Under an Evil Star

Nazi Germany: A New History

by Klaus P. Fischer
Continuum, 734 pp., $37.50

The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution

by Henry Friedlander
University of North Carolina Press, 421 pp., $34.95

On June 14, 1922, a time of mounting inflation in Germany and growing dissatisfaction with the national government, then headed by Josef Wirth and Walther Rathenau, and following a policy of seeking to fulfill the terms of the Versailles Treaty, a group of Bavarian monarchists and other dissidents met in Munich. According to a secret Central European Summary of the British SIS, based on the notes of “a sure source” in Munich, those who attended included the former First Quartermaster General of the Imperial Army, Erich Ludendorff, the wartime commander of the Royal Bavarian Life Guard, Franz Ritter von Epp, now a free corps leader in Thuringia, the reactionary monarchist Gustav von Kahr, soon to be Bavarian State Commissioner, a Herr Mertl, “the confidence man of Bishop Waitz of Innsbruck,” representing the Patriotic Societies of Munich, and a Herr Pittinger of the Bavarian Bloc for the Maintenance of Public Order. It also included Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Munich section of the National Socialist Party, an organization that was still small, though growing, and whose guiding principles were not yet clearly defined.

The record of the meeting is worth close attention. After a report on the mixed reception of propaganda for a restoration of the Wittelsbach dynasty in the rural districts of Bavaria, the meeting turned to a discussion of the difficulties of forming a central organization for the groups working for the reestablishment of a strong Germany, given their number and their differences in tactics. It was suggested that compromise was needed, and concessions from the various groups.

This appeared to agitate Hitler, who, after some obscure interjections, seized the floor and shouted that the gathering was simply following in the footsteps of “the capitalist Jew-government” in Berlin, which had recently thrown him into prison because he wanted “to tell the truth to the nationalist proletariat.” (He had been jailed in January for disrupting a meeting in the Löwenbräukeller of an opposition group and injuring its leader, and had served four weeks of a three-month sentence.) There was nothing else to do, he claimed, than to unite for a time with the extremists of the left, “for the purpose of delivering them from the hands of the Jews and of making use of them later to get the power into our own hands.” Compromises were half-measures of which the nation had had enough.

This suggestion of possible collaboration with the Bolshevists caused a violent uproar and cries of “Throw him out!” The tumult was so great, indeed, that the speaker was requested by the chairman to leave the meeting, which he did with threatening looks, shouting, “You will live to regret the treachery which you are committing against the German race today; you will recognize too late what a power I have behind me.”1

Leaving aside what the incident tells us about the central position that anti-Semitism played in Hitler’s thinking from the very beginning of his career and his willingness to sacrifice political principle to tactical convenience, what is striking here is Hitler’s refusal to be awed by men like Ludendorff and Epp, who were, after all, national figures, while he was merely a former corporal who had gone into politics. Equally striking is his utter confidence in his ability to mobilize a force that would transform Germany. The extent to which that confidence was justified, the form that that transformation assumed, and the dreadful consequences that flowed from it have preoccupied historians for fifty years or more, and their findings have now been summarized critically and elaborated shrewdly by Klaus P. Fischer in a wide-ranging study that deserves, on scholarly and literary grounds, to be widely read.


It is hard for us to believe that the Third Reich lasted for only twelve years and correspondingly easy, because of the enormous amount of evil done in that short period, to turn the Nazi experience into the central event in German history. That is why historians of the rise and fall of the Third Reich have often been prone to what Mr. Fischer calls “optical illusions” and “fallacious or misleading theories of political causation and psychological motivation,” in which they assume that

such evil must be rooted deeply in German history and in the German character….At its most extreme, this has resulted in the practice of twisting many personalities or events in German history into a prefiguration of Adolf Hitler and Auschwitz. And what has been perpetrated on the past has also been extended into the future, for Hitler’s shadow is still stretching beyond the present….

This Germanophobe approach is opposed by the exculpatory one, which holds that the Nazi experience was a historical aberration, unrelated to anything in the German past or, alternatively, that its excesses were the result of misguided efforts to serve the German people and have, in any case, been exaggerated. This thesis, Mr. Fischer writes, is as inadequate as its opposite, and the attempts on the part of some to trivialize German guilt and responsibility by claiming Germans’ ignorance of what the Nazis were doing or insisting that other nations have acted just as badly as Germany (which was essentially the position of Ernst Nolte in the so-called Historikerstreit)2 are as unpersuasive as they are self-serving.

In his own account, Fischer has successfully avoided both extremes. He presents the record of Nazi brutality without any palliation, while attributing the rise of Nazism, and its acceptance by the German people, to the special historical circumstances that existed in the sixty years that preceded Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. More particularly, he demonstrates that the way to the evils of the Third Reich was prepared by the failure of the Reich of 1871 to overcome the deep divisions in society that resulted from its long-delayed unification, and the psychological effects of the military defeat of 1918 and the feeling of grievance aroused by the stringent terms of the Versailles Treaty. Added to these were the failure of the Weimar Republic either to resolve a deep-seated national identity problem or to master the economic difficulties engendered by the inflation of 1923 and the Great Depression of the Thirties. Finally, there were the charismatic personality of Adolf Hitler, who was able to exploit these circumstances for his own ends, and the myopia of the conservative-nationalist establishment, which encouraged and helped him to do so.

Of these origins of Nazi totalitarianism the most important were World War I and its aftermath. Although he refers to the Reich of 1871–1918 as a hybrid nation, whose modernization was held back by institutionalized feudalism, Fischer believes that Germany might have been able to make a successful adjustment to the challenges of industrial civilization had it not been for its military defeat. But he also suggests that the war and the defeat were in themselves made inevitable by the policies followed by Germany’s feudal regime to protect itself from change—by the espousal under William II of an imperialism that was intended to imbue the masses with national spirit and divert them from demands for social reform and by the willingness to leave important matters of policy, notably foreign affairs, in the hands of irresponsible ministries and officials, free of any parliamentary control. The celerity with which German intellectuals, including the cream of the academic establishment, abandoned liberal ideas after the victory over France in 1871 made these tendencies all the more dangerous, for the universities provided uncritical support for the swashbuckling diplomatic style adopted by the Emperor. Fischer writes:

Impressed by the successes of Prussian military might, many intellectuals became convinced that the essence of life resided in power. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, who warned his fellow Germans that power politics, unaccompanied by spiritual depth, would stupefy and brutalize the German people, nevertheless consecrated his own life to what he termed “the will to power”—a phrase later used with much fanfare by the Nazis.

This kind of thinking was not the least important reason for the euphoria with which Germans greeted the coming of war in 1914 and for the trust that they continued to place in the imperial government for the next four years. Fischer restricts his comments on the war for the most part to a spirited attack upon the German high command, the “military geniuses [who] bungled from one disaster into another.” But military mistakes were not unique to Germany, and much the same could be said of the French and British wartime commanders. What made the German soldiers special was their paramount influence in forcing the onset of war in 1914 and their skill in scuttling away from responsibility for defeat in 1918. They insisted that the civilian government appeal to the Allies for an armistice and then claimed that the army had been stabbed in the back.

Born under this evil star the Weimar Republic was plagued throughout its life by a host of other troubles. Its establishment on the ruins of the Empire was less a matter of deliberation than of improvisation, and even its most dedicated leaders, like Gustav Stresemann, came to accept it reluctantly and with a sense that it was merely the least bad of available possibilities. In its fledgling years it was all but over-whelmed by the draconian nature of the Versailles treaty and the debauching of the currency during the Inflationszeit; while its few years of prosperity ended in the Great Depression of 1930. German patriots were alienated by its apparent failure to win the respect of other powers; the older established classes rejected it because it disregarded tradition and history; the churches and universities were generally hostile to the cultural pluralism that it seemed to promote. None of its political parties was passionately devoted to it and some were openly dedicated to its destruction. Its death in 1933 was greeted by some Germans with foreboding but by relatively few with regret.

This sad story Fischer tells with verve and in great detail. Sometimes he resorts to a kind of characterological shorthand that may bewilder his readers. Why does he call the novelist and social critic Heinrich Mann “Thomas Mann’s renegade brother”? What is the implication of his describing the industrialist Hugo Stinnes—whom, by Fischer’s own testimony, Oswald Spengler considered the cleverest man he had ever met—as a “stuffed shirt”? And what is a “murky financial expert,” his characterization of Gott-fried Feder? Fortunately, this failing does not become a habit (although Ernst Jünger appears later, mysteriously, as “the German Maurice Barrès”). On the whole, Fischer’s treatment of the principal figures of the period is unambiguous and incisive.

Moreover, in demonstrating how the conditions of the Weimar Republic were ideally suited to the growth of Hitler and his party, Fischer is particularly effective in his treatment of the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the special importance of German youth. Even under the Empire, as he points out in his early chapters, animus against the Jews was a disturbing factor in German life, as it was in that of other countries. This was particularly true after the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, with their pronounced physical and cultural differences from the assimilated German Jews. It was probably with the Ostjuden in mind that Walther Rathenau, a Jew himself, once expressed concern that the Jews were becoming a “foreign organism in the German people’s body.” Even so, organized anti-Semitism was intermittent until after the military defeat of 1918 and the inflation period, when Jews were made scapegoats for every indignity that the country suffered, and the prominent role of Jews in Weimar culture led to accusations that they were deliberately propagating vice and moral degeneracy. The murder of Walther Rathenau in 1922, ostensibly by persons who considered it shameful that a Jew should serve as Germany’s foreign minister, was symptomatic of a grave change in racial attitudes. Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, therefore, fell on fertile ground.

Almost as ominous was the alienation of German youth from the republic. In Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus, the Halle student Konrad Deutschlin declares:

The concept of youth is a prerogative and a priority of our people, the German; the others hardly know it. German youth represents, precisely as youth, the Volksgeist itself, the German spirit, which is young and full of the future—immature, if you will, but what does that mean! German deeds always come from a certain violent immaturity, and it is not for nothing that we are the people of the Reformation.3

Fischer tells us that out of nine million young people in Germany in the 1930s, 4.3 million belonged to various youth organizations and that most of these opposed the democratic reforms of the Weimar period and had a marked preference for völkisch ideas and traditions. He quotes a Berlin pastor saying in 1932,

Because of the bitter experiences of unemployment of many of these youths,…political radicalism got hold of them by tying itself to all their favorite ideas. The idea of the leader became the promotion of the dictatorship of an unstable Austrian, the warm affection for the people became ice-cold anti-Semitism, the sticking together of the youth group turned into a vicious struggle against those who dare to disagree with them.

The alienation of young Germans led them to turn in thousands to Nazism, and this helps to explain why the army was reluctant to prevent Hitler from assuming power. In 1930, the British military attaché reported that officers were saying of National Socialism, “It is the Jugendbewegung. It can’t be stopped!”4

As for the “unstable Austrian,” Fischer seems to feel he has to pay deference to the various psychological theories that have been advanced to explain Hitler, and he makes rather heavy weather of them before concluding rather tamely that Hitler probably suffered principally from “the sociopathic or antisocial personality disorder”; that anti-Semitism was “the oxygen of [his] political life”; that he was incapable of forming loving ties, especially with women, and was given to manipulating all interpersonal relations; that he admired brutal strength and success; that he was given to “unrealistic fantasies and grand illusions”; and that the chaos of the postwar period in Germany made it possible for him to “normalize his pathology within a growing circle of like-minded believers,” namely the German Workers Party, which he joined at the end of 1919. But Fischer seems incapable of leaving it there, and later in the book comes up with a new list of symptoms and a new clinical label for Hitler, “sociopathic (criminal) personality.” Yet, as the careful reader will note, the book states explicitly that Hitler cannot be described as in any sense mentally deranged, and Fischer demonstrates that Hitler’s fantasies were not, in many respects, unrealistic, and that he “normalized his pathology” by giving superb leadership to a party that conquered Germany and made him its dictator.

This point is made abundantly clear in a fine chapter called “Who Supported Hitler?” in which Fischer writes that

it was Hitler’s organizational and charismatic genius that made it possible for the Nazi Party to attract a broad segment of the German population. Party membership lists and electoral data reveal that [it] was able to appeal beyond its hard-core followers and attract apparently incompatible social groups. Hitler seems to have known intuitively that voting patterns are shaped not only by class affiliation but by group prejudices. [He] reasoned that if he could successfully nationalize the masses, indoctrinating them with ethnic prejudices, he could effectively diffuse economic divisions and reintegrate heterogeneous elements into one national community (Volksgemeinschaft). He was right. Between 1923 and 1933 he created the basis for such a mass party (Sammelpartei), a concept so novel that it eluded the comprehension of most observers at the time.

Even so, this party, in its strongest electoral showing, in July 1932, did not succeed in attracting more than three in every eight votes. But, as Fischer points out, given the polarization of German politics, that was better than the average of any other party and made the NSDAP seem to be what Thomas Childers has called the “longsought party of the middle-class concentration.”5 As Weimar politics degenerated into a miasma of intrigue in the last months of 1932, Hitler had both the electoral strength that all his opponents coveted and the political skills that enabled him to outmaneuver the only group that might have stopped him, the reactionary nationalists around Hindenburg.

Fischer calls the state that resulted from the Nazi takeover at the end of January 1933 the Totalitarian Racial State, because the essence of its program was the institutionalization of racism and the promotion of human standardization. This was expressed most succinctly by Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, who once said: “The aim of the National Socialist Revolution must be a totalitarian state, which will permeate all aspects of public life.” To promote that end, the years between 1933 and 1945 saw the elaboration of instruments of control through party and state agencies, the development of ever more radical racial programs, and the mobilization of the economy and the masses for war and conquest. Fischer describes this process in a series of strong chapters, beginning with a discussion of the Führer and his style of leadership, the Party and the institutions of state, and the SS, going on to an extensive discussion of life in Nazi Germany (education, the family, the role of women, religion, culture, and the economy); and culminating with four substantial chapters on the road to war, the Blitzkrieg, the Nazi order in Europe (where the emphasis is less on relations with the occupied, dominated, and neutral states than on Nazi crimes and the Holocaust), and the years of defeat, from Stalingrad to the Normandy landing and the surrender.

On all of these topics Fischer has interesting things to say: on how, for example, Hitler’s bohemian temperament led him to prefer a certain slackness in administration, with duplication of functions among competing power centers, while never for a moment, however, throwing doubt on the centrality of his own position. The fact is that people like Goering and Goebbels and Himmler, however powerful in their own right, were nothing without the Führer, and it is astonishing that their loyalty to him never wavered until the very end, when Germany was falling to pieces around them.

As for the Nazi party, Fischer points out that its history “was no history at all but a series of dead ends and arrested developments.” The only truly revolutionary component, the SA—which Ernst Röhm said would “lift Germany off its hinges”—was crushed by Hitler in June 1934 out of deference to the Army, and the effect was to weaken efforts to achieve major changes in the country’s social structure. Fischer points out that while the party sought to infiltrate the traditional institutions of the state, the old elites, to protect their positions of influence and gain new powers in the years of expansion, grafted themselves on to the NSDAP. This was true both of the Prussian officer corps and of powerful modern industrialists. As a result, he writes, there was no leveling in the party, although that was the original promise. Instead, the higher the rank in the party the greater the proportion of the elite class in it.

In his treatment of life in Nazi Germany, Fischer writes that the regime “drew people out of themselves and involved them as coactors in a continuous series of grand spectacles arranged and conducted by a man with a flair for the dramatic.” This was, of course, true, and Leni Riefenstahl’s films of the great party festivals impressed many in the outside world and contributed to their reluctance to oppose Germany in any major way. Yet Fischer goes on to say that, perhaps as a consequence, “Germans rarely felt stable, relaxed, or at peace with themselves.” Starting in the late Thirties, secret police reports noted that there seemed to be a deep dissatisfaction among the population throughout the country, and a good deal of grumbling about party intrusions into private life and about fluctuations in economic conditions. Some people expressed fears that the regime would not last, and there was a not inconsiderable tendency to disobey prescribed practices and rituals and even to assist victims of persecution.

The Nazi secret services took the line that this was generally harmless and that there was no sign of fundamental hostility to the regime,6 but certainly the contents of their reports contradicted government boasts about creating a Volksgemeinschaft. Indeed, the question that lingers in the mind after reading Fischer’s excellent book is whether, in the long run, all the Nazi efforts to destroy the influence of the family and the church on education, to create a state-dominated youth culture, and to destroy traditional structures in the countryside and among the working class were not, in the end, selfdefeating. Weren’t they more productive of skepticism and individualism than conformity? And did not this have something to do with the speed with which Germans turned to democracy after the war?

Hitler himself, an Austrian who seems never to have developed any affection for the Germans and who blamed them bitterly in his last will and testament for never having understood him or worked hard enough to accomplish his ideals, seems to have been less interested in creating a new Germany (which was the goal of the true Nazi Josef Goebbels) than he was in conquering Europe and submitting it to racial cleansing. And starting in 1938, he put domestic tasks behind him and turned his attention toward that goal, by destroying the independence of Austria and Czechoslovakia and preparing the way for the conquest of Poland and the greater war beyond.


In his extraordinary Parisian wartime diaries, Strahlungen, Ernst Jünger cites an officer friend in the French capital telling him, after a talk with a theologian, that “Evil always appears first as Lucifer, only to turn itself into Diabolos and to end as Satanas.” Jünger added, “That is the sequence from lightbringer, to divider, to destroyer….” He was very impressed by the idea, and a few weeks later wrote. “In the case of Kniébolo [his name for Hitler], the transition from Diabolos to Satanas becomes ever clearer.”7 These entries were written at the beginning of 1942 and doubtless had reference to the activity of the extermination squads in the east which had been accelerating ever since the beginning of the Russian war in June 1941.

The roots of the Holocaust lay even further back than that, as Fischer points out, and his own brief account is now supplemented in an admirably researched study by Henry Friedlander, professor of history in the Judaic Studies Program of Brooklyn College in the City University of New York. Dr. Friedlander points out that the Holocaust was only the most extreme form of the idea that society can be improved by the forcible exclusion from the gene pool of undesirable elements, an idea that had its origins in Darwinism and biological-racial theories in the nineteenth century and the popularity of the eugenics movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the United States, eugenicists were for the most part interested in intelligence quotients and were driven by concern over what they took to be the degeneration of the lower classes. In Germany there was more emphasis on race than on class and much more hostility to racial hybrids (Mischlinge). With the rise of anti-Semitism, German “race-hygiene” (the preferred name for eugenics) tended to become a radical obsession, and it was significant that in 1931 one of the most prominent leaders of the Nordic superiority branch of the movement declared publicly that “Hitler is the first politician with truly wide influence who has recognized that the central mission of all politics is race hygiene, and he will actively support this mission.”

There was no doubt that this was true. As early as July 1933, a law was passed calling for the compulsory sterilization of persons suffering from congenital feeble-mindedness, schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, hereditary epilepsy, severe hereditary physical defects, including deafness and blindness, severe alcoholism, and other similar ailments. In October 1939, in an authorization predated to September 1, 1939, the day World War II began, in order to herald Germany’s “domestic purification,” Hitler inaugurated his program of euthanasia.

This began with the so-called “mercy-killing” of handicapped children, of whom at least five thousand were killed during the war, but it was soon extended to adults. Friedlander points out that, while it has been popular to describe the victims as mentally defective, this was not strictly true, and the list of patients included many suffering from physical defects who had nothing wrong with their minds. In a large number of cases, patients were chosen for euthanasia simply because they were “unworthy of life”—that is, they were incurable and unproductive and hence “useless eaters.” The medical justification of the program was largely bogus, and the “medical experts” “…applied a criterion in their ‘selection’ that was later copied by SS physicians ‘selecting’ at the Auschwitz railroad siding, and did so in an equally haphazard manner.”

In August 1941, because of public protests, Hitler issued a “stop order,” but the killing of the children did not slacken, and that of adults was, after a pause, simply shifted to the territories conquered in the east, where new centers were built. Moreover, the euthanasia program’s selection technique was used to comb out the inmates of the older concentration camps, while its method of execution, death by gas, was employed against the Gypsies (about whom Friedlander has many interesting things to say) and, when the time came, against the Jews.

One of the distinguishing features of this study is the meticulous description of the administration of the euthanasia program, which was housed in the Chancellery of the Führer, and the chain of command from Reichsleiter Phillip Bouhler down through the fourteen program managers, whom Friedlander does not hesitate to call bureaucratic murderers, to the supervisors and the physicians (simple killers with medical degrees, whose presence was required to disguise the true nature of the operation) and the nurses and the stokers, who burned the bodies and harvested the gold teeth. For those readers with strong stomachs there is also a moving chapter on the victims which leaves no doubt that Jünger was right about Kniébolo’s ultimate transformation.

  1. 1

    Great Britain. SIS, Central European Summary. 31 July 1922. Secret. Highly Confidential. Appendix: “Minutes of a Meeting of Bavarian Monarchists, Held at Munich on the 14th June, 1922.” This document was recently found in the Public Record Office by the British historian A.D. Harvey, who kindly made it available to The NewYork Review.

  2. 2

    See my article “The War of the German Historians,” in The New York Review, January 15, 1987, pp. 16 ff.

  3. 3

    Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer Verlag, 1947), p. 184.

  4. 4

    E.L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, editors, Documents of British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939, (London: His Majesty’s Printing Office, 1949 ff.), second series, I, 512 n.

  5. 5

    Thomas Childers, The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919–1933 (University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 262.

  6. 6

    See my article “Getting Along with Hitler,” in The New York Review, July 16, 1987, pp. 32 ff.

  7. 7

    Ernst Jünger, Strahlungen, two volumes (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1964), 1, 86, 122. See also p. 103: “What Jodl says about Kniébolo’s intentions is frightful.”