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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,”1 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.2

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 know how anything so beastly could erupt so suddenly; they also wished to know whether Nazism was an aberration or the end product of German history.

Thus the inquest on Nazism merged with the inquest on German history, and the whole period from 1871 to 1945 came under scrutiny. It would be absurd to suggest that the resultant controversies were unproductive, but it is also true that they were inspired as much by indignation, resentment, and parti pris as by a disinterested search for historical truth. English and American historians scoured German history for the “roots” of National Socialism; surviving German historians of an older generation indignantly rejected the suggestion that Nazism was inherent in German history and sought instead to show that Hitler’s seizure of power was a misfortune that might befall any people in the modern age. Left-wing writers indicted the Nazis as instruments of German capitalism; the right wing maintained that, on the contrary, they climbed to power on the shoulders of the “masses,” mesmerized and bamboozled by Hitler’s demagogy.

When the dust settles, the verdict on these controversies is likely to be that they engendered more heat than light. Nor, more surprisingly, has much illumination come from the attempt to understand National Socialism by lifting it out of its historical setting and treating it instead as a particular manifestation of a world-wide trend toward fascist or totalitarian rule. The debate on fascism is justifiable in itself and has produced some lively writing; but one has only to read the useful collection of representative essays edited by Gilbert Allerdyce3 to see that, historically, it raises as many questions as it answers. For one thing, as Allerdyce points out, it is still an open question whether Nazism—as most writers have assumed—was the ultimate “fulfillment of fascist potentialities” or whether it was really “an aberration from fascist norms.” And if it is agreed that fascism is an adequate characterization of Hitler’s movement in 1923, there is still the question whether it accurately describes the Nazi dictatorship as it developed after 1933.

Until such basic questions have been thoroughly ventilated, which is not the case so far, it is unlikely that general studies of fascism will cast much new light on the specific problems of German Nazism. What is necessary is a rigorous structural comparison of all different fascist (or putatively fascist) movements on the basis of a careful analysis of all available evidence. Unfortunately the pioneering efforts of Nolte and Weber to lay the foundations for such an analysis have not been systematically followed up.4 Instead, we have had a spate of endlessly repetitive accounts, loosely strung together, of the external history of different European fascist movements, of which H. R. Kedward’s is the latest and arguably the worst.5

The trouble, as Allerdyce says, is that historians, instead of relating the facts to an intelligible conceptual pattern, “use the term ‘fascist’ without agreeing how to define it,” while sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers “interpret fascism in terms of their own political beliefs” and “find in its sordid history confirmation of their own opinions.” No wonder that Mr. Kedward ends his desultory survey with the chastening confession that all “the real difficulties of interpretation and historical understanding remain.”

The current preoccupation with fascism has also reinforced the tendency, already strong, for historians to look for abstruse, recondite, and, if possible, psychological explanations of the German descent into National Socialism. There was a time when I was much impressed by this line of thought. Perhaps I was cajoled by the brilliance of its early exponents. Today I am not so sure. It is easy to see why writers struggling to distill the essence of fascism from a multiplicity of forms and variations should move away from the concrete to the abstract and from the historical to the psychological. But when I am told that fascism is, in the last analysis, a state of mind, my reply is that it is a long way from a state of mind to the concrete reality of Belsen and Auschwitz, and the road is not quite so direct or well signposted as people seem to assume. Nolte’s famous definition of fascism as “resistance to transcendence” may be profound; but just what it tells us about the Nazi seizure of power is not self-evident.

It is now thirty years since Rohan Butler inaugurated the endless search in the great quarry of German history for the “intellectual origins” of National Socialism.6 Since then the intellectual historians have had a field day. Fritz Stern directed us persuasively to the cultural pessimism of Langbehn and Lagarde, the emergence of a pervasive Social Darwinism, and Moeller van den Bruck’s vision of a “Third Reich”; Mosse turned our attention to the “Volkish interpretation of history” and the “Volkish ideology” of the German Youth Movement.7

These were enlightening studies, but the question is where to stop. Search the libraries and you will find hundreds of obscure Germans who scribbled obscure and incriminating thoughts, among them Ernst Haeckel, the once famous exponent of an exploded pseudo-scientific mythology. Eventually his forgotten corpse was bound to be exhumed and exhibited as still another archpriest of German infamy, and this is what Daniel Gasman has now done.8 And then there is the great anonymous cohort of professors, the “mandarins” of the German academic establishment. As a body, perhaps, they were more conformist than wicked; but were they not, nevertheless, through their abandonment of “intellectual responsibility,” the gravediggers of the Weimar Republic? So Fritz Ringer would have us believe, and he is a man of immense erudition.9 To me, I confess, it sounds suspiciously like blaming the defects of American education for My Lai. In a vague, transcendental way it may even be true, but it is not very illuminating.

No one can fail to admire the erudition, ingenuity, and combinative skill of these recondite essays in intellectual history. The problem about them, as J. P. Stern has said, is that they depend upon “an aprioristic concept of causality whose actual working is shrouded in mystery.”10 No one, for example, is likely to deny that the prevalence of crude “social Darwinist” beliefs among the educated (and semi-educated) German middle classes may have been a precondition—one precondition among many—for Hitler’s success. But when Mr. Gasman describes it as “one of the most important formative causes for the rise of the Nazi movement” (the italics are mine), I can only reply that he is making a gratuitous leap in the dark.

This is not to say that Mr. Gasman is not an intelligent and perceptive writer when he sticks to his last. If he had been content to give us an account of some of the aberrations of pseudoscience at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—there were plenty of them, in England and the United States as well as in Germany, every bit as absurd as the “monism” Haeckel offered as a solution to the “riddle of the universe”—we should be in his debt. It is when he tries to draw a line from Haeckel to Hitler that doubt creeps in. No one denies that Hitler picked up a smattering of Haeckel’s ideas somewhere along the line. His mystical belief in the laws of nature, as P.E. Schramm has pointed out, was nothing but “a variant of the monism so common before the First World War.”11 But it is another thing to argue, as Mr. Gasman does, that the “fundamental presuppositions” of Haeckel’s evolutionary monism were “obviously” and “in all important respects identical with those of fascism and National Socialism” and that there is “an uninterrupted line of development from one to the other.”

The “methodological fallacies” involved in this sort of argument have been pointed out convincingly enough in Schramm’s book. As a study of Hitler’s personality it may not be the last word; but it does at least make clear the futility of trying to “explain” Hitler by “focusing on his petty bourgeois origins” and “early environment,” or of attempting “to locate Hitler in terms of intellectual history.” Hitler’s mind may have been a rag bag of the half-baked philosophies of his youth, but “his most essential characteristics,” Schramm insists, “were singular and unique.” It follows that “all attempts to trace Hitler’s intellectual history from one or another source are foredoomed” to failure because the decisive factor was not the derivation of his ideas but the entirely personal “order and logic” he imposed upon them and the “grotesque combinations” into which “he arbitrarily forced them.”

  1. 1

    Richard D. Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (Macmillan, 1971).

  2. 2

    Richard Grunberger, The Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971).

  3. 3

    The Place of Fascism in European History.

  4. 4

    I am referring, of course, to E. Nolte, Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (Munich, 1963, translated in 1965 under the title Three Faces of Fascism, New American Library), and to E. Weber, Varieties of Fascism (Anvil Books, 1964).

  5. 5

    Fascism in Western Europe (New York University Press, 1971).

  6. 6

    The Roots of National Socialism (Fertig, 1941; reprinted 1968).

  7. 7

    Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair (University of California Press, 1961); George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (Grossett & Dunlap, 1964).

  8. 8

    The Scientific Origins of National Socialism.

  9. 9

    The Decline of the German Mandarins.

  10. 10

    J.P. Stern, Re-Interpretations, Seven Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature (Basic Books, 1964).

  11. 11

    Hitler: The Man and The Military Leader.

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