May 20, 2007

Thoughts on Kershaw's Hitler

Adolph Hitler must amongst the most famous people in history today. Used by many as a personification of evil, and rightly judged one of the most awful tyrants who has ever lived, he has not lacked for biographers or for historians to chronicle his terrible deeds. Like a modern Genghis Khan, he stalks the stage of our imagination, his name forever tied to the iconography of Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust. Hitler's reputation is justified- and no reading of the evidence or the history can expulcate one of the greatest mass murderers in history- Hitler's grim attempt to wipe out an entire race is perhaps unique in human history- his place is assured in a contemporary circle of hell.

Making Hitler the embodiment of evil though doesn't help us much in trying to explain why he arose when he did. Why in one of the most civilised countries of Europe- Germany- did this monster seize control and why did so many Germans go along with and aid in his terrible and ferocious policies? This vast question has perplexed people since the fall of the Third Reich- Ira Katznelson has documented how a host of thinkers attempted to work out what had produced Hitler and why the enlightenment project had gone wrong. Philosophers and thinkers as various as Frederick Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Isaiah Berlin mused upon the development of Naziism and the fact that it had seized control of German life and destroyed the Jews.

Away from the philosophical aspects of the longue duree that produced Hitler, historians have also dug into the reasons for the temporary and bloodstained success of Hitler's regime. Amongst these one of the foremost is Ian Kershaw whose two volume biography of the tyrant straddled the millenium. I have only read the first volume and this post contains some reflections upon that volume but I make no apology for not anticipating the content of the second volume- nor for not representing all of what Professor Kershaw has written about in a vast and wonderful book about a nasty and terrible subject.

Kershaw's Hitler is fascinating for a number of reasons- firstly as those who know a little about Hitler may already appreciate, Hitler was the politician as megaphone. He was completely incapable of holding down any job or doing any work until he went in his twenties to fight in the trenches. Hitler's relationship to the First World War was profound: he emerged from being a footloose tramp in Vienna onto the front and discovered for the first time a purpose, a reason to be, a reason to exist. Kershaw shows us how Hitler was anti-semitic and had many of the views that he was later to hold before the war, but how the war and particularly the aftermath to the war crystallised them. For Hitler the crucial year was 1919 after the stab in the back (as he thought of peace in 1918) when he was used by the General Staff as an orator. For at last he had discovered his metier- making long and often hatefilled speeches against Marxism. In the crucible of this vital year, Kershaw suggests Hitler developed his views, views which he held in the main part right up until the fall of the bunker in 1945- definitely for the first time in 1919 we read rhetoric within Hitler's speeches about eliminating the Jews for instance. Hitler's rise was aided by the structures of defeat within Germany- by the fact that many within the army craved his ability to give speeches and win minds over against communism. In the chaos that ran up until 1924, Hitler was shuffled out of the army but into roles within the newly formed parties of the right- in particular the party that was to become the Nazi party- of which he became chair in an unpremeditated set of moves in 1923.

There was no plan, Kershaw argues, behind Hitler's rise. Much of the idea of a planning genius, a Fuhrer, arose later. The simple truth was that Hitler never had a great analytic understanding of politics and was bored by party work- consequently he was often caught unawares by events. He could have been stopped at many different moments- a long gaol sentence in 1923 after the failed Munich putsch could have prevented him from rising further and the Nazi party was an incoherent bunch of ne'erdowells inspired by his oratory but little else. Hitler's position within the party relied on the promotion of the idea of his leadership- as later in the Nazi state with the legal theories of Carl Schmidt and others- the Nazi party of the twenties was a vehicle for the leader. It lacked any ideological coherence or statement of principles beyond that it lined up behind Hitler as a figure. In the German state of the 1930s, Kershaw shows a key influence on why things happened was that functionaries sought to anticipate their lazy fuhrer- similarly in the Nazi party of the 1920s- Hitler was never in control of events and was far more interested in propaganda than in anything else.

This is an interesting portrait- I haven't captured half of it and will no doubt post more about Kershaw's work here- perhaps the most interesting thing is the way that Kershaw documents at length Hitler's evolving thought. He was born and brought up in an anti-semitic part of Austria and so absorbed anti-semitic ideas, despite having some Jewish acquaintances in Vienna, Hitler was latently anti semitic there and it merely took the war to crystallise that. The main thing that emerges from this is that Hitler was a fundamentally unimpressive man- he was no evil genius- but rather a man with little learning and no imagination but with a loud and insistant voice. His learning was particularly meagre- he never read but to reinforce his own views and relied on excerpting instead of reading things. He was a waster an idler and a scrounger who through the lucky accident of a war, a period of instability and the bad judgement of the German establishment came to power.

That is the last thing I want to write about tonight and that is the way that the German establishment of the time let this happen. From Erich von Ludendorff to Paul von Hindenberg and Franz von Papen the right of German politics continually aided and abetted Hitler's plans. Despite losing votes in the 1933 elections, he was called into government. It is often stated and is worth doing so again that the issue with the right in politics in Germany at the time was that they opposed Weimer and socialism so much that they saw no problem with Naziism. Kershaw shows how the regime swiftly eliminated opposition, how swiftly it made institutions coordinate with the central state and how the victims were naturally the Jews and the Marxists for whom noone would weep a tear. The story of mistakes and errors is worth telling again and again to make people realise that an ignorant corporal could become dictator with the right demagogic skills and the unwillingness to resist the executive power by most on the right and centre of German politics.

There is more to say- how could there not be but I will finish here- and will resume with another article soon- unfortunately I am again away for a couple of days but I hope these thoughts on the tyrant give you something to ponder and I'll be back on Wednesday morning!

13 comments:

james higham said...

Why in one of the most civilised countries of Europe- Germany- did this monster seize control and why did so many Germans go along with and aid in his terrible and ferocious policies?

The cabals funded him. I've just touched on it in the post but I could give fine detail. Plus, the German people wanted relief from the weimar incapacity - they were NOT funded.

After Versailles and the iniquitous reparations conducted by the same heads of conglomerates who then went on to use the BIP to fund Hitler and who have and had deep connections with Morgan, Dupont and others, which are families very much families very much cabalist in nature, it was no wonder it went like it did.

David B. Wildgoose said...

I read recently that William Shirer in his "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" blamed the rise of Nazism on the lack of a true Conservative Party within the Weimar Republic.

Political Umpire said...

No doubt the injustice of Versailles and the economic problems of German in the twenties and early thirties created the conditions which allowed someone who promised to stick it to the perpetrators of such misery to gain popularity. He is hardly the only populist to gain power without really having the wherewithall or indeed anything to suggest he could actually make good on his promises. That includes well-meaning populists and idealists etc.

What I have not understood is how and why Hitler convinced not only himself that he was a master military strategist but his generals as well. His self-confidence seemed to derive from the 1940 campaign, in particular the Ardennes punch that cut the Allies in two. That was Von Manstein's plan, not Hitler's, so although Hitler approved it against some opposition, he could hardly have concluded that it was he, not V. M. who was the genius. Ironically of course V. M. was one of the very generals on the Eastern front who Hitler ceased listening to, leading to the disasters at Stalingrad etc and ultimate defeat. (V.M. spent the rest of his life whining that if Hitler had listened to him, the Eastern War would have been won). But why did the generals put up with it?

The reasons I have heard are (i) a Prussianesque sense of duty to one's leader - but the coup attempt and the eventual capitulation of Paulus at Stalingrad were examples of how they would desert him at the last; (ii) the desire amongst the brass for personal advancement; and (iii) the fact that Hitler had led them to such victories before (but as I said they should have known it was not his idea - in fact if anything his pausing of the tanks before Dunkirk prevented Germany winning the war in the West). Indeed it was only really Hitler who believed the Russians would capitulate at the start ("if you kick down the door, the whole rotten structure will collapse"); the others figured that Russia's size and resources would be tougher than that. So I'm still at a loss as to why they so feebly toed the line into defeat; Shirer certainly blames them for not acting even before the war started.

Gracchi said...

Interesting responses I have to say firstly that I haven't dealt with all the detail of Kershaw's argument partly because I didn't have the space.

James Weimer is definitely a factor as is support from some big businessmen- though interestingly Kershaw suggests that very few originally or even quite late into the thirties supported him- it was more the association of small farmers which did. I wouldn't like ot dissent from a man who has read the evidence as I haven't so won't.

David yes there might be something in that- long time since I've read Shirer. Of course there was a 'rightwing' party that wasn't Hitler's the Nationalists led by Hugenburg- personally I do think that Streseman the liberal's death in 1929 didn't help matters nor did the fact that the right would never coalesce against Hitler they thought they could use him whereas in the end he used them

P-Ump good points about the Eastern Front- I'm no expert but there is also the question about why Hitler didn't make those into wars of national liberation against Soviet Russia- I think in the end ideology trumped everything with him and he had a couple of lucky throws of the dice. As to the generals I do think that the ideas around leadership in Germany at the time are key- the whole working to the Fuhrer thing was crucial. But it is an interesting question as to why they didn't do more- perhaps another article?

Thanks Chaps for interesting responses.

edmund said...

good review sounds like a book well worht reading even on someting so well tred.

A few thoughts.

ONe is I woudlnt exaggerate the incohent of the nazis certainly not idoelgoically. They certainly had their diffences (what sucessfull movment does not) but as far as i can see they had persit consnes around collectivism, paranodi anti-semtiicism, racialist soical darwinsim,oppostion to versailes, oppostion to liberla democracy, secularism, terroterial expansionaim and pro (right) natalism. obiou some of htier sneir figues and many of their upsport dissening from quite a bit of this- but as a momven they strike me as pretty coherent-compa with say german social democracy in that respect

Secondlyi'd be wary of disming hitnoer talents though i agre he was highly oppotunistic and no planning genius .not only did he have a clear ideologicla world view but he had very good poltical smarts- which is why he ended up as Chancellor with so many disadvatages. most of the truly great cin of history have high abilities if they rise from humble origins.

edmund said...

on the queston of hitler rise to power i want to point out 3 things

Firslty when conside why the "right" ( that is the anti-socialst parties and estabishment ) took hitler so unseriously and indeed naivey i think snobbery is a huge factor- they failled to take him seriously because he was so base born-and sonme of them paid for that with their lives, others with their country.

Secondly key to the rise of Hiterl is the utter uslesness of the German Right electally. Yes Hiter did not have an overla lmao but he was much stronger than any other party. Key I think is the leecoa uslessnes of the non nazi right-depsite in many repsects beig more typical of the average german right wing voter (not anti chriant by and large , pro monarchy ect) than the Nazis. I think Wildgoose question is well taken -though arguably it's every bit as much the lack of a Dutch style anti-Reovlutionary party!

Finally i thini popper's point that the communists were absolutely central has to be taken very seriously. by 32 they and the naizs by late 32 had a majoryt in parliament between them. with nazis and stalinists having a majoryt weimar was in my opin doomed (after all it was not even like in the minority there was that much enthaus for liberal democracy!!!)

moreover combined with theri contmpt for hiter the powers that be's actions can be sen as bieng motived by an itslef ratioal fear of the Stalinists -who after all had murded milliions of people already unlike the Nazis.

edmund said...

james i have to totally disagree wiht the idea the cabals wwere responsible for Versailles (that was mainly the result of war rage/ justice- the americans were a voice of rerlative restraint) or still less for hitelr acession to power- they funded the "mainstream" right massivley untill the nazis had won so many elections it became obvious the "mainstream" right were finshed

incidentaly gracchi i would be wary of the idea strauserman would have saved Weimar- he was highly nationalist and ambiguous on liberal democracy what he might hae done is provide an attractive authoritarian alternativeo to the Stalinsits and nazis ( not that hard to be better than that duo one would think)

As for why a civilsed country went for such a vile system-well civilixed people are capaable of many things. Germany was a stronghold in eurpe of many of hte ideas eg social darwinsin, romanticism, nietzchian uberman and seculari that were integral to the nazi ideology. There was a huge role of accident they took power- but in large measure they were as they were precisely because they were so modern and civilised.

Gracchi said...

Good points Edmund- I particularly agree with you that I overplayed the Nazi non-ideology obviously there was one and you are right to pull me up there.

As to Streseman- you may be right- is there a good biography in English? He is one of the more interesting figures of Weimer.

on the rightwing parties yes. The other key issue was Hindenberg who allowed Hitler in- Ebert wouldn't have.

edmund said...

I dont know that much about Strausman -not an expet but he was fully behind world war 1 the pre war system (bascially) etc indeed it was preci because he was such a strong nationalit he could get support for locarao-basically support for getting something for words! I don't think he was necessarily any more constitutionalist than Dolfus say -thoug obviously much more than Hiterl ( who could be less Tharlarman?)

i agree on Hindenberg and the role of agency in the Nazi rise i think myu popint about snobbery and electoral incompetence help explan him though?

What do you think Ebert would have done in the circumstances of the early 30's?

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Gracchi said...

Edmund- well Ebert might not have taken some of the steps that Hindenberg took which aided Hitler- particularly he might have pressed for a grand coalition which would have excluded Hitler and as the German economy was recovering by 1933 might have succeeded in staving off disaster.

Anonymous- your info on Genghis Khan is interesting- but I was only referring to his reputation. Radio 4's In Our Time did a good program on him recently too.

edmund said...

but dint the commu nists and the nazis have a majority between them? so how could you have a grand coalition?

i think in mamnyu ways its not suprin the largest part got power- particulary since they were playing down their most contoversial stances, much of hte epxlanation has to be how they got there

Gracchi said...

Depends when old fellow- they did in 32 when the Nazis didn't get power and Hindenberg ruled through Papen by decree but in 33 that was no longer true, the Nazis lost that election and went down from 37 to the low thirites and another coalition would have been possible.