controlled by the government — by the Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment in Berlin, headed by Joseph Goebbels. So, everything that was distributed to the people through the media was controlled from Berlin.
Goebbels used every means available to him. Along with the new and powerful media of movies he used traditional formats, such as newspapers, posters, and even postcards. And perhaps the most far-reaching was the new medium of radio.
Holger: Hitler was one of the earlier politicians to really make use of mass media that was just coming on, which was the radio. So, every German had in their household a "Volksempfanger" — the "people's radio" — so his speeches would get into every German's living room, basically.
Andreas: Within something like six years, the number of radios in Germany went from four million to seventeen million, so they could really reach almost every household. And people listened to the radio differently than they do today. If there was an important radio report, it wouldn't just be two people doing housework, or one person doing housework next to it, you would have the entire family there — [and] maybe the neighbors, if they couldn't afford a radio. So those were special events that appealed to the family community, that would appeal to the neighbors, so you would reach a lot of people through only one medium.
Looming over a now peaceful lake in Nürnberg 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 [it's] even more colossal.
Thomas: Imagine — 50,000 leading Nazis in here. One third higher, covered by a roof; a window inside the ceiling; sunshine would have 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."
By the mid-1930s, fascism was well-established in two of Europe's leading nations, Germany and Italy. Germany was booming, and building up its massive military — blatantly breaking the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The ideology of fascism was spreading, and the rest of the world was viewing it with alarm.
Expansionism was a key tenet of fascism. Germany first annexed neighboring Austria, then the mostly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia — the Sudetenland, followed shortly after that by the rest of the country. Italy, under Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia and Albania. In 1939, Hitler and Mussolini signed a treaty creating what they called the "Pact of Steel." Further west, Spain and Portugal were also flirting with fascism.
Spain, like other nations at the time, was making the awkward transition from 19th-century monarchy to 20th-century democracy. By the 1930s, it was governed by a modern but fragile democracy. By 1936, the Spanish people had become extremely polarized, as the old guard of royalty, military, and industry pushed back. Representing this reactionary faction, a military strongman, General Francisco Franco, invaded Spain from Spanish Morocco. Using colonial troops and borrowed Italian planes, he attempted a coup d'état. Like Mussolini and Hitler, Franco vowed a return to order and to restore Spanish power and national pride. But the democratically elected government fought back, and the nation descended into a bloody civil war.
Conservatives under Franco fought the liberal democratic government. It was a brutal war between classes and ideologies, dividing both villages and families. In three years of fighting, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards died. Franco used predictable strongman tactics — including intimidation by police and the military. Hitler and Mussolini, who mistakenly believed Franco would join their fascist alliance, threw gas on the fire.
One of the most tragic episodes of this tragic war was in Guernica, a workaday town in the Basque region of northern Spain. It was here that the world first witnessed the terrible power of the fascist state — a prelude to World War II.
Guernica was the capital of an independent-minded Basque community that stood up to Franco. To break their spirit, Franco enlisted the help of Germany's air force, and the defiant town was decimated in the world's first saturation aerial bombardment.
The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso heard the shocking news and immediately set to work sketching the destruction as he imagined it. In a matter of weeks, he wove these bomb-shattered shards into a large mural called Guernica.
In Picasso's masterpiece [now at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid], a woman looks to the sky, horses scream, a soldier falls — body shattered, sword broken. A wounded woman flees a burning house. A bull — symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby — a modern pietà. Picasso's painting put a human face on the horror of war, and threw a stark light on the brutality of Franco and Hitler. To this day, Guernica remains the iconic depiction of fascist crimes against humanity.
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.
Andreas: The Nazi's approach to intellectuals was to dismiss them. They played no role. A good way to describe it is, if you compare Nazis and Communists. A Communist needs an enormous bookshelf — he needs to start with Marx and Engels; he goes through Lenin; he has dozens of books up until the present day. The Nazi's bookshelf has Mein Kampf. And that is basically it.
The Nazi approach to art was the same. Only one style was acceptable.
Andreas: The Nazis' — or Hitler's — approach to art was quite simple. Their idea of art was to be as naturalistic as possible. Basically, blond, blue-eyed people doing field work. When you look at these pictures, you see the perfect German family, according to the Nazis. Everybody is tall, blond, blue-eyed, beautiful, in great shape, and this is the idealized version of the German people.
Holger: Anything else that would question society, or bring society forward — which art is quite well able to do — would just be deemed, like, unnatural or un-German — "undeutsch."
Andreas: What they did not like was complicated modern art — what they called "degenerate art." That is something they either destroyed, sold off to make some money, or kept under wraps.
Georg: In May 1933 Hitler was Chancellor for just a couple of months. We had the burning of books in Berlin, in München, everywhere.
Books that caused people to question the Nazi agenda were forbidden…and publicly burned with delight by Hitler's supporters.
Andreas: The books of left wingers, psychologists — for some reason Nazis hated psychology — books by Jewish writers of course: They would be publicly banned in big ceremonies…
Georg: If you have some books, titles, of those books that were burnt 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 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 illustrate the Nazi notion of a master race. Anyone who didn't fit into 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 traitor, law-breaker, foreigner, homosexual, and a catchall, "Asocial" — [for] anyone who would not conform. A special badge, the yellow Star of David, went to Hitler's lowest of the low: the Jews.
Andreas: 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 of the 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.
The Nazis started putting their anti-Semitic ideas into action as early as April of 1933, when they organized a boycott of Jewish businesses.
Andreas: He specifically blamed one group, the Jewish people, for ruining things for everybody else.
Holger: 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 led a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany. During Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass," as it was called, Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked. Seven thousand Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, and over a thousand 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 continued to spread, and its militarism threatened peace in Europe. While the whole world had gotten a preview of the horrors of modern warfare in Spain, that was just the beginning.
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. The military might of Germany seemed unstoppable. Employing their fast, "lighting war" technique called "Blitzkreig," 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 six 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.
As they entered these work camps, prisoners were greeted with a sign over the entrance: Arbeit Macht Frei — work makes you free. A cynical lie. Once inside, inmates were either worked to death or executed. New arrivals were sorted into two categories. Those who would be sent to the gas chambers immediately, and those who could work, [who] would live — at least a little longer.
Halls are lined with photographs of victims, each marked with dates of arrival and dates of death — inmates rarely survived more than a couple of months.
Up to a thousand people — each tattooed with an ID number — were packed into each of these buildings.
The gas chambers — where the mass killing was done — were disguised as showers. People were given hooks to hang their clothes on, conned into thinking they were coming back. (The Nazis didn't want a panic.) Then the inmates piled into the "shower room." In this facility the Nazis gassed and cremated over 4,000 people per day.
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 had seemed invincible. But after his ill-fated decision to invade the Soviet Union, Hitler was on his heels, and the tide was beginning to turn. From the frozen Eastern Front, the Soviet Red Army began closing in on Germany. From Britain, Allied planes bombed German cities. American troops swept up from the south, through Italy. Italian Partisans overthrow their fascist government, switched sides, and joined the Allies.
Defeating a totalitarian society like fascist Germany took total war, and victory came at great cost. To remember the final chapter of this story, we visit Normandy in France.
On June 6, 1944 — called "D-Day" — the Allies landed on the beaches of northern France and began fighting their way to Berlin. D-Day marked the biggest amphibious invasion in history. After a furious and bloody battle, they established first a beachhead, then a makeshift harbor, and the long battle to reach Berlin was underway.
The war raged on, even after it was clear that Germany would lose. Death camps sped up the mass murder. Millions of German civilians — as if hypnotized — continued to support their Führer. And great German cities like Hamburg and Dresden were destroyed under massive aerial bombardments — with huge civilian losses — as the Allies attempted to break the spirit of the German people who fueled the Nazi war machine.
Germany was overwhelmed as the combined military might of the Allies closed in on the Third Reich from the west, south, and east. Finally, the Nazi capital of Berlin was liberated by Soviet troops.
And both great fascist commanders met gruesome ends. In Italy, angry citizens turned on their dictator with fury — executing Mussolini by firing squad, then hanging his body upside-down for all to see.
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 six million Jews, the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of so-called "undesirables," over a million political and religious prisoners, and nearly nine million Soviet and Polish civilians.
With fascism defeated, many of its leaders and supporters had to account for their deeds. In Italy there were violent reprisals against former fascists, but few formal trials. In Germany, Nazi criminals had to face trial. The most famous were the Nürnberg trials, where 22 major Nazi criminals had to face justice from the Allied powers.
Europe's experiment with fascism left the Continent devastated, with entire societies needing to be rebuilt. Germany had to be reconstructed inside and out. Italy was left bloodied and weak. While Spain stayed out of the war and its dictator Franco would remain in power for the next decades, it also paid dearly — left isolated from the world community and behind the times.
The sweeping impact of fascism can be felt to this day in the many memorials across Europe that remind us of those horrific years.
It's felt in the German concentration camp memorials. They make us pause and attempt to comprehend the unthinkable numbers.
The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam humanizes the horror of the Holocaust through the story of just one of its more than 10 million victims.
At the D-Day memorials in northern France [such as the WWII Normandy American Cemetery, shown here], we try to appreciate the sacrifice it took to defeat the hateful ideology and re-establish freedom.
In Spain, near Madrid, a towering granite cross marks the Valley of the Fallen. Originally famous as the site of Francisco Franco's tomb, today it's considered a memorial to all the victims of Spain's devastating Civil War.
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.
Holger: If I ask myself "could it happen again?" I would say no…but it has happened in Germany, and it might happen again.
Francesca: So, if you bring all of these elements together, a moment of crisis, a strong leader who knows how to take advantage of the fear and you don't have a really true press where there's no exchange of opinions, I think there's a possibility for these things to happen again.
Georg: Fascism happened here in Germany, 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 school child learns of the Holocaust with a visit to a concentration camp. Nazi documentation centers in major cities [such as Nürnberg's, shown here] tell the story.
It's all part of an educational program to teach how fascism took hold here and how it led to some of the worst horrors in history.
Andreas: In Germany we definitely believe that education is one of the main ways to make sure something like this will not be repeated.
Holger: Because if you know what mechanisms were working and what mechanisms of economy and politics were at play in the 1920s and '30s then you can see what is happening today and try to prevent it.
Francesca: Education is everything. Even for there to be an electorate that is capable of thinking independently, you need that electorate to be educated.
Alfio: Focus on the education system. Make citizens more than consumers, and very importantly, having media that are not biased. Independent information.
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.
Francesca: When there's great fear of the future, where what people have feels threatened and they're afraid to lose it, then it's easy for populism to come into play, and it's easy for leaders who present themselves as interpreters of that to take hold.
Andreas: 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.
Francesca: Democracy is fragile, and it should not be taken for granted, so to defend it I think is important. I think we can learn not to follow leaders into the abyss and to maintain critical independent thinking.
As we've seen through the story of fascism in Europe, charismatic leaders rose to power through the democratic process and then seized extra-constitutional power by unlawful means. When citizens allowed leaders to do 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.