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How Did it Happen?

The Burden of Guilt

by Hannah Vogt
Oxford, 318 pp., $6.00

Nazi Propaganda

by Z.A.B. Zeman
Oxford, 226 pp., $7.00

The Gestapo

by Jacques Delarue
Morrow, 384 pp., $6.95

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 forward to seeing them substantiated with chapter and verse. The outcome is surprising, if not disconcerting. Instead of substantiation, the result of the studies of Mr. Zeman and M. Delarue is to cast doubt on their validity, or at least to limit their application. Neither Nazi propaganda nor Nazi police organization, it seems, were as efficient as we have been led to suppose.

This startling paradox is not what either writer has set out to demonstrate, but it is the conclusion any attentive reader of their pages is compelled to draw. “Never,” according to M. Delarue, “has an organization attained…such a pitch of perfection in efficiency and horror” as the Gestapo. In fact, the impression left by his account is one of inextricable confusion. A “fundamental law” to delimit the functions of the various security forces was spatchcocked together in 1936; but, like so many Nazi regulations, it remained a paper constitution, dressing up crude terror in a semblance of order and legality. The reality was very different. Between the Gestapo, the S.S., the Sicherheitsdienst the Party, the Ministries, and later the Abwehr, overlapping and rivalry were never ending. “Each of these organizations became a private citadel belonging to its creator…and each of these potentates battled fiercely against those he suspected of being his rivals.”

In practice, of course, there was no particular reason why terrorization should require elaborate machinery. Hitler himself was under no illusions about this. The essence of his “so-called atrocities,” he said, was to “render it unnecessary to conduct hundreds of thousands of individual raids against mutinous and dissatisfied people.” In other words, the more indiscriminate the terror the more effective it would be. As for the elaborate super-structure, so far as it served any purpose, it was more to flatter the self-importance of the puppets at its head than to secure efficiency. In any case, the result, as M. Delarue states, was “a very clumsy machine.” How clumsy and how inefficient is shown by the fact that, after the elimination of Roehm, “nearly 150 S. S. leaders” were murdered by his enraged adherents, “but apparently the Gestapo was never able to identify them.” Nor does the story of the German resistance suggest that it improved much later on. It was easy enough to round up suspects after the event; but the fact that such amateur conspirators as Goerdeler, Hassell, and Beck were able to launch a plot against Hitler’s life is not much of a testimonial to the Gestapo’s efficiency.

The picture Mr. Zeman draws of the Nazi propaganda machine is scarcely less disillusioning. We all know the passages in Mein Kampf in which Hitler rhapsodizes about the importance of propaganda. But how did it work out in practice? The answer is something more slapdash and amateurish than we had ever supposed, a lack of consistency and a “poverty of ideology,” which reduced it to “an amorphous and opportunist set of ideas.” Hitler, as Mr. Zeman observes, could not be bothered to make “an effort to understand the political and social realities” necessary for effective propaganda; and Goebbels characteristically relied on a few shallow hunches.

If we follow Mr. Zeman’s analysis, the high point in the propaganda effort had already been attained by 1933. “After the National Socialists had reached their goal,” its “actual value…changed and even declined,” and already before the outbreak of war in 1939 “a certain exhaustion” and “thinness” were discernible. And yet the “technical equipment” at the disposal of the Nazis before 1933 was, in Mr. Zeman’s words, “primitive” and “slight”—so primitive that “they achieved power mostly unaided by the means of mass communication available at the time.” There is a paradox here which Mr. Zeman might have probed more deeply. If propaganda really “occupied a focal position in the Nazi scheme of things,” it is important to explain why it remained so “primitive.” Even after January 30th, 1933, after all, it was not conspicuously successful. By then most of the newspapers run by their opponents had been suppressed and they “had the broadcasting system at their disposal”; but “despite these advantages” the Nazis failed to gain a clear majority at the elections on March 5th.

It is, of course, true that the means at the Nazis’ disposal were circumscribed before 1933. They did not get access to the radio network until the middle of 1932, for example. But this alone does not account for the limited success of their propaganda drive. One factor, without much doubt, was that they were committed to crudities which misfired. There is little doubt that anti-Semitism was more of a liability than an asset; but they had to plug it just the same, in deference to Hitler’s immovable anti-Jewish obsessions. Furthermore, though Hitler may have been (in Alan Bullock’s words) “the greatest demagogue of all times,” he was in many respects a curiously old-fashioned demagogue. Goebbels saw in radio “the most effective means of influencing the masses.” Hitler’s ideas harked back to pre-war Vienna. A failure at the microphone and a man who “hardly ever listened to the wireless,” he was obsessed by the vision of heroic mass meetings and his ability to bend large crowds to his will. His virtuosity in this field is obvious; but it was a technique that looked to the past rather than to the future, and its effects were necessarily limited to his immediate audience, who for the most part were already converted to his doctrines. In fact, the jackbooted thugs who attended his meetings were the real Nazi weapon in the Kampfzeit. Violence had precedence over propaganda; or, as Mr. Zeman puts it, the S. A. ranked higher in the Nazi armoury “than Hitler’s speeches.”

There are therefore good reasons for hesitating before we accept the myth of the superlative efficiency of the Nazi machine. Before we do so, it would be well to make some pertinent comparisons. How did Hitler’s use of the technical possibilities of radio compare, for example, with that of Roosevelt or Churchill? Was the Gestapo more efficient than the Russian G.P.U., and if so in precisely what ways? Obviously these are questions that cannot be pursued here. It is sufficient to say that Mr. Zeman and M. Delarue do not answer them. Merely to assert that “the Gestapo bore no resemblance to any police force in civilized society” is at this stage not enough. What we now need is positive evidence. On what models, for example, did it draw? What contacts were there (the present writer has reason to think they existed) with parallel Italian organizations? Similar questions might pertinently be put to Mr. Zeman. There are hints in his book, for example, that the Nazis may have drawn on Russian, American and other propaganda techniques. But he does not indicate whether they improved on their models, or even whether they were successful in adapting them to their purposes. On the other hand, he does point out the singular lack of success of Nazi propaganda abroad, its failure to develop “a longterm and consistent strategy.” By and large, it would seem, those who succumbed to it were those—like Sir Arnold Wilson in Britain—who already accepted its arguments for reasons of their own.

It is necessary to insist on these facts because the questions they raise are not merely technical. If propaganda and the Gestapo were not the perfect instruments we have been led to suppose, we must evidently look elsewhere for an explanation of the hold the Nazis secured over Germany. Hitherto, in a sense, they have provided an alibi. M. Delarue, for example, asks rhetorically “What nation could have resisted the pressure?”, and even Miss Vogt suggests that skillful exploitation of propaganda and the Gestapo gave the Nazis a “dreaded weapon” with which “to control the thoughts and deeds of the citizens.” If we take another look at these familiar contentions, it is not to resuscitate the stale polemics about the “guilt” or “innocence” of the German people—unlike Miss Vogt, I am not sure that preoccupation with the burden of guilt is either constructive or healthy—but to get the phenomenon of Nazism into some sort of perspective.

To begin with, it is surely misleading to lump the whole Nazi episode together as what Mr. Zeman calls “a self-contained unit.” Ultimately, no doubt, the Nazis established themselves in a position where they could control the “thoughts and deeds” of the German people. The real question is how and when they achieved this result. The usual answer—to which Miss Vogt among others subscribes—is that the turning point was reached on January 30th, 1933. But Hitler himself placed the establishment of the dictatorship—what he called “the final stabilization of National Socialist power”—in the period between June 10th and August 19th, 1934; and there is no reason to question his assessment. It was then that the S.S. emerged as the central pillar of the new regime. It was then that the Gestapo—hitherto a semi-constitutional body still largely composed (according to M. Delarue) of “professional policemen”—was re-shaped by its new master, Himmler. And it was then that Goebbels imposed the Nazi image on Germany and carried through the assimilation between Nazism and the German people which was his most notable achievement. In this respect Miss Vogt, who places the greatest success of Nazi propaganda between 1934 and 1938, is nearer the mark than Mr. Zeman, for whom it had by then “lost some of its former value.”

If we turn back to the period before June 30th, 1935—the twilight period which began on July 16th, 1930 when Brüning began the rule by dictatorial decree—we find ourselves in a different situation and atmosphere, and we must be careful not to make the mistake of supposing that the means by which the Nazis retained control after 1944 were those which enabled them to assume power in the first place. It is altogether too easy to assume that Nazi intimidation and propaganda wore down the resistance of the Weimar authorities until the government proved incapable, in Mr. Zeman’s words, “of co-ordinating and directing the fight.” In fact, it was perfectly capable of checking the Nazis, if it so wished. This was shown by the banning of the S. A. and S. S. on April 13th, 1932, a measure which reduced Goebbels to despair, particularly as the party press also had not been doing “at all well.” What was lacking, in reality, was not the ability to bring the Nazis to heel, but the will. They were saved at the critical juncture by allies in high placess—in particular by Hugenberg, who placed at their disposal the resources of his great newspaper and cinema chains and engineered the “flow of money from German industry into Nazi coffers.” There was nothing inevitable about this, any more than the lifting of the ban on the stormtroopers and the granting of broadcasting facilities by Papen in June, 1932 were inevitable. They were deliberate strokes by hardheaded men whose set purpose was to destroy the Weimar republic.

The conclusion one is forced to draw is that it was not superlative efficiency—in propaganda or in anything else—that placed the Nazis in power, but a deliberate betrayal of the Weimar republic by the so-called “national opposition.” This may be a conclusion which the official historiography of the Federal Republic, which has nationalist objectives of its own to pursue, is reluctant to adopt, but the historian cannot do his job in kid gloves. To depict the “catastrophe” as a consequence of “delusions” and “misunderstandings,” coupled with bad luck and a “general decline of culture,” as Miss Vogt’s account appears to do, may spare hard feelings but leaves out the essential element of calculation and sheer ill-will. In the same way the phrase Machtergreifung, or seizure of power, which might legitimately be applied to June 30th, 1934, is entirely misleading as a description of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on January 30th, 1933. Hitler did not seize power on January 30th, 1933; he was given it. His appointment was one more episode in the tangled history of the so-called “national awakening” (in plain language, the revolt of the nationalist right wing against parliamentary and republican government); it was the third, successful nationalist bite at the Weimar apple after Papen and Schleicher had failed to digest the pieces they had chewed.

The basic fact which emerges is that a careful distinction must be drawn between the sordid period of “national awakening,” which ran from 1930 to 1934, and the full-blown Nazi dictatorship which followed. There is, first of all, the obvious difference that, whereas after June 30th, 1934 Nazi power, buttressed by organized intimidation and indoctrination, was pretty well unshakeable, in the preceding period, however much the Nazi grip was tightening, there was at least an outside chance that it might be broken. But the essential difference was in the position of the Nazis themselves. After 1934 they had captured the machinery of government and shrank from no expedient to retain it. In the so-called period of “national awakening” they were only one power among others in the state, and their role was more circumscribed. They appear on the scene as a gang of small-town thugs, who could perfectly well have been brought to heel. Instead they were enlisted by nationalists like Papen, Hugenberg, and Schleicher to stab the Weimar republic in the back. They did the job assigned to them, with relish and an exemplary lack of squeamishness. And if, having done it, they kicked their paymasters in the face and grabbed the spoils themselves, that was what small-town thugs might have been expected to do. “Without justice,” wrote St. Augustine, “what is a state but a great robbery?” Hitler and his gang hastened to prove him right; but others, who should have known better, have their share in the burden of guilt.

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