In response to:

Man of the People? from the November 20, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

As someone who was in touch with Germans throughout the Hitler period, I am much interested in Gordon Craig’s survey, in his masterly review of John Lukacs’s The Hitler of History [November 20, 1997], of how that regime looks to German historians today. It seems to me that there are factors in his regime that may have become faint or unclear to these modern historians.

The first is that, despite its buoyant appearance, the Third Reich was a society in which everyone lived in fear. The SS, neither police nor soldiers, were created by Hitler to intimidate Germans. Their arbitrary murder of the mighty Roehm, and then of General Schleicher and his wife, made it absolutely clear that even high Nazi leaders and senior army officers could never feel safe. As to ordinary Germans, they all knew where the nearest concentration camp was and that anyone could disappear into those places.

After Hitler had died, few Germans wrote very interestingly about his regime. Those who had been active Nazis kept quiet; and those who had not been Nazis mostly could only have said that they had accepted the regime out of fear. It is today impossible to recapture the atmosphere of underlying physical fear that was an important part of the cement of that society.

Another factor in the Reich that has become unclear is the role of anti-Semitism. Immediately after the war, the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis became generally known. Its scale in millions and its hideously cruel industrial organization could scarcely be believed or imagined. Naturally this horror dominated most of the postwar writing on Germany throughout the world.

Now, half a century later, there seems to be rethinking among German historians. Some seem to treat this monstrous event as only marginal to the whole Hitlerian story. The only respectable reason for this is that after Hitler failed to entice the German public to take part in the street pogroms of the Kristallnacht, he changed an important part of his anti-Jewish policy. He conducted it largely out of sight. When that policy grew during the war to enormous proportions, he went so far as to treat it as an official secret. Nothing was ever said or written to indicate that anything worse was happening than a “resettlement” of Jewish people in Eastern Europe. Indeed, this was an essential part in his method of persuading them to go quietly.

So systematically was this enormous secret operation conducted by the SS that almost no other Germans, except individual soldiers who caught accidental glimpses, knew what was really happening. Some such soldiers were thereby motivated to take part in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler.

There were, of course, many collaborating Balts and Hungarians who helped the SS in this extermination work. And, most extraordinarily, somehow messages were smuggled out of this hellish situation by a Jewish network of the highest courage. But when these messages reached London, with only word-of-mouth evidence to support them, they were apparently not believed.

It is hard for people living today to accept that the German public knew even less than the British government. The silence of all those many German train drivers who took hundreds of cars filled with Jewish men, women, and children to the camps of Poland seems incredible. Indeed, it cannot be believed without understanding the underlying physical fear that existed in Germany.

But although it is true that most of the German public could not know about the Holocaust, it does not follow from this that anti-Semitism was a marginal part of the history of the Third Reich. Its overwhelming importance is that it was the strongest driving force in Hitler’s mind. The evidence is not only in his book and last testament. It is also in his diversion of transport from his hard-pressed armies in Russia to enable him to continue his mission of killing all Jews, including those in Russia and Hungary, as part of what he considered his greatest achievement.

Not to accept the central importance of that motive is to misrepresent Hitler. That he believed that these millions of defenseless men, women, and children were a danger to civilization was a kind of insanity.

So the truth seems to be that the Germans have the historic guilt of having followed a man of some genius who was partly insane and who used them to commit the greatest crime in history. Yet they were kept deliberately ignorant of what he and his private army were doing. It is a terrible story. But is it more terrible than what the Soviets did behind the backs of the Russians? It may be judged by history to be more terrible for two reasons. The Nazis precipitated a world war. And their motivation was more obviously irrational than that of the Communists.

David Astor
London, England

This Issue

February 19, 1998