Goodbye, Hitler

The Nazi Question: An Essay on the Interpretations of National Socialism (1922-1975)

by Pierre Ayçoberry, translated by Robert Hurley
Pantheon, 257 pp., $6.95 (paper)

I have myself heard enough about Hitler and the Nazis for a long time to come, and this thought-provoking book by the French historian Pierre Ayçoberry, admirably translated by Robert Hurley, has only reinforced my prejudice. The Nazi Question is not, thank goodness, still another history of Nazi Germany; we have more than enough of those. Instead Ayçoberry conducts us on a systematic tour of our “images of Nazism”—in other words, of the theories and hypotheses people have put forward to explain the Nazi phenomenon—and the result is devastating. Half-a-dozen analysts and historians emerge more or less unscathed; but a lot of established reputations (Hannah Arendt’s, for example) get a savage mauling. Ayçoberry is an iconoclast, a destroyer not only of established reputations but also of cherished beliefs. By the time he has finished, little we thought we knew about Nazism is left standing.

Beginning with the Nazis’ own image of themselves as members of a monolithic super-state, Ayçoberry establishes two fundamental points. The first is the sheer inadequacy of most current theories and images. Instead of “coherent analysis of the Nazi phenomenon,” we are fobbed off with bright and not-so-bright intuitions, glib generalizations, dogmatic assertions. This, perhaps, was unavoidable until the facts became fully available, but even in the 1950s American sociologists and political scientists were busy constructing theoretical models of fascism and totalitarianism “on the basis of a few rough observations,” with scant regard for “Germany’s uniqueness.” No wonder that “the trails blazed by the social sciences in the United States ended in impasses or in shaky hypotheses”!

But that is only a beginning. What becomes clear in addition, when we examine our images of Nazi Germany, is that almost without exception they are the work of men with an axe to grind. That is obviously true of the Nazi self-image of a monolithic super-state. Its speciousness was exposed by Franz Neumann as long ago as 1942, but it fitted in so well with what people wanted to believe that his arguments carried little weight. Instead, a whole generation of Western writers accepted the image and saw the Nazi super-state as the consummation of the long-heralded “revolt of the masses,” the embodiment of mass society, a convulsion (in Thomas Mann’s words) “of militarized crowds.” For the left, on the other hand, it was the product of a capitalist conspiracy, “a form of dictatorship” (the Austrian socialist, Otto Bauer, proclaimed) “newly invented by the ruling class.”

Nazism as a battlefield of ideologies: that is the picture Ayçoberry puts before us as he probes the ideological assumptions which shape and color the different images. The left used it as a stick to beat the right, pointing to the complicity of big business in the rise of Hitler. The right used it as a stick to beat the left, condemning Nazism as “a proletarian eschatology.” “Totalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses,” Hannah Arendt announced. One thing alone both right and left held in common …

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