Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 47-51.
Hitler 1936–1945: Nemesis. By Ian Kershaw. Norton. 1,115 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Walter Sundberg
On May 11, 1945 Soviet Army authorities brought a cigar box containing a partial jaw–bone and two dental bridges to Fritz Echtmann, a dental technician who had worked for Dr. Johann Hugo Blaschke, Adolf Hitler’s dentist since 1938. Echtmann identified one of the bridges from records. The Nazi dictator, the chief protagonist in a war that left fifty million people slaughtered, was finally confirmed dead.
The question Ian Kershaw faces in the second volume of his massive biography is whether Hitler’s life has a coherent meaning for us, or whether it is as fragmented and partial as his earthly remains. His first volume, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (1998), covered Hitler’s early life and rise to power. In that volume the ultimate significance of Hitler’s life was not the urgent question. This final volume tells Hitler’s story from the height of his acclaim in March 1936, after German troops occupied the Rhineland, to his “extinction” (Kershaw’s word) in his bunker in Berlin in April 1945. Kershaw, Professor of History at the University of Sheffield, summarizes the historical meaning of Hitler’s life at the outset: “Hitler’s legacy,” he writes in the Preface, “is one of utter destruction.” The condemnation of Hitler in public opinion and scholarly research is unique in its unanimity and moral outrage. Even next to Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, Hitler stands apart as “the embodiment of modern political evil.”
In Kershaw’s cool and somewhat detached professional point of view, however, to call Hitler “evil,” even when one has no doubt that the judgment is right, “is a theological or philosophical, rather than a historical concept.” To seek the historical meaning of Hitler requires the examination of the publicly documented actions and behavior of the dictator in relation to the individuals, political structures, and social forces of his time. This is the task Kershaw sets himself. He documents Hitler’s life in its final nine years, interpreting it in the context of domestic, diplomatic, and military policy. Events are organized chronologically, month–by–month, drawing upon a wide range of original source material—Kershaw depends heavily on Joseph Goebbels’ daily journals—and secondary interpretations. The volume has notes covering two hundred pages of small print.
It is important to accept Kershaw’s quest for the historical meaning of Hitler on its own terms. Kershaw has not written psychohistory. He refuses to speculate on Hitler’s tortured personal life or unconscious motivations. Nor is he tempted by what Hayden White calls “metahistory,” the investigation of the deep structures of imagination in cultural life. Kershaw does not deal at any length with the Nazi mythos, a twisted blend of pagan, Christian, and folk imagery, whose symbolic world captured the German mind. Instead he offers straightforward political history, trying to be as objective as he can possibly be. His effort is admirable and effective. Here is a case where the significance of a life is all the more powerfully revealed if the biographer unrelentingly piles up the undisputed facts, leaving readers to make their own judgment.
There are no unusual revelations in the biography. The value of Kershaw’s effort is his steady and dependable sifting of a massive amount of scholarship. To be sure, Kershaw carefully carves out his own place. In contrast to Alan Bullock, he asserts that Hitler was not simply an opportunistic tyrant without fixed convictions, although there is much about Hitler’s domestic and foreign policy that was improvised and reactive. Kershaw rejects Hans Mommsen’s view that Hitler was a “weak dictator” who lacked control of the agencies of command, although it is true that Hitler could be extraordinarily detached at times, especially as his health de clined and he lived in a haze of potions and pills. Kershaw stands closest to Eberhard Jaeckel and Joachim Fest, who argued a generation ago that Hitler was an intentional political leader, driven by a “worldview” or, better, ideological obsessions for which he was willing to take conscious risks and make sacrifices, even to the point of disaster. These included the desires that Germany be the dominant power in Europe, that the nation be purged of all non–German elements, and that it obtain “living space” to the east.
Last but not least, Hitler’s ideology was driven by his hatred of Jews and Communists. The Soviet Union was a particular object of this double hatred; Hitler saw it as the home of what he called “Judeo–Bolshevism.” Hitler made these obsessions clear from the time of Mein Kampf, written in 1924–25, to his final testament dictated in the bunker in April 1945. Hitler meant what he said in these public documents and proved it by acting upon his obsessions. However paranoid, hateful, and vulgar they may be, they are nevertheless the essence of the historical meaning of Hitler’s life. It is these obsessions that forged his terrible will to undo and led Germany down a path of utter destruction.
The Hitler that emerges from these pages is a charismatic leader in the classic definition of Max Weber. A charismatic leader requires not only native ability, but a receptive social and psychological context. There is no doubt that Hitler had the native ability. Bolstered by an egomaniacal confidence in his own infallibility, he undertook the “historic mission” of his ideological obsessions by means of masterful speechmaking and acting. The inner circle of his regime reinforced this charisma by the expert use of propaganda, pioneering techniques of political communication.
Propaganda transformed Hitler into the image of der Fuehrer, to whom people related as an ideal or article of faith. “Working towards the Fuehrer” (dem Fuehrer entgegen arbeiten) became a fundamental motivation for the operations of government. Political and bureaucratic workers carried out their tasks at least in part by trying to do what they thought would please the Fuehrer and advance his ideology. Practical policy initiatives were justified as acts of the Fuehrer’s “will.” This left to Hitler the primary task of maintaining his authority, a task that he fulfilled brilliantly in his elaborately staged public appearances. He solidified this authority in endless rounds of private meetings with his immediate staff, generals, and courtiers. The accounts of these meetings that Kershaw provides, especially with the use of Goebbels’ journals, are fascinating.
Hitler would have gone nowhere if ordinary German people had failed to respond to him enthusiastically. Hitler fired their imaginations and ambitions, leading the Germans to what Kershaw calls “the greatest gamble in the nation’s history—to ac quire complete domination of the European continent. . . . The size of the gamble itself implied an implicit willingness to court self–destruction, to invite the nemesis.”
Inviting Nemesis, the god of retribution who punishes pride and arrogance, is a fitting image for what happened to Germany when it resolved to “work towards the Fuehrer.” How could a culturally accomplished, economically advanced people like the Germans fall into the abyss of Hitler’s obsessions? A definitive, all–encompassing answer remains elusive and perhaps is unobtainable. But it is possible to pile up the facts. Hitler maintained fear among average Germans by the use of Sippenhaft, that is, the arrest of entire families for the “crime” of one member. Each neighborhood had its spy (Blockwart) ready to report the slightest suspicion. Public enemies, including opposition parties, were dealt with ruthlessly in concentration camps. Indeed, these camps were originally set up to confine political opponents; only later did they take up their role in the extermination of the Jews. The Nazis ruled by fear.
Paradoxically, they also ruled by assent. Hitler ably exploited the tendency of German politics (in fact, continental politics generally) to subsume the individual under the regimented will of the nation. Freedom in this view is not an individual right protected by natural law but the hard–fought achievement of a people acting in community (Volksgemeinschaft) to fulfill a common purpose. In the revolutionary slogan, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” fraternity is key. The Nazis forged fraternity by adopting policies that relied on the permanent mobilization of resources. These policies inevitably gravitated towards military production and thus to war itself. In war, Hitler found his natural environment. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler’s fate became tied to a constant stream of military successes and then failures.
Kershaw naturally gives a great amount of attention to Hitler’s Jewish policy. He elucidates the question of what Hitler knew and when he knew it and traces the efforts of his inner circle “working towards the Fuehrer” to carry out his will while preserving what we would today call “deniability” for the leader himself. Kershaw lays out the development and implementation of the policy of deportation and extermination slowly and deliberately, conforming to his chronological organization. The result is gripping and horrendous.
A word should be said about the place of the churches in Kershaw’s account of Hitler’s reign. Kershaw assigns the churches only a minor role, which is fair enough. But the attention he does give them is not entirely satisfactory, as a couple of example—one Catholic, one Protestant—can demonstrate.
In the first volume, the signing of the Concordat with the Vatican in 1933 is seen as “an unqualified triumph for Hitler” in that it neutralized Catholic opposition to the new regime in its vulnerable first months. This is a fair assessment. After the signing, Michael Cardinal Faulhaber of Bavaria sent Hitler a handwritten letter of praise: “What the old parliament and parties did not accomplish in sixty years, your statesmanlike foresight has achieved in six months.” In the second volume the Cardinal is quoted as saying in 1936 that “the Reich Chancellor undoubtedly lives in belief in God.”
But that is only part of the story. During this same period Faulhaber issued frequent and courageous criticisms of Nazi attacks on the Catholic Church. Kershaw briefly alludes to them, but they leave no impression on the reader because the author provides no details and never quotes the Cardinal making a critical statement. This disparity in treatment is not entirely fair. To be sure, I cannot blame Kershaw for picking embarrassing quotations from ecclesiastical officials; such quotations are hard for any storyteller to resist. There is no doubt that the Cardinal said what he said in praise of Hitler. But it is not all he said.
The Protestant “church struggle” (Kirchenkampf) of the 1930s—my second example—is mentioned in twelve scattered pages of the second volume and even less space in the first. “The Church conflict was for [Hitler] no more than an irritation,” asserts Kershaw. Bishop Meiser, head of the Protestant Church in Bavaria, is quoted as offering public prayers for Hitler in 1937 in which he thanks God “for every success which, through your grace, you have so far granted [Hitler] for the good of the people.” Once again this is fair enough. But what about a word from the opposition? The likes of Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom engaged in heroic resistance, are mentioned only in passing and their words and writings are never quoted, and thus leave no impression on the reader. Here, too, I cannot exactly blame Kershaw. Meiser’s repugnant public statement is part of the sad record of the German church, and I would quote it if I were telling the story. But I would also give Niemoeller at least a line.
I do not want to make too much of this. There are plenty of sources that tell what the churches did (and failed to do) during the Third Reich, and it is only because this book is so complete that it is necessary to note what it lacks. There is no doubt that Kershaw’s achievement in this biography is considerable. He is the able successor to Bullock and Fest, and the two volumes of Hitler will be the definitive work on the subject for the foreseeable future.
Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul,