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Germans and Nazis

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

Germany: The Last Phase. By Gunnar Pihl. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00. Germany: A Sclf-Portrait. By Harlan R. Crippen. Oxford University Press. $3.75. Prelude to Silence. By Arnold Brecht. Oxford University Press. $2.00. Omnipotent Government. By Ludwig von Mises. Yale University Press. $3.75.

There was a time, a perilous moment in history, when the whole future of Europe seemed to depend on what the Germans thought of the world. Now, as the United Nations Armies advance on Berlin, the future of Europe depends on what the world thinks of the Germans. Are they men or monsters? Are some good and others bad, or are they all Nazis, a perverted race hell-bent on conquest? To assist them in answering these questions—which must be answered in the approaching peace—Americans will find useful if contradictory evidence in the four books under review.

Gunnar Pihl, Swedish correspondent in Berlin from 1931 to 1934, returned to the Nazi capital in 1938 and stayed there until he was arrested and expelled in August, 1943. He has packed his accumulated observations of the war years into a book as he might have packed soiled clothing into a laundry bag. Pages of history, jeremiads, street scenes, political deductions, personal adventures, and economic analyses follow one another in “Germany: The Last Phase” with about as much logical order as the shirts, collars, and pillow-cases in the laundry. Another disagreeable feature is the laborious sarcasm which the author, with infinite hindsight, bestows upon his Nazi characters. Nevertheless, if you are prepared to dump the bag and sort out the contents, you will find among the historical and economic padding some extremely interesting impressions of German life in the “last phase” of the Third Reich.

These include the breadlines, the short tempers, the freezing houses, scanty meals, sickness, filth, and utter weariness of the home front which Mr. Pihl is convinced had begun to crack a year ago. Indeed, the one coherent theme of this incoherent book is that the German people realized with the defeat at Stalingrad that they had lost the war. “Now it became acute all at once,” Pihl writes of that event, “and I would say that Nazism died in Germany when the drama on the Volga came to an end—it did not die as a system, but it died as a faith, and from that hour it became evident that the Nazi system had the people against it.” In proof of this conclusion, he adduces the increasingly pessimistic broadcasts of Lieutenant General Dittmar, radio voice of the High Command; episodes in streets and stores in which dissatisfaction with the regime and envy of England and America are openly expressed; voices “from the mass of the German people . . . asking if it might not be better in the Soviet Union”; and, finally, the frantic efforts of Goebbels and his henchmen to stop such talk and snatch oratorical victory from military defeat. This evidence constitutes by far the most valuable part of the book. It is a great pity that the author’s sloppy and facetious writing casts doubt on its reliability as well as on that of his basic conviction that the German people “were burled into war by the regime” against their own better instincts -instincts which now crave liberation from the Nazi oppression.

“Germany: A Self Portrait” presents still more bewildering evidence to the same point. This is an anthology consisting of brief selections from the works of thirty-four writers and public figures of the past three decades. Historians, poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists, and politicians, including, among others, both Manns, Arnold Zweig, Hans Carossa, Lion Feuchtwanger, Ernst Toller, Leo Lania, Ernst von Salomon, Carl von Ossietsky, Prince von Biilow, Gustav Stresemann, and Fritz Thyssen, are introduced in a series of one or two-page biographical sketches by Mr. Crippen, who arranges his selections in chronological order and in three books representing, respectively, the Hohenzol-lern Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazis’ “Crooked Cross.” The book opens with an ironic portrait of the Kaiser and ends 458 pages later with a poem entitled “The Blossoming to Come” by Johannes Becher, a refugee since 1933 in Soviet Russia.

The interest of the editor of this book is political, not literary. His avowed purpose is “to come to an understanding of the most paradoxical of nations through its writings and documents” rather than to illustrate modern German literature or “any single tendency in German thought.” His real purpose is to present a series of utterances by Germans of humane and liberal complexion to counteract those of the opposite variety currently used to damn the Germans as a community of self-confessed barbarians. With only two or three exceptions, Mr. Crippen’s selections are from the literature of protest, all of it tragic, much of it written from the socialist or communist point of view. A better title for his book would have been “German Refugees: A Self-Por-trait.” The complete picture implied in an understanding of Germany “through its writings and documents” would have to include many writings which affirm the evil that Mr. Crippen’s authors attack. A controversy is now raging among American critics as to whether the disillusioned “Main Street” literature of our own twenties and thirties accurately represents America. If we can ask this question of ourselves, how much more emphatically must we ask it of the German writers presented by Mr. Crippen, The thread of suffering and despair that runs through all their works could easily lead to that very conclusion which they themselves are supposed to disprove: that Germany is in truth a land of “neither joy, nor love, nor light.”

This conclusion is most explicitly rejected by Arnold Brecht in his brief (120-page) historical essay on the collapse of the Weimar Republic. In “Prelude to Silence” he denies categorically “that the Germans have always been totalitarian and that the democratic regime served only as a camouflage to conceal this fundamental fact”; and he supports this denial with a chronicle based upon his own participation in the events of which he writes as well as on his research during the ten years of his residence in the United States. Lawyer, career member of the German civil service from 1910 to 1933, under-secretary in the Weimar cabinet of Wirth and Rathenau, head of a division of the Ministry of the Interior from 1921 to 1927, Prussian delegate to the German Federal Council from 1927 until storm troopers drove him from his office in 1933, Dr. Brecht had a close vantage point from which to view the men and events leading to the fall of the Republic. These convinced him, as has his subsequent study, that the rise of Hitler was “highly accidental,” the result of “a convergence of numerous factors” and not the deterministic fate of a nation of barbarians.

In defense of this thesis, Dr. Brecht offers a rather legalistic interpretation of the backstairs contest over federal, and especially over presidential, powers that bedeviled the efforts of the Mueller and Bruening Cabinets to solve the reparations problem and rescue Germany from the depression. One of the most important factors in the calamity was the size and power of Prussia, on which Dr. Brecht lays proper stress. Given the Weimar system of proportional representation and the fact that Prussia consisted of two-thirds of the Reich, the Prussian Government commanded enough power to rival the Reich as a second federal government. This situation added to the general confusion of constitutional powers and responsibilities in which the Weimar Regime fell before the onslaughts of a group of gangsters who knew what they wanted. Meantime, up to the very last, the Social Democratic, Catholic Centrist, and other antifascist election returns proved, at least to Dr. Brecht’s satisfaction, “that the overwhelming majority of the people at the end of the imperial period and during the democratic regime were distinctly anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist in both their ideas and their principles, and that this remained so at least throughout the 1920’s.”

Reading this book is a little like reading of the assassination of Lincoln. One is prone to assume that, had the martyred President lived, some black pages in American history might never have been written. Yet there were forces in the Reconstruction Congress, as there were beneath the surface of the laws, decrees, executive acts, and elections that Dr. Brecht recounts, which might have proved too strong for Lincoln and which did prove too strong for the Weimar Republic. These were not necessarily links in a deterministic chain; they were merely other “converging factors,” factors which still leave us wondering how many Germans are Nazis.

The last thing that could be said of Ludwig von Mises’ “Omnipotent Government” is that it leaves you wondering about anything. The venerable Austrian economist has made up his mind that the human race can save itself only in universal free trade and a system of free, uninhibited laissez-faire economics. Any compromise with this is supping with the devil—with a short spoon. The greatest evil of our times is government control of business, which culminates in “etatism,” international rivalries, and war. Germany is the principal case in point. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Germans were not swashbuckling expansionists. They were converted to these ways by champions of an all-powerful, all-directing, all-controlling state. Etatism, then Hitler, then the Second World War. In the process the socialist Lassalle was as much to blame as the junker Bismarck. And so it will continue until the nations scrupulously renounce all aspects of government intervention in economic life and espouse without reservation the doctrines of Manchester. Nothing good can be said of government as a provider of goods and services, a regulator of cut-throat competition, an insurer of living standards, and a guarantor of social justice if, as is certainly the case, any of these activities takes it one fraction of an inch over the Manchester line. For that way lies etatism, von Mises’ personal devil, and the Nazis are his legions.


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