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Hitler’s Lingering Shadow

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001
Hitler 1936—1945. Nemesis. By Ian Kershaw. W. W. Norton. $35.00.

In 1999 Ian Kershaw warned an attentive audience at the German Historical Institute in Washington that the first volume of his Hitler biography (Hitler 1889—1936. Hubris) contained no factual discoveries of great import. He therefore posed the question: why write another life of the German dictator? One response was his promise to provide an answer to a question that has been asked again and again: how could National Socialism come to power in the country that had produced Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven, the sober political realist Bismarck, to say nothing of Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse? Kershaw had already completed two brilliant investigations of myth and reality, as well as of public opinion and dissent in the Third Reich, and these had led him to conclude that only an intensive study of the leader himself, seeking a rational path among earlier biographic interpretations, could lead to a resolution of this mystery.

Hubris spans a period of 47 years: from Hitler’s birth to a middle-level Austrian civil servant to a position of unfettered political power never before attained by any individual in German history. In 17th-century France Louis XIV is said to have voiced the unwarranted claim that he was the state. In 20th-century Germany a man from petty bourgeois obscurity had reached that breathtaking identification with public authority, and in his second volume Kershaw tells us how Hitler’s unassailable authority carried him and his nation to destruction.

By 1936 the Führer had broken the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles, and a system of political terror had silenced all domestic opposition. The resultant belief in his infallibility was shared by the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Still, the tyrant was haunted by the fear that death would remove him before Germany had gained control of Europe, destroyed Bolshevism, and annihilated the agents of an imaginary Jewish world conspiracy. As a result, no victory satisfied him, and each conquest was followed by new assaults on a lengthening list of adversaries.

At no time after his ascent to power did Hitler reveal to his nation or the world the extent of his conquistadorial ambitions. The annexation of Austria and the destruction of Czechoslovakia within 12 months from March 1938 to 1939—for instance—were followed by assurances that all German claims had now been satisfied. These lies enabled Hitler to persuade his Western rivals that he was a reasonable representative of German national interests. Describing these events, Kershaw offers a persuasive example of his evenhandedness. No partisan of appeasement, he nevertheless rejects the contention that Neville Chamberlain and his French colleague Edouard Daladier saved the German dictator from a domestic military conspiracy when they abandoned Czechoslovakia at Munich. He points out that the senior officers at the heart of this movement, fearing that their Führer was about to involve Germany in a disastrous European war, had no following among the rank and file of the armed forces. He goes on to demonstrate that the excesses of Kristallnacht in November 1938 do not indicate the existence of a policy of genocide but do signify the emergence of a genocidal mentality at the highest levels of the German government. Nazi pursuit of power no longer recognized the need for restraint of any kind. The extravagant celebration of the leader’s 50th birthday on April 20, 1939, displayed the nation’s unconditional willingness to accept his methods. The country celebrated more than a head of state; it worshipped a savior.

In the war that followed, Nazism truly came into its own. While its armies destroyed Poland in less than a month, destruction of “life unworthy of living” went into high gear at home, where people concentrated on the good news from the battlefront. With the surrender of France, the regime reached the zenith of its power. Only Britain held out, and the peerless leader began to prepare an assault on the Soviet Union whose anticipated collapse was expected to force Winston Churchill to the negotiating table.

At this point the fortunes of war began to turn. In 1941, as “Operation Barbarossa” was being prepared, Hitler’s deputy party leader, Rudolf Hess, flew to England to initiate negotiations with the tenacious enemy. A Yugoslav government, ready to join Germany’s orbit of power, was overthrown. The Italian assault on British forces in North Africa and on Greece produced the first Axis setbacks, and the battleship Bismarck was sunk in the North Sea. Finally, the Russian campaign, after staggering victories that appeared once again to ratify the assumptions of Hitler’s infallibility, was halted before reaching Moscow.

In November 1941 the master builder of the Third Reich’s network of highways and defense installations, Fritz Todt, told Hitler that given Germany’s limited material resources the war could not be won on the battlefield. The following day Todt’s plane that was to carry him back to Berlin crashed. Traces of Hitler’s involvement in the fatal accident were concealed. More important, the murder of a loyal acolyte did not change threatening reality.

The offensive in Russia resumed in 1942, but the Caucasus oilfields, so essential for the continuation of what had now—after Pearl Harbor—become another world war, remained out of reach. Though German forces reached the Volga, and Field Marshal Rommel temporarily reversed Italian defeats in North Africa, dissension and retreat set in before the year was out. In September Hitler fired the chief of the general staff, Franz Halder; in November Allied troops landed in North Africa. The German 6th army, encircled by the counterattacking Red Army at Stalingrad, surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.

Throughout his epically proportioned treatment of these well-known events, Professor Kershaw skillfully maneuvers his narrative between political, military, and social history, and biography. Hitler has become the commander of armed forces and sole strategist of the Eastern Front, and has changed from an indolent bohemian— fantasizing on his mountain top near Berchtesgaden and playing oracle to a bevy of obedient government and army officials—to a workaholic convinced that only he can close the breach of defeats. He refuses to fire Reichmarshal Hermann Goring, a total failure as head of the German air force, because that would mean he admitted making a disastrous appointment. The attempt on his life in July 20, 1944, heightens his sense of mission and the conviction of his indispensability. He clings to the assumption that the alliance arrayed against him will eventually disintegrate. With growing stridency, he insists that there will be no repetition of the surrender of 1918. “We can go down. But we’ll take the world with us.” The German nation must continue to bleed in the service of this suicidal principle.

Much of the rest of the tale we know from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler first published in 1947. Kershaw has explored all of it meticulously and critically, including the Goebbels diaries, one major source not available to his predecessors. He has paid scrupulous attention to the many varieties of evaluation and interpretation of specific events, from the contention that Hitler had Jewish forebears to the question of how he committed suicide, whether by poison, bullet, or both.

Another merit of this biography is the large space and careful thought bestowed on the Holocaust, a subject given comparably short shrift by earlier biographers. Kershaw is therefore forced to wrestle with the fact that Hitler’s first anti-Semitic speech occurred in September 1919 when he was 30 years old. Before that date he had expressed hatred of “Reds” and “Jesuits.” But Jews? Hitler had even thanked the Jewish physician, Dr. Eduard Bloch, for the devoted treatment given his mother during her final illness. The recommendation that led to Corporal Hitler’s acquisition of the Iron Cross First Class, a distinction few soldiers of his lowly rank received in World War I, originated with a Jewish officer in his unit. When he embraced anti-Semitism verbally after the war, he adopted a viewpoint popular in strife-torn Munich, where the search for scapegoats after a shattering defeat occupied many minds, including members of his early party entourage. How do these contradictions and uncertainties convince Kershaw that hatred of the Jews suddenly turned into Hitler’s “manic obsession” (I, 151)? Had he not simply decided to embrace a prejudice he knew would resonate with his local audiences? That is a question one is entitled to ask, but the biographer never considers it.

Throughout the Nazi years, the author points out repeatedly, care was taken not to associate Hitler with the mass murder of Jews. Specific acts that tightened the noose around Germany’s diminutive Hebrew community—less than 1 percent of the population—did not officially involve the dictator either before or during the war. His rhetorical attacks continued, and his minions, anxious to curry favor with the autocrat, could be counted on to act in concert with what was assumed to be his will. As time went on, Jews were killed by the millions, but without public announcements. As Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, declared to government and party leaders in 1943, it was a chapter in German history that would never be written. But his listeners knew about it, and the speech documents a wide circle of complicity.

The case for the “manic obsession” remains, however, nebulous. Other hatreds, the Bolsheviks for instance, did, of course, exist. His secretary, Christa Schröder, claimed to remember that when Hitler dictated a speech to her, he reached shouting intensity during passages attacking the USSR and its ideology. Even here we cannot know what was genuine and what was playacting. After all, anti-communism elicited approval from a variety of conspicuous personages both in Germany and abroad. The visiting Lord Halifax, a close associate of Neville Chamberlain, thanked the German leader on Nov. 19, 1937, for “preventing the entry of Communism into his own country” and thus barring “its passage further West,” a statement exaggerating Communist strength in Germany at any time and discounting a far more substantial Communist presence in French political life.

Other oratoric sallies in Hitler’s repertoire have been unmasked as little more than cynical maneuvers. His professed concern for German minorities outside the borders of the Reich reflects no honest feelings. Though otherwise so painstaking and thorough, Kershaw has little to say about pacifism. Hitler often included it in the standard catalog of villainies castigated in his speeches to the faithful. It was bound to be anathema to his apostolate of violence. In 1933 advocates of the peaceful resolution of conflict were persecuted as mercilessly as were Communists, Socialists, and Jews.

This brings us to the remaining mystery: the absence of any documentable evidence of Hitler’s personal convictions. He used recurring assertions of grievances to increase his power, first within and then beyond Germany. As one considers the spectrum of persecution in the Third Reich, the point can be made that victims were chosen not because they constituted a threat but because they were vulnerable. Pacifism had few supporters in Germany. Jews had no means of defending themselves. As the regime eliminated unemployment through public works and rearmament, recovered the Saar (1935) and Austria, and “brought home” the Sudetenland, it did not trouble a jubilant nation that 1 percent of the population was excluded from benefits as well as celebration of these achievements. Communists, too, were a minority, for whom the majority showed nothing but disdain. Only one major enemy identified in the Nazi party’s original program, Capitalism, escaped retribution and was, in fact, courted to a degree that alienated some old party members who had taken the socialism in national socialism seriously. By 1930 Hitler had made it clear that capital—agrarian, financial, and industrial— would be immune from socialization and worker control. After becoming chancellor, he destroyed the German labor unions, Wages shrank and working hours increased, while profits grew, later in the war also at the expense of growing contingents of foreign slave labor.

Meanwhile, the reversals of fortune after 1941 increased the frequency and stridency of the indictments hurled at the mythical “Jewish world conspiracy.” The gas chambers became the only battlefield on which victories could still be won. Extermination of Jews, Poles, Russians, and resistance fighters elsewhere, remained attainable war aims until Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.

Thanks to our continuing ignorance of Hitler’s personal feelings, the existence of a hierarchy of victims determined by levels of vulnerability cannot be demonstrated conclusively. It is, however, a suggestive way of interpreting the policies of his regime. The specific idea that Jews merely died to provide victories for a faltering order renders the Holocaust even more horrifying. But studies of its perpetrators confirm that these willing helpers included men who harbored no marked hostility toward Jews. To exclude Hitler from the ranks of such indifferent murderers takes more of a leap of faith than I can execute.

At the end of this latest reconstruction of Hitler’s life one still asks: has Kershaw explained how it became possible? In his preface to the first volume he tells us that Hitler’s “legacy belongs to all of us.” But that is the answer to an entirely different question. As one reviews the history of Nazi government, from the investiture of a leader whose followers worshipped violence to the alacrity with which business, civil service, army, and Christian churches rushed to submit to, cheer and suffer for him in victory and defeat, effects can be tied to no explicit cause. The biography recapitulates only what happened. Does this involve all of us? If it does, the author has but done half a job, for the book only deals with Germans and their victims. Is that nation’s defeat in 1918, that gave Hitler a start in politics, the only plausible explanation that justifies this familiar story’s retelling? Kershaw makes no such claim, but he also remains silent on the Why? At the end of two volumes he concludes routinely what few scholars contest: that Hitler was the author of war and genocide and that he led his nation to destruction.

After years of research and writing, the author confesses in a sort of coda that he and his family look forward to moving out of Hitler’s shadow “into the sunlight again.” Kershaw hopes to return to his first love: Yorkshire monasticism. One wonders whether this projected change in intellectual venue will assure such an idyllic future. Hitler’s shadow may linger as do the unanswered questions whose answers the dictator took with him when he committed suicide on May 1, 1945


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