In the introduction to his book about the popular appeal of National Socialism, Peter Fritzsche tells how in 1930, in a café in Munich, the photographer Heinrich Hoffmann showed Adolf Hitler the pictures he had taken of the excited crowd that had assembled before the Feldherrnhalle on the first day of mobilization for war in 1914. Hitler leafed through them and then said abruptly, “I, too, stood in this crowd.” An ardent Nazi himself, Hoffmann was excited by the thought of the political advantage that might be made of this if it could be proved and subjected his prints to painstaking examination, finally discovering the face of his Führer, disheveled and intensely excited, near the bottom edge of the last photo.
“This fortuitously discovered shot,” Fritzsche writes, “caught the precise moment when the Third Reich became possible.” That is perhaps too sweeping a statement, but it is not entirely wrong. Hoffmann’s photograph documents in a remarkable way the sense of national solidarity that marked the August Days of 1914, a feeling that persisted later through the long years of defeat, revolution, and political frustration as a memory and a felt need. As we look at it, we are reminded also that the unkempt young man in the corner of Hoffmann’s photograph would become the leader of the political movement that was to respond most effectively to that longing and, because it did, to win the mass political support that was not the least important factor in bringing him to power in January 1933. Why this was true is the subject of Fritzsche’s book.
Even if the war had not ended in military defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser, it would have changed the political culture of Germany profoundly. The bitterness of the conflict and the sacrifices it demanded strengthened the feeling of national identity, while defining it in increasingly populist and racist terms. The ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft was a product of the war, and the rhetoric that accompanied it encouraged Germans to think of themselves as citizens rather than subjects, inspired by an equal temper of heroic hearts, and as members of a compact that depended for its existence upon the achievements and self-reliance of ordinary Germans. During the war these ideas inspired a degree of voluntarism and civic activism that was unknown before 1914, when such initiatives were left to constituted authorities. They found expression also in the rising expectations of ordinary citizens and the widely held belief that the war would do away with traditional inequalities and forms of subordination.
During the revolution of 1918, these ideas persisted, and they did not disappear after Germany moved by way of anti-republican coups and the trauma of the inflation to the relative stability of the mid-Twenties. They animated in particular the mass of non-Socialist, Protestant voters in the small towns and rural areas of the country who in the end constituted the primary dynamic of German politics in the last days of the Weimar Republic. These were the voters who assured Hindenburg’s election as president of the Republic in 1925, an election widely misrepresented, in Fritzsche’s view, as determined by the longing for the good old days of the Empire. The fact that the same voters abandoned Hindenburg for Hitler in 1932 indicates, he says, that they were not looking for a return to the past but “fashioning a populist nationalism that Hitler ultimately embodied much more plausibly than Hindenburg.”
Why did National Socialism succeed in winning over these voters? Partly because of the proliferation of party branches in every part of the country (3,400 by 1929), and the Nazis’ success in ingratiating themselves in small towns (honoring local celebrities, sponsoring band concerts, erecting maypoles and Christmas trees, and otherwise being good neighbors). Partly also because of the sheer political energy with which they pushed their message (2,370 public meetings across Germany in 1925, 1,300 meetings in the last thirty days before Saxony’s Landtag election in 1929). More important, however, was their ideological appeal.
The Nazis, Fritzsche writes, “developed an image of themselves as a party that was constructive, that would move forward and bring Germans together in a militant Volksgemeinschaft reminiscent of August 1914.” This attracted middle-class women, who believed (falsely, as it turned out) that the victory of the party would give them once more the opportunities and responsibilities that they had enjoyed during the war. It also appealed increasingly to workers disenchanted with the doctrinal rigidities of the parties of the left and increasingly susceptible to Nazi slogans (one of every ten Nazi voters in the summer of 1932, Fritzsche claims, was an ex-Social Democrat). And it was a magnet as well to young people, who were impressed by the confidence in imminent victory that characterized the mass rallies of the party and were not put off by the brutality with which Nazis dealt with their opponents.
The party profited from the fact that its conservative rivals seemed incorrigibly tied to the past, while the Social Democrats were timid and unimaginative in the solutions they offered for the country’s economic ills. In contrast, the Nazis claimed to speak for the future, for a radical reformation of the nation that would give all Germans an equal place in the new Volksgemeinschaft. This new Germany would be as technologically advanced as any other nation on earth and would guarantee social justice to all of its members, provided, of course, they had the proper völkisch credentials. The envisaged economic reforms were not clearly stated, but this vagueness was obscured by the nationalistic rhetoric in which they were presented.
Fritzsche is firm in insisting that it was not an accident that so many Germans became Nazis. Nor was it the result of the Versailles Treaty, or the inadequacy of the Republic and its leaders, or the Inflationszeit, or the Great Depression. Anti-Semitism, he says several times, had little to do with their support of Nazism, although most Germans learned to live with it in exacerbated forms after 1933. On the contrary, he writes, “It should be stated clearly that Germans became Nazis because they wanted to become Nazis and because the Nazis spoke so well to their interests and inclinations.” Or, more precisely, the Nazis responded effectively to broad demands for popular sovereignty and social recognition, while insisting that “these could only be achieved through national union, which would provide Germans with an embrasive [sic] sense of collective identity and a strong role in international politics.”
Fritzsche’s book suffers from its flat and repetitive style and the fact that he has very little (and nothing very interesting) to say about Adolf Hitler. These complaints cannot be made about the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s biography, in which the Nazi leader is rarely far from the center of the stage, and which is written in a prose that is clear and direct and a pleasure to read. There can be little doubt that this will become the classic Hitler biography of our time, not only because of the author’s mastery of the sources and of the staggeringly voluminous secondary literature, but because he has corrected and amplified the historical record and significantly altered the perspective from which Hitler and his actions have been seen by previous biographers.
For the greatest of these, Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, Hitler was always the prime mover in the events described. Bullock made this clear even in his title, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Fest’s more psychological approach heightened this tendency, and it is significant that, perhaps under the influence of Burckhardt, he devoted a good deal of space to the question of whether Hitler could be considered to possess historical greatness. Kershaw believes that this question is both irrelevant and potentially an apology for Hitler and that, given what we now know about the social history of Germany in the first half of this century, it is not enough to think of Hitler as the author of his own destiny. What is required of the modern biographer, he writes, is an examination of Hitler’s power—“how he came to get it, what its character was, how he exercised it, why he was allowed to expand it to break all institutional barriers, why resistance to that power was so feeble.” And these, he adds, are questions that cannot be answered by focusing exclusively on Hitler, but only by analyzing German society.
Hitler’s own attempts to portray his career as a triumph of the will Kershaw views with the most extreme skepticism. Hitler claims in Mein Kampf that his despair over the state of his country in 1918 and 1919 made him decide to become a politician. In a brilliant reconstruction of the events in Munich in 1919, however, Kershaw shows that during the revolutionary troubles Hitler was without political conviction or initiative and intent only upon avoiding anything that would lead to his being mustered out of the army and returned to civilian life. He was saved from this when Captain Karl Mayr, the head of the army’s Information Department in Munich, sent him to an anti-Bolshevik instruction course in the university and then used him as an instructor to indoctrinate troops. This led adventitiously to his involvement with Anton Drexler’s German Workers Party, where his political career began. But none of this was determined by a sense of mission on Hitler’s part or a triumph of his will. Captain Mayr wrote later in life that when he met Hitler “he was like a tired stray dog looking for a master” and was “ready to throw in his lot with anyone who would show him kindness,” adding that “he was totally unconcerned about the German people and their destinies.” Kershaw comments that Hitler’s course had been
shaped by circumstance, opportunism, good fortune and, not least, the backing of the army…. It was indeed the case…that Hitler did not come to politics, but that politics came to him—in the Munich barracks.
Nor was this the only time in his career when Hitler’s course was determined less by his own wishes than by external forces. In the crisis year 1923, which began with the French invasion of the Ruhr and saw headlong inflation in Germany, a Communist attempt to infiltrate the government of Saxony, and attempted coups in Küstrin and Hamburg, Hitler, now a rising politician in Munich, felt driven to attempt a revolt against the national government because of the pressure of his growing but highly volatile supporters, who had been inflamed by his anti-republican rhetoric and were now demanding action. But he had no control over the forces he needed to guarantee success—the Bavarian government, the police, and the local army garrison—and when their leaders, after posing as allies, betrayed him, he marched into disaster.
This might have been the end of him had it not been for his opportunism and his ability to turn the fiasco into a legend and a promise, as he did in his sensational performance during his jury trial for treason in the People’s Court in Munich in February and March 1924. (Kershaw tells us that after Hitler’s first speech, one of his judges said, “What a tremendous chap, this Hitler!”) What he learned from the experience was that he could not hope to seize power in Germany by means of force and that only propaganda and mass mobilization would open the way to the national revolution. This was the line he followed after he had served his short sentence in Landsberg prison and emerged to reorganize his divided party and to establish his mastery over it. Kershaw has some very acute things to say about this process, particularly about the Bamberg party conference of February 1926, which decided that the party would be subordinated not to its program but to its leader, a move that effectively reduced squabbling over doctrinal points within the ranks. This creation of a Führerpartei was the first step toward the creation of the Hitler myth—the readiness of his followers to see heroic qualities in him and to place all their faith and expectations in him that is the essence of charismatic power.