‘Something rather magnificent’ about Nazi Germany

An essay for SBS television online written by Bob Wurth in conjunction with the series, Hitler's Bodyguards.

Robert Menzies was greatly impressed with much of what he saw when he and his wife toured Nazi Germany in 1938, although Menzies, then Australia’s Attorney General, did perceive an emerging dark side.

“I must confess that we were both glad to escape from the somewhat queer atmosphere of Germany…” Menzies wrote home, “Nevertheless, it must be said that this modern abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty and of the easy and pleasant things of life has something rather magnificent about it.

“The Germans may be pulling down the churches, but they have erected the State, with Hitler as its head, into a sort of religion which produces spiritual exaltation that one cannot but admire…” Menzies also admired Germany’s ‘tremendous motor roads’, good wages, lack of unemployment and absence of strikes.

As war clouds gathered, Menzies thought the Germans really didn’t want war. He backed Adolf Hitler in his grievances over Czechoslovakia. “I think they have far more justice on their side over the Sudeten problem than the Czech Government, which is, I think, behaving badly.”

Menzies’ letter to his sister Belle was dated August 6, 1938.  Just over 12 months later Menzies as Prime Minister announced that Australia was going to war with Germany.

Menzies was not alone in appeasing fascists. His United Australia Party predecessor Joe Lyons met Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini twice. Lyons sought to improve relations with aggressive powers. He lobbied Britain’s arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain to reach a peaceful settlement with Hitler at Munich in September 1938.

Labor’s John Curtin, an isolationist who became Labor’s Prime Minister in 1941, was an early appeaser of Nazi Germany, before realising his error. In 1935 he said: “Our business is to keep Australia aloof from the wars of the world.”

In 1938, just months after Menzies so admired Nazi Germany, a Swiss theology student, Maurice Bavaud, stalked Hitler with a pistol at the Fuhrer’s alpine retreat of Obersalzberg above the village of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. But Bavaud couldn’t get close enough to his prey. The assassination plan was foiled, as was an earlier attempt at Obersalzberg in 1928.

Hitler over the years had layer upon layer of security guards protecting him, as the SBS documentary Hitler’s Bodyguards reveals. He escaped as many as 40 attempts on his life. From 1933 Hitler began to develop his vast alpine village at Obersalzberg in what was to become the second Nazi headquarters after Berlin. It included Hitler’s impressive chalet, the ‘Berghof’. Henchmen Goring, Bormann and Goebbels erected their own grand chalets there. The extensive building programme continued until 1944.

In earlier days thousands of Germans would flock daily to catch a glimpse of the ‘Fuhrer’ as he took his after-lunch walk. Ten years ago I visited Obersalzberg and, like Menzies in 1938, I felt a jumble of emotions walking the paths Hitler had strolled amid magnificent pine forests, chalets and fields of the lushest green, overshadowed by soaring snow-capped alps.

Most reminders of the Nazis around Obersalzberg were bulldozed. But one of the grandest remains; the ‘Eagles Nest’ mountain top reception house (pictured below) with its panoramic views over the Berchtesgaden Alps at Kehlstein, which Hitler’s cronies built at huge public cost for Hitler’s 50th birthday. 

German and international tourists today take a road carved through the steep mountain and then ride a grandiose elevator, minus swastikas, but with its green leather seats and brass mirrors, up to the ‘Eagles Nest’, now a tourist restaurant. Like all nations Germany has its war memorials and statues. Nazi memorabilia can be found in some street markets. At Obersalzberg, I could only wonder if some came here feeling the awe and perhaps even pride in the power and skill of Germany’s Nazi regime, if not admiring their barbarous and treacherous methods. 

At least Germany has consistently apologised unreservedly for its past sins. Even the tourist brochure for Obersalzberg refers to immense suffering caused by the Nazis. In comparison, Japan is often reluctant to acknowledge past evils. Japan’s memorials, such as the naval academy museum at Etajima near Kure and the Yasukuni shrine museum in Tokyo, openly glorify past warmongers.

How much different world events might have been had any of those 40 assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler been successful; how much good the awesome German production could have achieved if it had been deployed peacefully.

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Robert Menzies (top) and Adolf Hitler with cheering crowds at Obersalzberg (above) and at the Eagles Nest (below).

(Above) Hitler in Berlin 1938.