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The Third Reich
A Concise History
By Martin Kitchen
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Martin Kitchen
All rights reserved.
GERMANY, HITLER AND THE ORIGINS OF THE NSDAP
20 April 1889–30 January 1933
How could it possibly have happened? Many a contemporary asked this question in desperation and, many decades later, with tens of thousands of meticulous studies of every aspect of the Third Reich, the answer still eludes us. How could a highly educated, cultured and technically advanced society with a long tradition of the rule of law idolize an ill-educated beer-hall demagogue, a venomous racist, a bigoted philistine, and a sadistic monomaniac? How could a country, which had made such an unsurpassed contribution to European civilization, devote its exceptional skills and energies to a brutal and senseless war of conquest and industrialized mass-murder on a scale that still beggars the imagination?
It is indeed a baffling story. Adolf Hitler was a complete nonentity until the age of thirty. Then for the next 26 years his impact on history was unequalled and indelible. Germany and Germany's victims are still traumatized by his regime, and the wounds that National Socialism opened may never heal.
In the summer of 1932 most political observers were convinced that Hitler's meteoric rise was a spent force. Support for the party dropped dramatically, President Hindenburg refused to appoint him chancellor, and the Nazi movement was rent with dissension. Yet within a few weeks he had been appointed chancellor and contemporaries were dazed by the speed of the 'national revolution'. Within six months the National Socialists had destroyed all other political parties, the trades unions, and every association and club whether of the left or the right. The federal system had been virtually dismantled, local government was firmly in the hands of the party, political opponents real or imagined had been driven out of the civil service, the press muzzled and Germany's estimable Jewish community was submitted to vicious discrimination and shameful indignities. The Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew the house down with remarkable ease.
The causes of this disaster are highly complex and deeply embedded in German history. It was not a singular event, an accident, an exception, or a political Chernobyl as historians such as Friedrich Meinecke, Gerhard Ritter and Eberhard Jaeckl have argued. Nor did Auschwitz blot out all previous German history, as Jürgen Habermas would have us believe. The Third Reich was not the inevitable outcome of the course of German history from Luther through Frederick the Great to Bismarck and Hindenburg as proponents of the 'special development' (Sonderweg) theory insist. This latter view is as simplistic as the traditional Prussian-conservative view of German history as reaching its apotheosis in the unification of Germany in 1871; a process that many nationalists felt was completed by Hitler in 1938 with the Anschluss of Austria.
This positive and Hegelian view of Germany's historical development was first turned on its head by Edmond Vermeil. He argued that Germany was on the wrong track from the time of the Hohenstaufens with their campaigns in Italy in the twelfth century (a view shared for very different reasons by the nationalist historians of the nineteenth century). A.J.P. Taylor and William Shirer put the blame on Martin Luther and Prussian militarism. Somewhat later, Hans-Ulrich Wehler posed the question why it was that Germany did not develop into a liberal democratic society on the British model.
On closer examination the Sonderweg explains precious little. Every country has its Sonderweg in certain respects, and German economic development, social structure and conflicts, and the opposition of established élites to liberal reform differed little from the experience in Britain or France. Furthermore, the concept of continuity, which comes from the cinema, is profoundly unhistorical in that it results from reading history backwards so that the contingent appears inevitable.
The forces of Ferdinand Braudel's longue durée certainly played their part in aiding the rise of National Socialism, but more immediate circumstances were far more important: a lost war and a harsh peace settlement, runaway inflation in 1923 and the long depression that began in 1928, mass unemployment, a perceived communist threat, the collapse of the democratic political system, and above all the roles of the individual actors with their intrigues and grievous errors of judgement. The Republic collapsed, the authoritarian conservative forces were at a loss as to what should be done and the National Socialists seized the opportunity offered by this economic, political and social crisis. The immediate outcome was not inevitable, but it is comprehensible. What happened subsequently is altogether another matter. Historians are neither judge nor jury, but to comprehend in no sense means to condone, and we shall never understand enough about the Nazi dictatorship to be able to forgive. Historical understanding stands mute before the horror of the Shoah; all attempts at explanation are condemned to be facile, glib and impious. It is right and proper that, confronted with this ultimate negation of civilization, the human intellect and imagination should remain painfully baffled.
HITLER AND THE NSDAP: THE EARLY YEARS
Every schoolchild learnt in their National Socialist catechism that: 'Our Führer Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau on the Inn on 20 April 1889. His father was an Austrian customs officer, his mother a housewife.' The details of his childhood and youth are shrouded in myth, partly of his own making in Mein Kampf and partly from the recollections of his boyhood friend August Kubizek. Suffice it to say he was brought up in a respectable petit-bourgeois milieu and even after his father's death in 1903 he was not lacking in material support.
He left school after the ninth year and led an idle semi-bohemian existence first with his mother in Linz until 1907 and then in Vienna. He made two abortive attempts to enrol in the Vienna Academy for Fine Arts, but the examining committee felt that he had little talent as an artist. He stayed in Vienna until 1913, making a modest living selling hand-painted postcards of the city and going to the opera at every possible opportunity.
Pre-war Vienna was a hotbed of political anti-Semitism. Georg Ritter von Schönerer was an old man in 1907, his influence waning, but Hitler was to echo many of his ideas. Schönerer despised democracy and preached anti-Semitism and 'National Socialism', by which he meant an attack on big business and liberal capitalism combined with social reform and help for the small farmers and artisans. He insisted on being addressed as Führer (leader) and used the Heil! greeting. His followers were mostly vegetarians and teetotallers. In later years Hitler was to criticize him for failing to see the need for mass support and for his attacks on the Catholic Church.
Karl Lueger, the popular mayor of Vienna at the time of Hitler's arrival in the city, also ran on an anti-Semitic ticket. Unlike Schönerer, he was a rabble-rouser who courted a mass following among small businessmen and artisans, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who were threatened by modern capitalism. Hitler's main regret was that Lueger's anti-Semitism, although often crude and vicious, was regrettably unprincipled. He had a number of Jewish friends and acquaintances, and when challenged on this point made the famous remark: 'I decide who is a Jew'.
On the wilder shores of anti-Semitism, the mad former Cistercian monk and phoney aristocrat Lanz von Liebenfels preached a primitive racism in the pages of his newspaper Ostara. He had a vision of the blue-eyed blond 'Aryan' race locked in battle against black animals. The inferior races were to be sterilized and even exterminated so that pure Aryan blood could be preserved. Lanz also adopted the swastika as a symbol.
Much of this was merely coffee-shop twaddle, typical of the Vienna of the day, but such ideas had a profound influence on young Hitler. As Karl Kraus was to point out, only when Austrian madness was harnessed to Prussian efficiency did it become deadly. Hitler and his followers took over a modern state and instead of ending their days as taproom bores or inmates of congenial psychiatric institutions, they were able to indulge in their crazed fantasies and thus inflict untold suffering on the world.
In 1913 Hitler moved to Munich in order to avoid military service in the Austrian Army. He was in Munich when war broke out and immediately enlisted in the Bavarian Army. He was an obedient and courageous soldier, serving as a runner between regimental headquarters and the front line. His commanding officer commented that he showed absolutely no leadership qualities and he never rose above the rank of corporal. Hitler the maladroit loner was profoundly affected by the war experience: by the 'socialism of field grey', the rigid discipline, the sense of national mission, and the belief that life was an endless battle. Struggle (Kampf) was to become the key word in the National Socialist vocabulary.
Hitler was in hospital having been temporarily blinded in a gas attack when he heard that Germany had capitulated. He was shattered by the news and was determined to continue the struggle by other means. With no prospects in civilian life, he applied in April 1919 for a position as an informer on political movements in Munich after the brutal crushing of a somewhat quixotic Munich Soviet Republic which was made up of sundry socialists, anarchists and communists. After attending a course of political instruction he was made a liaison officer between the Army and a recently formed Propaganda Unit. He was an instant success. His superiors commented that he was a 'born orator' who was fired with an admirable 'fanaticism' and always held his audience's attention. In a letter to his commanding officer he wrote that the first priority should be the application of 'rational anti-Semitism' that would lead to the 'removal of the Jews'. He was to hold this view until the bitter end in his bunker in Berlin.
Munich was a hotbed of small extremist groups in the immediate post-war years. One of these was the German Workers' Party (DAP) which Hitler visited in the course of his duties. Its fervent nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism were very much to his taste and he enrolled in the party as its 55th member in September 1919. On leaving the Army in May he devoted all his energies to the party, soon gaining a reputation as an electrifying beer-hall agitator. In society he was awkward and gauche, but in front of a crowd his demagogic skills were unsurpassed. In 1921 he took over the party which had been reorganized and renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP).
Hitler reinforced his position as leader (Führer) of the party by appointing his cronies to the managing committee, many of whom were recruited from the Thule Society, a grotesquely völkisch organization that was both wealthy and well-connected. These included Dietrich Eckart, an anti-Semitic scribbler who had a powerful influence in further inflaming Hitler's hatred of the Jews, which one clear-sighted observer had already described as 'pathological'. Alfred Rosenberg, a Baltic German whose racist magnum opus 'The Myth of the Twentieth Century' was so tedious that even Hitler found it unreadable, became the party's leading ideologue. Gottfried Feder was the party's economics expert with his diatribes against 'interest slavery' and 'Jewish capitalism'. Hans Frank, an unstable law student destined for high office and the hangman's noose, as well as Rudolph Hess, another rootless student soon to become Hitler's deputy, had both been in the Thule Society before joining the DAP.
Also among Hitler's closest associates in these early days were Max Amman, who ran the party's publishing house, Hermann Esser, who specialized in writing scurrilous accusations against prominent Jews for the party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, and Julius Streicher, whose overbearing manner and sadistic Jewbaiting some more sensitive party members found crude and excessive. Ernst Röhm, a professional soldier and notorious homosexual, had close connections with the Reichswehr and procured arms for the party's paramilitary wing, the SA (Sturmabteilung), which in 1923 was commanded by Hermann Göring, a highly decorated veteran of the 'Richthofen Circus'. They were an unsavoury collection of youthful misfits, most of whom were about ten years younger than their 32-year-old leader.
From the outset Hitler was a demagogue rather than an organizer. Initially he had been reluctant to take on the chairmanship of the party in 1921. He was in no sense an original thinker and his much vaunted 'world view' (Weltanschauung) was little more than a garbagepile of bitter resentments, mindless bigotry and malevolent prejudice, but it was made up of widely held views. By articulating the anxieties, hopes and fears of so many contemporaries, he met with an immediate response first in Bavaria and, within a remarkably short space of time, throughout Germany.
Hitler possessed the autodidact's absolute certainty that he was in the possession of the ideological key to an understanding of all the major questions of the day and the fanatical self-confidence that enabled him to convince others that this was indeed the case. He brooked no discussion among party members of the details of this devil's brew. The party was organized along military lines to obey the leadership and unquestioningly to disseminate its propaganda.
There were two principal components in Hitler's Weltanschauung: racial anti-Semitism and the need for 'living space' (Lebensraum). He believed that human history could be reduced to the struggle between races, or as he often phrased it 'peoples' (Völker). For a race, or Volk, to be strong it had to be pure. All harmful genetic material had to be destroyed, all alien elements eradicated. The aim of domestic politics, Hitler never tired of repeating, was the improvement of the 'racial value' of the Volk so as to give it the strength to carve out the Lebensraum essential for its survival. Politics was thus the eternal struggle of peoples and races for self-preservation. Samuel Beckett pointed out the absurdity of this vision when he said that the pure Aryan German should be: 'Blond like Hitler, thin like Göring, handsome like Goebbels, virile like Röhm – and called Rosenberg.'
Jews played an essential role within this primitive and atavistic imperialist and social-Darwinist vision. The Jews were stateless; unlike the Germans they had no imperative drive for Lebensraum. They were an alien and parasitic people that ate away like a cancer at the vital organs of the German Volk. Jews stood for everything that Hitler detested: democracy, internationalism, pacifism, communism, and all the unacceptable aspects of capitalism. Jews were filthy rich plutocrats and revoltingly poor beggars. They were capitalists and they were communists. They flaunted their wealth and their power, or they hid from view and plotted in secret. They murdered Jesus and they enfeebled the Aryan race with their compassionate morality that they passed on to Christianity. The Jew was thus symbolic of everything that was wrong with the modern world; all that stood in the way of the German people in their sacred struggle to achieve their rightful place as the master race. Julius Streicher claimed that since Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the temple he could not possibly have been a Jew, and should be included in the ranks of stalwart Aryan anti-Semites. Hitler shared this heterodox view and described Jesus as a 'great Aryan Führer' and prominent anti-Semite.
Hitler the myth-making artist also harboured aesthetic objections to the Jews. In Mein Kampf he claimed that it was the disgusting sight of an eastern Jew in a kaftan and with ringlets in Vienna that first turned him into a passionate anti-Semite. Henceforth he was determined to drive all these 'bow-legged, repulsive Jewish bastards' out of his Aryan Eden. He also shared Julius Streicher's sadistic, crude and sexually obsessed anti-Semitism.
Hitler's National Socialism was typical of fascist movements in the inter-war years in that it had a largely negative ideology. It was anti-democratic, anti-parliamentary, anti-liberal, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-conservative. It proclaimed a racial nationalism and the 'socialism' of the racial community (Volksgemeinschaft), but these were half-baked expressions of what Hitler's entertaining and talented friend in the early Munich years, Ernst 'Putzi' Hanfstaengl, called his 'gnostic yearnings'. National Socialism, like Italian Fascism, never developed a coherent ideology analogous to Marxism-Leninism. What passed for ideology was little more than a ragbag of widely felt prejudices, rancour and spite that was full of staggering contradictions, boorish clichés, and empty-headed bigotry. In short it was a set of mutually reinforcing prejudices, but for all its intellectual poverty National Socialism offered an idealistic vision of a new society that had a wide appeal. Calls for national rebirth, for a real and meaningful sense of community, for employment and prosperity for all, and for an end to party political bickering may have been hollow and imprecise but they met with enthusiastic resonance. As Hitler pointed out in Mein Kampf, it was not cognition that counted, but blind faith.
Excerpted from The Third Reich by Martin Kitchen. Copyright © 2012 Martin Kitchen. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 GERMANY, HITLER AND THE ORIGINS OF THE NSDAP 20 April 1889–30 January 1933,
2 THE CONSOLIDATION OF POWER 31 January 1933–1 August 1934,
3 THE NATIONAL SOCIALIST STATE 2 August 1934–1 September 1939,
4 THE WAR YEARS AND THE END OF THE THIRD REICH 2 September 1939–9 May 1945,
List of Illustrations,