Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review



The long awaited second volume of Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography reviewed by Alex Callinicos

More than 50 years after its destruction, the Nazi regime continues to grip the imagination. The massive efforts to commemorate and make sense of the Holocaust have brought the historical experience of Nazism into ever sharper focus. From the start, views of Hitler's significance have differed sharply. At one extreme there is the analysis evoked by John Heartfield's famous photomontage 'The Meaning of the Hitler Salute', in which Hitler is portrayed with arm uplifted while capitalist gold pours into his hand. The image expresses the orthodox view of fascism in the Third International under Stalin's leadership, in which both Hitler and his movement were viewed as puppets of big capital. At the other extreme there is the conventional bourgeois view that Hitler was an evil tyrant comparable to Nero or Attila the Hun, and that the crimes of the Nazi regime were simply the implementation of the personal vision that he had outlined in Mein Kampf before taking power.

These two interpretations continue to run through the historical literature on the Third Reich. At the beginning of the 1980s the Marxist historian Tim Mason distinguished two schools: the 'functionalists', who concentrated on the structure and institutions of the Nazi state, and the 'intentionalists', for whom the Third Reich was merely the expression of the Führer's will. Mason argued that both these approaches were inadequate. He invoked Marx's famous declaration in The Eighteenth Brumaire: 'Men make history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.' This suggested a dialectical treatment of Nazism, which treated it as the outcome of both contradictory social structures and the conscious action of human beings, including Hitler.

No one would seem better equipped to achieve such a synthesis than Ian Kershaw. His own background is very much as a 'functionalist', concerned with the social history of the Third Reich and, in particular, the development of popular opinion under Hitler. These strengths were very much on display in the first volume of his biography, the best parts of which involved subtle analyses of the development of the Nazi Party before it took power in January 1933 and of the complex processes through which large sections of the German population--outside the industrial working class and, to a lesser extent, the Catholic church--came to see Hitler as the embodiment of their hopes of a better life.

The first volume ended with Hitler's successful occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936, as the dictator stood poised at the start of his campaign to create a Europe dominated by Germany--an effort that would send German armies as far as the Caucasus and the Libyan desert and lead to the attempted extermination of European Jewry. In his second volume Kershaw recounts the story of this catastrophe--the seizure of Austria, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the trans-continental struggle unleashed by the invasion of Poland, the war of extermination that the Nazis waged against those they defined as their racial enemies (Jews, Roma, Slavs)--right up to Hitler's despairing suicide on 30 April 1945 as the Russian columns fought their way towards the ruins of his chancellery.

Hitler's minions

The Eastern front collapses...
The Eastern front collapses...

The result is a masterpiece of historical narrative. Kershaw devotes nearly 1,200 pages to unravel a complex story that embraces titanic battles, mass murders, diplomatic manoeuvres, bureaucratic rivalries and court intrigues, sometimes, at crucial moments, following Hitler's movements almost hour by hour. Yet the pace never slackens and the story--in all its appalling detail--never ceases to grip.

At the same time, however, Kershaw does not lose sight of the insights offered by more socially minded historians. Two in particular, Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen, have argued that the crimes of the regime were less simply the reflections of the Führer's will and more the product of a process of 'cumulative radicalisation'. In other words, rival Nazi notables would seek to advance their positions within the regime and to gain Hitler's favour by coming up with measures--particularly in the area of racial policy--that pushed in a more and more barbarous direction. Hitler's minions would try to anticipate his will by doing things that he had not personally ordered but of which, they believed, he would approve.

...while young Nazi officers cheer Hitler on
...while young Nazi officers cheer Hitler on

Drawing on a mass of recent research, Kershaw shows how this dynamic operated in the regime's greatest crimes--for example, the murder of the mentally disabled and the Holocaust itself, for which the 'euthanasia' programme proved to be a preparation. Almost invariably the specific atrocities were devised and implemented without consulting Hitler. Yet these crimes were responses to problems defined by Nazi ideology. Thus it is now clear the Holocaust was not the result of a unified plan drawn up by Hitler or anyone else, but rather a piecemeal process.

Its starting point was the ideologically-driven objective of eradicating the Jews from German and indeed European society. Initial plans envisaged their physical expulsion an exterminationist element in these plans from the start, since the SS bureaucrats who drew them up expected many Jews to perish in the inhospitable conditions to which they were deported. But as these plans proved impracticable and the Nazi leadership found themselves, thanks to their conquests, ruling over growing numbers of Jews, they turned to straightforward mass murder as the solution.

Though Hitler was careful to distance himself from the details of the Holocaust, Kershaw documents his personal responsibility for authorising his subordinates--above all the SS leader Himmler and his security chief Heydrich--to complete the process of extermination that had begun with the mass shootings of Jews after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. This is typical of how the Nazi regime worked. Historians such as Broszat have documented how fragmented the Hitler state was, with rival bureaucracies, some old (the army and the civil service) and some new (the SS security apparatus and Goering's Four Year Plan economic empire), struggling for the dictator's favour. Hitler encouraged this fragmentation, actively sabotaging any attempts by his subordinates to create a bureaucratically more rational cabinet system to coordinate government policies. The very absence of a system maximised the Führer's personal power as the arbiter of all decisions great and small.

Kershaw is thus able to weave together the insights provided by a generation of historical research of the Third Reich into a compelling narrative. This is a formidable achievement that will make his book a reference point for many years to come. Nevertheless the book suffers from weaknesses that to a large extent reflect the surprising degree to which Kershaw sometimes descends into the clichés of conventional 'intentionalist' history.

I also have reservations about the overall structure of the biography. Kershaw subtitled the first volume Hubris--the ancient Greek concept of overweening ambition, and the second Nemesis--the punishment such ambition inevitably provoked. Apart from the implication that Hitler could not have succeeded, which seems to me false, this structure is too simplistic when applied to Hitler's career. A more convincing picture is offered in the older biography by the conservative German historian Joachim Fest.

Fest argues that Hitler's political career can be divided into three phases. In the first, which lasted till the late 1920s, he was simply a fascist demogogue, in rebellion against a society that offered him no place, and in pursuit of the barbarous utopia of a racially pure German empire. Then, as power beckoned, Hitler developed a more realistic side--first carefully courting the German economic and military elites, and then, once in power, manoeuvring with great success to win control of most of Europe by diplomatic and military means. The final phase began as failure became plain--after the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1942-43. Hitler then relapsed into the racist fantasist of his youth, progressively ignoring the realities of power.

This interpretation has the advantage of explaining why, in the latter phases of the war, Hitler again and again overruled his generals' advice and refused to allow German troops to retreat, even when this led to their destruction. It also illuminates the long hours he spent poring over architectural models of a transformed Berlin--even as the real Berlin, along with other German cities, was flattened by Allied bombers. Hitler took refuge in his dreams as the chances of realising them receded.

It is in any case clear that the Nazi regime became more radical--in its own barbarous, racist terms--as the war went on. This is particularly true after the failure of the 20 July 1944 army plot to kill Hitler. The break this implied with sections of the ruling class that had previously allied themselves with the Nazis led him to rely increasingly on the terroristic rule of the SS. Kershaw documents the extent to which Hitler himself was implicated in every step in the progressive radicalisation of the regime, but he tends to present this too much in personal terms, as a matter of what the dictator wanted.

Perhaps this stress is simply a consequence of the biographic form Kershaw is using here, but it seems to me important to stress that this radicalisation had a social base in key Nazi apparatuses such as the SS and the party itself. These were the institutional embodiments of Nazism as a mass movement composed largely of the 'little men' in German society, those caught between big capital and organised labour. Nazi ideology fused these disparate elements by offering them a vision of a Volksgemeinschaft--a racially purified national community in which social antagonisms would be eliminated.

Without the bureaucratic apparatuses that represented Nazi elements' attempts to capture a share of state power, the regime's radicalisation would have been impossible. The SS above all provided the ideologically motivated cadre needed to carry through the progressive extermination of the Jews. And, when the German state began to disintegrate in 1944-45, it made the sheer effort of will required to hold things together and motivate resistance--even as the chiefs of the regime sought to seek their own deals with the Allies.

These criticisms do not take away from the scale of Kershaw's achievement. They largely concern matters of emphasis rather than of fundamental disagreement. The danger with biography is that the larger pattern can disappear amid the idiosyncrasies of a person's life. It is particularly important not to lose sight of this larger pattern when dealing with the most successful--and destructive--fascist regime in history. It is only by trying to understand the social contradictions that Hitler exploited and the mass movement that brought him to power that we can address the fundamental question posed by this book, as by every book: could someone like him come to power again?
Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis
Ian Kershaw, Allen Lane £25

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page