Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich is a fascinating book by historian David Clay Large. Written in 1977, it’s a gripping account of the post World War I beer hall culture of hysteria, inflamed passions, and power politics in Germany’s Bavaria, and its capital city Munich, where the beer hall was the fetid breeding ground for the rise of fascism.
I read it many years ago, but am reminded of the book when I watch Fox News. Indeed it seems Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and their odd assortment of on-air hosts and even more inflammatory guest experts, are digitally recreating the angry, inchoate political culture of Munich’s beer halls… right through our digital video screens.
If you’ve been baffled by the rise of Donald Trump, I suggest you look for the answer in the beer hall culture.
In Munich it was called the Volkish Movement. Now it is called the Tea Party. The similarities: the sense that the elites, intellectuals, and educated in power have sold out the people; the belief the institutions created by democracy impinge on personal freedoms; and the constant refrain that people must reclaim, by whatever means necessary, their lost political power. A perfect example of this was Fox’s obsession last year with western rancher Cliven Bundy, whose armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management’s agents made him a Fox folk (volk) hero for a few days…until he revealed himself to be a foolish, primitive racist. Too hot for even Fox News to handle.
The National Socialist Party (NSP), in their beer hall politics, would have embraced Cliven Bundy. He personifies everything they believed in. David Large writes that the citizens of Munich in the 1930’s felt “swindled and victimized by the central government.” Times were confusing. The war had been lost and the international forces arrayed against Germany were bleeding it dry.
The answers to Germany’s problems were hatched in these boozy beer halls. First, the NSP identified their reasons for the decline in German greatness and the loss of WWI. The list was eerily similar to Fox’s lament today: liberals and socialists, foreigners, elite intellectuals, and bohemian cultural practices. To this was added anti-Semitism. This was a particular German Catholic obsession dating from the beginnings of Christianity and has been left off the Fox News agenda…only to be replaced by anti-Islamism.
The beer hall solution? A return to the family, the volk, and anti-foreign everything. The NSP goal was to wrest control of Munich, then Bavaria and ultimately all of Germany from all foreign influencers. The deep-seated belief, given repetitive voice by Fox News guests, that Obama is neither an American nor Christian, would have been a beer hall staple.
Then, according to Large, the Munich beer hall leaders knew “The soul is easy to inflame.” Watching the Fox hosts continually display their ire over every action the government takes plays into this. Look at any random show. You can feel the anger in the constant display of head shaking, shock and incredulity. The screen is filled with scorn and outrage. Now is the season for “The War on Christmas,” a Fox News staple, a phony cause from the bottom of a beer stein.
Another key shared theme is victimization. Again, watch 30 minutes of Fox News and you feel like the victim of a vast conspiracy to take away your rights. Additionally, Fox portrays multi-culturalism and sexual equality as zero sum games.
Munich’s NSP staged their own putch, or armed revolution, in 1923. Angry and drunk, they exercised their second amendment rights. Although the putch was unsuccessful, the movement later hit its stride and by 1934 was embraced by the nation. The nightmare years began in earnest.
I have no idea what Murdoch and Ailes’ real agenda is. Perhaps it is as benign as high ratings and lots of cash. Perhaps it is just Murdoch being Murdoch — a loud tabloid voice using crass and simplistic explanations to sell advertisements. Perhaps he and Roger are thrilled at their power to create movements represented by would-be (Palin, Huckabee) and actual elected government officials who appear nightly. Perhaps they simply hate liberals, Democrats and Barak Obama. Who knows?
What I do know is, as Large’s book reveals, the climate of anger and hatred for “the other” can get out of hand. The beer hall politics of lies, half-truths and simplistic answers (like shut down the government, censor the internet, ban refugee Muslims from immigrating) can have a dangerous effect.
Just like in Munich, and then Berlin, there was always a sense of “Now he has gone too far.” When Dick Chaney denounces you, it just may be true.