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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.

1.

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.

  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.

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