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.


In the telling of his lamentable story, Kershaw keeps his temper, and his tone is level, analytical, and judicious. This is not always true of Michael Burleigh. A British historian, now professor at Washington and Lee University, he cannot prevent his feelings from showing once in a while. He calls Heinrich Himmler a “moralising little creep” and of Hitler he says on one occasion, “He combined being the worst sort of reductionist scientific bore, forever citing cats and rats, with being a saloon-bar conspiracy theorist, forever banging on about Jews.” In stating his purpose, also, Burleigh draws a distinction between Kershaw, who insists that “evil is a theological or philosophical, rather than a historical, concept,” and himself by writing forthrightly that his book deals with the

progressive, and almost total, moral collapse of an advanced industrial society at the heart of Europe, many of whose citizens abandoned the burden of thinking for themselves, in favour of what George Orwell described as the tom-tom beat of a latterday tribalism. They put their faith in evil men promising a great leap into a heroic future, offering a “quick fix” to Germany’s local, and modern society’s general, problems. The consequences, for Germany, Europe and the wider world were catastrophic,…the price of mass stupidity and overweening ambition.

In accounting for the victory of National Socialism in Germany, Burleigh does not doubt that the humiliations imposed by the Versailles Treaty, the ineffectiveness of the Weimar parties, and the depth of the economic depression were largely responsible. He suggests, however, that only a country with a historical and philosophical culture that was particularly drawn to salvationist rhetoric and mystification would have responded so enthusiastically. However that may be—and Burleigh has some suggestive things to say about such tendencies in a section on the power of sentimentality in National Socialist politics—the surrender, once made, was irretrievable; for the new rulers were quick to supersede the rule of law by arbitrary police terror by which people were subject to being arrested, beaten, and killed without any effective legal protection whatever.

This Burleigh calls the most important departure from civilized values engineered by the Nazi government, and as an example—“the most spectacular legitimisation of the gravest of crimes”—he cites the Law Concerning Measures for the Defense of the State of July 3, 1934, by which Hitler legalized dozens of murders of his own Brownshirt followers that he had ordered days or hours earlier during the so-called Night of the Long Knives. It was because of his leading role in that killing spree that Heinrich Himmler assumed such a dominant role in the movement.

Burleigh is simultaneously repelled by Himmler and fascinated by the way in which he routinely outmaneuvered his enemies and spread the power of the SS in state, party, and army through Germany and the whole of occupied Europe. Because of Himmler’s private obsessions, SS values were a combination of puritanism, antipathy toward Christianity, and death-fixated kitsch. Its purpose was absolute loyalty to Adolf Hitler, whose enemies it was sworn to destroy, and it found its highest expression in the wanton lawlessness and sadism of the concentration camps—Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and Mauthausen, all built in the 1930s and intended to isolate potential opponents and break their spirits.

In his discussion of the persecution of the Jews, which is one of the most interesting in the book, Burleigh points out that in the beginning most attacks on them were private in origin rather than being initiated by the police. Denunciations of Jews for disloyalty, subversion, and alleged crimes emanated mostly from the lower end of the social scale and were intended to settle deep-seated personal grudges and resentments. Burleigh points out how lethal this kind of name-calling was under a dictatorship. Although such denunciations continued to be made in large numbers, they were soon superseded by state-sponsored anti-Semitism (for example, laws dismissing Jews from the civil service and depriving them, as in the case of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, of their civil rights) and by bureaucratic chicanery that took the form of petty persecution and the denial of privileges enjoyed by other citizens.

The personal effects of these measures have been described in the now well-known diaries of Victor Klemperer, in which the author systematically records how he was denied the right to use public transportation, to go to the theater, to visit public libraries, to buy cigarettes, and to do scores of other ordinary things.2 Burleigh cites the case of Albert Herzfeld, the son of a major textile manufacturer, a baptized Protestant, and a veteran of World War I, in which he had served as a lieutenant and won the Iron Cross Second Class. After the war he became a gentleman artist and lived what would have been a comfortable middle-class life had it not been for the Nazis, who systematically deprived him of his civic rights and imposed petty humiliations upon him. His artists club, for example, after sending him congratulations on his seventieth birthday, expelled him eight weeks later, and he was finally forbidden the right to paint at all. In the end, deprived of his home and his wealth, he was sent with his wife to Theresienstadt in 1942, where he died a year later. He remained convinced until the end, however, that the broad German public was “absolutely not anti-Semitic.”

The intermittent violence that had marked the persecution of the Jews since 1935 reached its crescendo in the dreadful pogrom of November 1938, and this marked a significant turning point in the history of the Jewish question. (Burleigh believes that to identify this event as the Reichskristallnacht is to render harmless what was a murderous and deliberately orchestrated rampage of mindless mobs.) There were no more examples of violence on this scale, perhaps because it was realized that Herzfeld’s judgment of public opinion was correct and a repetition of the organized November outrages would backfire. Instead, the SS now began to search for a “total solution” of what it now saw apocalyptically as “the Jewish Question.” In Hitler’s speeches, moreover, all of his enemies were now translated into Jews, in a conflation of Jews, criminality, communism, and subhumanity which, Burleigh writes, “apparently legitimised messianic violence.” In 1939, on the sixth anniversary of his coming to power, he made his famous and later oft-repeated “prophecy” that

if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe again succeeds in precipitating the nations into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth, and with it the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.

To trace the fulfillment of that promise is not easy. Burleigh writes:

The mass murder of the Jews evolved, not in a simple, linear way, but as a result of blockages and stoppages, options denied and opportunities seized upon, rather as a deadly virus bypasses the human immune system, until the whole continent bore witness to its malignant presence. The enterprise was so vast and detailed in execution, its victims ranging from complete urban communities to infants hidden in remote haylofts, that it is difficult to convey its terrible scope in any account aspiring to depth let alone geographical comprehensiveness.

He copes with these difficulties ably, although he admits that it is impossible to tell when Hitler decided in his own mind to murder the Jews of Europe. What cleared the way, however, was probably a secret speech he made to fifty high state and party officials in his private apartment at the Reich Chancellery on December 12, 1941, in which he said that it was time to “clear the decks” on the “Jewish Question” without “sentimentality” or “pity.” No one who was present at that meeting could have doubted, Burleigh says, that this was incitement to general murder.

It is a significant feature of Burleigh’s book that it does not restrict its view to events in Germany proper. So much of the history of the Third Reich played itself out beyond Germany’s boundaries that Burleigh has felt it important to make some assessment of its impact there. His treatment is comprehensive and in some cases—Vichy France, for example, and Poland, which he calls “the nightmare scenario among the occupied nations of Europe”—highly original. He is to be praised in particular for the acuity of his discussion of the moral dilemmas posed by relations between the occupiers and the occupied, some of which (sexual relations in particular) had serious postwar repercussions. For example, a significant number of the French mothers of the more than fifty thousand children fathered by German soldiers were punished after the war for “horizontal collaboration.” Perhaps his most important point is that, unlike some occupying powers in history, Napoleonic France, for example, which bequeathed administrative and cultural gifts to the peoples they conquered, the Nazi empire lived and died by violence and—despite the amount of time spent by sophisticated German officers such as Ernst Jünger in the salons of Paris—left nothing of any worth behind, “except perhaps its contemporary function as a secular synonym for human evil.”


In his unusual analysis of German society during the Third Reich, the French historian Pierre Ayçoberry makes it clear from the outset that speculation about why Germany succumbed to National Socialism and reflection on the role of personality in the Nazi years are subjects that he intends to leave to others. The question that he addresses is more fundamental: “How did people live, survive, or disappear under the Third Reich?”; and his inquiry is focused not on individuals but on groups, classes, elites, occupations, and professions. Nor does he find it necessary to preface his story with a systematic survey of the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic. Instead, he begins abruptly with an account of the element in public life that convinced Germans in 1933 that things were different: namely, the violence introduced by the Nazis as soon as they came to power.

To begin by describing this, he writes,

is surely to reproduce the perception of contemporaries more faithfully [than other approaches], and it also constitutes a rejection of the excuses that conservatives present a posteriori in the name of what appears to be scrupulous historicism,

namely, that between 1933 and 1935 no one could have foreseen what would one day become the crimes of National Socialism. Ayçoberry points out that this ignores the offenses against public order committed by the Nazi storm troopers (SA) from the earliest days of the new regime and the fact that, when the SA’s freedom of the streets came to an end on the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, its outrages were replaced by the more systematic violence of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. If there were people who did not perceive from the beginning that an apparatus of repression made up the very core of the new people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft), it was, in many cases, because they thought it justifiable and regarded the Socialists and Jews, who were its victims, as troublemakers or marginal members of society.

Violence also had a role in what was called Gleichschaltung, the process of compelling society to fall into line with the new regime. In a fascinating chapter, “The Illusions, Collusions, and Disillusions of the Elites,” Ayçoberry describes how determination to remain free from party control was compromised, in the case of the most important professions in the country, by conflicting interests and ambitions on the part of their members. Even the leaders of industry, confident that their indispensable role in the achievement of Hitler’s goals in rearmament and full employment would prevent them from becoming dependent on

the orders of party bosses, were so enamored of the profits of collaboration that, Ayçoberry writes, many of them slid into political submission without fully realizing it. In the case of the army, which had since the lean days of Weimar wanted expansion above all else, it achieved its wishes after 1935 only at the cost of its spiritual cohesion, for the very large number of new officers who swelled its ranks after 1935 came in large part from the Hitler Jugend or the Nazi Party and had loyalties that differed from the traditional ones.

Members of government departments found it easier to comply with party standards or meet party expectations than to take a principled stand against them. Thus, in drafting decrees for the application of Nazi racial laws, jurists were unlikely to call attention to instances where they violated existing statutes; and diplomats, reassured by the fact that their ranks had not been purged, were happy to act as agents of Hitler’s revisionism even when they had private misgivings.Professional conscience did not serve as a deterrent to compliance. Forty-three percent of doctors and other members of the medical community, the highest proportion of any profession, joined the party, while 7 to 9 percent actually joined the SS. As for university professors, intimidated early on by book burnings and student demonstrations, they found it expedient to avoid unfashionable views unless they were so distinguished in reputation that they could count on appointments abroad.

In the case of Germany’s elites, therefore, Gleichschaltung was successful. This was less true of the working class—those who worked in heavy industry, on the land, in service industries, and in small firms. There was no question about the workers’ basic loyalty to the regime, which was assured by the success of the government’s economic and foreign policies and the popularity of the vacation benefits offered by the program of Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy). But there was no great enthusiasm about the movement’s ideology, and most workers “maintained an ambiguous attitude, now keeping their distance from the official world, now making the most of the advantages that it offered.” Ayçoberry points out that workers used the Hitler salute as little as possible, boycotted informers, and sometimes refused to contribute to the party’s charitable and welfare programs, forms of resistance that were not intended to bring down the regime but rather “to limit the Nazification in their daily lives.”

Similar forms of resistance were to be found among women, whom the party sought to eliminate from positions that they had won in public life and the liberal professions during the Weimar years, and among young people, whose political activity it sought to restrict to party organizations like the Hitler Jugend. Party policy with respect to women was so clearly guided by an outdated sexism that it was widely opposed and quickly backfired. The dismissal of two thousand women teachers, for example, caused staff shortages that had to be repaired by new recruitment campaigns; in the end it was only in the judicial bureaucracy that women were eliminated completely. As for young people, in 1936 half the children and adolescents of Germany and in 1939 one third of them eluded party control by remaining members of the youth organizations of the two Christian churches or by forming independent groups, like the “swing clubs” of Hamburg and Frankfurt. In doing so, many young people wanted to make clear their opposition to the Hitler Jugend and some of them harassed its members.

The radicalization of Nazi policy in 1938 and 1939 did not put a stop to these expressions of internal discontent, and when the country went to war in 1939 Hitler could count on the obedience of the military but less so upon the unconditional support of the civilian population. Despite its early triumphs, moreover, the war showed no signs of coming to an end, and the longer it lasted the greater the burdens that were imposed upon the German people. The cohesion of family units was undermined by the mobilization of fathers, the evacuation of children, and the participation of women and young people in defense tasks. The closing of shops and the evacuation of working forces to the country became a matter of course, and people found themselves cut off from familiar surroundings and acquaintances and ordered continually to move on. Civil society, Ayçoberry writes, “turned into a kind of kicked-in anthill.” People were subjected increasingly, moreover, to the rigors of bombing and, in the last stages of the war, to occupation by enemy forces.

Faced with these difficulties, the civilian population showed an admirable ability to cope, and in 1943, for example, although hampered by an increasingly inexperienced and heterogeneous workforce, industry managed to produce five times as many weapons and other military items as in 1939. But the endurance of the common people and their ingenuity in finding ways to survive owed little if anything to the party, which showed hardly any of the spirit of sacrifice that it demanded from others and whose leadership was characterized by cowardice and incompetence. In September 1944, when Hitler created the Volksturm, the people’s army, which included many children, he vested its command in the hands of the Gauleiter, who were derisively called the “golden pheasants.” The results were not heartening. In provinces threatened by the Red Army there was a mass desertion of party cadres, and the Gauleiter of Poznan, Breslau, Bremen, and Dresden made catastrophic decisions, in Bremen forcing the population to resist until the very end, thus assuring the destruction of the city, in Dresden refusing to allow the erection of bunkers, thus increasing vulnerability to air raids. Ayçoberry writes:

When in his last days Hitler accused the German people as a whole of cowardice, it was the ultimate deception designed to cover up the collapse of the party he had created and used to seize power, but which then proved itself useful neither in peace nor war.

This Issue

November 2, 2000