I have myself heard enough about Hitler and the Nazis for a long time to come, and this thought-provoking book by the French historian Pierre Ayçoberry, admirably translated by Robert Hurley, has only reinforced my prejudice. The Nazi Question is not, thank goodness, still another history of Nazi Germany; we have more than enough of those. Instead Ayçoberry conducts us on a systematic tour of our “images of Nazism”—in other words, of the theories and hypotheses people have put forward to explain the Nazi phenomenon—and the result is devastating. Half-a-dozen analysts and historians emerge more or less unscathed; but a lot of established reputations (Hannah Arendt’s, for example) get a savage mauling. Ayçoberry is an iconoclast, a destroyer not only of established reputations but also of cherished beliefs. By the time he has finished, little we thought we knew about Nazism is left standing.

Beginning with the Nazis’ own image of themselves as members of a monolithic super-state, Ayçoberry establishes two fundamental points. The first is the sheer inadequacy of most current theories and images. Instead of “coherent analysis of the Nazi phenomenon,” we are fobbed off with bright and not-so-bright intuitions, glib generalizations, dogmatic assertions. This, perhaps, was unavoidable until the facts became fully available, but even in the 1950s American sociologists and political scientists were busy constructing theoretical models of fascism and totalitarianism “on the basis of a few rough observations,” with scant regard for “Germany’s uniqueness.” No wonder that “the trails blazed by the social sciences in the United States ended in impasses or in shaky hypotheses”!

But that is only a beginning. What becomes clear in addition, when we examine our images of Nazi Germany, is that almost without exception they are the work of men with an axe to grind. That is obviously true of the Nazi self-image of a monolithic super-state. Its speciousness was exposed by Franz Neumann as long ago as 1942, but it fitted in so well with what people wanted to believe that his arguments carried little weight. Instead, a whole generation of Western writers accepted the image and saw the Nazi super-state as the consummation of the long-heralded “revolt of the masses,” the embodiment of mass society, a convulsion (in Thomas Mann’s words) “of militarized crowds.” For the left, on the other hand, it was the product of a capitalist conspiracy, “a form of dictatorship” (the Austrian socialist, Otto Bauer, proclaimed) “newly invented by the ruling class.”

Nazism as a battlefield of ideologies: that is the picture Ayçoberry puts before us as he probes the ideological assumptions which shape and color the different images. The left used it as a stick to beat the right, pointing to the complicity of big business in the rise of Hitler. The right used it as a stick to beat the left, condemning Nazism as “a proletarian eschatology.” “Totalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses,” Hannah Arendt announced. One thing alone both right and left held in common: the Nazi experience should teach a lesson. The question, needless to say, was what the lesson should be; but what was the point of studying it at all if it had no lesson to teach?

One result was that far more attention was paid to the rise of Nazism, to its roots and origins in Weimar Germany, than to Nazism itself. Not perhaps at first, out certainly after 1945, when, under the impact of the Cold War, its history became an object-lesson in civics Was not totalitarianism in all its forms Nazi as well as communist, the challenge? What was it that induced people to embrace or accept a totalitarian solution? And, above all, how could we prevent it happening again? The result was paradoxical. Just when Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich had perished in the dust, and it should have been possible to stand back and review its short history objectively, the study of Nazism became more passionately committed than ever before. We had better learn its lessons, it was implied, before we were condemned to repeat them.

For Ayçoberry “the false problem of the totalitarian state” is the outstanding example of what he calls “the labels game.” By this he means creating a synthetic model—in this case an artificial amalgam of allegedly common attributes of Nazism and communism—and affixing it ready-made to complex phenomena. Ayçoberry rejects the totalitarian model lock, stock, and barrel. It should, he says, “be relegated to the museum.” But he does not deny that it opened new avenues of inquiry. Hitherto the tendency had been to explain Nazism in terms of immutable national psychology, to paint a “fearsome portrait of the ‘typical German’ ” conditioned by history to fall for Hitler’s blandishments. This was all right so long as Nazism was regarded as a peculiar German evil. But once it was treated as a manifestation of totalitarianism, reflecting (in Carl J. Friedrich’s words) the “inherent implications of the technological state in which we find ourselves,” more specific answers were necessary. Which precisely were the classes that carried the Nazis to power? Even if (as the left alleged) Nazism was foisted on Germany by capitalists and big business, who were the people who lent their support? Or, in more theoretical terms, what were the social foundations of fascism?


These at least were serious questions. But here again, Ayçoberry insists, we were left with hazy answers. Not in any case the workers, said the left; the electoral statistics alone prove that they were adamantly opposed to the very end. But if it was the middle class, the famous but ambiguous German Mittelstand, exactly which section of the middle class was implicated, and why?

Against the common assumption that the academic community, the so-called Bildungsbürgertum, capitulated to Hitler, Ayçoberry recalls the fact that “the famous motion of support for the Führer, which caused stupefaction abroad, actually only collected 960 signatures from among the 7,000 professors and lecturers.” I am grateful for this tribute to friends long dead. But who, then, were the culprits? It is a crucial question; but instead of being subjected to serious analysis, it was evaded, Ayçoberry says, by reliance on “hazy definitions like kleine Mann, the man without any talents or special qualifications.” Or, at the other extreme, by brainless application of the techniques of data processing—seventy-nine variables and thousands of possible correlations—only to lead to the discovery at the end that the alleged characteristics which made Germans turn to Hitler were “shared with countless non-Nazis and even non-Germans.” It was like the theory that Nazism was a consequence of a peculiarly German “authoritarian family” (the dominating father and the submissive mother), which collapsed ignominiously when exactly the same symptoms—blind submission to authority, conformism, and the like—were found in a sampling of white, non-Jewish, middle-class Americans.

What should be evident by now is the range and depth of Ayçoberry’s criticism. It would be tempting to follow it further, but it is not necessary. The more important question is where it gets us. What can safely be said is that its strength lies on the negative side. Just when we thought we had got the measure of Nazism, that we understood its causes and character, along comes Ayçoberry and takes the lid off the whole can of worms. It is not simply that the images that pass for explanations turn out to be slogans, stereotypes, and labels; they are also contradictory. Was Germany historically and structurally abnormal? Was Nazism the outcome of its “abiding backwardness” and “permanent outdatedness”? Or was it, as authoritarian theories insist, simply an aggravated instance of a common Western malady, a “magnifying glass” (as Ayçoberry puts it) “through which the entire Western world could have a look at its warts”? It could scarcely be both; but how are we to reconcile the contradictions, or even to choose between them?

Ayçoberry’s answer seems, at first sight, to be very simple. “The excessive use of a priori classifications,” he says, led to “a sort of collection of theories, juxtaposed like dead insects.” What was called for was “pragmatism,” “empiricism,” “diligent research”—in short, a return to the traditional methods of history. One has only to list the names appearing in chronological order in Ayçoberry’s book—Thomas Mann, Hermann Rauschning, Max Horkheimer, Daniel Lerner, for example—to see that our images of Nazism stem from sociologists, political scientists, men of letters, and propagandists. The historians, held back until the opening of the archives, arrived late on the scene. The first historical work of substance was Alan Bullock’s Hitler (1952), but even this, like Karl Dietrich Bracher’s masterly account of the end of Weimar (1955), provided more a factual underpinning of old stereotypes, borrowed from the Rauschning-Arendt school of thought, than a new approach. It needed a new generation, a generation emancipated from the burden of the past, to break through the old certitudes.

This is the generation to which Ayçoberry himself belongs, and it is obvious that his sympathies lie with it. Few writers before 1965 (Franz Neumann is a notable exception) escape his censure. To those writing after 1965 his attitude is much more positive. William S. Allen and David Schoenbaum in the United States, Michael Kater in Canada, Tim Mason in England, and Martin Broszat in Germany are all cited with approval, sometimes with enthusiasm. Their achievement is to have restored plasticity to our picture of Nazi Germany, to have revealed the complexity of the Nazi phenomenon, and exposed the futility of trying to pigeon-hole it with ready-made labels. The “petits bourgeois,” for example, who for so long had been seen as “puppets,” once again become “flesh and blood” under their scrutiny. They show us the strange dichotomies of Nazism, “which is both order and disorder,” and at the same time its “unresolvable contradictions.” But here we come to the final paradox. The new generation of historians has dissolved the old stereotypes, and for this we owe them thanks; but what have they put in their place?


The answer is obviously not nothing; but there is also no doubt, as Ayçoberry observes, that the history of Nazi Germany “lost in simplicity what it gained in documentary solidity.” Sociography, in particular, has enabled us to view the German class structure on the eve of the so-called seizure of power far more accurately and realistically than before. “Twenty years of searching through archives” have not been wasted, but they also have their limitations. As soon, Ayçoberry says, as historians of the classes approach “the borders of their field,” we become aware of “what can only be called their impotence.” “Plodding empiricists,” they have left us with a graveyard of theories, but they have not eliminated the “obscurities and contradictions”; in fact, in many ways they have added to them. They seem to be involved in a never-ending quest; but already, Ayçoberry says, the task of inserting their results into a general picture has become “all but insurmountable.”

This is a disconcerting statement, all the more disconcerting because at this point Ayçoberry abandons us “on a stage” (as he puts it) “without sets,” deliberately declining to draw “arbitrary conclusions.” That is why his book leaves me, in the end, with a sense of frustration, occasionally even of exasperation. Iconoclasm is useful, no doubt; it helps to clear the ground. But it is not enough. And yet, I think, two conclusions at least are possible. The first concerns the nature and limits of historical knowledge, the question whether we can ever know even the relatively recent Nazi past “as it really was.” The second is whether our preoccupation with Nazism, the apparently ceaseless battle to get the measure of it, may not be misconceived, whether we are not perhaps according it a significance far higher than it deserves.

The first question is abstruse and theoretical, and I will not pursue it here. Certainly the images of Nazism Ayçoberry analyzes tell us more about their creators, their fears and hopes and preoccupations, than about the Nazi reality. But if—and this, as I understand it, is the drift of Ayçoberry’s essay—that reality is beyond our grasp in its totality, if at best the historian can only lift a few corners of the veil, what then? It is now half a century since the so-called “seizure of power,” thirty-six years since Hitler did away with himself in his Berlin bunker. His ephemeral Thousand Year Reich has disappeared, not entirely without trace, but without any immediately apparent relevance for a world beset by problems and dangers of a very different dimension. Is it not time to ask whether it is really worth all the attention sociologists, political scientists, historians, and psychiatrists have given it?

I ask the question tentatively and with the knowledge that in all probability it will provoke an angry reply. Are we to forget the horrors of Nazism, the brutalities, the pogroms, the genocide? The answer, obviously, is no. But it is also true, as Ayçoberry emphasizes, that if you see the post-1933 regime in Germany “only in terms of totalitarianism, manipulation and terror,” you will simply “sidestep” the awkward and significant questions, among which he specifically singles out its popularity. In any case, the reasons we are asked to contemplate the Nazi experience (vulgar sensationalism apart) almost invariably lie deeper than this. “Professors of every discipline,” a circular of the West German boards of education declared, “have an obligation to instruct students in the characteristics…of bolshevism and national socialism” because they are “the two most important totalitarian systems of the twentieth century.” Ayçoberry’s comment on this declaration is sardonic. Nevertheless it helps explain why we continue to busy ourselves with a system that is as dead as, and has probably left fewer traces than, Napoleon I’s empire. The history of Nazi Germany, we are told, is peculiarly relevant, not simply on account of its horrors, but because it was a prefiguration of a fate which may overtake us all. Or, in a much-cited phrase from Albert Speer’s memoirs, because Hitler’s dictatorship was “the first dictatorship of an industrial state in the age of modern technology”—the word “first” implying that it would not be the last.

This would be a compelling argument if it were true. One of Ayçoberry’s main positive contributions—and here I am in full agreement—is that it is not true. Leave aside the fact that it provided, and was meant to provide, an alibi for the German people. More significant is Ayçoberry’s demonstration that Nazism was an outcome of peculiarly German “abnormalities,” “the result of a specific combination of circumstances,” or (in Karl Dietrich Bracher’s words) “completely attuned to the German situation” and to no other. But what, in that case, is its special bearing for us today? What, if it reflected a unique and unrepeatable phase of history, have we to learn from it? Whatever the future may hold in store, it will not be a repetition of the Nazi experience. That is dead and buried, part of a past which cannot be recalled.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the Nazi question should be consigned to the garbage heap of dead causes and exploded ideologies. What I am suggesting is that it should be demythologized, detached from its supposed transcendental significance, and handed over, like other past enormities—the Norman devastation of England, for example, or the Spanish spoliation of Mexico—to the historians’ painstaking analysis and cautious appraisal. I am also suggesting that there are more important questions today, that even historians can find more profitable fields to plough and furrow, that the attempt to extract the last ounce of “meaning” from the history of Nazism is more likely to end in frustration than in illumination. That—whether he intended it or not—is the lesson I should draw from Ayçoberry’s book. It is brilliant sometimes, occasionally perverse and exasperating, and tantalizingly inconclusive; but if it helps to dispel a lot of current illusions, it will have performed a useful service. Still, it is, or should be, the end of a chapter: an epilogue and not a preface, the closing and not a re-opening of “The Nazi Question.”

This Issue

November 19, 1981