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The Nazi Disease

In response to:

Hitler's Master Builder from the January 7, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Geoffrey Barraclough has rendered a public service in definitively discrediting the historical value of the Speer memoirs [NYR, January 7]. But it is odd to find your reviewer going on to propound a theory of Nazi Germany, which less than two years ago, writing in the NYR (March 27, 1969), he was stoutly rejecting.

At that time he was willing only to raise the not quite mutually exclusive questions of whether National Socialism was implicit in German history, or was it an Irrweg, an aberration, or was it “the German expression of a more general malaise which had afflicted the whole of European society….” Claiming then that an answer was not yet possible, he nevertheless seemed inclined to favor the second idea, reject the first, and by implication accept some measure of the third; for if we can dispose of the implicitness of Nazism, we can certainly agree that the Irrweg may have had supranational origins and may therefore reoccur anywhere.

Thus, in support of the aberration thesis he wrote that the National Socialist system “was entirely the work of a small fanatical minority at the head of the Nazi hierarchy, who were certainly not representative of Germans.” In opposing the notion that the Nazi phenomenon arose from traits and trends peculiar only to Germans, Barraclough appended to the above statement about the “fanatical minority” not being representative an impressive selection of little known corroboratory data. With this material he sought to show that the German people were not nearly as Nazistic as is often supposed, and he concluded that such information constituted “sufficient evidence to suggest that a determined effort by the opposition to enlist support would not have been without response.”

Now, however, Barraclough has turned his old convictions, which may or may not have been correct, on their head. While retaining and strengthening his hold on the aberration idea as the centerpiece of the theory, he has simply discarded all thought of Nazi-like totalitarianism being a condition which may spring up in any country. Instead, he has hitched to the Irrweg the tired theme of a “common spiritual ancestry” in imagined explanation of the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Aberration, which was probably an unneeded concept in his old theory, now becomes either a glaring contradiction or a statement that the entire German nation is an aberration. But this does not seem to bother Barraclough. He appears rather to be more concerned with keeping his distance from ideas he takes to be “fashionable” (one could argue otherwise), and in the process goes almost as far as Norman Podhoretz went in 1963 when he called for an end to all discussion of at least the Final Solution, declaring that the Nazis were categorically “insane” and that there was nothing to be learned from the matter.

Accordingly, Barraclough, recalling the Irrweg, states now that “Nazi Germany seems to me to have been too much of an aberration, too much sui generis, to provide general lessons which we can readily transpose to other times and places.”

Apparently he has forgotten the convincing, if incomplete, quantification of German resistance to Nazism which he published in his earlier piece, for now he claims that “the dreadful fact is that no one was stirred” by what opposition there was, one reason being that “German resistance to Hitler lay in the fact that it sprang from the same roots as Hitlerism itself.” And these roots are somehow laid bare when we realize that even Germans who are diametrically opposed to one another reveal their oneness when they “commune with nature on the mountain tops and gaze down with dreamy eyes at ruined castles and the tangled streets of Germany’s medieval cities.”

What kind of historiography is this? It is the very kind which Barraclough harshly criticized in his 1969 article when he reviewed William Manchester’s book, The Arms of Krupp. There he scolded Manchester for what he had written on the question of German wickedness. Said Barraclough: “William Manchester has no doubt about the answer: The germ of all future evil was already there in the ‘tangled forests’ and ‘foul marshes’ where the primitive Germans foregathered…. Such judgments tell us more about the writer’s predilections—or (some would say) prejudices—than about the real problems of German history.”

Now it turns out that Barraclough’s quarrel with Manchester was that the cause of National Socialism was not Manchester’s “tangled forests” but his own “tangled streets.” What else can one conclude from the new Barraclough and his mystical statements about “common spiritual ancestry,” in explanation of “the German attachment to the past”; and about Nazism being “so deeply rooted in the German past”? Perhaps worst of all in this connection is his nonargument against what he calls the “congenial” view that we are all—German and non-German alike—in the grip of what he has someone else call “cosmic forces” but which in reality are the determinant influences of supranational and interreacting social systems. Here he put forward almost all the elements of the it-can’t-happen-here bedtime story. It can’t happen here, he suggests, because “the simple answer is that in fact this is precisely what it did not do.”

The United States, unlike Germany, did not produce a totalitarian solution to its between-the-wars troubles, argues Barraclough, neglecting to add that Italy did. England, he says, gave the world not an Albert Speer, but an Ernest Bevin, who—as if it means something—was a better organizer than his Nazi counterpart. And America’s reply to Hitler was Franklin Roosevelt, he continues, forgetting for a moment what America’s reply was to civil war in Vietnam.

Happily, he does not say that these non-events constitute the unequivocal proof that there is something especially wrong with Germans, since he tells us that he is aware that no one can forecast what may occur in some indefinite future. But, he has “more important things” to do, he writes in concluding his 12,000-word article, than to preoccupy himself with the Nazi past, which “history has passed by.”

All this merely means that Barraclough has changed his mind in the past two years. He does, of course, have every right to do so, and not the slightest obligation to tell us why. Furthermore, his turnabout does not seem to have had any significant bearing on his learned and devastating analysis of the Speer book, and this is something for which we should be most grateful considering the naive and uncritical acceptance it has enjoyed, not only in America but in Europe as well. It seems likely, however, that if Barraclough had been able to free himself from the “tangled streets” theory—that is, any theory which regards the Germans as the gatekeepers of all the world’s nastiest evils—he might have, calling on his vast knowledge of the subject, given us a less clouded picture of what two years ago he said we could not then know: “What Nazi Germany was really like.”

Robert Katz

Rome, Italy

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