The Burden of Guilt
The continuing preoccupation with National Socialism exemplified by the books listed above is entirely justified. The question “How did it happen?”, with its corollary “Can it happen again?”, is one which concerns us all. The more difficult problem is methodological: in other words, what form or forms of analysis are best calculated to help us “place” National Socialism as a historical phenomenon in the context of the twentieth century.
One thing seems clear. The purely descriptive or narrative approach, as seen in the full-scale histories of William Shirer or Alan Bullock, has carried us about as far as we can get by that particular route at present. This is demonstrated by Miss Vogt’s volume. Sub-titled “A Short History of Germany, 1914-1945,” it gives us an adequate account of Nazi Germany and its antecedents, but one that contributes nothing specifically new. What we require now, if we are to break new ground, is analysis in depth of the institutions upon which the Nazi dictatorship is commonly held to have rested.
For this reason there are considerable potentialities in the type of study the books of Mr. Zeman and M. Delarue represent. Disappointingly, their contribution for most serious purposes is smaller than one might have hoped. M. Delarue has had access to a certain amount of new information on the role of the Gestapo in occupied France; but for the most part his book ranges far and wide over the scandals and enormities of Nazi rule with little respect for relevance or accuracy. Mr. Zeman, a trained historian, sticks closer to his last; but his loosely chronological narrative does not go very far in analysis. Miss Vogt’s book, as its title suggests, falls into another category altogether. Written for use in German schools, its primary purpose is to demolish the myths which have distorted German history teaching in the past. “As a work of historical analysis,” Professor Gordon Craig remarks in his Introduction, “it is not free from faults.” But it is of considerable interest as an example of the interpretation of the Nazi and pre-Nazi periods current in the Federal Republic today.
For all three writers it is common ground that the Nazi dictatorship was built on a unique combination of propaganda and terror. Together, to quote Miss Vogt, “they formed a well-calculated part of the system.” The Gestapo, M. Delarue tells us, was “the central pivot of the Nazi state,” and the claims Mr. Zeman makes for the Nazi propaganda machine are scarcely less far reaching. It is true that it “required stiffening with a large dose of intimidation and terror”; but it occupied “a focal position in the Nazi scheme of things” of which “the practice of propaganda” was in “integral—we may even say central—component.” Never, Mr. Zeman believes, has “its cumulative effect been surpassed.”
These are familiar contentions, found in practically every account of Nazi Germany. They have been asserted so often that we have come to take them for granted. Now we look …