GERMAN NAZISM AND JAPANESE ULTRA-NATIONALISM OF THE 1920s

German Nazism came to power through the efforts of right-wing discontents; gaining quite the popular appeal, it gave rise to perhaps the most singularly ruthless regime in the history of Europe. During the same period, the Japanese Empire rose rapidly into international prominence, its leadership coming from a stabler base of decades of rising military power and influence. While German Nazism and Japanese Ultra-Nationalism shared a similar outlook on their nations’ and hence their ethnicities’ place in world hierarchy, namely Pan-Germanism and Pan-Asianism, the ruling powers within each country were composed of largely dissimilar groups that reached that status in markedly different ways; the Japanese ruling powers were military in origin with centuries of tradition behind them, while the Nazi Party was a much more recent brand of nationalism appealing to the middle class.

German Nazism drew upon roots found in the wounded pride of the German people. Rightists and conservatives were still unfamiliar with democracy—a monarchy had ruled in Germany until 1918. When Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and German officials surrendered to the Allies in World War I, many Germans saw this as premature and felt betrayed by the democratic constituency that remained in power after the abdication. The Treaty at Versailles compounded this betrayal and wounded pride—particularly its infamous ‘war guilt clause.’[1] At this point, the Nazi party was yet to come, but the foundation was being laid.

The influence of anti-Semitism and Social Darwinism were large contributors to Nazi ideology, and Pan-Germanism coalesced out of the propaganda crafted by Hitler and his Nazi followers.[2] Joseph Goebbels “…soon recognized Hitler’s political genius…” and headed the Nazi Party’s propaganda division.[3] The Nazi Party had a need for popular support that Hitler recognized early in his political career; this need drove him to advocate and elaborate on this idea of Pan-Germanism. With Goebbels at the helm, the Nazi Party’s propaganda division was fantastically successful at uniting the German people and driving  these ideals home. According Hitler and Goebbels, the German people did not accept Pan-Germanism despite the obvious racism implicit within them, but rather because of the racism and hatred ingrained in the propaganda; it was easy to unite against a common enemy, and the more clearly defined, the better.

In Germany’s post WWI economic slump, the working class struggled just to survive; eventually people began latching onto any political leaders they felt could restore Germany’s former glory. As the Nazi Party grew, it made appeals to the Freikorps and the common working man,[4] in what are now relatively standard tactics for any conservative party during a depression: bring the veterans and the average worker to your side. With the massive war reparations they were paying, the economic depression, and the hyperinflation of the German Mark in the early 1920s, it seemed inevitable that either the Nazi or the Communist party would seize power.

The Allied powers were worried about the spread of Communism, so they did little if anything[5] to prevent the Nazi Party from rising to power. Britain and the United States viewed Nazism as a sort of shield against the Soviet Union’s spreading influence. The Nazis themselves eventually outmaneuvered the communist groups in Germany, and did so despite setbacks including the arrest of Hitler and others for high treason at the Beer Hall Putsch. These setbacks proved minor, with Hitler developing his Pan-Germanist ideas and plans for assuming power while in prison.[6]

Utilizing propaganda as an integral element in their campaign, the Nazis adroitly crafted public perceptions to their own ends, cementing their power base during the depression of the early 1930s. The Nazi Party’s expansion and rise can be described as a grassroots approach, appealing to the working class the way it did,[7] although along the way Hitler likely sought the favor of the upper class. The Nazi’s and their disparate leaders were vaulted into power suddenly, in little more than a decade,[8] [9] quite dissimilar to Japan’s ruling power in the 1920s through to the end of the war.

Japan’s ruling power was not a political party, and did not gain its power through a revolution or by popular appeal. Instead, Japan’s military leadership became a reasonably solidified ruling class over the course of several decades.[10] Japan warred almost constantly with either China or Russia all through turn of the century, and Japanese conservative values were bound by long association to the military and warfare.

The internal politics of the military also had effects on its tendencies outside the military. Junior officers often explicitly rebelled against their senior officers, grabbing power for themselves and asserting control of various conflicts in acts known as gekokujo. The senior officers tolerated Gekokujo with admiration.[11] These senior officers presumably acted similarly toward the rest of the ruling class, including the emperor himself. This would easily explain the dominance of the military in the formation of the new Japanese government in 1889.[12]

In addition, Japan long viewed mainland China with longing, as is obvious from their concern over the Manchurian province and Korean peninsulas. As World War I ended, in response to a dominant stance from the U.S. Navy and shipbuilding efforts from the U.S., the Japanese began constructing eight battleships of their own, increasing their already formidable navy. Later, in a classic example of the aforementioned gekokujo, the Kwantung Army attacked Mukden in Manchuria in late 1931 without authorization. They easily defeated the unresistant Chinese, who were more worried about a conflict with the Chinese Communists, and the Chinese took their complaints to the League of Nations, where they got little reaction.[13] The Japanese continued onward in their dominant stance, attempting to ward off Western influence in the Pacific, and conquer as much territory as possible.

During this same period Japan began to adopt Western style political parties with a liberal move to manhood suffrage,[14] perhaps in an effort to convince Western powers of Japanese competence in the political realm. This created an air of legitimacy in the view of the western world by indicating a nation interested in not just an appearance of the desire for ‘self-determination’, but a procedure for the entire nation to, as a whole, contribute to its political processes. Conceptions of Japanese dominance over political and economic spheres of Greater East Asia were widespread and believed whole-heartedly at the time, but have since been buried, much like Germany’s guilt over the genocide.[15] The adoption of manhood suffrage linked the common man to the destiny of the country, and inspired a rising generation to an exceedingly nationalistic patriotism.

The ultra-nationalism of Japan arose a bit more gradually and much less deliberately than the Nazi equivalent. Japan’s support for Pan-Asianism and united East Asia didn’t last long as an honest gesture of solidarity with other nations, and instead became a hierarchical desire to dominate the entire region. This racism wasn’t as overt as the Nazis’, it was more of a de facto racism; former Japanese soldiers don’t refer to United States soldiers or any other enemies with any particular derision. Instead, their focus remains on positioning and material advantages—the non-human aspects of the war.[16] Racism was used to create nationlistic fervor. The Japanese military forces, and the general public, were fanatically devoted to the war effort, rivaling Germany’s Nazi soldiers for precision, rigidity, and orderly obedience to their leaders, except in the cases of the aforementioned Gekokujo. But these deviations from obedience usually sought to advance the war, and were expressions of Japanese superiority.

The Japanese took their cues from the Germans in many ways, but had their own motivations and cultural traditions. They did not experience an internal social revolution the same way that either Germany, Italy, or the Soviet Union did, theirs was more of a surface revolution, resisted and tempered by strong conservative values. It would take time for these social changes to cement themselves into Japanese thought, eventually replacing Japanese claims of supremacy among Asian nations in a much stabler process. Nazism on the other hand was expunged, deliberately, with many a war trial for years after World War II was over. Its ideological underpinnings were perhaps even more radical than the Japan’s, and had less social stability under them to begin with.


[1] Michael J. Lyons, World War II: A Short History, (New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004), 18.

[2] Lyons, 38-39.

[3] Lyons, 39.

[4] Lyons, 38- 39.

[5] Ibid, 53.

[6] Ibid, 38-39.

[7] Das Programm der NSDAP (“The Program of the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party”), Berlin [1933],  http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_holocaust/documents/part1/doc1.html (accessed 13 September 2010).

[8] Ibid. The date at the bottom of the page is shown as Feb. 24, 1920—Hitler was named Chancellor in January of 1933.

[9] Lyons, 41.

[10] Lyons, 44-45.

[11] Ibid, 46.

[12] Ibid, 45.

[13] Ibid, 49.

[14] Ibid, 46.

[15] Haruko Taya Cook & Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History, (New York: The New Press, 1992), 10.

[16] Cook, 17.

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Filed under History, Nazism, Politics, WWI, WWII

One response to “GERMAN NAZISM AND JAPANESE ULTRA-NATIONALISM OF THE 1920s

  1. Pingback: The really were “the greatest generation” | Dark Politricks

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