Did old ghosts drive the Nazi demons?

Nazi Germany
August 2, 1996

After the German invasion of Poland had plunged Europe into the second great war in less than three decades, W. H. Auden was writing sombre and ironic lines: Accurate scholarship can Unearth the whole offence From Luther until now That has driven a culture mad, Find what occurred at Linz, What huge imago made A psychopathic god . . .

Ever since, some scholars have attempted to fulfil Auden's mocking prophesy. In the extreme, the origins of Germany's Sonderweg, or special path to modernity, have been traced to the days of Luther or the Middle Ages, thereby pinpointing the ultimate root of the Nazis' rise to power. In this new history of Nazi Germany, Klaus P. Fischer is keenly aware of the fallacies of infinite causal regress - the tendency to explain every historical event simply by an earlier one. In simple political terms, he argues for the beginning of a significant divergence between Germany and the "European norm" after the unification of the empire in 1871. Rapid economic modernisation in a semi-feudalistic society, for example, may have played a role in the ultimate rise of national socialism. Yet for Fischer, whose earlier work was Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West, German culture, and not politics or economics ultimately prepared the ground. The Grimm brothers' fairy tales, replete with "bizarre physical and psychic cruelty", instigated the very obedience and disrespect for the weak in young minds that were later exploited by the Nazis.

Fischer therefore avoids the first trap mentioned by Auden, infinite causal regress, only to fall into the second - what might be called infinite psychological regress. Instead of scrutinising everything in a country's more distant past, Fischer shows an unusual determination to connect the most far-flung events in Hitler's early years with his heinous crimes, and to explain German atrocities by deep-rooted cultural characteristics. In 1918, while serving on the western front, Hitler was caught in a British gas attack (and temporarily blinded). Germany signed the armistice while Hitler was still recovering in a field hospital. Fischer now repackages Rudolph Binion's argument that the smell of mustard gas probably reminded the convalescent soldier of the iodoform used by his mother's Jewish physician in 1907, when she was dying of breast cancer. It is doubtful if such far-fetched speculations can serve any useful purpose; if they are presented as one of the main factors that led Hitler to favour the extermination of Jews, the result is preposterous. This is but one example of what the dustjacket calls "new insights into Hitler's diseased personality". None of these is based on new archival work; rather, weak psychological concepts are used to squeeze new meaning from details found in the secondary literature.

Dubious as these parts are, this should not detract from the fact that Fischer has produced a clearly structured and well-written account of Hitler's life, of the Nazi party's struggle during the Weimar years, and of German history between 1933 and 1945. For all its shortcomings, this book provides a good synthesis of many advances in historical scholarship over the past 50 years. To students, it will also serve as a useful example of how the search for a "huge imago" can obscure more than it reveals.

Hans-Joachim Voth is a research fellow, Clare College, Cambridge.

Nazi Germany: A New History

Author - Klaus P. Fischer
ISBN - 0 09 474910 8
Publisher - Constable
Price - £25.00
Pages - 734

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