BERLIN — On the 80th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to always fight for their principles and not fall into the complacency that enabled the Nazi dictator to seize control.
Speaking Wednesday at the opening of a new exhibit at the Topography of Terror memorial documenting Hitler’s election, Merkel noted that German academics and students at the time happily joined the Nazis only a few months later in burning books deemed subversive.
“The rise of the Nazis was made possible because the elite of German society worked with them, but also, above all else, because most in Germany at least tolerated this rise,” Merkel said.
After winning about a third of the vote in Germany’s 1932 election, Hitler convinced ailing President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint him chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933 – setting Germany on a course to war and genocide.
“This path ended in Auschwitz,” said Andreas Nachama, the director of the Topography of Terror.
The Topography memorial is built around the ruins of buildings where the Gestapo secret police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office ran Hitler’s police state from 1933 to 1945. A stretch of the Berlin Wall along the edge serves as a reminder of Germany’s second dictatorship under the Communists in the 20th century.
Once chancellor, Hitler was able to use his position to consolidate absolute control over the country in the months to follow.
About a month after being appointed chancellor, Hitler used the torching of the Reichstag parliament building – blamed on a Dutch communist – to strengthen his grip on power. He suspended civil liberties and cracked down on opposition parties, paving the way for the police state.
By midsummer 1933, he had declared the Nazi Party to be the only political party in Germany. He later named himself “Fuehrer” or “Leader” of the country.
The fact that Hitler was able to destroy German democracy in only six months serves as a warning today of what can happen if the public is apathetic, Merkel said.
“Human rights do not assert themselves on their own; freedom does not emerge on its own; and democracy does not succeed on its own,” Merkel said. “No, a dynamic society … needs people who have regard and respect for one another, who take responsibility for themselves and others, where people take courageous and open decisions and who are prepared to accept criticism and opposition.”
Following the morning ceremony, Germany’s Parliament held a special session in tribute to those who died under the Nazi dictatorship.
Inge Deutschkron, a 90-year-old Jewish Berliner and writer, recalled Germans celebrating Hitler’s rise to power as she addressed lawmakers.
She remembered her family growing more tense over the subsequent weeks amid worries about Hitler’s paramilitary SA thugs who roamed the streets.
“Often, I couldn’t get to sleep in the evenings and listened for footsteps in the staircase,” she said. “If they were boots, I became afraid they could be SA men coming to arrest my father.”
Deutschkron’s father managed to escape to England shortly before World War II, while she and her mother were hidden by friends in Berlin for the final years of the war.
She recalled most ordinary Germans’ indifference to the fate of Jews, who were forced to wear yellow stars.
“The majority of Germans I met in the streets looked away when they saw this star on me – or looked straight through me,” she said.
And when she visited West Germany’s capital of Bonn after the war, she recalled that most “had simply erased from their memory the crimes for which the German state had set up its own machinery of murder.”
Deutschkron remembered West Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, saying that most Germans opposed the Nazis’ crimes against Jews and that many had helped Jews to escape.
“If only that had been the truth,” she said.
Geir Moulson contributed to this story.