Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hitler, Ian Kershaw (Part 2)


Once Hitler was safely installed in the Reich Chancellor's office, the SA unleashed a reign of terror on Germany's streets, while the Nazis in the Reichstag tore up what was left of the Weimar constitution.  The DNVP, far from being the tail that wagged the dog, was bullied into dissolving itself as early as June 1933.  The last remaining independent political party, the Catholic Zentrumspartei, clung on a little longer, until July.  The church decided to abandon the Zentrum and put its trust in a new Concordat with history's most famous lapsed Catholic (which turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on).

The Fuehrer-cult now exploded into mainstream German society.  "Adolf Hitler Streets" and "Adolf Hitler Squares" sprang up all over Germany, and manufacturers of fancy goods enterprisingly switched their factories to producing Hitler-themed tat.  The wave of pro-Hitler enthusiasm seems to have caught up even previously sceptical members of the population.  There was no real precedent for this in Germany history - even the Bismarck cult had been more restrained than that of the Fuehrer.  Even more dangerously, Hitler himself seems to have begun to believe his own propaganda.

Yet his grip on power was not yet secure.  Within the Nazi ranks, the brownshirted Stormtroopers were becoming a serious problem.  By late 1933, the SA was an enormous organisation consisting of millions of men.  It dwarfed the size of the army.  Hitler thought that enough bloodletting had been accomplished and decided that a period of consolidation was in order, but elements in the SA thought that the Nazi revolution had not yet gone far enough.  One might speculate on whether they arrived at this conclusion out of radical socialist ideological conviction or simply because the mundane political reality of taking up office had failed to achieve the expected mythological transformation of Depression-era economic and social life.  The SA leader Ernst Roehm, who in some ways seems to have been an even nastier piece of work than Hitler, was developing his own personality cult, and was reportedly being openly insubordinate about the Fuehrer.

Meanwhile, Hitler's conservative allies were getting worried about the SA, and in particular about its pretensions of supplanting the regular army.  They were also starting to think about the succession to the 86-year-old President Hindenburg.  There was talk of bringing back the Kaiser, a move that would have permanently denied Hitler absolute power in the state.  Papen and elements in the army officers' corps began to emerge as foci of conservative resistance to Hitler.  Papen gave a provocative speech criticising the Nazis in June 1934, and, ominously, made an appointment for an audience with Hindenburg.

Hitler had hoped that the difficult questions posed by these trains of events would go away.  They didn't, and the result, on 30 June 1934, was the Night of the Long Knives.  Roehm was shot after refusing the chance to commit suicide.  Dozens of other SA man were likewise unceremoniously killed.  On the other side, conservative victims of the night included two generals.  Hitler seems to have sincerely believed that he was acting to forestall a plot against him: he was reported to have been genuinely enraged, just as he had been on the night of the Reichstag fire.  Being a ruthless power-politician is not incompatible with believing in conspiracy theories.

Hindenberg died in August 1934, and Hitler made sure that he replaced him as head of state.  Even at this late stage, the conservative establishment thought that they could bring Hitler to heel.  The Minister of Defence, General von Blomberg, had the bright idea of getting the army to swear a personal oath of allegiance to him.  This was a hamfisted attempt to bind Hitler personally to the army and detach him from the hotheads in the Nazi Party.  The effect, as a child could have seen, was simply that the last people in Germany with the power to resist Hitler, armed soldiers with guns, swore their lives away to him.

Yet Hitler, for all his murderous ruthlessness, remained at bottom what he had always been - a terminally lazy failed artist.  Scholars have recognised for years that he was an ineffectual and incompetent administrator.  He was content for the party and state bureaucracy to subsist in a constant state of disorder and internal conflict while his underlings sought to "work towards the Fuehrer" rather than carrying out detailed orders from above.  As the years passed, Hitler became less willing to invest time and effort in his political responsibilities - though he continued to give close attention to his speeches.  For Hitler, politics and propaganda were very nearly the same thing.

Hitler's run of easy wins in foreign and defence policy - pulling out of the League of Nations, implementing a re-armament programme that breached the Treaty of Versailles, recovering the Saarland, remilitarising the Rhineland - seems to have reinforced his conviction of his own genius and of the inevitability of his success.  He seems to have made the fatal mistake of believing that he could walk on water.  His success in pushing the boundaries of the unstable European diplomatic system also boosted his public support, though continuing economic difficulties took much of the gloss off.  There was a distinct tendency on the part of many ordinary citizens to give him the benefit of the doubt and to blame the regime's misdeeds and corruption on his underlings.  "If only the Fuehrer knew!"


"One would have had to look a long time to find a man more barren of ideas....  He was as hollow as a jug."  That was George Orwell's verdict on Oswald Mosley, but he could have been talking about Hitler.

Hitler's ideology was as simple-minded as it was dangerous.  All life was struggle, principally racial struggle.  The good guys were the Aryans, as organised into a single pan-Germanic state under a dictatorial leader.  The bad guys were the Jews, who used both Marxism and financial capitalism to further their ends.  The Aryan Germans needed to extirpate the Jews from their midst and conquer "living space" in the Soviet east.  That was essentially it.  Strikingly, Hitler had no real interest in economics, though his policies turned out to be vaguely Keynesian.  He never really warmed to the "socialist" part of National Socialism, except insofar as he despised bourgeois society and associated high finance with Jews.  He was much more interested in racial struggle than in social revolution.

None of his rather jejune ideas were original, though he took them somewhat further than most.  His pan-German nationalism was a legacy of his childhood in Linz.  He seems to have picked up his ideas about race and the Jews in Vienna and then been radicalised by the Great War and Germany's humiliating defeat, just as many of his fellow countrymen were.  Likewise, his ideas about Lebensraum, dictatorial leadership and eugenics linked in with currents of thought that had been circulating in German society.  He was an identifiable product of his own time, culture and personal history.

He was not a fanatical, obsessive evil genius, working day and night like a Bond villain to realise his master-plan for genocide and world domination.  To believe this is to come close to believing the Nazis' own propaganda.  The real Hitler was a mass of human flaws and contradictions.  He was ruthless - trusting anything that he said could be literally a fatal mistake - but he was also tactically astute, even soft-pedalling his virulent antisemitism and talking like a peacemaker when required.  He spoke of "struggle" and "will", but he was notoriously lazy.  He hated taking decisions, but he committed himself utterly to a decision once he had taken it.  He could be charming in person and compelling as a demagogic speaker, but his inner emotional life was barren.  He was clever but intellectually shallow.  He was blustering and megalomaniacal but personally insecure.  Kershaw suggests that his loathing of the Jews and other perceived enemies was mirrored by a profound hatred of himself.

While his acting skills could gave him charm and charisma, Hitler had real difficulties in his relations with other human beings.  Even those close to him found him enigmatic.  His only real friend in adult life seems to have been August Kubizek, who came with him to Vienna in his youth and later renewed his acquaintance with him after the Anschluss.  Even this was not a match of equals.  Kubizek, who seems to have been a rather eccentric character himself, served to provide Hitler with an attentive audience for his various half-baked pronouncements about the world.  As to the opposite sex, Hitler's sexuality remains something of a mystery.  As a young man, he seems to have avoided women, even - or especially - if they showed an interest in him.  He was repelled by homosexuality and prostitution, to a perhaps suspicious degree.  The only woman whom he ever showed a consuming sexual (or quasi-sexual) interest in was his niece Geli Raubal, whom he treated in a typically obsessive and controlling manner until she shot herself in 1931.  On the whole, he preferred women who were pretty, empty-headed and undemanding, like his long-term mistress Eva Braun.  As Kershaw notes, his barely veiled contempt for women must have concealed a latent fear.  Kershaw is, however, disinclined to believe some of the more lurid rumours about Hitler's sexuality - the reports of sado-masochism and coprophilia - and points out that these appear to have been started by his political enemies.

How did such a man end up in charge of a major European country?  No-one else could have taken the same path to power as he did, nor have done the same things with power once he had acquired it.  To that extent, he was unique.  He was not a puppet of others.  Some scholars from the political left have written him off as a stooge for big business.  Not only is this inaccurate on the facts - the army and the agricultural lobby were more instrumental in bringing him to power than big business, and in any event Papen was their preferred man - it simply repeats the same fatal error of judgement that the German left made in the early 1930s.  Hitler may have been many things, but he was nobody's stooge.

Yet, like everyone else in history, he was both the beneficiary and the prisoner of his own times.  There was no master plan.  Hitler knew broadly what he wanted to do (and helpfully wrote it down in Mein Kampf) but he had much less idea exactly how he was going to do it.  Some of the most momentous events of the Nazi movement's history - the Munich Putsch, the Night of the Long Knives, the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland - were the product of circumstances and Hitler's often belated reactions to them rather than the inexorable actions of a man of destiny.  If it had not been for the outstanding success of his propaganda in the peculiar circumstances of Depression-hit Germany, and the machinations and miscalculations of the ruling √©lite, he would be no more remembered than other far-right leaders of the time.  And who remembers Kuno Graf von Westarp and Theodor Duesterberg today?