BY TERENCE PRITTIE
I BELIEVE there are three main questions about the Nazi era which have to be answered. Why did it happen? How did it happen? What were its results? William L. Shirer’s immensely valuable book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, $10.00), sets out, primarily, to answer the first two only. This has necessitated a book of more than one thousand tightly packed, absorbing pages. Nor is this one page too many. There are a number of reasons why the Nazi era, apart from being crowded with events, is so difficult to explain.
First, it was a period in the life of a great nation when human evolution simply ceased — a period far more terrible for its inverted mystique and veneer of Christian culture than the Dark Ages, which succeeded the breakup of the Roman Empire. The barbarians who swarmed across the Roman walls brought, along with their “barbarism,” social forms which were natural to them, as well as a natural vigor and freshness. Not so the Nazis, who stamped out German democracy and set out to wreck European civilization. They had none of the instincts of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage, but only some of his superficial characteristics. They cultivated savagery in order to extinguish every decent human feeling.
In the second place, the German people, whatever the survivors of the Nazi era say today, prostrated themselves before Hitler in a manner which still seems incredible. Mr. Shirer has dealt with the tangible political and social causes for the rise, out of the ashes of Imperial Germany, of the Nazi phoenix, repulsive and rapacious as a vulture. The Treaty of Versailles and resentment over a lost war, the functional failure of the Weimar Republic, the world economic depression, the hesitant policies of other European powers — in these obvious facts lies a great part of the explanation of Hiller’s success. Behind them is the deeper mystery of the German people’s ability to divert their genius for hard work and constructive effort so wholeheartedly into evil designs, while SURRENDERING the sum of their critical values.
Finally, there is the question of the legacies of the Nazi edu What are they? What will they be? tritc answer is a divided Germany, with 52 million west Germans making a fresh start within the Western community and 17 million East Germans being steadily absorbed into the Communist bloc. The political results of the Nazi era are beginning to work themselves out. But the moral and psychological results may be more lasting. Consider the Nazi doctrines which the German people so readily embraced —subjection of self to abstrat authority, rejection of the Christian ethic in favor of blind obedience to the state, destruction of faith in personal judgment, total disregard of the lessons of the past.
Mr. Miner’s lust valuable service in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to define Hitler’s aims. In retrospect, it may seem incredible that the great mass of (dennans eatnc to believe that these aims war merely to “wash out the shame of Versailles" and to give the Germans their “rights.” In Man Kampf Hitler wrote: “The demand for restoration of the frontiers of 1914 is a political absurdity ol such proportions and consequences as to make it seem a crime, quite aside from the fact that the Reich’s frontiers in 1914 were anything but logical.”The German destiny, Hitler went on. was to “stop the endless German movemrnt to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the east,” toward that “giant Empire" which was “ripe for collapse.” Germany would secure not only what was its own “by right” but what it needed for the expansion of the master race (the Nazi leaders pointed out to one another that 20 to 30 million Russians could starve to death at any time during the process).
Mein Kampf not only voiced Hitler’s demand for unlimited territorial expansion; it laid down that to achieve this Germany must be ruled on a basis of force and by “responsible persons,” while all operative decisions would be made by one man. Here was the germ of absolute dictatorship, based on repression and acclamation at home and claiming the allegiance of the whole German people by virtue of its vision of glorious destiny. The essence of that vision was the overlordship of Europe — eventually, perhaps, of the whole world. To support this vision, Hitler embraced the ideas of philosophers like Nietzsche and Treitsechke and of racial cranks like Gobincau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain on the one hand anti the instruments of physical and moral repression on the other. Treitschke confirmed him in his belief in blood and iron; Nietzsche in his veneration for the Aryan “blond beast,” the superman who would conquer ami decimate the subject races. The writings of the Frenchman Gobineau taught him that the German was the best Aryan of all; those of the Englishman, Chamberlain, that this gave the Germans the right to be masters of the world. Hitler, a voracious reader, certainly lapped up many of the ideas of lesser-known savants too, of historians who lavished their adulation on Bismarck and of anti-Semites who churned out an endless, semi pornographic literature during the first twenty years of this century.
IN RETROSPECT it may not seem altogether surprising that, fifteen years after the end of World War I, the bulk of the German people had sworn allegiance to Hitler. their gullibility was seemingly unbounded. Their nationalism was an unhealthy growth, the living expression of their hostility toward their neigldiors. Their readiness to surrender their own freedom of opinion was an automatic reflex; in 1938 a Jewish schoolteacher and a Bavarian nobleman both told me that no German citizen had the right to criticize his government (later the Nazis murdered the schoolteacher and drove the nobleman from his home). The myth has subsequently been fostered in Germany that only a minority of Germans supported Hitler and that the rest paid unwilling lip service to his regime. Well, in September, 1937, Hitler was able to attract a crowd of one million people to listen to a speech on the Maifeld. Yet Berlin is regarded by Germans today as having been the most anti-Nazi city in Germany.
The hulk of the German people gave Hitler and the Nazi Party slavish, and often frenzied, support. It is more surprising that Germans in high places, who should have known better, did so little to prevent the destruction of the Weimar Republic. Take the case of the President of the Reichsbank, who was to become Hitler’s Minister of Finance, Dr Hjalmur Schachi. In 1932 he was writing to Hitler, “I have no doubt that the present development of things ean only lead to your becoming Chancellor Your movement is carried internally by so strong a truth and necessity that vie tory cannot elude you for long.” And Dr. Schacht, who since 1945 has so self-righteously disassociated himself from the Nazis, collected the funds which kept the Party’s head above water in 1933 and proudly announced that he was “directing the economic preparations for war” in 1934.
lake the case of Franz von Papen, the 1932 Reich Chancellor, who is generally regarded as having done more than any other non-Nazi to hoist Hitler into the saddle. Von Papen was a member of the Catholic Center Party, an aristocrat. and an innate conservative who might have been expet ted to offei consistent opposition to the Nazis. if only because they were parvenus and revolutionaries Von Papen’s memoirs are one of the most revealing of all German apologias for the Nazi era; be would have it that he always acted in the best interests of Germany and tolerated the Nazis for no other reason.
Von Papen continued to serve the Nazis after they had murdered three members of his personal staff in 1934. A year later he was writing from Vienna, where he was German ambassador, “National Socialism must and will overpower the new Austrian ideology.” The murder of many more of his friends did not prevent him from giving loyal service to Hitler until the end of the war. It is hardly to prising io find this man, who has tried in whitewash himsell as one of the last defenders of Weimar democracy, appearing in 1960 at a rally of the ex-eoldiers Stahlhelm organization, which amalgamated with dnbrown-shirted S.A. in 1933 which nearly thirty years later was trying to rekindle an ultranationalistic fervor.
I ake, also, the caase of the Ca latholic Center Party mber was the present Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer), ft helped the Nazis elect Hermann (mring President of the Reichstag in August. 1932, and so foiled Von Papen’s belated attempt to dissolve the assembly and rule by decree. The Center Party voted, to a man, for the Enabling which gave Hitler the powers of a dictator A few weeks later it accommodatingly dissolved itself. In view of this sequence of shabby episodes, it is strange that surviving members of the Center Party are still full of protestations of their unresting, undaunted resistance to the Nazis twenty-seven years ago.
The connivance of the Center Party, the tacit support of men like Schacht, pillars of society, was necessary for the Nazis. They took plenty of trouble over much smaller fry. A minor civil servant who is a friend of mine, for instance, was badgered incessantly to join the Party. Eventually he did. He could never make out why the Nazis needed him. Yet the answer was painfully obvious. The man may have held only a small post, but he was honest, efficient, and well liked. The Nazis wanted people tike this, for the sake of the Party’s reputation. It is astonishing that so many Germans never realized how or why they were being made use of.
THE balance of Mr. Shirer’s book is impressive. From the origins of Nazism and its path to power, his narrative moves on to the founding of authoritarian government, to Hitler’s first explosive essays in the field of foreign affairs, to the early persecutions of the Jews, to the disciplining of the Army, and to the deadly sequence of adventure* in aggression: the Anschluss with Austria, the rape of Czechoslovakia, the reckless attack on Poland. Hrrc is a wealth of detail and analysis with which this review has no space to deal. Let it suffice to say that each development, each incident has been treated with the closest, most critical objectivenrss, A German literary critic said recently that there was only one good sort of history, that written “with passion and penetration.** Mr. Shircr’s cool reason is a good deal more effective than that.
One of Mr. Shirer’s most notable achievements is his scientific dismantling of German myths. There is, for instance, the myth of Rudolf Hess, the amiable eccentric who really wanted peace and flew to Britain in 1941 to secure it. Mr. Shircr points out that, as Hitler’s deputy, Hess took ruthless action against all critics of the Party and was personally responsible for sending them to the concentration camps. One of Hess’s early literary efforts, vvritten to please Hitler, read: “I he dictator . . . does not shrink from bloodshed, Great questions are always decided by blood and iron. In order to reach his goal, he is ready to trample on his closest friends. . . . The lawgiver can proceed with terrible hardness. As the need arises, he can trample the people with the boots of a grenadier.”In the same way Mr. Shirer demolishes the picture of Hermann Gdring as a courageous, jolly roughneck and paints the true one of this gross and vicious bully.
Mr. Shircr has examined the legend that the German generals were ready to revolt against Hitler before war broke out and were only discouraged by the British and French policy of appeasement. Quite rightly, he points out that “the Army had helped put the former Austrian corporal into power, had been delighted at the opportunities he gave it to rearm, had apparently not obji ini to the destruction of individual freedom under National Socialism, or done anything about the murder of its own General von Schleicher in the removal . . . of its commanding officer, General von Fritsch.”The Army was enchanted with the annexation of Austria, with the 1940 blitzkrieg, and with the assertion of German military might over virtually all Europe.
Mr. Shirer successfully trims down two other German legends: the first, that Hitler attacked neutral Norway only to forestall the British (this still appears in 1960 German history books); the second, that Htler purposely let the British armies escape at Dunkirk. The plain truth was that the an High Command regarded the French million men, backed bv a tolerably convincing slogan of “Nous gagnerons parce que nous sommes les plus forts”) as the main enemy. Not the little B.E.F., with its twelve divisions. Finally, the most dangerous of all myths — that the Allied demand for “unconditional surrender” forced the Germans to light to the last ditch — is dealt with suitably, in a short footnote. For the Allies rightly judged that Hitler would fight to the end anyway, and they saw little prospect of his being deposed. A negotiated peace with the was out of the question; it probably would not have been possible with the generals who plotted his downfall.
In spite (of the immensity of the task which Mr. Shirer has discharged there are no obvious gaps in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There are no failures of scholarship, balance, or judgment. The terrible stories of the concentration camps and the persecutr Oradour and Lidice, are there; so are detailed analyses of Nazi home and foreign policies, of the era of Munich, of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of World War II in all its grandeur and horror.
There is the appropriate emphasis on those episodes of German history which so many Germans choose to forget the brutal Peace of BrestLitovsk, imposed on a beaten Russia in 1917, the breaking of the disarmament clauses of the treaty of Versailles, the financing of Hitler by the rich men of the Ruhr, the cowardly invasion of small and it iendly neighboring countries, genocide, the Götterdämmerung. Here is a huge, a grim Here is history, which may do most good of all in Germany. For nothing comparable has been written there, and if anyone ought to read The rise and Fall of the Third Reich, it is the Germans themselves.