Mandarins and Nazis: Part I

The Place of Fascism in European History

edited by Gilbert Allerdyce
Prentice-Hall, 178 pp., $2.45 (paper)

The Scientific Origins of National Socialism

by Daniel Gasman
American Elsevier, 240 pp., $13.50

Hitler: The Man and the Military Leader

by Percy Ernst Schramm, translated by Donald S. Detwiler
Quadrangle, 214 pp., $2.95 (paper)

A History of Modern Germany, 1840-1945

by Hajo Holborn
Knopf, 818 pp., $14.25

The German Dictatorship

by Karl Dietrich Bracher, translated by Jean Steinberg
Praeger, 553 pp., $13.95

The centenary of the foundation of the Second German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on January 18, 1871, was no occasion for celebration, but it provided at least an opportunity to take stock of the vast output of writing on recent German history and draw up a provisional balance sheet. My conclusion, after reading a score of recent books (some of which it is charitable to pass over in silence), is that we have gotten about as far as we are likely to reach along the road most historians have trodden since 1945, and that the time has come for new directions and new goals.

In saying this I am not, of course, presuming to pass judgment on a generation of historical scholarship. Nothing would be more arrogant or futile. Whatever else, the intense preoccupation of historians since 1945 with the Nazi experience—its origins and antecedents as well as its revolting brutalities—has brought together a mass of detailed information unequaled for any other comparable period of history. Whether it has brought more understanding is another question. In any case, we may ask whether the law of diminishing returns is not beginning to operate, whether historians are not starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. When the Olympic Games of 1936 are dredged up and exhibited in full array as “an obscuring layer of shimmering froth on a noxious wave of destiny,” it is time to call a halt and ask where all this is getting us.

I shall, no doubt, be told that there is always something to be retrieved from the inexhaustible reservoir of captured German documents. The question is what and how much. In the end little is gained if their exploration becomes a mechanical industry providing raw material for an unending series of dissertations and monographs which only embellish and amplify what we already know. Everyone is aware of the beastliness of Nazism; a few more illustrative facts do not add to our loathing; on the contrary, if they are piled up incessantly, the effect may be to dull rather than heighten our revulsion. This is something Richard Grunberger might have borne in mind before he set about compiling his huge scrap-book of the horrors and absurdities of The Twelve-Year Reich; it is a bit late in the day for 500 pages of scorn, contempt, and hatred.

In the end even the richest vein of gold-bearing ore is bound to be exhausted. What I am suggesting is that we are reaching—if we have not already reached—the stage where the few remaining nuggets no longer justify the capital outlay, and it is time to sink new shafts in different territory. Furthermore, preoccupations and preconceptions that were understandable in the 1950s are no longer necessarily the best guide for the 1970s. Confronted in 1945 by the horrifying reality of Auschwitz and Belsen, historians had every reason to concentrate on the central experience of Nazism. People not only wished to …

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Letters

Putting Hitler in His Place March 8, 1973