The controversy about the relations between Hitler and Germany, between National Socialism and the German people, between the Nazi present and the German past, has gone on ceaselessly since 1945. Was National Socialism implicit in German history, the culmination of völkisch trends which reached back to Arndt and Jahn and Schlegel, and of political trends which began at latest with Frederick the Great? Or was it—as the doyen of German postwar historians, Gerhard Ritter, once argued—an aberration, an Irrweg, or even (incredible and unforgivable as Ritter’s argument may seem) an infection which reached Germany from the West, at worst the German expression of a more general malaise which had afflicted the whole of European society since the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
The debate is unlikely to cease until, in a new world of Afro-Asian and Afro-American dimensions, the German question, which agitated three generations, has fallen into oblivion. Certainly it will not cease until the generation which experienced the twelve years’ tyranny of the Thousand Year Reich has passed. Too much personal anguish is involved; too much moral capital has been invested, and, alas, too much political capital as well. When the German Federal Republic was welcomed back into the Western alliance in 1954, Vansittartism suddenly fell from grace and favor in the West; while in Soviet Russia the very contrary took place. Stalin had insisted on drawing a firm line between Hitler and the German people. His successors went into reverse, suddenly discovering a continuous thread of aggressiveness in German history from Bismarck to Hitler, and on, without discernible break, to Adenauer.
The theme, of course, is central—too central to be made the ball in a game of political football. It lies at the heart of all the books mentioned here; it is, indeed, the central problem of modern German historiography. William Manchester has no doubt about the answer: The germ of all future evil was already there in the “tangled forests” and “foul marshes” where the primitive Germans foregathered. “The primeval forest,” he tells us, “may be the most important single key to the mystery of why the Germans have behaved as they have.” Such judgments tell us more about the writer’s predilections—or (some would say) prejudices—than about the real problems of German history. They are matched, at the other end of the spectrum, by Mr. Deutsch, whose attitude to the hesitations, excuses, and prevarications of the German opposition to Hitler is not far short of apologetic. “Considering the many factors stacked against him,” he writes, “it is amazing that Hitler was able to prevail.” An astounding, almost paradoxical, verdict, which directly challenges the traditional view that the powerful repressive machinery of the SS state made any form of resistance a desperate gamble.
How understandable, in this welter of subjective and emotional views, that Elizabeth Wiskemann should turn with relief to the “accurate, lucid, dispassionate examination” provided in Anatomy of the SS State. This, she writes in her Introduction, is “far and away the most informative and illuminating statement about Hitlerism that there has been in the last thirty years.” It is certainly an antidote to “superficiality,” “emotionalism,” and “moralistic theorizing,” “an effective counterweight to the widespread habit of painting a highly emotional picture of the past in order to highlight certain major truths, but at the price of historical exactitude regarding facts and circumstances.” Anatomy of the SS State tells us many things we ought to know. It reminds us once again, for example, that the “final solution” of the Jewish question—the decision that the Jews must be physically exterminated—was not decreed until 1941, and forces us to remember, what most of us would prefer to forget, that the United States, Great Britain, and other countries that could have acted but didn’t, must share the dreadful responsibility. But halfway through this book I asked myself—as other readers, I think, will ask themselves—just what it tells us. And what it tells us, briefly, is that even “totalitarian tyranny” had its own rules; that murder should be carried out this way and not that; that even the slave labor on which German wartime industry depended was protected, at least in theory—not, naturally, for its own sake but for the sake of efficiency and better results.
In a country as bureaucratic and bound by red tape as Germany this is no more than we should expect, and it is amply borne out by William Manchester’s account of the exploitation of slave labor by the firm of Krupp. Time and again in his account we find SS officials protesting that they cannot hand over squads of workers to Krupp’s because the accommodation provided is inadequate, or so far from the factory that they would be exhausted before they had got there; they even protest that the meager rations—Krupp’s notorious Bunkersuppe—are far below any tolerable standard.
It was much the same, as Dr. Conway indicates, in the conflict between the Nazis and the Christian churches. “Unauthorized attacks on the clergy” by “irresponsible local party elements,” which went beyond the Führer’s directives, were forbidden. But what does not really come out clearly in Anatomy of the SS State—though it does in Mr. Manchester’s book—is that the regulations and directives were largely inoperative, that the SS man or squad supervisor who shot a worker, or beat him or her to death for no reason and contrary to all rules, was almost certain to go unpunished. Nor is it clear that those who committed “actual violations of the law” were worse—if we consider the nature of the law—than those who acted as willing instruments of legal torture and legal murder. It is no doubt necessary to be aware of the machinery of the Nazi tyranny. But such a book as Anatomy of the SS State, which is concerned not with “what the SS did,” but with “how it functioned,” seems to me to sidestep the really searching questions. As background it is extremely useful; but it does not help us much when we come to the fundamental problem, the question of the complicity of the Germans in the Nazi tyranny.
In individual cases the answer may not be difficult. But what do individual cases—even so outstanding a case as the great steel and armaments firm of Krupp of Essen—really tell us? The record of Krupp’s war crimes is unspeakably sordid, the complicity of Alfried Krupp and his father Gustav proven up to the hilt. Here I am in full agreement with William Manchester, though apparently others aren’t. But at this point the more fundamental questions arise. Was Krupp’s a special instance—even though there may be scores or hundreds like it—or was it representative of a common German attitude? It is characteristic of Mr. Manchester’s whole approach that he has no hesitation about the answer. Krupps were “symbols of the Father land’s national mood”; National Socialism was “the ultimate realization of Kruppdom.” The Krupps story, as Mr. Manchester tells it, is a paradigm of German history; perhaps, indeed, this is the main reason why he tells it. The question, of course, is whether, or to what degree, his interpretation is correct. My own view is that it will convince those whose minds are already made up; it will not convert those who cannot believe that things were quite so simple.
The story Mr. Manchester unfolds is really the story of a grand conspiracy, a huge offensive by German Junkers, German industrialists, and successive German governments—which apparently has not ceased today—to bring the world under German domination. As the balance of his book indicates (630 out of its 873 pages deal with the twentieth century) Mr. Manchester is really concerned with Hitlerism, its antecedents and its consequences. But for the sake of continuity, to establish the conspiracy in all its amplitude, he goes back—right back to the first appearance of a Krupp in 1587.
Ever “since the dawn of modern history,” he tells us, “the mysterious, powerful Krupp dynasty had flourished on war and rumors of war.” In my view, these early sections, where Mr. Manchester is least engaged, are the best part of the book; but it is significant that even here he cannot resist the temptation to twist the facts to fit his preconceived pattern. For Krupps, in the first place, were certainly not “powerful” between 1587 and 1826, and if they were “mysterious,” it was only because they were obscure and insignificant. By 1826 the little firm with its seven employees was on the edge of bankruptcy. And when Alfred—the real founder and fabulous “cannon king”—then took over, he built his fortunes not on arms but, prosaically enough, on spoons and forks, and then on cast steel axles and weldless steel railroad tires. It was the railway boom, in Europe and America, that accounted for Krupp’s success. Alfred himself had no doubt about it: “it was only through the manufacture of tires,” he wrote, “that the works was able to make enough profit to lay down the gun-making plant.”
And what about the connection between Krupp’s and the Prussian government? It certainly came about, but surprisingly late and slowly. “The history of the house of Krupp,” Mr. Manchester writes, “supported the argument that the closer the ties between Essen and the country’s rulers, the greater the chances for national glory and Krupp prosperity.” But that was not the view the Prussian War Ministry took. It is ironic that the orders which finally established Alfred Krupp as “cannon king” came from almost every country in Europe—Russia, England, Holland, Spain, and Austria—except his own. Even after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, when Krupp’s guns proved their superiority, little love was lost between Alfred and the German General Staff. Only after Alfred’s death in 1887 and the accession of a new emperor in 1888 does the decisive change occur. William II was a man of a new generation, with ideas of his own. On his orders, the generals came to heel, and the alliance with Krupp, which was to last until 1945, was sealed. The effects were immediately visible. “The firm’s business with Berlin rose from 33 percent of its gross product to 67 percent.” Krupp’s had become a national institution—almost “a branch of the government,” as The Nation observed at the time of the firm’s centenary in 1912.
Looking back over the first century of Krupp history from 1812 to 1912, one finds it striking that there was nothing particularly distinctive about it, certainly nothing peculiarly German. Alfred himself was a typical roughhewn buccaneer and martinet of the early industrial age, whose career can be paralleled in every country of Europe and in the United States as well. Even in the age of imperialism the firm’s affinities were with the other great steel and armaments combines—Armstrong and Vickers in England, Schneider-Creusot in France, Bethlehem Steel and DuPont in the United States. The reorganization which took place when Fritz succeeded in 1887 was part of a worldwide process of trustification and cartellization, not evidence of some peculiar German original sin. No doubt the process operated differently in different countries and reached extreme lengths in Germany; but if we are to see it in any sort of perspective, we must see it as the international phenomenon it was, just as imperialism, neo-mercantilism, and the trend to economic autarchy were international. But Mr. Manchester is too interested in making an indictment to do this. The result is a picture which is colorful, but out of focus.
It is the same when we come to the Nazi period. If Manchester’s thesis were correct, we should expect Gustav Krupp to be the first to climb onto Hitler’s bandwagon. Not so. Thyssen, Duisberg, Kirdorf, Hugenberg, and other big businessmen worked behind the scenes to bring Hitler to power. Krupp dragged his heels. His “conversion,” Mr. Manchester admits, “came late,” and his son Alfried, who subsequently confessed that he had supported the Nazis from the outset, only finally made up his mind to become a party member in 1938. Once converted, it is true, they did not stop at half-measures. There is, as William Manchester says, “a horrid fascination” in watching Gustav’s evolution from “a responsible member of the traditional German establishment” at the beginning of 1933 into a Nazi “thrall” five years later. Even so, the facts are significant. The Krupps were not leaders who shaped the course of events; they followed with the crowd.
All this, it seems to me, puts the Krupp story in a different light from that in which Manchester would have us see it. There is less in it of deliberate, deep-seated conspiracy, more of sheer human stupidity, weakness, and conformism. This is no excuse, but it is a more plausible explanation—not only of Krupp’s complicity in Hitler’s crimes, but also of that of millions of other Germans. If Gustav was, as Manchester describes him, “an undistinguished, stiff little coxcomb,” who never “entertained a single original thought in his entire life,” it is hard to credit him with deep-laid Machiavellian schemes. The excuses made for him and Alfried in Germany today are shoddy and unconvincing, and Mr. Manchester has no difficulty in disposing of them. As he says, “they eagerly endorsed each of the Führer’s steps towards the charnel house.”
But endorsing is, after all, not the same as originating. We should remember Telford Taylor’s wry admission that, in the eyes of the American business community, “Krupp only did as DuPont or any other US businessman would do.” In a situation as complicated as that in Germany in the 1930s neither black nor white is a complete or satisfactory answer. Alfried’s defense at Nuremberg—that the slaves he employed “were victims of a compulsory labor system forced upon businessmen by the state” and that Krupp’s themselves, were creatures of “a system we did not create”—was a palpable half-truth. But even half-truths are historical facts and cannot simply be brushed aside. On the other hand, it is simply not good enough to describe the brutal exploitation of slave labor by Krupp and his like—as the authors of Anatomy of the SS State do—as simply “a particularly depressing chapter in the history of world-famous German industrial firms.” This colorless phrase tells us less than nothing and evades the issues. What is needed is neither accusation nor defense, but a wider view which makes the attitude of Germans to Hitlerism intelligible without for one moment seeking to excuse it or explain it away.
The question is important because it extends far beyond the single case of Krupps. Not only Gustav and Alfried “endorsed” Hitler’s policies. So also, at least for the first four or five years, did virtually all of those implicated in the anti-Hitler conspiracy of July 1944. So did the scientists engaged in developing a German atom bomb. And so did the Catholic hierarchy and the overwhelming majority of Evangelical pastors, not excluding Niemöller, Dibelius, and Bonhoeffer. For some this may simply be proof of the primordial guilt of all Germans, no matter what their backgrounds and professions.
In my view it is more relevant to ask what were the factors which linked individuals as different in outlook and profession as Gustav and Alfried Krupp, General Beck, Martin Niemöller, Cardinal Faulhaber, Carl Goerdeler, and the theoretical physicist and Nobel prizewinner, Werner Heisenberg. Some, like Alfried Krupp, remained loyal to the end (though in 1944, when the Nazi ship was obviously capsizing, loyalty did not prevent him from hurrying to sell off 162 million marks of war bonds before they became worthless paper). Others, like Beck, became leaders of the opposition and forfeited their lives in 1944, though in 1933 they had welcomed the Nazis, “believing” (as Harold Deutsch writes of Beck) “that they could be used to promote rearmament and a more national policy.” In either case their story is significant because it reveals the fundamental ambivalences which are at the heart of the German problem.
Consider, first, the case of the German physicists and scientists. Their moral and political attitudes, it is true, are only incidental to David Irving’s story. His real purpose, in this absorbing and highly readable book, is to discover the reasons why the Germans, who possessed a “lead” in atomic research in 1940 and 1941, subsequently fell behind and in the end failed to construct an atom bomb. We shall return to this question later. Here it is sufficient to say that the answer is certainly not that the scientists, as Weizsäcker and others subsequently asserted, did not want Germany to win the war. These were excuses, similar to those put forward after 1945 on behalf of Alfried Krupp, and Mr. Irving treats them with healthy skepticism. Heisenberg, in particular, who emerges from Mr. Irving’s story in anything but glowing colors, was working from the start to produce a bomb, ready (as one of his colleagues said) to unloose the “most dreadful war machine against the civilized world.”
Naturally, the attitude of all the scientists was not identical. Some were party members, some were closer to the party than others. But no other single incident is perhaps more revealing than the reaction of von Laue (picked out by Mr. Irving in one place as particularly “courageous”) and Heisenberg when they were asked to intervene on behalf of the Jewish parents of Samuel Goudsmit, the famous Dutch-American physicist. Von Laue, Mr. Irving tells us, “replied sympathetically”—but “forgot” to sign the letter! Heisenberg, after hesitation, said he would be sorry if Goudsmit’s parents “should suffer any inconvenience…for reasons unbeknown to me.” Five days before he finally made up his mind to write, Goudsmit’s blind mother and father were put to death in a concentration camp, on the father’s seventieth birthday.
This incident recalls only too painfully the reaction of the German churches, Catholic and Evangelical, to the notorious assault on the Jewish community in November 1938. Just as there was one scientist (Rosbaud) with the courage of his convictions, so there were two priests (the Catholic Fr. Lichtenberg and the Evangelical pastor Grüber) who raised their voices in protest. Both subsequently paid the penalty. The rest, in Dr. Conway’s words, “fell silent.” In spite of the burning of 177 synagogues and the arrest of 20,000 Jews, the church leaders “turned a blind eye,” while in the ranks of ordinary churchmen there was a growing sense of weariness and uncertainty of purpose.
Dr. Conway’s account of the confrontation between the German churches and the Nazis is scrupulous and fair-minded. But it leaves no doubt that the story, far from being “an unrelieved epic of faith and courage,” was “to a large extent a sad tale of betrayal, timidity and unbelief.” Ever since the appearance of Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, and Guenter Lewy’s brilliant polemic, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, a fierce and far from sympathetic light has been turned on the Catholic hierarchy and the manner in which it was prepared to collaborate in the establishment of Hitlerism. Though his book covers both the Catholic and the Evangelical churches, Dr. Conway is more directly concerned with the latter, which on the whole has had a far more favorable press, at least in England and the United States. With scant justification, Dr. Conway suggests. Everyone has heard of Cardinal Faulhaber’s letter of congratulation to Hitler. Less well known is Martin Niemöller’s equally congratulatory telegram on the occasion of Germany’s desertion of the League of Nations, or the letter in which Dibelius proclaimed that he had always been an anti-Semite.
It has been usual to see the confrontation between the church and the Nazis in black and white, as a struggle of good against evil, of the Cross against the Swastika, of Christians against Nazi thugs and storm-troopers. This is a natural consequence of the sympathy felt for Martin Niemöller—and others—during long years of persecution. But it is, to say the least, a one-sided view. The struggle was not so much an issue between church and state as between two rival factions within the church; the enemy, when the “Bekennende Kirche” defined its position in the famous Barmen Confession in 1934, was not Adolf Hitler but Reich Bishop Müller. More than a year later Niemöller was still expecting that the result of the stand would be “official recognition” of the Confessing Church by the Nazi state. Dr. Conway’s main personal contribution is to show that such “limited successes” as the churches scored were “due less to their heroic defense of their beliefs than to the divisions amongst their foes.”
Tactically, at least, the Nazis were never clear how best to deal with the church conflict; but their main object, as Rosenberg said in 1938, was not to make “the same mistake as Bismarck made”—in other words, to avoid a head-on confrontation over an issue which, in the immediate context, was peripheral to Hitler’s purposes.
On the other side the object of the prelates, both Catholic and Protestant, was to avoid “any conflict in the conscience of their flocks between their church loyalties and their national obligations,” which in effect meant “to withdraw from political involvement of any sort.” Dr. Conway admirably sums up the situation:
The Confessing Church did not intend to use the Barmen Declaration as a programme of political protest. Neither in 1934 nor at any time afterwards was it the aim of the Confessing Church to become the spearhead of political opposition to the Nazis or the organizers of resistance to the tyranny which was to engulf the whole country…. Their concern was to maintain the integrity of the Gospel against the distortions and misuse of the “German Christians”…. In this they enjoyed the support of many people…who were supporters of Hitler and even Nazi party members…. Throughout the Confessing Church loyalty to Hitler was professed by clergy and by laity, and even the more clear-sighted long continued to believe that a compromise was possible by which the church could be freed from “German Christian” regimentation, the concomitant intervention by the state could be checked, and the energies of both could be united for the benefit of the German nation.
Against this background it is easier to evaluate Harold Deutsch’s elaborate account of what he calls “the second round of conspiracy against Hitler.” By this he means the inconclusive and ineffectual plotting in high places and the feelers put out to the Vatican and through the Vatican to the British government during the interval between the Polish campaign in September 1939 and the Norwegian campaign in April 1940. Because they produced no tangible results, little attention has hitherto been paid to these activities, by comparison at least with the plot which led to the attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944. Mr. Deutsch’s contention is that this neglect is unjust. No time, he argues, was more favorable to a successful Putsch than the winter of 1939-40.
I am afraid he has failed to convince me. If the story he tells was worth telling, it is not because it produces new evidence of a determination in the upper ranks of German society, among the generals and diplomats and their close associates, to get rid of Hitler at all cost, but, on the contrary, because it presents a picture of irresolution and fumbling similar in every way to that conveyed by Dr. Conway’s account of the opposition in the Christian churches. The only difference is that these weaknesses, comprehensible perhaps on the part of churchmen who believed it their duty to steer clear of politics, were fatal when it was a case of politicians plotting to overthrow a government.
Mr. Deutsch’s concern, it would seem, is less with the failure of the conspirators and the reasons for that failure, than with defending them from the charges of political opportunism leveled against them by historians such as Namier and Wheeler-Bennett. What he sets out to establish is “the deep-seated moral nature” of the leading figures in the conspiracy, such as Oster, Goerdeler, and Beck. Few people today would deny this. Certainly they did not share the imperviousness to the moral evil of Nazism which made the German atomic scientists into docile servants of the state, or Alfried Krupp into its beneficiary. The real question is why moral rejection did not result in political action.
It had, after all, been made known to the opposition from the beginning that the elimination of Hitler was a sine qua non on the side of the British government. Why, then, was the oftproclaimed coup never attempted? The conspirators were largely people with access to Hitler. As one of them said, “all the watchfulness of his bodyguards” could not have protected him from a determined assailant who was prepared to forfeit his own life. Halder claimed that he carried a pistol “for weeks” when he went to see Hitler, but could not bring himself “as a human being and a Christian to shoot down an unarmed man.” Goerdeler would do anything short of breaking the Ten Commandments. Weizsäcker, permanent head of the Foreign Office and father of the nuclear physicist (William Manchester describes him, unkindly but not inaccurately, as “the new Holstein of the Wilhelmstrasse”), politely regretted that there was “nothing in my upbringing that would fit me to kill a man.” One bright spirit suggested that the solution was to hire a professional “desperado.” As one proceeds page by page through Mr. Deutsch’s book, one’s reaction gradually becomes a mixture of incredulity and despair. The situation is almost farcical when in the end the conspirators play with the idea of enlisting the support of Goering (it “would give the entire takeover notion a guise of legality”) or of avoiding the moral dilemmas involved in assassination by planning to put Hitler away in a lunatic asylum.
How are we to account for this vacillation and impracticality? To place the blame on circumstances is not good enough: opportunities are created, they do not arrive ready-made. As Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel pointed out in their recent account of the July Plot of 1944, the reason the conspiracy failed was not merely because Hitler had luck on his side, but more profoundly because of deep-seated flaws and failings on the side of the conspirators. The weakness of Mr. Deutsch’s book is that, in his anxiety to do justice to the moral integrity of the conspirators, he does not analyze these failings—their futile legalism, for example, their reluctance to use force, their repudiation of political motives, or the fatalism which seems to have convinced some at least (for instance, Admiral Canaris) that Germany had to experience Hitlerism to the bitter end in order to expiate its guilt. No doubt he is right in observing that “there was always an amateurish quality about their plans and preparations”; but there were more fundamental factors as well, and these require examination.
In the first place, the conspirators practically without exception were people who had served Hitler and in many cases were still serving him. Before his advent to power they had been implicated in the right-wing attack on the Weimar Republic that began in 1930. If not tainted with the Nazi brush, they at least sprang from the same intellectual soil as the Nazis. They shared with them the rejection of the Weimar Republic and the Versailles treaty. Their territorial aims ran parallel. Even in 1940 they expected the British government to recognize Hitler’s acquisitions—as a minimum, the Munich frontiers plus “a land bridge to East Prussia and the industrial district of Upper Silesia”—and prevaricated about evacuating Poland. Both shared also the repudiation of democracy and the urge to “overcome spiritually the nineteenth century.” Where, then, did they part ways? Politically, they were closely aligned. There remained only the moral dividing-line, and this, with all the heart-searching it involved, was no springboard for political action.
One reason many of the conspirators parted company with Hitler was that they feared his aggressive policy was jeopardizing the conquests he had made in 1938 and 1939. This is clear enough from Mr. Deutsch’s book, though it is a motive he is anxious to play down. They preferred to halt and digest the gains, confident that with papal help they could retain most of Hitler’s acquisitions. But, more fundamentally, what they objected to were the immoral methods of the Nazis, not their political objectives. Characteristically Goerdeler thought “the foremost German problem” was not to get rid of Hitler, but to re-establish “ordinary human decency.”
Goerdeler (though Mr. Deutsch is reticent about the point) had served Hitler as Price Commissioner in 1934 and 1935 and still remained his economic adviser until Goering was put in charge of the Four Year Plan in 1936. With Nazism as such—with the suppression of all opposition parties, the destruction of the Trades Unions, even with the maltreatment and imprisonment of Communists and Social Democrats—he had no quarrel. What he objected to was what his fellow-conspirator Canaris called “the gangster methods of Hitler and his creatures.”
The dividing-line, in short, was the line between legality and illegality, not between a free society and totalitarianism. So long as the Nazis remained in the paths of legality they were acceptable; once they left them they provoked a resistance which was moral rather than political. Their revulsion against “the Nazi pestilence” was genuine enough; but, in Mr. Deutsch’s words, it was “ethical and aesthetic” rather than practical and political.
Political action can never, of course, be wholly divorced from the precepts of morality; but the converse does not hold true, and it is here that the fundamental shortcomings of the small circle of conservative upper-class conspirators whose plans and projects Mr. Deutsch describes, become evident. To explore them in detail would take us deep into the morass of German idealism, with its contempt for politics as an inferior occupation and its insistence that the only things that really matter are the categorical imperatives of individual morality. There is no doubt that the idealist tradition, which permeated all sections of the underground conspiracy from Goerdeler to Trott and Moltke, inhibited political action, and diverted the conspirators instead to high-sounding projects, such as “building the peace of Europe on justice and equality” and “restoring a Rechtsstaat in Germany.” Instead of concentrating on getting rid of Hitler, they spent their time on endless discussions about “what ought to come after he had been dealt with.” This was not only putting the cart before the horse; it was also totally irrelevant in the context of Nazi tyranny. But it reveals the inability of these high-minded gentlemen to see what was essentially a practical problem in practical terms.
There is a curious and revealing similarity between the failure of the conspirators to bring their plot to fruition and the failure of the German scientists to produce an atom bomb; and the same may be said of the failure of Krupp’s, to which William Manchester draws attention, to design and build a tank capable of standing up to the Russian T-34. In all three cases it is, of course, easy to pick out secondary and contributory factors, but the fundamental point is surely that which Manchester points out. “Obsessed with details,” he writes, the Germans “mismanaged larger issues.”
The contrast with the United States is instructive. Here, as soon as the possibility of nuclear fission had been demonstrated, the decision was made to go ahead with the building of a plant. In Germany, the scientists (in Mr. Irving’s words) “hedged and prevaricated,” unwilling—just like the resistance leaders—to commit themselves unless and until they could be sure of positive results. At the same time, like Krupp’s chief technical expert, Müller, they were ‘too inventive, too clever,” and too interested in theory, just as the underground plotters around Beck and Goerdeler were ever devising new plans, piling up paper and considering the situation from “every angle.” It was not, Mr. Irving emphasizes, her engineers and technologists who failed Germany; “it was her scientists.” Significantly, he finds in the scientists exactly the same “lack of resolution” which dogged the right-wing, conservative German resistance movement to the bitter end. These similarities were hardly accidental, and it is also hardly fanciful to see in them the pervasive influence of German idealism, with its contempt for the merely practical and its hankering for all-embracing solutions.
In politics, which is concerned with the realm of the imperfect, this was as disastrous as it was in the practical business of constructing a bomb. But there was one final and perhaps even more fundamental characteristic which explains the failure of the conservative, upper-class opposition circles, and that was their fear and suspicion of what they called “the masses.” In their eyes the rise of the “masses”—by which they meant the ordinary run of decent, hard-working, church-going Germans who voted Social Democrat—was the cause of all the ills they discerned in modern society. In place of the existing democratic state, with its class divisions, they wished, like the Nazis, to create a “Volk-community.”
The consequences are obvious. Instead of confronting the Nazis with the challenge of an alternative political philosophy, they took their stand on the nebulous dividing-line between a “Volk-community” that was “decent” and one that was “criminal.” Their program, in effect, was that of the three regimes which preceded Hitler’s, conservative and corporative, if not definitely reactionary. As such, it had nothing to offer the only elements in Germany which had resisted the blandishments of Nazism—namely, the solid ranks of the working classes—and which might still have given them a measure of popular backing.
The fact was, of course, that their ideology, with its almost psychotic suspicion of the masses, precluded the conspirators from seeking a real measure of popular support, and forced them to rely instead on the army and a military Putsch. This was inherent in their mentality and political background, but it was a fatal flaw, for the chances of the “non-political” generals rallying behind them were never great. It is true that there were also contacts with a handful of right-wing labor leaders, and Mr. Deutsch makes much of them. But the hard fact is that these men—Kaiser, Leuschner, Lemmer, and two or three others—not only played a minimal role (after Mr. Deutsch has mentioned their names as proof that the conspiracy was more than a class affair they fade completely from his story), but also that they were peripheral figures in the working-class movement who (as George Romoser has already pointed out) “had removed themselves to a considerable distance from traditional socialist ideas as well as from former socialist organizations.” With the hard core of the S.P.D.—with all its failings the real organ of the German working classes, which had still collected over 7 million votes in March 1933—the conspirators had no links and do not appear even to have wished to establish links.
The explanation given for this failure is that the “masses” had already been won over by Hitler. This is a convenient excuse, but it is another question whether it is valid. At the moment, because historians like Mr. Deutsch have concentrated so exclusively on the small upper stratum, a decided answer is impossible. What is clear is that the habit historians have formed of describing the handful of generals and civil servants, plotting and intriguing in comparative seclusion, as The Resistance, as though there were no other, is little short of a travesty. At the very time, for example, when the small upper-class group with which Mr. Deutsch deals was debating ways and means, a real attempt was made on Hitler’s life. This was the explosion in the Bürgerbräu cellar in Munich on November 8, 1939, which killed seven and wounded sixty-three Nazis a few minutes after Hitler had left the scene. Apparently it interests Mr. Deutsch not at all; at any rate he dismisses it in a couple of paragraphs with the insinuation—on the flimsiest and least convincing evidence—that it was “a Nazi stunt.” It is, in fact, one of the more obscure episodes in the history of Nazi Germany; but Rudolf Pechel, who had perhaps better sources of information than Mr. Deutsch, attributed it quite specifically to a Communist called Elser. In any case, since it was the only occasion during this period when Hitler came within measurable distance of losing his life, would it not repay investigation far more than the futile, inconclusive plotting to which Mr. Deutsch devotes such care and attention?
The German people were not, perhaps, so supine, so beguiled by Hitler’s promises, as is often supposed. In the period before Hitler came to power, working-class solidarity and the possibility of common action were impaired, as Theodore Draper has recently reminded us, by the long-standing feud between the Social Democrats and the Communist party and the failure of the Communist leadership draw any distinction between the alleged “social fascism” of the S.P.D. and Nazi totalitarianism. In this way the most favorable opportunity for action went by unused.
But even after Hitler’s assumption of power all was not lost. In the elections of March 1933, after the Reichstag fire and a week of intensive terror, the Nazis, to their chagrin and surprise, polled only a little more than 40 percent of the votes. According to Sheridan Allen, one of the very few historians who has examined the situation in a particular locality in detail, the local S.P.D. organizations were “ready to fight.”* It was the central executive in Berlin that let them down. Even so, most members “did remain loyal”—only 10 out of 400 (or 2 1/2 percent) of the republican Reichsbanner in the area studied by Mr. Allen actually went over to the Nazis. And in the same way the churches maintained their membership. As late as 1939, according to Dr. Conway, 95 percent of Germans were members of the Catholic or Evangelical churches, and even the majority of Nazi party members “still paid church taxes and registered themselves as Christians.”
This at least does not indicate a wholesale surrender to Nazi ideology. On the other hand, it would be equally wide of the mark to suggest that it indicates a readiness for active resistance. Most Germans, like most people everywhere, were only too ready to conform or “go along,” and though the Nazi party never comprised more than 5 or 6 percent in a population of nearly 80 million, many who did not join the party were ardent supporters of the new regime. That is only what we should expect. What is less expected, and deserves far more attention from historians than it has received so far, is the extent of sporadic resistance. Figures are available, for example, which show that in the single province of Saxony, 16,069 men and woman were executed under Hitler, including no fewer than 6,644 from the city of Leipzig alone; and similar figures for Hamburg show that more than two-thirds of the victims came from the working population.
Such facts, unfortunately at present too few, deserve more attention than they usually receive. They are a necessary corrective to the facile view that the only opposition to Hitler came from a handful of highly placed plotters. No realistic picture of the situation in Nazi Germany will be possible so long as they, or opportunists like Alfried Krupp, steal all the limelight. Nothing in Nazi Germany is more moving or more revealing than the steadfastness of the small, dispersed sects—Anabaptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a score of other unassuming Bible Communities—which suffered persecution indescribably more dreadful than anything the Catholic or Evangelical churches had to face. Their courage and stalwart devotion to Christian verities are outstanding, and it is a pertinent criticism of Dr. Conway’s otherwise valuable volume that he devotes far more space to the maneuvers of the bishops and prelates, seeking to protect the external framework of the church and to safeguard its legal rights and institutions, than he does to their Christian witness.
There were others who did not simply “go along”—for example, the Bavarian laymen who, in 1943, called upon the church to “witness before the state to the saving grace of Israel” and “ardently withstand every attempt…to destroy the Jews.” Even Mr. Manchester, inclined though he is to treat all Germans as guilty unless proof to the contrary is forthcoming, is well aware that there were “generous, gemütliche Germans,” “deeply offended” by the brutal treatment of slave laborers in the Krupp factories, who “protested at the time and wanted justice done, whatever the cost to themselves.” What, of course, is important, and what the few individual instances Mr. Manchester reports cannot tell us, is how representative they were. But there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a determined effort by the opposition to enlist support would not have been without response.
Such people, obviously, were in no position to act alone. As one Socialist quoted by Sheridan Allen remarked, there was nothing to be gained by individual acts of heroism. They required a lead, and the gravamen of the charge against the men at the top is that they did not provide a lead. It is easy to say that the “masses” had deserted to the Nazis; but might it not be nearer to the truth to say that the boot was on the other foot? When one of the authors of Anatomy of the SS State remarks that “there were anti-Semitic circles even among the educated middle-classes,” it is pertinent to question whether “even” is the right word. The educated classes, which had vied with the Nazis in repudiating the democratic system of the Weimar Republic, were compromised from the start. With their inherent distrust of mass participation, they never thought of testing the feeling of the people, or of making contact with the active cells of working-class opposition which certainly existed; and so they condemned themselves to impotence.
It is surely significant that all the books here surveyed are concerned primarily if not exclusively with privileged groups in church and state. Bishops, generals, diplomats, scientists, industrialists, bureaucrats, even the upper echelon of the Nazi hierarchy: how far can we generalize from their reactions? What historians have left out—with rare exceptions, such as William Sheridan Allen’s impressive study of The Nazi Seizure of Power—is the ordinary run of ordinary Germans. We know all we need to know, perhaps more than we want to know, about the attitude of the upper ranks of society; we know precious little, except unverified generalizations, about the lower strata. This, today, is the gap historians should be filling. Instead, we have the controversy between those who denounce the ineffectiveness of the opposition, on the one hand, and those who praise its moral integrity, on the other hand, and the dreary exchange of accusations and excuses.
Both are stale, futile, and unproductive. Alfried Krupp’s protests that he did not “create” the system from which he profited are no doubt literally true. That system, as Anatomy of the SS State makes, abundantly clear, was entirely the work of a small fanatical minority at the head of the Nazi hierarchy, who were certainly not representative Germans. Nevertheless, nothing is going to save Alfried Krupp’s reputation. He was not, perhaps, quite the monster of iniquity Mr. Manchester makes him out to be, much more an example of the vast numbers who simply “went along.” But his position as the head of the house of Krupp meant that the evil he perpetrated by “going along” was far greater than the average man who climbed on the Nazi bandwagon could imagine or encompass. Alfried never seems to have been troubled by moral scruples over Nazi policies. Neither, it seems, were world-famous scientists such as Heisenberg; at least, as Mr. Irving says, there is no indication that such scruples as they may have had were powerful enough at any stage to hold them back. The group of high-minded gentlemen with which Mr. Deutsch’s book deals was different. Their revulsion was belated, but it was genuine; the only trouble was that their backgrounds and the outlook they shared inhibited political action.
The unknown factor is the German people: not the million active Nazi party leaders, whose perverted aims and methods are scrupulously dissected and documented in Anatomy of the SS State, nor even the rank and file of party members, but the other 75 million Germans, the majority, no doubt, blind supporters, but many of them victims, not a few of them passive opponents, and some at least active opponents of the Nazi regime. No one supposes that their story will be easy to get at, nor particularly edifying when told. But until it has been examined, accurately, dispassionately, and in detail, we shall not know what Nazi Germany was really like.
March 27, 1969