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A Major Study of One of the Twentieth Century's Darkest Periods
Until now there has been no up-to-date, one-volume, international history of Nazi Germany, despite its being among the most studied phenomena of our time. The Third Reich restores a broad perspective and intellectual unity to issues that have become academic subspecialties and offers a brilliant new interpretation of Hitler's evil rule.
Filled with human and moral considerations ...
A Major Study of One of the Twentieth Century's Darkest Periods
Until now there has been no up-to-date, one-volume, international history of Nazi Germany, despite its being among the most studied phenomena of our time. The Third Reich restores a broad perspective and intellectual unity to issues that have become academic subspecialties and offers a brilliant new interpretation of Hitler's evil rule.
Filled with human and moral considerations that are missing from theoretical accounts, Michael Burleigh's book gives full weight to the experience of ordinary people who were swept up in, or repelled by, Hitler's movement and emphasizes international themes-for Nazi Germany appealed to many European nations, and its wartime conduct included efforts to dominate the Continental economy and involved gigantic population transfers and exterminations, recruitment of foreign labor, and multinational armies.
THE GREAT WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH
When war broke out in the summer of 1914, most European capitals briefly heaved with crowds of chauvinistic clerks. Less excitable observers realised that an era had ended — that they were witnesses to something both dreadful and unprecedented. On 4 August 1914, the American novelist Henry James wrote from his home in England — `under the blackness of the most appalling huge and sudden state of general war' — to his friend and fellow writer Edward Waldo Emerson. Five nations were already at war, and Britain was about to join them. James commented:
It has all come as by the leap of some awful monster out of his lair — he is upon us, he is upon all of us here, before we have had time to turn round. It fills me with anguish & dismay & makes me ask myself if this then is what I have grown old for, if this is what all the ostensibly or comparatively serene, all the supposedly bettering past, of our century, has meant & led up to. It gives away everything one has believed in & lived for — & I envy those of our generation who haven't lived on for it. It's as if the dreadful nations couldn't not suddenly pull up in a convulsion of horror & shame. One said that yesterday, alas — but it's clearly too late to say it today.... It brings to me the outbreak of the Wartime of our youth — but the whole thing here is nearer, closer upon us, huger, & all in a denser & finer world.
In 1914 millions of men across Europe rallied to the colours. They were maimedor killed in unimaginable numbers, the quick commingled with the dead in muddy hellholes, in the service of either furthering or frustrating Germany's first bid for domination in the twentieth century. Since the 1860s Europe's statesmen had learned to live with the consequences of the brief but limited wars of German unification, which many welcomed as a positive international development in a part of Europe about which outsiders had few negative preconceptions. But by the mid-summer of 1914 more than a decade of belligerent erraticism by German leaders, who lacked the diplomatic skill and self-restraint of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, contributed to the feeling among Germany's neighbours that there were bounds which she should not be permitted to cross. Hence, a regional Balkan conflict involving Germany's ally Austria—Hungary and a Serbia supported by her Russian patron rapidly escalated first into a continental and then a general world war.
Imperial Germany's bid for continental domination by force of arms was stymied almost from the start. The German High Command had planned a war of movement that would be crowned by a stunning opening victory, but after the Battle of the Marne the conflict in the west degenerated into a war of attrition amid lines of trenches extending from Belgium to the Swiss border. Conscious of the deep fissures in German society, which some historians have claimed influenced the initial decision to go to war, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaimed a `civil truce' (or Burgfrieden). Domestic confessional, social and political conflicts were to be put in suspended animation, to be miraculously resolved through a German victory, which would preserve the authoritarian domestic social and political status quo from widespread demands for liberalisation. The enormous strains of over four years of total war left this civic truce in tatters.
Contrary to the expectations of Germany's rulers, the privations of total war between major industrial economies exacerbated pre-existing social tensions and generated new grievances and resentments. Industrialised warfare massively distorted the German economy, blasting vast amounts of human and material resources up in smoke, to no ascertainable strategic advantage, save endlessly to crater battlefields in Flanders which had long since been blasted bare already. The financial costs were as impossible as the death toll. An increasingly effective Allied naval blockade diminished government revenues from customs duties, while the well-to-do thwarted the introduction of more equitable franchises in local state parliaments, together with the fairer tax regimes that would have accompanied them. Taxation only covered some 14 per cent of German government expenditures throughout nearly five years of war. Instead, the imperial government financed the war through borrowing, in the form of war bonds purchased by patriotic citizens which would be redeemed through huge reparations to be exacted from Germany's defeated opponents. Since even this pecuniary patriotism failed to match the spiralling costs of war, the German government simply printed more money, which sent the annual average rate of inflation sky-rocketing from 1 per cent in 1890-1914 to 32 per cent, a figure which did not include the effects of a flourishing black market. By 1918 the German Mark had lost three-quarters of its pre-war value.
Prolonged industrialised warfare also had severe social effects, although the classes most distressed by war were often its most diehard supporters. By 1917, one-third of the country's artisan workshops had disappeared, their proprietors either conscripted or starved of raw materials voraciously consumed by massive plants which were accorded priority because of efficiencies of scale. Shopkeepers were undercut by factories which sold cheaply and directly to their own workforces. Civil service and white-collar salaries stagnated in contrast to the inflated wages of skilled workers in war-related industries and often failed to match rising prices. An influx of women into these occupations depressed salaries further. People in jobs regarded as superfluous to the war effort sank into poverty; people regarded as burdensomely unproductive, such as psychiatric patients, died of disease and neglect as they were assigned low priority by wartime triage. An ever growing percentage of the population became dependent on local or state support, their meagre entitlements being hopelessly out of kilter with the spiralling cost of living. In a workforce that was becoming radical, rootless, young and increasingly female, strikes proliferated, despite the government's habit of conscripting or imprisoning their ring-leaders, a policy pursued too, of course, in wartime Britain, where the number of strikers was significantly greater than in Germany.
Wartime upheavals had their less tangible consequences. Moralists discerned increases in crime, divorce, incivility, unbridled sexuality, venereal diseases and the numbers of fatherless young people with too much time and money on their hands. Housing shortages resulting from an abatement of inessential construction work made for cramped living conditions and an absence of either privacy or shame. The war contributed to what one observer called a `moratorium on morality' in personal conduct, it being both necessary and legitimate to get along by any means, no matter how underhand.
The burgeoning black market undermined conventional notions of honesty, of due rewards for a hard day's labour, and of who had the most right to certain goods. The corollary was a re-emergence of quasi-medieval notions of a `just' price, with profiteers standing in for medieval usurers in wartime folklore. Farmers sought to circumvent state controls through illicit slaughtering and the black market; starving urban consumers descended on the fields to forage for food and sometimes ransacked food-supply trains. Farmers who had taken in millions of evacuated urban children gratis unsurprisingly resented these further incursions. What amounted to governmental affirmative action for urban consumers led to stringent bureaucratic controls and a regime of inspection for producers, not to mention such base practices as denunciation of those trying to turn a dishonest penny.
Since these town—country cleavages showed the inadequacies of the German state's own distribution mechanisms, the government lost credibility in the eyes of people accustomed to a legendarily efficient administration. Artisans, farmers and shopkeepers saw themselves as powerless victims of corporatist collusion between labour and major vested interests, the plight of the little fellow being a constant refrain in the years to come. The question of who was fighting and who malingering took on racial overtones, leading to a notorious 1916 `Jew count' by the War Ministry, designed to investigate claims that cowardice was ethnically specific. When the survey proved the opposite, it was suppressed. The presence of Jewish businessmen in agencies purchasing raw materials abroad, and of the philosophising industrialist Walter Rathenau as war materials supremo in 1914-15, were used to give the impression that Jews were prospering while others were dying — this being a variant of an older habit of ascribing unattractive traits to Jews in order to heighten one's own virtuousness, a practice not confined to modern Germany. As a Leipzig rabbi commented: `It is called patriotism if one profits from cannons or armoured plate, but treason sets in with eggs or stockings.' In fact, these allegations that Jews were malingering would be controverted by the stony testimony to twelve thousand Jewish war dead in Germany's Jewish cemeteries, where families proclaimed their pride in those who had fallen for Kaiser and Fatherland.
But the Jewish minority were not most Germans' principal concern. Across Europe `ancient' hatreds were fomented. At first, educated Englishmen were horrified to be aligned with backward Tsarist Russia against the land of the much admired PhD. Within a few years, they would be baying for the blood of the `barbaric' Hun, seeking to extirpate a Prussian militarism easily caricatured with its hair cut en brosse, duelling scars and monocles. In Germany itself, enmities gradually focused upon similarly stereotypical notions, of England as the home of rapacious `Manchester' capitalism, or of France as the embodiment of the ideas represented by the date 1789, or as the home of a `can-can' civilisation that seemed irredeemably frivolous to devotees of high Kultur. Among German intellectuals of an already illiberal cast of mind, such writers as the Russian novelist Fedor Dostoevsky, who were rabidly anti-Western, became modish. As the war dragged on, these hatreds began to refocus on targets within Germany itself. Relatively liberal and unmilitaristic southern Germans began to blame the presiding military caste in Prussia for the prolongation of senseless slaughter.
The detailed course of the war need not concern us. Only how it ended is relevant to this story. The peace of Brest-Litovsk, imposed by Germany on the Russian Bolshevik regime in March 1918, which surrendered huge territories in the west for the chance to consolidate its contested grip on Russian society, enabled Germany to mass troops for an onslaught against the Western Allies, which since 1917 had included the United States of America. But this final spring offensive was checked when the Allies, refreshed by a million American troops, counter-attacked in the summer. The presence of such forces, and the enormous industrial resources supporting them, may have exerted a demoralising effect on German troops, especially given the views of President Woodrow Wilson, who was wedded to realising a juster new world, in which the prospect of such devastating conflicts would be considerably diminished. Germany's allies, first Austria—Hungary, then Bulgaria, began to abandon ship, seeking their own separate peace terms.
The imperial German army rapidly imploded, although precisely why remains unclear. Riffs opened up between officers and ranks, or between front-line and rear-area troops. Restive soldiers, no longer prepared to be killed to no obvious purpose, spread demoralisation to civilians, who had reason enough to be depressed themselves. According to monitors of military mail, soldiers thought the war was a murderous `swindle', a view that was, of course, shared by large numbers of `muzhiki', `poilous' and `tommies' in the enemy trenches. Images of the once celebrated German commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff screened in military cinemas evoked whistling and shouts of `knives out and a couple of pots to catch the blood'. Civilians meeting soldiers on trains were shocked to hear their casual talk of desertion and self-mutilation, or of arms being smuggled home for an impending revolution.
A once formidable fighting force began to surrender in ever greater numbers. Sailors mutinied in Kiel, baulking at the prospect of a final showdown with the British fleet which was designed to sabotage concurrent ceasefire negotiations. Disaffection spread through the German provinces before signs of it began to appear in the Berlin capital. Soldiers, sailors and industrial workers — as well as peasants and middle-class people — formed 'Councils' or 'Soviets' in towns across Germany. These Councils adopted the idioms current among Russian oppositional circles since 1905, not the narrowly sectarian social-revolutionary goals of the later Bolsheviks. The young `Heinrich Brüning, a future chancellor of the Weimar Republic, but in 1918 a company commander on the Western Front, was elected chairman of a soldiers' Soviet. He recalled that, while these metalworkers in civilian life may have sung the Communist hymn, the 'Internationale', his news that Lenin's Bolsheviks had banned strikes in Russia made a keen impression on them.
These signs of disaffection were symptoms, rather than the cause, of Germany's collapse. The rot started at the apex of the army, with the dawning realisation that the last roll of the strategic dice in the spring of 1918 had failed. During that final offensive the German army advanced about forty miles on the Western Front, but this bold move overstretched its supply lines, and resulted in horrendous casualties. Having inflicted defeat on himself, their commander, Erich Ludendorff, recommended an armistice and the formation of a government responsible to parliament. He hoped to deflect blame for the failings of the High Command itself on to democratic politicians. The more intelligent generals realised that a democratic government would check the prospect of a Bolshevik revolution, and be more likely to secure less draconian peace terms from the Allies.
Germany's defeat was closely followed by a peaceful republican revolution, there being no time between the two to mourn, or reflect upon more than two and a half million war dead and four million wounded. This was part of the terrible gap torn out of the lives of generations of Europeans (and their imperial allies), which even the most sensitive war memorials — such as the Cenotaph in London's Whitehall — could convey only through the architectural invocation of nothingness. Across Europe and the wider world, there were more than nine million war dead, killed at an average rate of more than six thousand per day for more than four and a quarter years. A way of life had vanished too, along with vast numbers of young men, in a catastrophe which, for many contemporary Europeans, is more present in their emotions and imaginations than the supervening Second World War and Holocaust. Ten years after the event, Dick Diver, the hero of Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, caught the mood: 'All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here [on the Somme] with a great gust of high-explosive love.
War and revolution destroyed three great empires. In Germany, the summit of the old order collapsed swiftly. In Munich, the rule of the venerable Wittelsbach dynasty was terminated when the Independent Social Democrat, the former Berlin journalist Kurt Eisner, led a left-wing coup in 1918 establishing a Bavarian Republic. In Berlin, the Majority Social Democrats took advantage of a unique opportunity. The absence from Berlin of crucial leaders of their Independent Socialist rivals left them with the initiative, while units of the army hitherto noted for their loyalty to the old order decided to support the Majority Social Democrats. The last Kaiser of the Hohenzollern dynasty, Wilhelm II, was prevailed upon to abdicate on 9 November; fleeing military headquarters at Spa in Belgium for what became a life in exile in Holland until his death in 1941. Although many Social Democrat leaders were indifferent to the matter of whether to retain the monarchy, provided it was not called Hohenzollern, Germany was proclaimed a republic. An interim chancellor resigned in favour of Friedrich Ebert, who formed a provisional government consisting of three members of his Majority SPD and three men from the more radical Independent Socialists. Briefly mulling over the offer, Ebert remarked, 'It is a difficult office, but I will assume it.
On 10 November, Quarter-Master General Wilhelm Groener offered Ebert military support, provided he upheld the authority of the traditional officer corps, whose insignia were already being torn off by insubordinate soldiers, and agreed to combat vigorously the threat of Bolshevism. These arrangements, which perpetuated the close wartime relationship between organised labour and the armed forces, ensured a remarkably smooth demobilisation of Germany's field armies. But there was no positive declaration of support for the new state by the army, nor would there be. More generally, Germany's traditional elites were stunned by the speed of defeat and change, regarding the onset of a democratic republic with scarcely concealed hostility and incomprehension. Their world had collapsed.
The revolution that commenced in the autumn of 1918 as a bloodless popular push for peace and democracy assumed that winter the character of a sectarian class conflict involving ferocious violence. Whereas the initial push for a more democratic polity had enjoyed widespread support among the liberal bourgeoisie as well as moderate workers, a subsequent push for social revolution enjoyed the support only of a minority within the working class and of the intellectuals who claimed to represent their interests. The Majority Social Democrats had achieved their goals and wanted to get on with the non-utopian business of demobilisation, peacemaking and restoration of economic normality. As good committee men they were uncomfortable with spontaneous manifestations on the streets, and suspected the Councils even when their own rank and file dominated them. These men were pragmatic realists. Regardless of their Marxist rhetoric, they realised that incremental reform had paid off, and recoiled from the prospect of risking everything they had achieved already with a roll of the revolutionary dice. The Social Democrat leaders were also conscious of being responsible for Germans of all classes, and spoke themselves of the `national community', and to them this meant calls for early elections for a National Assembly and a rejection of violent escapades on the part of revolutionary sectarians. Ebert demonstrated a commendable degree of patriotic responsibility, and of disinclination to submit to dictation by irresponsible and unrepresentative minorities. Whatever choices he and his colleagues made should also be understood in terms of Allied insistence that there be some sort of central German government with which they could negotiate to make an eventual peace settlement stick.
Conservatism with a small `c' was also apparent in the industrial wing of the labour movement. The socialist Free Trades Unions had long been loath to let their members be used as industrial cannon fodder by excitable radical intellectuals, against some of whom the union leaders had rather old-fashioned prejudices. An Auxiliary Service Law in 1916 had advanced their interests by guaranteeing the right to organise, and giving them a degree of co-determination of wages and working conditions. One pragmatic bird in hand was worth ten passionately advocated utopias in the bush. Indeed, the unions believed that, through their own co-optation into running the war effort, they had already advanced a form of state socialism. More concessions had been secured through the November 1918 Central Working Association Agreements between the unions and the temporarily paralysed major employers' associations. The employers abandoned their support for their own emasculated trades unions, introduced a shorter working day without reducing wages, and recognised works' committees in larger concerns. In return, the unions renounced deep `socialisation' of the means of production. What appeared to union functionaries as gains within an emergent corporatist framework did not always play that way on the factory floors or in the mines, where the consequences of wartime trade union co-optation seemed to be the abrogation of industrial safety measures, longer hours and inadequate representation by union leaders who spent too much time in the bosses' offices. The early years of Weimar would be plagued by localised outbreaks of worker militancy, sometimes triggered by anarcho-syndicalist elements, which the unions themselves were sometimes powerless to control. German trades union leaders thought that `syndicalist actions will lead to anarchic excesses of the most anti-social nature', while the Majority Social Democrats claimed that `there can be said to be only one truly dangerous enemy of the German revolution at the present time, and that is the German working class'.
The Independent Social Democrats, who had broken with the main Party in 1917, included a democratic majority who wished to incorporate the workers' and soldiers' Councils into a parliamentary form of government, using the Councils to diminish permanently the might of generals and industrialists. Like the Majority SPD they desired a National Assembly, but wanted to delay elections, exploiting the interim period to carry out thoroughgoing socialisation of Germany's economy and society. In other words, they were not confident that an elected assembly would go down this route, and so wished to make the decision for it. The three Independent government ministers resigned from the cabinet in December 1918, after the government bungled an attempt to use military force to rescue Social Democrats who were being held hostage in a barracks by striking sailors. The Independents' extreme left wing rejected parliamentary democracy, but was in an ideological quandary about whether disciplined factory workers or amorphous crowds were the optimum vehicles of revolution. During the winter of 1918/19, these Spartacists coalesced with other far-left sects based in Bremen and Hamburg to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), an unstable union of intellectuals and angry young workers who opposed parliamentary democracy and favoured putschist violence. The Comintern agent Karl Radek formed the link with Lenin's Bolsheviks. Fired by `a spirit of utopian fanaticism', the radical left made a bid for power in early January 1919, the pretext being the Prussian government's dismissal of Emil Eichhorn, Berlin's extreme left-wing police chief, who had afforded help to the mutinous sailors who had held hostage leading Social Democrats during the Christmas disturbances in the capital. Armed demonstrators occupied the offices of leading newspapers including the Social Democrat organ Vorwärts, in an attempt to destroy freedom of the press and to prevent the summoning of a constituent assembly. To restore order, Gustav Noske, the Defence Minister, decided to deploy volunteer Free Corps, as well as the regular army and troops avowedly loyal to the Republic. He told Ebert, `You can relax now. Everything will be all right!'
The Social Democrats' allies of convenience included nihilistic counter-revolutionaries, whose view of Germany's new Republic was that it was, as one of them put it, `an attempt of the slime to govern. Church slime, bourgeois slime, military slime.' The Free Corps were latterday condottieri, consisting of former shock troops, junior and temporary officers, university students who had missed the war `experience' and anyone still spoiling for blood or incapable of psychological demobilisation. Intense masculine camaraderie and a sense of isolation and serial betrayal characterised these bands, whose actions were supported by the regular army and the republican government. They began fighting Poles and Soviets on Germany's eastern frontiers of Silesia and the Baltic, in the last instance with the toleration of the Allies, who wished to check the spread of Bolshevism, but they quickly adapted to fighting fellow Germans.
These roughly four hundred thousand men were atypical of the millions of German war veterans who wanted normality and quiet, rather than an apocalypse on the nation's streets. Although many of them were middle class, they had absorbed an anti-bourgeois ideology in the pre-war youth movement, which had been hyper-radicalised during the war when intellectual propagandists had called the conflict one between `German' and Western liberal democratic values, and when warrior—writers like Ernst Jünger and Ernst von Salomon had aestheticised carnage. Nietzschean vitalist individualism was transmuted into the amoral celebration of sheer brutality on the part of warriors more like machines than human beings. Here is Salomon describing his own kind:
When we probe into the make-up of the Free Corps fighter we can find all the elements which ever played a role in German history except one: the bourgeois. And that is only natural because the peculiar experience of these men ... had forged them into one single force of consuming destructiveness.... The task required [of the warrior is] ... that all ballast, all sentimentalism, all other values must be ruthlessly cast aside so that his whole strength could be set free.
These gaunt survivors of the trenches brought the wartime polarities of friend and foe on to Germany's streets. In a clear departure from the anti-socialist repression experienced in the years before the war, but in line with their `White' or Fascist equivalents in Hungary and Italy, these men had no scruples about killing political opponents. Among those to meet a bloody end at their hands were the left-wing activists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were murdered by Free Corps officers on 15 January 1919. In other parts of Germany, Free Corps units stormed centres of working-class militancy.
International events raised Germany's domestic temperature in complex ways. On the right, an egregious elision of ethnic and political issues gained ground. Wartime aspersions about Jews and cowardice were superseded by the vicious game of identifying, or as with Lenin misidentifying, Jews and revolutionaries as one and the same. Originating as a Tsarist survival mechanism, this response became commonplace beyond Germany, with British officials convinced that `the Bolsheviks are all organised and directed by Jews', and an American general fighting in Russia certain that Latvian Chekists (the Bolshevik's political police force) were predominantly Jews.
It was true that some radicalised Jews were prominent in Bolshevik Russia and Hungary, and in attempts to install such regimes in Germany. The Hungarian revolutionary Béla Kun; Tibor Szamuely the head of the Red Guards; and Hungary's War Minister Vilmos Böhm were Jews, as were many political commissars and the personnel of revolutionary tribunals. And that some of these characters were quite ghastly can be gauged from the fact that in his Soviet exile, after the failure of the Hungarian Revolution, Béla Kun acted as chief of the Cheka in the Crimea, when some sixty thousand indigenous Tatars were murdered as the Bolsheviks eradicated their autonomy. Trotsky (born Bronstein), Luxemburg and Eisner were Jews, but their Jewishness was nominal, their cosmopolitan universalism antipathetic to Jewish patriotic and religious particularism, and their utopian extremism was unrepresentative of the Jewish populations of their respective countries. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, many Russian Jewish families declared a week of mourning when a child decided to join the anti-Tsarist revolutionaries. But these nuances counted for nothing in the vicious climate of post-war Europe, the quintessential time of the grands simplificateurs. As the Chief Rabbi of Moscow famously had it: `The Trotskys made the revolutions, but the Bronsteins paid the bill.' They were irrelevant to the antisemitic right, wherever it hailed from. Rightist White Russian and Baltic German émigrés, notably Erwin Scheubner-Richter, Alfred Rosenberg and Count Ernst zu Reventlow, were prominent in propagating an antisemitic interpretation of the human disaster that had befallen Russia, and they influenced Adolf Hitler, who came from a background where the forging of simple connections between Jews and revolutionaries was already commonplace. The antisemitic völkisch right admitted exploiting political chaos and `using the situation for fanfares against Jewry, and the Jews as lightning conductors for all grievances'.
There is one further point about the international impact of the Bolshevik Revolution which needs to be made emphatically. It is totally misleading to imagine that horror of Bolshevik dictatorship was confined to the political right. Indeed some German conservatives hated the Poles and France, which was Poland's main protector, so implacably that they would ally with the Devil to undo them, and they welcomed business or military opportunities in the new Russia, where Trotsky provided the German army with facilities for the covert manufacture of aircraft, toxic gas and tanks in violation of Allied restrictions on German armaments. In Germany, the most consistent opponents of the Bolshevik tyranny were the Majority Social Democrats, who after welcoming the overthrow of the Tsar quickly turned to exposing the nightmarish quality of life in the Soviet Union. The Roman Catholic Centre Party did much the same. Agency wire services, delegations, travellers and, last but not least, the Menshevik opposition to the Bolsheviks, which even managed to smuggle out accounts of life in Lenin's concentration camps, supplied the factual basis for the SPD newspaper Vorwärts' coverage of events in Russia:
Mass terror against the bourgeoisie had gone much further than the fighting methods of the French Revolution, which condemned individuals for individual actions. Holding a class responsible for the actions of individual persons is a judicial novum, which in another type of social system could well serve as a justification for those seeking to make the working class responsible for the actions of a fanatic, as has already happened so frequently in milder form.
The SPD rejected what Vorwärts dubbed Bolshevik `Socialismus asiaticus', proclaiming, `We don't want Russian conditions, because we know that under Bolshevik rule the Russian people are dying of hunger, even though Russia is a predominantly agrarian country.' The Prussian Social Democrat leader Otto Braun spoke of the `Russian madhouse', while Ebert warned: `Socialism excludes every form of arbitrariness.... Disorder, personal wilfulness, acts of violence are the deadly enemies of socialism.' Moreover, luridly accurate reports of Bolshevik atrocities were not confined to the rabid right — with the implication that these reports were unreliable. Thanks to the remarkable American historian Vladimir Brovkin, anyone who wishes to know, and some apparently don't, can easily sample the information sent out to western Europe by persecuted socialists within Russia, which another talented scholar, Uwe-Kai Merz, has followed in relation to the Social Democrat press of the Weimar Republic. The Social Democrat press exposed Bolshevik-induced mass starvation, or the violence meted out to recalcitrant workers and peasants, or to dissenting socialists, by what they called `Chinese and Korean' troops (for the Social Democrats shared a number of prejudices with their fellow Germans) and the crimes of the murderers and torturers deployed by the Bolsheviks' Polish secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. To ascribe these things to the malevolent right is a denial of the enormous courage of socialists of several countries who tried to make the facts of the Bolshevik despotism known at the time.
The vicious international scene affected Germany, where both antisocialism and antisemitism had home-grown roots, as they did in many other European countries. In Bavaria, events centred on Munich, an island of anarchic bohemianism and political radicalism in an otherwise predominantly Roman Catholic rural sea of small towns and timber houses scattered across the foothills of the Alps. These were the sort of places where grudges and hatreds of Scandinavian-epic proportions could germinate and linger. After a hundred days in power, during which Bavaria was plunged into chaos, Premier Kurt Eisner was assassinated by Count Anton Arco-Valley, while en route to the state parliament, to offer his resignation more than a month after his party had lost an election. His publication of official documents regarding German diplomacy in the period before the outbreak of war did not increase his popularity in nationalist circles. A member of the Revolutionary Workers' Council retaliated by shooting the Majority SPD leader Erhard Auer and a delegate from the Bavarian wing of the Centre Party, which indicated that the extreme right enjoyed no monopoly on terroristic violence. Unable to master the ongoing turbulence, another Majority SPD figure, Johannes Hoffmann, withdrew the legitimate government to Bamberg, thus allowing an array of anarchists and bohemian oddities, based in the arty quarter Schwabing, to assume power in Munich for six days. Of these men, only the new Foreign Minister was clinically insane, cabling Lenin and the Pope about the whereabouts of the key to the lavatory door. A Red Army managed to fight off Republican troops dispatched by the legitimate Bavarian government.
Following this eccentric interlude, power was briefly seized by the Communists, who proclaimed a Bavarian Soviet Republic. Their leader, Eugen Levine, received the blessing of Lenin, who characteristically wished to know how many bourgeois hostages had been taken. A `classist' tone was soon apparent. Milk shortages were rationalised with the argument: `What does it matter? ... Most of it goes to the children of the bourgeoisie anyway. We are not interested in keeping them alive. No harm if they die — they'd only grow into enemies of the proletariat.' The exiled Bavarian government received help from Noske in Berlin, in the form of thirty-five thousand Free Corps soldiers, who bore down on the radical Red Army. On 30 April, the Red Army commander Egelhofer ordered the murder of ten hostages held in the Luitpoldgymnasium, including members of the rabidly antisemitic Thule Society and one woman hostage. Entering Munich in early May, the Free Corps embarked on a reign of terror, with summary shootings and perfunctory tribunals. Battlefield niceties went by the board in conditions of a largely one-sided civil war in which 606 people were killed. Officers encouraged their men to set conscience aside, it being better to kill a few innocent people than let the guilty escape. The innocent included twenty members of the Catholic St Joseph Society, dragged from a meeting and shot as `Communist terrorists'. Levine was tried and executed for high treason; many of his associates were summarily shot. The revolutionaries' dream of a chain of Bolshevik republics, linking Bavaria, Austria and Hungary to the Soviet Union, effectively collapsed. As for the workers' and soldiers' Councils, these disappeared as local governments refused to fund them, or as the Kaiser's army was demobilised.
The threat from the extreme left had been neutralised, albeit in a fashion that soured relations between Social Democrats and Communists up to and beyond the eventual advent of a Nazi government, although a united labour movement was no obstacle to either authoritarianism or fascism elsewhere. Intimate hatreds are often said to be the worst, and that was certainly the case here, at least at the highest rather than at local level, where the `comrades' sometimes co-operated with each other in the fight against `fascism'. The Communists accused the Social Democrats of betraying the revolution and enabling capitalism to survive through reforms; the Social Democrats hated the Communists for being the cat's-paws of sinister Muscovite forces, and for their apparent faith in salvation through absolute immiseration. These mutual dislikes were compounded by the differences in age, background and temperament between their respective constituencies. There were also appreciable differences in mentality and tone, of the sort that led to Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's remark after his first meeting with Molotov, `But they are just like the bloody Communists!'
It is sometimes assumed that the Majority Social Democratic government of Germany in those momentous months immediately after the Great War could, or should, have acted otherwise, although none of the alternatives seems especially cogent. The sentimental belief that the working class was a homogeneous repository of untapped virtue, whose revolutionary spontaneity was predestined to betrayal, is an example of wishful thinking, an emotional investment in the allegedly unique value of a largely imagined social class. The Social Democrats might have tried harder to raise their own republican militias, lessening their dependence on the Free Corps, middle-class Home Guard units or the regular army, whose loyalties were tenuous. But the working class, indoctrinated for decades with a pacificism made militant by time in the trenches, did not flock to such formations or were discouraged from doing so. Forces such as the Red Army in the Ruhr were as unstable as the Free Corps, and just as bent on overthrowing the democratic order. Besides, Bolshevik activity in the Baltic and Polish nationalist insurgency in Silesia, not to speak of the real Red Army of the Soviet Union threatening Poland, made this an inauspicious moment for radical experiments in military reorganisation.
Yet at the same time, with remarkable speed, Germany's new government demobilised six million soldiers and returned them to productive life, albeit in a manner which accelerated the inflation inherited from wartime and deferred stabilisation of the German economy. Rather than raising taxes and pursuing rigorous deflationary policies, which resulted in high levels of unemployment in other countries, post-war German governments concentrated on welfare, creation of jobs and fulfilment of obligations they had undertaken to the war wounded, widows and orphans. A fairer social policy became a substitute for deeper `socialisation'. Deflation and unemployment were not options that the unions were prepared to countenance.
|List of Illustrations|
|Introduction: 'An Extraordinary Rape of the Soul': National Socialism, Political Religions and Totalitarianism|
|1||The Weimar Republic and the National Socialist German Workers' Party, 1918-1933|
|2||'Miss Becker, Your Head Is at Stake, Your Head Is Wobbling': The Demise of the Rule of Law|
|3||Replacing the Bridge: New Times, New Man|
|4||Living in a Land with no Future: German Jews and Their Neighbours, 1933-1939|
|5||'Extinguishing the Ideas of Yesterday': Eugenics and 'Euthanasia'|
|6||'The Dane is not a Pole, but Rather a Teuton': Occupation and Collaboration in Europe, 1939-1943|
|7||A Blitzkrieg too Far? The German Invasion and Occupation of the Soviet Union, 1941-1943|
|8||'Iron Times, Iron Brooms': Racial War against the Jews|
|9||'When God Wills It, Even a Broom Can Shoot' (Russian Proverb): Resistance in Germany, 1933-1945|
|10||'Playing a Part in a Film': War and Peace, 1943-1948|
Posted August 13, 2004
Burleigh does not examine the higher echelon of the Third Reich. He briefly mentions people like Hitler, Himmler, Bormann, and Speer. However, the book examines, in detail, the culpability of the average German that made the horror of the Third Reich possible. The most chilling part of this read is that it is possible for history to repeat itself. We may believe that we are all to sophisicated to follow a new Hitler. However, many of the aspects of the Third Reich's history are resurfacing in the U.S. and in Western Europe. Therefore, making anything possible.
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