An evil man or a man for wicked times?

September 25, 1998

Was Hitler an author of evil or a character in a baleful plot not of his own making? Ian Kershaw has some answers

As the year 2000 looms, there has been inevitable talk of who is the man or woman of the century. Hitler has figured on none of those lists. Presumably, we prefer to think of the "man of the century" as a power for good, not someone who embodies the face of evil. Yet, arguably, no one has left a mark on the century comparable with Hitler's. His 12 years of rule changed world history. The cold war that was his legacy ended only a few years ago. The moral trauma bequeathed by his dictatorship has still not passed. So the end of the century - in some ways his century - marks an opportune time to rethink how Hitler, and all that he brought about, was possible.

This cannot be done by focusing on the dictator alone. Biographies have been criticised in the past for over-personalising complex developments and exaggerating Hitler's own role and mastery over events. The converse has been to emphasise impersonal, "structural" determinants to the point where Hitler's role is played down and his actions are seen as largely shaped by forces beyond his own control. Both sorts of interpretation, taken to their extremes, can verge on the apologetic. Blaming Hitler for everything lets others off the hook. Playing down Hitler's own role can come close to letting him off the hook.

A recent attempt to "explain" Hitler sought the moment when the innocent child became the monster of history, the face of the evil that perpetrated the Holocaust. Such attempts are doomed to failure. No sudden metamorphosis in Hitler can be located with certainty. The reasons for the pathological anti-Semitism of the most notorious Jew-hater in history remain shrouded in mystery. But even if we did know precisely, it would not do much to explain the complex processes that produced the Holocaust - processes in which Hitler's own actions are often in the shadows. His direct role in initiating anti-Jewish policy in the 1930s was, for instance, very limited. But the drastic sharpening of repression nevertheless proceeded unabated. Paradoxically, therefore, concentrating solely on Hitler does little to explain Hitler. How people saw him and what he stood for is at least as important.

Locating Hitler's power in the expectations and motivations of German society that he tapped rather than risking an over-emphasis on his personality enables the expansion of this power to be seen through the internal dynamics of the Nazi state. Hitler's historic responsibility for the evil associated with his regime is not minimised. But it is clarified when we place it in the context of the actions, mistakes, weaknesses, and ambitions of others - not least of the German conservative elite close to the centre of power. This elite helped a political outsider gain total control over the repressive apparatus of the state then backed him, distancing itself only once his policies began to take Germany into the abyss.

A routine speech by a Nazi functionary gives the best clue as to how Hitler's regime operated, how the constant radicalisation of the system occurred and how the dictator could see his wishes fulfilled without necessarily having to dictate. It helps, not least, to see how the twisted road to Auschwitz could be constructed, even in the years when, as Hitler himself commented, he remained largely "inactive" in the "Jewish question".

"Everyone with opportunity to observe it" (stated Werner Willikens, state secretary in the Prussian Agriculture Ministry, in February 1934) "knows that the Fuhrer can only with great difficulty order from above everything that he intends to carry out sooner or later. On the contrary, until now everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuhrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals have waited for commands and orders. Unfortunately, that will probably also be so in future. Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuhrer, to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Fuhrer along his lines and towards his aim will in future, as previously, have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work."

As these remarks make clear, the Fuhrer's presumed intentions were to serve as guidelines for action, prompting initiatives from below. What corresponded to the Fuhrer's anticipated aims would gain approval and confirmation. The Fuhrer served in this way, without having to dictate or even initiate policy.

Since Hitler's intentions were usually expressed in broad ideological imperatives - "removal of the Jews", attaining "living space" - rather than in precise policy directives, the door to competing initiatives was open wide. In the case of party functionaries, and, above all, within the SS, "working towards the Fuhrer" could be taken literally, offering endless scope for barbarous initiatives that brought with them institutional expansion, enrichment and prestige.

For countless others, "working towards the Fuhrer" was often more indirect. The small businessman destroying a competitor by pointing to his "non-Aryan" background, the housewife denouncing the neighbour she disliked or the lawyer willing to override legality to cleanse society of "criminal elements" were all, in their way, "working towards the Fuhrer", helping, often unwittingly and without necessarily overt ideological motivation, to ensure that the "visionary" aims associated with Hitler of domination of Europe by a racially purified Germany were sustained. A green light from above was all that was needed. Once the brakes on inhumanity were released, the barbarity fed on itself in every spiralling radicalisation. The rapacious "system" revolved around the role of the Fuhrer, but its dynamic came from social forces that Hitler unleashed, though did not create.

This is not to offer support to the crude depiction of the entire German people as Hitler's "willing executioners", as simplistically advanced in the recent controversial book by the American political scientist, Daniel Goldhagen. Such an assessment does grave injustice to the complexities of life under Nazi rule. But it is nevertheless the case that if we hope to understand better the strange figure who left such a profound mark on history, we can do it only by understanding better the social forces that put him in power and kept him there for 12 baleful years.

Ian Kershaw is professor of modern history at Sheffield. His book, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, is published by Allen Lane The Penguin Press, Pounds 20.

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