The appetite of English-speaking readers for books about Nazi Germany seems insatiable. As our uneasiness about our own society grows, perhaps the study of National Socialism provides some comfort: at least we are not so bad as that. Or perhaps, more disturbingly, it reminds us of how easily one thing leads to another, and how an ordinary man going about his ordinary tasks, thinking of his family and his personal problems, can find himself in a position in which every act of acquiescence in the policies of his government makes him an accomplice of its crimes. At the end of World War II, for the Americans and British, National Socialism was a phenomenon alien to their own experience, a dragon which they had just slain; and democracy triumphant seemed to have justified all that its apologists had claimed for it. The interest in Nazi Germany immediately after the war centered on the question: How could these things have happended in Germany? Now in an America torn by the effects of the Vietnam war and a worsening racial situation, or in a Britain faced with economic disaster which the machinery of parliamentary government seems to many people as powerless to avert as that of the Weimar Republic between 1930 and 1932, the question which we look to a study of National Socialism to answer is: How could these things happen anywhere?

In spite of the number of books published, we still have only fragmentary answers. The real work of analyzing the social and economic structure of Nazi Germany and the changes which the Nazis brought about in German society is only just beginning—in pioneering works such as David Schoenbaum’s Hitler’s Social Revolution or A. S. Milward’s The German Economy at War, to take two examples. In the meantime, books about German foreign policy, such as those of Professor Friedländer, Dr. Compton, and Dr. Robertson, or Dr. O’Neill’s study of the German Army and the Nazi Party, or the many works on the German Resistance, such as Dr. Kramarz’s biography of Stauffenberg, suggest some of the ways in which our question might be answered.

IN FACT, there are two problems to be resolved if we want to know the reasons for Hitler’s success. We need to know what were the means Hitler used, and we need to know why nobody stopped him, either in his rise to power or in the pursuit of his policies once he had become Chancellor. Most of the books under review deal with the second problem: Who could have stopped Hitler and why did they not do so? However, Mr. Hamilton T. Burden’s study of the Nazi Party rallies touches on one of the sources of Hitler’s success—his phenomenal skill in the use of mass propaganda. The party rallies at Nuremberg were among the means by which the belief was inculcated that the Nazi movement’s triumph was inevitable, and they provided a symbolic ritual to encourage the faithful or to impress the doubtful. It may be that Mr. Burden’s careful study, based primarily on press reports, tells us little that is not conveyed more effectively by ten minutes from one of Leni Riefenstahl’s films—though doubtless his account of the logistics of organizing a mass rally will be useful to anyone contemplating a similar undertaking. But it has some excellent illustrations which show how efficiently these demonstrations were transformed from the amateurish gatherings of the 1920s to the streamlined pageants of the 1930s, and it reminds us of the extent to which Hitler and Goebbels and their assistants were pioneers in the exploitation of mass media and subliminal suggestion.

If anyone were to resist Hitler and stop him from carrying out his policies, he had first to resist the all-pervasive propaganda, but he had also to look beyond the immediate circumstances of his own life and work. National Socialism not only seemed to offer immediate benefits to many sections of German society; it also had less immediate effects on many ordinary people than the drama which surrounded its public manifestations or the urgent and hysterical tone of its propaganda suggests. Thousands of Germans—always provided, of course, that they were not Jews—went on with their ordinary lives and their ordinary jobs as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was only this preservation of the illusion of normality that enabled Hitler to keep the support of those on whom his success largely depended—the bureaucrats responsible for administering the state, or the diplomats responsible for reassuring the outside world that Germany was not so bad as she seemed. Just as many decent Germans suppressed their doubts about this or that aspect of the Nazi regime and hoped that in their own sphere they might be able avoid its more sinisterimplications and carry on with ordinary life, so too people abroad seized on anything which suggested that the Nazis would settle down and their government become like any other. After Hitler’s initial success, and in spite of the subsequent shocks of Hitler’s breach with the League of Nations and his denunciation of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, foreigners persisted in hoping for the best, hoping, that is, that Germany’s intentions were not so bad as some believed them to be or as some German propaganda declared, and that a state which still to a large extent adhered to the conventions of traditional diplomacy would eventually take its place in the international system.


If inertia and the comparative normality of much of German life in the Thirties made many potential opponents of the regime put up with it until it was too late, there were of course important sections of German society which welcomed the Nazis and for whom any misgivings they might have felt about Hitler’s personality or methods were easily overcome by the positive benefits they received from him. Of these groups, the most important was the Army, whose support was above all essential for the success of National Socialism. As soon as he came to power, Hitler declared that “everything for the armed forces” was a fundamental principle of his policy. Although Dr. O’Neill shows, in an appendix to his book, that the so-called “Pact of the Deutschland” (an agreement supposed to have been signed on board the cruiser Deutschland by Hitler and Blomberg, the chief of the Wehrmacht, by which the Army would support Hitler as successor to Hindenburg as Head of State, and Hitler would recognize the Army as the sole armed force in the Reich, and thus withdraw his blessing from the S.A.) was probably an invention, a formal agreement was hardly necessary, and, in fact, as one of the many important unpublished documents Dr. O’Neill has used suggests, Hitler made it quite clear in February, 1934, that “the S.A. must confine itself to internal political tasks.” Four months later he went further, and on June 30, 1934, had the leaders of the S.A. murdered.

In these first years the Army had no grounds for complaint. Dr. O’Neill analyzes carefully the various changes in its structure and organization and shows how any hesitations the officer corps may have felt at what seemed to them the rash pace of Hitler’s foreign policy were overcome partly by the enhanced status of the Army in the New Germany, and partly by the dismissal of those senior officers who still had reservations about National Socialism, and their replacement by ambitious men like Keitel, who, whether from conviction or self-interest, were wholly committed to Hitler. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the army leadership had accepted Hitler’s policies. The outlines of the story are already familiar from the work of Sir John Wheeler-Bennett and others, but it has never before been told in such convincing detail. Dr. O’Neill, himself a serving officer in the Australian army, cannot resist an occasional feeling of sympathy with the professional soldiers he is describing, many of whom he interviewed for his book, but this perhaps makes his account of their predicament all the more convincing. The generals were in fact for the most part content to leave the main decisions about the aims of foreign policy and even about the general pattern of the rearmament program to Hitler himself, and to confine themselves to the strategic planning and execution of Nazi policy. Those who, like General Halder, had had doubts in 1938 about the feasibility of Hitler’s projects, and who had even discussed ways of removing him, were silenced by success and, after the victorious campaigns of 1939 and 1940, saw little reason for questioning the Führer’s judgment.

Yet it was from within the ranks of the officer corps that the most serious threat to Hitler was to develop. The history of the conspiracy and of the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, has been told many times, and, in the last few years, several German historians have contributed to a reassessment of the personalities and aims of the members of the German Resistance. Dr. Kramarz’s biography of Stauffenberg, the man who actually placed the bomb which so nearly killed Hitler and in practice the leader of the plot, is a notable contribution to this literature. It is a balanced account, factual and sober in tone, which cuts through the legends which have come to surround this romantic and tragic figure.

Klaus Schenk von Stauffenberg came from the south German aristocracy on his father’s side, though through his mother he was descended from Gneisenau, the famous reformer of the Prussian army at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was a handsome man of outstanding personal charm, exceptional courage, and great administrative ability. In many ways, for all his success as an officer on the General Staff, he was not at all typical. He was unmilitary in the untidiness of his dress; his intellectual outlook was largely conditioned by his friendship with the old poet Stefan George and his young admirers, so that many of his ideas were deeply romantic and mystical. His conservatism was far removed from the narrow upright Prussian traditionalism of, say, Carl Goerdeler, the political head of the conspiracy. Nevertheless, Stauffenberg’s career in the army and the stages of his disillusionment with Hitler were not uncharacteristic of many of his brother officers. What was uncharacteristic was his willingness to act on his beliefs.


Stauffenberg had a brilliant career as a staff officer, but, like others, he became increasingly worried about Hitler’s conduct of the war in Russia. Unlike others, his opposition also had a moral basis in his disapproval of the Nazis’ treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories and of the auxiliaries raised among the non-Russian inhabitants of the USSR. He was a romantic conservative with a certain contempt for parliamentary democracy and a leaning toward the corporate state, but he had a profound sense of justice and of human dignity which was increasingly outraged by what he saw. It apparently took a violent physical crisis—he nearly died of severe wounds received in North Africa—to make him decide that his duty lay in planning Hitler’s overthrow. “Since the generals have so far done nothing, the colonels must now go into action,” he told his uncle. Once his decision had been taken, Stauffenberg became the leading figure in the conspiracy and eventually realized that he himself would have to assassinate Hitler. The story of the attempt is well known; and its failure does not detract from Stauffenberg’s heroism.

What is interesting about Stauffenberg, however, in the light of our earlier discussion, is that it was not until comparatively late that his disapproval of Hitler’s regime drove him into action. Until 1942, though retaining a certain independence of judgment and a critical attitude, he had carried out his duties as an officer with exceptional efficiency. In this atmosphere, when even the most dedicated and effective of Hitler’s opponents in the Army did not go over to active resistance until it was clear that Hitler was both losing the war and committing crimes against humanity in the process, it was not surprising that officers of less imagination and moral sensibility should not have resisted at all.

IF THERE WERE few reasons why the Army should have resisted Hitler before, say, 1942, what about the churches? There are few subjects in recent history which have been more controversial or aroused more passionate feelings, especially so far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned. Professor Friedländer, in a book which first appeared in French in 1964, has published a number of documents, mostly from the German Foreign Ministry archives, dealing with the attitude of Pius XII to the Third Reich. These show how far the Pope went in trying to preserve relations with Nazi Germany, partly from fear of Bolshevism and partly from belief that opposition to the Nazi regime would make the work of the Church in Germany impossible. If Pius XII failed to protest against the deportation of the Jews (even, after the German occupation, from his own diocese of Rome) he equally failed to protest against the persecution of Polish Catholics; and it was only at the insistence of some of the German bishops that he gave some oblique support to those German priests who were speaking out against what was going on.

Perhaps people from a Protestant or Jewish background, accustomed to the thundering denunciations of wrongdoing by preachers and prophets, expect too much of the Pope. The documents which the Vatican itself has now started to publish—too late for Professor Friedländer to take them into account—show, in the correspondence between Pius XII and the German bishops (some of it still in Latin), that the principle concern of the Vatican bureaucracy was the preservation of the organizational structure of the Church in a hostile world which it felt itself unable to influence to any great extent. Both the documents printed by Professor Friedländer and those published officially by the Church show how the policy of Pius XII was one of precariously balancing between evils and between the different pressures reflected in the Vatican bureaucracy. The Pope is still a prisoner in the Vatican; and it is probably useless to hope for unequivocal declarations from him, at any rate of the kind liberals would like to hear.

The Army did not stop Hitler, nor did the Roman Catholic Church. In the event it was the allied armies which overthrew him. There has been a tendency among some Germans to criticize foreign governments for not having intervened sooner to prevent the rise of Hitler, and recent detailed studies of Hitler’s diplomacy have shown how skillful Hitler was in reassuring foreigners that everything would be all right and that his aims were reasonable and limited. In Prelude to Downfall, written before Pius XII and the Third Reich, Professor Friedländer studied relations between Germany and the US from 1939 to 1941. This is a purely diplomatic history, and at this level Hitler and the efficient professional diplomats who served him faithfully seemed to be rational and even civilized. It was the failure to look deeper into the nature of National Socialism which led to foreign governments being deceived, just as it has missed those historians who have adopted a purely diplomatic approach to the study of Hitler’s aims. Dr. Compton’s The Swastika and the Eagle covers similar ground to Prelude to Downfall, but it ranges further both chronologically and analytically, and it shows what the presuppositions were which influenced the views about America held by Hitler and his representatives. (It also reminds us, incidentally, that one German diplomat at least, Friedrich von Prittwitz and Gaffron, Ambassador in Washington when Hitler came to power—saw what was involved in National Socialist foreign policy and resigned his post at once.)

Both these books show how little part America played in Hitler’s calculations and how little he understood America’s potential power. Hitler’s misunderstanding of foreigners was often as great as foreigners’ misunderstanding of Hitler. The two books also demonstrate that, while Hitler may have had consistent long-term aims, he had short-term foreign and military policies. Since, in the 1930s and in the early part of the war, the United States was unlikely to interfere with the achievement of his aims, America could be discounted in his planning. The fact that Hitler himself declared war on the US immediately after Pearl Harbor is further evidence of his underestimation both of American power and of American internal differences. It would surely have served Hitler’s purpose better to have left the US, once at war with Japan, the responsibility for declaring war on Germany, with all the bitter political discussion about the priorities of American interests which this would have aroused. Neither Professor Friedländer nor Dr. Compton really examines the impact of National Socialism inside America or the methods by which Hitler tried to influence American opinion; but perhaps he did not bother very much about this either.

It is now about seven years since Mr. A.J.P. Taylor, in The Origins of the Second World War, showed how, up to 1939, Hitler was largely opportunistic in his tactics and that his short-term aims seemed to be little different from those of his predecessors. What was regarded as startling and shocking when Mr. Taylor’s book appeared, partly because of the provocative tones in which he expressed his conclusions, has now been widely accepted. Mr. Robertson’s Hitler’s Pre-war Policy and Military Plans reached many of the same conclusions independently of Taylor’s study. This book was originally undertaken for the Historical Section of the British Cabinet Office in 1955 and first published in 1963. It illustrates in detail Hitler’s methods in his pre-war phase. It is an important and interesting book which confirms the view that Hitler’s immediate plans both in foreign and military policy were short-term ones, even though his terrifying long-term aims were inflexibly pursued behind the opportunism of the day-to-day policies which misled his opponents.

Hitler himself was exceptional in combining vast inhuman evil aims with extreme skill in exploiting immediate political opportunities, and it was Hitler who gave German National Socialism its particular flavor and its special malevolence. But how far was National Socialism a purely German phenomenon? Was Fascism an international movement and under what circumstances might it recur? These questions are raised and to a great extent answered in Professor F.L. Carsten’s Rise of Fascism. This is a valuable historical introduction to the subject which, in addition to comparing German and Italian Fascism with the much less studied movements in Finland, Hungary, Rumania, Belgium, and elsewhere, adds to our knowledge of German National Socialism by using original material from the German archives about the background of many original members of the Nazi Party.

Inevitably any study of fascism, must concentrate primarily on Germany and Italy. The Italian Fascists and the German National Socialists were the only fascist movements which had continuous mass support and a continuous period of power. The other fascist parties were directly influenced by them, and, in some cases, owed their survival to their direct support. Even the more successful ones—the Iron Guard in Rumania or the Falange in Spain, for instance—were only briefly mass parties, and such power as their members attained in government was the result of a coalition with more conventional nationalist and conservative leaders such as General Antonescu or General Franco. Whereas Hitler soon jettisoned his conservative allies after 1933, the leaders of the Iron Guard and the Falange were themselves liquidated and their movements dissolved or absorbed into the governing party. This does not mean that the lesser fascist movements (and there are a few which Professor Carsten omits, such as those in France and Holland) are not worth studying. They throw light on many earlier developments in Europe: in the all-pervasive anti-Semitism, the pathological fear of socialist revolution and the ultra-nationalist myths and symbols which are common to them all, one can trace the disastrous residue of nineteenth-century beliefs carried to their logical extreme.

A complete analysis of the roots of these movements would be beyond the scope of a volume of this kind, but this book will stimulate discussion of a number of interesting questions about the nature of fascism and the reasons for its success in some countries and not in others, and it draws attention to the problem of distinguishing what in fascism is the result of earlier intellectual and political doctrines and what was produced by the immediate social and economic conditions of Europe in the 1920s.

Dr. Ernst Nolte, in his Three Faces of Fascism, attempted to show what was common to the fascist movements in Germany, Italy, and France; the weakness of his interesting work lay in his neglect of the differences between them. Professor Carsten is more concerned to differentiate between the historical circumstances which gave rise to Fascism than to sketch a general pattern into which all Fascist movements can be fitted, but he does in his conclusion suggest certain characteristics—single-party authoritarianism, anti-communism, racialism, dynamic personal leadership—which, after the experiences of the Twenties and Thirties should at least tell us what to look out for. Whether, once we have spotted the symptoms and made a diagnosis, there is a specific cure is another matter. One of the reasons why there was little resistance to National Socialism in Germany was that most Germans wanted at least some of the goods which Hitler promised. However, with the mass of historical, sociological and philosophical studies of aspects of Fascism now available, we have no excuse for not being on the lookout for any similar phenomena in our own societies. At least the lessons of Hitler’s rise to power can be learned from these books: those who hope for the best and take refuge in the normal routines of daily life may find themselves entangled in a system which they are powerless to break. By overlooking those aspects of Hitler’s policy which they disliked and thinking only of the immediate gains to themselves both the German Army and many of the German professional and academic class found themselves embroiled in the execution of policies which went against all that was best in their instincts and traditions. Inaction was easy and is understandable; it was also disastrous. As Field Marshal von Moltke said, and Dr. Kramarz quotes in connection with the German resistance: “Neglect and inactivity…are more serious faults than misjudgment in the choice of methods.”

This Issue

February 15, 1968