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Fate & the Führer

In 1950, appalled by the flood of books and articles about National Socialism that was pouring from the printing presses, a German journalist wrote, “He has played a trick on us. This Hitler, I think he’ll remain with us until the end of our lives.”

Fifty years later, the situation has not changed. It is true that Hitler has failed to go down in history as “the greatest German,” as he predicted he would after the completion of Germany’s absorption of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, but he has surely become the one most written about, leaving such competitors as Frederick II, Goethe, and Bismarck far behind. In The Third Reich, Michael Burleigh writes of “the avalanche of morbid kitsch and populistic trivia” evoked by the mere mention of his name (“surface scratchings about whether Hitler slept with his niece, loved his dog or had plans for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor”), and it is true that this makes up a large part of the total. Fortunately it is balanced by works that reveal new information about the Führer’s life or see old problems in ways that illuminate and instruct. The three books considered here share those qualities, while differing markedly in content and approach.


In the first volume of his biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw described the early political life of his subject, how he was brought to political power more by chance and the manipulations of others than by his own talents, and how he then, through the weakness of the Western Powers, had a series of diplomatic successes that made Germany once more a power of some consequence.1 These came to a climax in March 1936, when Hitler, disregarding the warnings of his generals, dispatched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, destroying the Locarno Treaty of 1925, in which Germany had promised to respect established European borders.

For the mass of the German people, these incidents served to turn Hitler into a statesman of extraordinary talent, and the Führer was not inclined to disagree. As Kershaw tells us at the beginning of his second volume, subtitled “Nemesis,” he soon developed new ambitions and, in November 1937, at a meeting with his top commanders, told them that they must be prepared to solve Germany’s problem of “living space” sometime between 1943 and 1945, at the expense of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Once more the professional soldiers were overcome by misgivings, but—more by accident than design—the Austrian problem was actually solved to Germany’s advantage within four months by the Anschluss, the incorporation of Austria into Germany as the province of Ostmark. Kershaw writes:

The Anschluss was a watershed for Hitler, and for the Third Reich…. The overwhelming reception he had encountered on his grandiose procession to Vienna, above all his return to Linz, had made a strong impression on the German Dictator. The intoxication of the crowds made him feel like a god. The rapid improvisation of the Anschluss there and then…proved once more—so it seemed to him—that he could do anything he wanted. His instincts were, it seemed to him, always right. The western “powers” were powerless. The doubters and skeptics at home were, as always, revealed as weak and wrong. There was no one to stand in his way…. The Anschluss now suggested to him that the Great Germanic Reich did not have to be a long-term project. He could create it himself. But it had to be soon.

The rest of Kershaw’s second volume carries Hitler’s assumptions about the Anschluss to their logical conclusions. It is an impressive, detailed, and sobering story, telling as it does of the destruction of an entire continent by the insensate ambition of one man, and if it has an edifying side it is only because nemesis turns out to be fully as efficient as it is claimed to be.

The reader is, indeed, given the impression that he is seeing nemesis in action when Kershaw recalls the story told by Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Schmidt. On the eve of the Polish war, Hitler expected that the impact of the Nazi-Soviet Pact would persuade the British to terminate their guarantee of Poland. Instead, as he sat with Ribbentrop on September 3, 1939, awaiting news of the British defection, what he received was an ultimatum from London, demanding an immediate withdrawal of German troops from Polish soil. Hitler turned savagely on his foreign minister. “What now?” he asked. The question was a good one, for from then on, Britain was his greatest problem, limiting his freedom of action and driving him on to other, more disastrous decisions. It was when his later victories over Poland and the Low Countries and France failed in any way to weaken Britain’s defiance that he was reduced in June 1941 to declaring war on the Soviet Union as a means of persuasion. He fully expected that this would produce a speedy Soviet defeat that would so discourage the British that they would sue for peace. He could not believe the British would remain in the war to the very end.

The war is Kershaw’s grand theme, and Hitler the soldier dominates the action. Kershaw’s opinion of his military talents is mixed. That Hitler had an excellent record as a front-line soldier during the First World War is well known, but of course he had no opportunity there to develop the gifts he would need in the Second. In a careful analysis of the campaign against Norway (“the Weser Exercise”) in the spring of 1940, Kershaw points out that Hitler was responsible for lack of coordination between branches of the armed forces, for flawed communication between the high command and the navy and, especially, between the army and the Luftwaffe, and for constant interference in the minutiae of controlling operations. Moreover, when things began to go wrong at Narvik in mid-April, he showed signs of panic and bad judgment. General Walter Warlimont later described “the impression of truly terrifying weakness of character on the part of the man who was at the head of the Reich.” On the other hand, he showed none of these weaknesses during the campaign against France, where he was one of the strongest voices favoring the daring Ardennes offensive over the more conservative offensive scheme of the army chiefs, which he dismissed as “a cadet’s plan.”

More important was Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union, which, Kershaw writes, “in retrospect,…seems sheer idiocy.” Kershaw points out, however, that in taking this step he was strongly supported by his military commanders, who were convinced that the Soviet forces were ill-equipped and ill-trained and that they would collapse within four months. Whatever may be said of the decision to attack Russia, it was not Hitler’s alone, and no one spoke out against it at the time. It can be claimed, moreover, that when the German drive ground to a halt before Moscow in December, and the army commanders called for a retreat, Hitler, by refusing to accede to this, not only remained true to his original decision but saved the invading army from complete dissolution.

Referring to the postwar apologetics of German commanders who tried to leave the impression that they had been forced to comply with the orders of a military bungler, Kershaw writes that the verbatim records of the conferences demonstrate that “Hitler’s tactics were frequently neither inherently absurd, nor did they usually stand in crass contradiction to the military advice he was receiving.” Where his inadequacies as supreme German warlord became increasingly exposed was in the last stages of the Russian war, when Germany was forced completely on the defensive and the lightning offensives of an earlier period became impossible. It was then that his constant references to his own early career to prove that willpower solved all problems became both tedious and irrelevant, and he exasperated the professional soldiers by dismissing out of hand all attempts to reach a political settlement, arguing that one must only negotiate from strength.

Meanwhile, Germany was gradually turning into a country without any centralized coordinating body and with a head of state largely detached from the machinery of government. As Kershaw points out, the respective spheres of competence of the party and state had never been clearly defined; ad hoc agencies had always proliferated; and the system had for a long time been marked by a high degree of voluntarism in which officials issued orders on their own initiative. Policies that were defined and justified simply as being in accord with the Führer’s wishes took on a life and authority of their own. None of this implied any slippage in the Führer’s authority, which was supreme when he chose to exert it; but the distribution of power was confusing, and there was a continual erosion of regular patterns of government and a disintegration of anything resembling a coherent system of administration.

As the war advanced, moreover, Germany became a Führer state with an absentee Führer, for after the beginning of the Russian war, Hitler spent most of his time at the front. This inevitably accelerated the disintegration of the machinery of state. Kershaw writes that, out of 445 pieces of legislation in 1941, only 72 were the result of any collaboration among the various ministries. The remaining 373 were produced by individual ministries without wider consultation. Martin Bormann’s appointment as party chancellor in May 1941 accentuated this trend, for he saw his responsibility as being merely to channel information to Hitler and to let the Gauleiter (district leaders) and the heads of party organizations know of the Führer’s decisions and opinions. This did nothing to improve coordi-nation, and Hitler’s assumption of supreme command of the army in December 1941 (thereby taking on responsibility for tactics as well as grand strategy, something no other head of state had attempted) meant that questions of politics and economic policy would receive even less attention, particularly as the German army moved toward the disasters of Stalingrad and Kursk.

Hitler never persuaded himself that the defeats he suffered at the hands of the Red Army were deserved. In July 1944, when the details of the failed plot against him began to emerge, he cried in triumph, “Now I finally have the swine who have been sabotaging my work for years. Now I have proof: the entire General Staff is contaminated…. Now I know why all my great plans in Russia had to fail in recent years. It was all treason! But for those traitors, we would have won long ago. Here is my justification before history.”

There seems no doubt that he believed this, and he showed it by the fearful punishments that he unleashed against everyone involved in the plot. The conspirators had hoped, if successful, to negotiate an end to the war. There would be no further opportunity for that, and the German people consequently had nothing to look forward to but the total destruction of their country. In the nine months that remained of the war, the Allies submitted German cities to relentless raids against which they had virtually no defense; thousands of German troops died in the Ardennes and the Oderbruch, and ordinary citizens suffered acute privations in their daily lives as well as intensified fear and repression at the hands of the regime. It is characteristic of their leader that he had no sympathy with them, but came increasingly to feel that their own lack of faith made them deserve what was happening to them.

  1. 1

    Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (Norton, 1998).

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