A last word on the Führer and Third Reich

Hitler, 1936-1945
January 5, 2001

Ian Kershaw has long been recognised as the world expert on Adolf Hitler's role in the Third Reich. His earlier studies firmly established the concept of the "Hitler myth", the charismatic mechanism by which the dictator won and maintained his extraordinary power over the imagination and lives of the German people. His historiographical treatise on the Nazi dictatorship - much reprinted and revised since 1985 - remains the first point of departure on almost every aspect of the Third Reich. All of these works were written from a moderately "functionalist" or "structuralist" perspective; they stressed the importance of the contingent and contextual over the purely "intentional" in Hitler's role within the Third Reich.

In his massive two-volume biography of Hitler, the second of which is under review here, Kershaw faces a rather different exercise. His short study on Hitler (1991) for the Longman Profiles in Power series, was quite expressly "not a biography" but an examination of "the nature and mechanics, the character and exercise of Hitler's dictatorial power". Now he has to deliver the fraught synthesis between "structure" and "intention", which he had demanded in earlier works. It is a daunting task, especially in view of the large number of existing biographies of Hitler, some of which, such as those of Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, have long since attained classic status.

If Kershaw has succeeded triumphantly, it is not because he has split the difference between the various existing explanatory models, or taken refuge in equivocation. Instead, the author combines methods and insights in a neatly dovetailed text that blends chronological progression with extended analytical passages. As befits an enterprise that is as much popular as narrowly academic, the work alludes to, rather than spells out the great debates about structuralism, intentionalism, modernisation and the genesis of the Holocaust. It is based on a formidably wide range of manuscript, memoir, interview and secondary sources; and it takes congniscence of, without indulging the work of Hitler-apologists such as David Irving.

The guiding spirit of the book is historical rather than ethical or purely pedagogical. Hitler, as Kershaw tells us at the outset of his second volume, is "the quintessential hate figure of the 20th century" and "the embodiment of modern political evil". But he continues:"To call Hitler evil may well be both true and morally satisfying. But it explains nothing. A unanimity in condemnation is even potentially an outright barrier to understanding and explanationI My task has been not to engage in moral disquisitions on the problem of evil in historical personality, but to try to explain the grip Hitler had on the society that eventually paid such a high price for its support."

In short, Kershaw is writing in the best traditions of German historicism, in which past events are studied for their own sake and evaluated within their own context, rather than against some abstract universal standard. Since Kershaw implicitly rejects Daniel Goldhagen's view of the German people as a nation of long-standing "willing executioners", it is because Hitler was in many ways at odds with the progressive potential of German history, that Kershaw's portrait of him is the more devastating.

In important respects, Kershaw's biography comes down firmly against the structuralist explanation: "Hitler decided. That much is clear." His Hitler is no "weak" dictator. The first part of the book thus traces the rapid neutralisation of the last important autonomous power centres in Germany: the army and the foreign office, both of which were taken over by the Nazis in early 1938. But the process by which this took place was, as Kershaw shows, far from linear. Instead of being the result of an elaborate intrigue, the events leading to the removal of General von Blomberg, the strongly Nazi war minister, of General von Fritsch, the commander of the army, and of Konstantin von Neurath, the foreign minister, took Hitler genuinely by surprise. He ordered the dramatic ministerial changes as much to conceal his own embarrassment as to consolidate his personal power. While Kershaw is clear about the extent and centrality of Hitler's authority, this is always placed in the context of the wider complicity of German society and particularly German elites, such as the army and civil service. Time and again, he shows how Hitler was pushing an open door in his domestic oppression, his expansionist foreign policy and even in some aspects of racial policy.

Moreover, Kershaw shows how Hitler retrospectively approved, arbitrated or tolerated, rather than initiated many developments in the Third Reich. Much of Nazi policy was driven by what Kershaw - borrowing a contemporary expression - calls "working towards the Fuhrer". Party functionaries, state bureaucrats, ministers and even the generals sought to anticipate Hitler's known or presumed wishes. In order to make this battleground more intelligible, Kershaw takes the reader through the vagaries of the high politics of the Third Reich. The contours of the antechamber of power, in which the various actors battled for access to and influence with Hitler, are deftly outlined. Parts of the book, indeed, might be subtitled "Fuhrer, court and state".

As Kershaw shows, some of the most well-known episodes of the Third Reich were at least in part the result of such political stratagems. The Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, for example, was an initiative of his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and derived from his desire to recapture the ideological high ground with Hitler. Spectacularly less successful was the attempt of the deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, to re-establish himself in Hitler's favour by flying to Britain to bring about a negotiated settlement. In general - and here Kershaw is firmly within the "structuralist" camp - the process of "working towards the Fuhrer" tended to radicalise the Nazi programme more rapidly than Hitler had originally intended, rather than alter its direction.

What comes across particularly vividly is the primacy of foreign policy in Hitler's thought and practice. Having consolidated his hold on power within Germany, he was free to implement long-standing plans for Lebensraum , the racial conquest and settlement of vast territories in the east. In 1938, for example: "Hitler spoke practically of nothing else but foreign policyI Domestic issues were largely pushed to one side."

It was the need to preserve internal harmony for foreign political reasons that caused Hitler to evade a final showdown with the churches. Similarly, economic policy after 1936 was driven by the strategic quest for autarchy. After the outbreak of war, the conduct of military operations and of grand strategy became Hitler's primary concern and crowded out virtually everything else.

By contrast, Hitler neglected domestic policy. Here a chaos of competing power centres in economy and administration developed, not because Hitler was too weak to stop it, or even because he encouraged it - though there is evidence for this - but because he gave foreign policy and war a much higher priority. The result was a patchwork quilt of overlapping and conflicting authorities, ambitions and aims - famously described by one observer as a "war of all against all" - that belied the regime's reputation as a totalitarian monolith. Perhaps surprisingly, Hitler failed, to the despair of many, to "reform" society, administration and economy in the interests of greater efficiency. He refused, for example, to allow the abolition of redundant Prussian ministries whose work duplicated that of equivalent Reich ministries. He was also loath to allow the increasingly bloated party bureaucracy, controlled by the powerful Martin Bormann, to be pruned back.

Kershaw's detailed, nuanced and lucid treatment of racial policy and the Holocaust is in some ways the core of his biography. For, as the author repeatedly reminds us, Hitler, despite his known radical views, devoted much less attention to the subject than hindsight would lead us to expect. In 1937, he "showed little active interest and seldom spoke directly on the subject"; Kershaw speaks of "remarkably little direction from Hitler" by 1939; the radicalisations of 1940 were "for the most part without specific involvement of Hitler", in early 1941, "Hitler had authorised more than initiated", and in general, Kershaw notes that "in contrast to military affairs ... Hitler's involvement in ideological matters was less frequent and less direct". In fact, as Kershaw shows, Nazi operative racial policy was driven by the same forces as all other developments in the Third Reich. On the one hand, Hitler initially sought to avoid diplomatic tensions resulting from anti-Semitic policies; on the other hand, he treated the Jews as "hostages" against external threats, and he returned time and time again to his "prophecy" in January 1939 that another world war would lead to the extermination of world Jewry. But the decisive factor, as Kershaw demonstrates, was the attempts of the security apparatus and various branches of the administration to "work towards the Fuhrer". Hitler certainly sanctioned and approved these measures, but he did not actually initiate them.

This is not the same as saying that Hitler did not intend or know of the Holocaust. Instead, Kershaw expertly balances Hitler's own involvement with the complicity of the Nazi bureaucracy and other elite groups, including the army, thus drawing a much less fine line than "revisionist" historians would have us think. This enables him to put the fact that no specific order for the comprehensive murder of European Jewry exists in its proper context. Moreover, while Hitler forbade both public and private discussion of operative racial policy, Kershaw skilfully matches his heavily allusive speeches and asides to the various milestones on the road to mass murder.

Inevitably in a work of this scope and ambition, there are some weaknesses. The opening chapters, by contrast with the rest of the book, are slightly laboured. It is not clear why this volume begins in 1936 and not at the more conventional date of 1938, when Kershaw agrees that the outcome of the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis made Hitler's power finally "absolute". The question of whether Hitler's foreign policy followed a particular series of stages (Andreas Hillgruber's Stufenplan ) has not really been addressed in this volume. British readers may be disappointed to find so little attention paid to the question of a separate peace in 1940-41; the section on Hess's flight, on the other hand, probably has slightly too much dramatic detail. More prurient readers may feel a little cheated on Hitler's personal life. Finally, Kershaw's touch on military matters is a little less sure than usual. Had he consulted Karl-Heinz Frieser's Die Blitzkrieglegende , for example, he might have been less confident of Hitler's belief in a rapid victory over France. His assertion that the home guard formations of the Volkssturm "did not hold up the Red Army's advance by a single day" is unverifiable but probably untrue, given the fanatical resistance of some units in Breslau and Berlin.

But these and other criticisms pale alongside the magnitude of Kershaw's achievement. "At the age of 50," he writes, "men frequently ruminate on the ambitions they had, and how the time to fulfil them is running out." Surely it is not too impertinent to suggest that at least one of the author's ambitions has been realised? He has maintained the inherent drama of his story without lapsing into pathos. He has used the popular medium of the biography to make a large number of underlying debates accessible. He has shown empathy and understanding, where appropriate, without succumbing to apologetics. He has, in short, written an elegant, lucid and authoritative biography of this most fascinating and baleful figure in world history. This book is not likely to be bettered in the foreseeable future.

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis

Author - Ian Kershaw
ISBN - 0 713 99229 8
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 1,115

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