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Putting Hitler in His Place

In response to:

Mandarins and Nazis: Part I from the October 19, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of recent books on German history [NYR, October 19, November 2, November 16], Professor Barraclough tries to divide historians into two categories—“liberals,” whom he charges with the sin of nearsightedness, and “post-liberals,” who apparently are better scholars and have freer minds. The former, among other failings, consider the Nazi evil as either a genuine and specific product of German history (a good example would be Gerhard Mosse) or as a tragic aberration from the true German spirit (so Hajo Holborn). They also tend to “condemn rather than to analyze” the Nazi terror and, among other errors, they attribute the Reichstag fire of 1933 to a Nazi conspiracy and the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 to a well-coordinated action. Post-liberals, by contrast, coolly evaluate the Nazi contribution to German history, recognizing above all their revolutionary impact on the traditional structure; they refuse to be horrified by the terror of the Nazi revolution any more than by that of the French sansculottes, they recognize that much of that terror originated in confusion and resulted from accidents which the Nazi leaders exploited cleverly (one recognizes the school of A.J.P. Taylor, who also considers Hitler as nothing worse than an ordinary German patriot).

These statements are rather bewildering. Until the recent investigations by Tobias and Mommsen, both liberal and illiberal enemies of the Nazi regime attributed the Reichstag fire to a conspiracy; the most ardent champion of that thesis certainly was Willi Muenzenberg, the communist counterpart to Dr. Goebbels, and the thesis continues to be taught in East German schools although it seems to have become controversial among “liberal” historians in the West. Revision was prompted not by any Weltanschauung but simply by the opening of the archives. Likewise, the confusion and factional strife between the perpetrators of the Beer Hall Putsch have not been discovered by “post-liberals” but can be read in such “liberal” books as Eyck’s history of the Weimar Republic. If Professor Barraclough had to wait for the appearance of Harold Gordon’s book in 1972 to learn that Hitler “did not dominate…the movement,” I must wonder what books on German history he has read. To my knowledge no serious historian has ever claimed that the Beer Hall Putsch was a preparation for the revolution of 1933. On the contrary, all books stress the “break” in Hitler’s development after or during his prison term.

As to the question whether the Nazi seizure of power should be termed a “revolution” I think it is precisely the theory of Leninism which excludes such a view, whereas the “liberals,” who, after all, were the ones whom Hitler’s minions dispossessed, always complained about the social upheaval, the muscling in of the hooligans, the demotion of the old classes of tradition, education, and wealth. The question whether the Nazis achieved a revolution is however too serious to be answered by the glib statistics that “social mobility was twice as high under the Nazis as under the Republic.” What matters here is not that the in-laws of Dr. Goebbels became millionaires and that hundreds of thousands advanced to officer rank in the army or in the Nazi bureaucracy, but whether new relations were created between the holders of political and economic power, between leaders and masses, etc. While I incline to the view that the Nazis did cause some major structural changes in German society, I would not dare to categorize those who deny this as “liberals” or “communists.” Bert Brecht, for instance, held that Nazism was nothing but the ultimate form of capitalism. It is ironical, however, that Professor Barraclough quotes as witness for the “revisionists” Professor Dahrendorf—a liberal who would resent being called “post-liberal” and who certainly does not think that the Nazis were just ordinary German nationalists.

Most disturbing, indeed, is the revision which Professor Barraclough suggests for our attitude to terrorism and to the nature of the Nazi movement. It is impossible, nay historically wrong and misleading, or even slanderous, to compare the tricoteuses of the French Revolution with the Nazis—a crowd of outraged have-nots with the leaders of a supposedly patriotic movement. No Jacobin leader has condoned simple murder, as Hitler did, or assumed responsibility for political murder, as Mussolini did, or exalted the deeds of hoodlums in the street, as Goebbels did. Even the most heinous crimes of La Terreur were committed in the name of the Law and against persons convicted of specific crimes. Professor Barraclough ridicules the notion that killing people for what they are (rather than did) is evil. He dismisses as “demonization” the simple statement of fact that the Third Reich and its rulers were the totalitarian evil incarnate; but even Hannah Arendt—a “post-liberal” who insisted on the “banality of evil”—would not disagree with this statement.

Professor Barraclough makes much of the finding, recently confirmed, that the Nazi apparatus was not co-ordinated as smoothly as it had first seemed to outsiders. I am confident that inner frictions can be found in any huge apparatus, even in Stalin’s GPU or in the hierarchy of the National City Bank. But these organizations manage to appear to outsiders as monoliths, and in the Nazi case it is outright foolish to deny that the terror and the dictatorship had been planned in general long before the seizure of power. I agree with Professor Barraclough in refusing to accuse the revisionists of any complacency; historians have the duty to study the fissures in the monolith, and they have the right to “de-demonize” without being accused of exculpating Hitler. But this is not the question. The question is: does our more intimate knowledge of the Nazi movement’s weaknesses in any way negate its “totalitarian” character?

Expressed in terms of the political situation prior to the Nazi seizure, this means: was it correct, in 1930-1932, to point to the Italian example, to warn General Schleicher, Hermann Rauschning and the other patriotic gentlemen that they would not be able to use the Nazis and then to dismiss them, but on the contrary, that they would be used and then booted out? Were the Social Democratic leaders right or wrong in fearing that once the Nazis were in power they would not relinquish it again? I think that the same hindsight which now permits us to condemn the policies of the republican leaders also forces us to confirm their fears. The policies which the republicans followed, we now know, led to the worst of all possible consequences; but nothing in our present knowledge indicates that different policies, which I, among others, then advocated, would have led to better results.

In particular, it is quite irrelevant whether any Nazi plans, such as the “final solution,” had then been mapped out in detail or only evolved as opportunities presented themselves. Since virtually no one then thought of any “final solution,” it does not matter whether Hitler was thinking of it. Republican policies were based on what was known then, and that was quite sufficient to expect the worst, no matter whether one chose to consider the Nazis as “demons” or as simple criminals or, for that matter, as the running dogs of monopoly capital.

The only view of Nazism which I find it impossible to accept is the one which Professor Barraclough attributes to the so-called “revisionists” or “post-liberals” but which I would rather characterize as “British,” the view that Nazism was nothing much more than a particularly virulent form of German nationalism which has its place in the stream of German history as the Napoleonic wars have their place in the history of France. Just as French historians still quarrel about the question of whether their revolution needed to become imperialistic, so German historians will continue to debate the question of Hitler’s place in German history. But none of them is likely to deny that Hitler’s impact was enormous and extraordinary both in his own time and posthumously.

On the other hand, to deny, as Professor Barraclough does, that this traumatic experience is felt by the German nation as a deep caesura in its development means to blur all historical periodicity and certainly is tantamount to denying any meaning to such arbitrary categories as “liberal” and “post-liberal.” By suggesting a new “periodization” of German history—seemingly an innocuous device necessary to do justice to certain economic factors—Professor Barraclough in effect tries to wipe out the Nazi period as an experience which honest Germans reject as an aberration, and he also tends to minimize the impact which Bismarck’s violent and contra-revolutionary solution of the German question had on the subsequent development of the German mind.

Neither Bismarck nor Hitler were “natural”; in fact they came both from areas which had been colonized by Germans late in history, and they represented a strand of German character development which was able to become dominant only in periods when the deeply Western-molded main strand failed to make good on its promises.

Henry M. Pachter

The City College

of the City University of New York

New York City

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