The Third Reich
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The Third Reich

David G. Williamson

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The Third Reich

David G. Williamson

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About This Book

The Third Reich is a succinct, comprehensive examination of the major debates surrounding this crucial period in modern German history. The character and operation of the Nazi state, and of its global consequences, have been discussed and disputed since 1933. David G. Williamson's Seminar Studies text, now in its fifth edition, provides students with a lucid introduction to the Third Reich and highlights the relevant research, scholarship and controversies.

The new edition has been expanded to give increased coverage to such topics as: ethnic cleansing in Poland and Russia, the role of the Wehrmacht, the Holocaust, attitudes of ordinary Germans to the Third Reich, the German opposition, Nazi foreign policy and the German economy.

Accompanied by a wide range of primary sources, a timeline, maps and a glossary, The Third Reich remains the best available introduction to this short-lived but enormously impactful period in world history.

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Part I

David G. Williamson

The historical debate

Attempts to define the nature of National Socialism (hereafter Nazism) began as soon as it became a major political force in the 1930s and have continued, unabated, ever since. This has resulted in an academic literature ‘beyond the scope even of specialists’ (Hildebrand, 1991: 101). In assessing the nature of Nazism, contemporaries raised questions that are still relevant today: was it a version of fascism or totalitarianism (see below), which had more in common with Stalin’s Russia than Mussolini’s Italy, or was it a unique revolutionary phenomenon? On the Left, Nazism was defined in broadly Marxist terms. Orthodox Marxist thinkers perceived it to be a mass movement manipulated by big business and finance in a last-ditch attempt to defend capitalism from socialism. Georgi Dimitrov, the General Secretary of the Comintern, defined fascism, in which he included Nazism, in 1935 as ‘the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital’ (Kershaw, 1993: 10). This view was echoed emphatically in 1937 by the left wing economist, Harold Laski, who came to the conclusion that ‘Fascism is nothing but monopoly capitalism imposing its will on those masses, whom it has deliberately transformed into slaves’ (Brady, 1937: 11). In this context, Hitler was nothing more than a puppet of big business and finance. Other, more independent, Marxist thinkers took their arguments from Marx’s seminal essay on Napoleon’s coup of 2 December 1851, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and compared fascism to Bonapartism in the France of Napoleon III. Bonarpartism had made life safe for capitalism as it destroyed working-class political power, but it also had its own dynamism and ended up by controlling the capitalist class too, even though it created an environment basically favourable to capitalism [Doc. 1, p. 157].
A different approach was taken by the broadly nationalist school of historians within Germany in 1933, who interpreted Hitler’s rise to power as a national revolution, which was both anti-liberal and anti-Marxist. Johannes Haller, for instance, argued that it was one of the most powerful ideas of the time that ‘national and social were not opposites’ (Michalka, 1984: 361). This assessment met with some understanding in Britain, where, as late as 1935, Churchill still believed that Hitler might one day be regarded by history as one of those ‘great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind’ (Hildebrand, 1974: 602), while Lloyd George saw him as a liberator of the German people [Doc. 14, p. 173]. One of the most penetrating of the early non-Marxist studies of Nazism was written by Hermann Rauschning, the former Nazi President of the Danzig Senate, who in his classic study, Germany’s Revolution of Destruction, argued that Nazism was a ‘revolutionary power whose creed was action for action’s sake and whose tactics were the destruction and undermining of all that is in the existing order’ (Rauschning, 1939: 13) [Doc. 2, p. 158] an interpretation shared some 40 years later by Detlev Peukert in his classic study, Inside Nazi Germany (see p. 158).
In the war years and early post-war period, western historians and propagandists, like Rohan Butler (1941), Sir Robert Vansittart (1941) and Edmond Vermeil (1945), in their search for the origins of Nazism, attempted to identify lines of continuity in German history, which allegedly stretched ‘from Luther to Hitler’. In response to this blanket condemnation of their nation’s past, German historians such as Friedrich Meinecke and Gerhard Ritter, in the immediate post-war period argued that Nazism could only be understood within the context of the general European crisis triggered by the First World War.
The outbreak of the Cold War in Europe had a considerable impact on the historical debate on Nazism. Both East and West Germany sought to interpret their common Nazi past differently. For East German historians, Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism remained valid and an essential rallying cry against the capitalist West. For West Germans, and increasingly the West as a whole, Nazism was seen as a variant of totalitarianism. According to Carl Friedrich, the German émigré political scientist in the USA, it had in common with Russian Communism ‘a total ideology, a single mass party, a terroristic secret police, a monopoly of mass communications, a monopoly of weapons, and a centrally directed planned economy’ (Friedrich and Brzezinski, 1956: 294).
This ‘totalitarian’ definition of Nazism was the dominant theme in western research on Nazism until the 1960s, when an increasing number of specialised studies began to show that the concept of totalitarianism did not do justice to an understanding of the structure of the Third Reich and the role of Hitler. A dramatic change in historical thinking was signalled by the Fischer controversy of the early 1960s. In his Griff nach der Weltmacht, Fischer returned to the thesis of continuity in German history by arguing that the expansionist territorial aims of the German elites in the First World War were broadly similar to Hitler’s. His book had a profound influence on German historians and helped to direct historical research back to the vital question of continuities in the role of elites and social structure between Wilhelmine Germany and the Nazi period. In that sense, Fischer could be called the father of the new structuralist school of historians which dominated modern German history for the next 30 years.
This methodology was further developed by Hans-Ulrich Wehler in his study of the German Empire (1871–1918), where he deliberately avoided close studies of personalities and analysed the empire ‘as a totality’ with its interconnections between politics, the economy and society. Primarily, Wehler was motivated by the desire ‘to investigate why Hitler’s National Socialist regime came to power some dozen years after the end of the monarchy’ (Wehler, 1985: 7). He established a ‘new orthodoxy’, which argued that Germany’s failure to develop into a parliamentary democracy during the Kaiserreich set Germany on the special path, or Sonderweg, that ultimately led to the Third Reich. Applying similar analytical methods to the Third Reich, structuralists, like Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen, challenged the orthodox view of a virtually all-powerful Hitler and stressed that the study of political leaders and ‘great men’ needs to be complemented by a structural analysis of contemporary society (Broszat, 1981; Mommsen, 1979). They argue that historians should concentrate more on explaining how Nazi society worked and on showing that Hitler himself was often a prisoner of forces and structures, which he might have unleashed or created, but could not always control. Inevitably, this emphasis on structural determinants, which played down political and diplomatic history as well as the role of the individual in history, met with fierce opposition from the more traditional historians, or intentionalists, such as Andreas Hillgruber and Klaus Hildebrand, who see Hitler and his aims as central to the study of the Third Reich. The frequently bitter debate between the intentionalists and structuralists, as will be seen in the chapters that follow, pervaded every aspect of research on the Third Reich and Nazism. In reality, however, neither interpretation excluded the other. Both personal will and the structure of the institutions of the Third Reich shaped Nazi policy. Modern historians place much more emphasis on ideology and the aims of Adolf Hitler. Adam Tooze, for instance, argues that ‘it was ideology which provided Hitler with the lens through which he understood the international balance of power’ and hence was also the key to his economic policy (Tooze, 2007: xxv).
Right up to the end of the 1980s, many studies of Nazi Germany were more interested in how the decision to murder the Jews was politically and administratively arrived at, rather than in exploring the degree of complicity of the German people in carrying out this decision. Karl Dietrich Bracher’s monumental study, The German Dictatorship, dedicated a mere 12 of its 580 pages to the actual Holocaust (Bracher, 1973: 520–33). However, coinciding with the end of the Cold War, studies of the Holocaust ‘increasingly moved to the centre not just of twentieth century history but to assessments of the twentieth century itself’ (Wiese and Betts, ed., 2010: 5). Historians are now looking at not only the Holocaust, but also the concentration camps and the police state as well as the impact of Nazism on ‘ordinary Germans’ (Browning, Ordinary Men, 2011) and the degree to which the population actually supported Nazism. This has led to a large number of studies on Alltagsgeschichte’ and detailed analysis of such institutions as universities and their faculties, the Foreign Office and army between 1933 and the early post-war period.

Can the Third Reich be ‘historicised’?

One of the dilemmas confronting historians of the Third Reich is that the appalling atrocities carried out by the Nazis make historical objectivity, or ‘historicisation’, difficult to achieve. When the orders for shooting Russian Communist and officials out of hand were issued to the German army in 1941 [Doc.36, p. 206], Major-General von Tresckow observed with horror to his fellow officer, Rudolf von Gersdorff, that guilt would fall on the Germans for a hundred years ‘and not just on Hitler alone, but on you and me, your wife and mine, your children and my children, the woman crossing the road now, and the boy playing with a ball over there’ (Burleigh, 2000: 707). Despite the fact that there was a courageous German opposition to Hitler, many Germans, even today, would still agree with Tresckow’s comment. The long shadows of the genocidal war in Russia and the Holocaust have made it very difficult for historians to ‘normalise’ or treat the Third Reich like any other period of German history. Dan Diner, one of the most trenchant critics of historicisation, has, for instance, argued that ‘Auschwitz is a no-man’s-land of understanding, a black box of explanation, a vacuum of extra historiographic interpretation’ (Kershaw, 1993: 214). Attempts to put the Third Reich into perspective led to the Historikerstreit, or historians’ dispute, which erupted into a major public controversy in West Germany in 1985. Ernst Nolte, for instance, put forward the thesis that the Holocaust should be seen within the context of the atrocities committed by Stalin and Pol Pot (Nolte, 1985: 17–38). Other historians, who can also broadly be described as ‘right wing’, such as Michael Stürmer, resent the intense concentration on the Third Reich and argue that it has effectively made earlier German history inaccessible to post-1945 generations, but to historians on the Left this emphasis has been welcome, as it has forced the Germans to learn the lessons of the immediate past. Jürgen Habermas, for instance, uncompromisingly insisted that ‘a commitment to universal constitutional principles rooted in conviction has only been feasible in the cultural nation of the Germans after – and through – Auschwitz’ (in Kershaw, 1993: 199).
The perception that the fall of Nazism in 1945 had effectively brought to an end the history of united Germany changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1990. Ultimately, then, Hitler had not permanently destroyed the German nation and state, and, as Saul Friedländer, the Israeli historian, observed, reunification had ‘given back natural continuity to German history’ (Kershaw, 1993: 200n). The Third Reich can now be seen as an episode – admittedly a terrible one – in German history, rather than its climax or indeed termination. The challenge for historians is to historicise the Third Reich and to put it into the context of German, and indeed world history, without making excuses for its horrors – and to consider its legacy.

Part II

David G. Williamson

The origins and rise of National Socialism

The ideological roots

National Socialism was, as Karl Dietrich Bracher has pointed out, ‘a conglomerate of ideas and precepts, hopes and emotions, welded together by a radical political movement in a time of crisis’ (Bracher, 1973: 38). A key component was the belief in German racial superiority, the origins of which can be traced back to the potent merging of nationalism and romanticism during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The philosopher Johann Fichte, in his Addresses to the German Nation in 1807, for instance, helped lay the foundations for a new Romantic German Nationalism, which invested the German race with heroic qualities and almost mystical racial purity. Fichte’s ideas, from which could be distilled ‘a deadly cocktail of ethnic, cultural and linguistic nationalism’ (Berger, 1997: 480), in the second half of the nineteenth century became the basis of the new völkisch or Germanic racial ideology, which was implacably opposed to liberalism, socialism and democracy. Fichte’s philosophy, as absorbed and transmuted by the völkisch movement, influenced emotionally a whole generation of university professors, grammar-school teachers, army officers, bankers and businessmen. It made them, initially at least, responsive to the völkisch strand of thought within Nazism. Hitler recognised this when he wrote in Mein Kampf that ‘all sorts of people with a yawning gulf between everything essential in their opinions are running around today under the blanket term “folkish”’ (sic) (Hitler, 1974: 344).
Further important strands in Nazi thought were social Darwinism and the new pseudo-scientific studies of race, which were, to a great extent, a consequence of the massive expansion of the European colonial empires in the late nineteenth century. Social Darwinists, both in Europe and the USA, interpreted international relations in terms of struggle and the survival of the fittest, and were increasingly receptive to the theories of racial inequality put forward by the French aristocrat Count Joseph Gobineau. In his Essay on the Inequality of the Races of Man, written in 1853–55, he proclaimed the racial supremacy of the white, or ‘Aryan’, races and the crucial importance of racial ‘purity’ for the life of a nation. In the 1870s, against the background of the financial crash of 1873, the journalist Wilhelm Marr developed these ideas, and depicted the Jews as exploiting their influence in industry and banking to establish world supremacy. This lurid picture was popularised by such writers as Theodor Fritsch who in 1887 accused the Jews of being the masterminds behind the revolutionary groups that were springing up across Europe. In 1894 the naturalised German, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the son of a British admiral and husband of one of Richard Wagner’s daughters, in his best-selling book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), interpreted history as a racial struggle in which the purity of the ‘Aryan’ races had at all costs to be defended. Racial purity was seen to be the key to the future survival and greatness of Germany. Shortly before his death in 1927, Chamberlain was celebrated by the Nazi Party as the ‘prophetic seer of National Socialism’ (Bracher, 1973: 30), and his ideas formed the basis of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, written in 1930 by Alfred Rosenberg, the philosopher of National Socialism.

The Bismarckian Reich: an incubator of National Socialism?

To Wehler and the other historians of the ‘new orthodoxy’ a knowledge of the German Empire between 1871 and 1918 remains ‘absolutely indispensable’ for an understanding of events from 1919 to 1945 (Wehler, 1985: 246). Their argument is, essentially, that the constitution that Bismarck drew up for the new German Reich in 1871 failed to provide a satisfactory framework in which the German people could come to terms with the problems of a modern, pluralist, industrial society, as he attempted at all costs to preserve the political power of the Prussian aristocracy. When Bismarck resigned in 1890, h...

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