Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Third Reich: A New History, Michael Burleigh

This is arguably the best one-volume general introduction to the Third Reich that currently exists in English.  Burleigh manages to tell a very familiar story with range, depth and empathy.  It is a magnificent achievement.

The story begins with the decline and fall of the Weimar Republic, an artificial and structurally weak polity which was ill equipped to survive the batterings it received.  The fallout from the hyperinflation of the early 1920s meant that no strong, self-confident middle-class party emerged to defend the republic, and the fate of the Weimar constitution ended up resting largely on the shoulders of the SPD, the party of the mainstream left.  The SPD, with its attendant trade unions and social institutions, is sometimes presented by sympathetic historians as a more or less monolithic stockade of working-class solidarity.  Yet Burleigh notes that the German labour movement suffered from serious internal divisions, quite apart from the bitter and fateful external feud with the communist KPD.  And traditional SPD culture was already passing into history, as the temptations of modern consumer society overcame the "natural inclination of young people towards miners' choirs or discussions of Marx or Kautsky".  Burleigh points out the often overlooked fact that pre-1933 Nazi propaganda was heavily aimed against the SPD and the KPD rather than against the Jews.  Anti-Marxism was evidently more likely to win over German voters than anti-Semitism - although after 1933 many SPD voters seem to have come to admire Hitler, as opposed to his party.

The anti-Marxist component in Nazism belies some essential similarities between the totalitarianisms of left and right.  An important theme of Burleigh's work is the resemblances between Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia.  He categorises Nazism and Communism as "political religions" rather than ordinary players within the familiar world of the Western political tradition.  Hitler, he writes, "was not in power to deal with coal prices in Silesia, any more than Stalin was concerned with the educational arrangements of Uzbekistan".  Instead, Nazism offered its adherents "a mythic world of eternal spring, heroes, demons, fire and sword" - it was "children's politics for grown-ups".  Burleigh perceptively identifies, as surprisingly few other historians have, the "essentially adolescent sensibility" of National Socialism - at once self-righteous, self-pitying, aggressive and emotionally stunted.  It is the aggression that tends to predominate in the popular image of Nazi Germany as dominated by murderous hatred.  But Burleigh suggests, to the contrary, that its "quintessential" characteristic was that of sentimentality.  In this respect, he notes, it was an impeccably modern phenomenon.

Burleigh describes in careful detail the descent of the Nazi state into persecution and war, with the lethally brutal invasion of the Soviet Union and the genocide against the Jews being the sanguinary centrepieces.  He also discusses the wildly differing arrangements which the Nazis made use of for ruling the various parts of their European empire.  These ranged from the tyrannical governance of the eastern territories to the light-touch administration of Denmark, which even managed to carry on holding parliamentary elections, via the strange and ambiguous world of Vichy France, which had a strong but curiously un-Nazi domestic tradition of antisemitism:
As the one-eyed, and one-legged, germanophobic war veteran Xavier Vallat indignantly explained to the impertinent young SD Jewish expert Theodor Dannecker: "I have been an antisemite far longer than you!  What's more, I am old enough to be your father!" - an outburst which had a resonance beyond this contretemps between these individuals.
The story of the Germans' collaboration with local élites and fascist sympathisers was a complex one, but the Germans were ultimately interested only in domination.  It is telling that Hitler had difficulty even remembering the names of his collaborationist allies.

Burleigh spends some time looking at the anti-Nazi resistance within Germany, a topic often underexplored in popular histories of Nazism.  While the political left made some attempts to resist the Third Reich, the resistance movement consisted disproportionately of upper-class anti-Nazi conservatives.  These men were not liberal humanitarians, although they were disturbed by Nazi atrocities.  Burleigh suggests that they were motivated less by compassion for Jews and Slavs than by a conviction that their country was in the hands of a lunatic who was leading it to disaster.  It had been the conservative élites who had helped Hitler to power in 1933 under the delusion that they could use him as their puppet, but some of them had always had their misgivings.  One of the later resisters, Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, had remarked at the time: "Do not think that when you board an express train, the driver of which is deranged, you can somehow take over the controls."

As is often the case, it is the anecdotes and details that stick in the mind.  One of the first commandants of Dachau was literally insane, and was signed out of his asylum by a doctor who later went on to organise the Nazi "euthanasia" programme.  Within the camps, Stalinist communists continued to plot against their Trotskyist comrades while pro-Franco Polish Catholics "fail[ed] to josh along with Spanish Republicans".  Donors to the regime's Winter Aid appeal were asked to guess the total regional donations, with the prizes being a camera, a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a vacuum cleaner.  There were the schoolgirls who got pregnant and insisted that they were just bearing Aryan babies like the Fuehrer wanted; the Christian pastors who entered so deeply into beer-swilling Nazi culture that they started holding services in the pub; and the Jews who took to wearing blusher in order to make it look as if they were still fit for work.  Hitler himself reflected, as he slouched in his bunker while the Russians fought through Berlin, that his mistake had been to be such a nice guy: "in retrospect one regrets that one is so good".

Burleigh manages to be morally aware without descending into moralising banality.  He emphasises how far Nazism deviated from recognisably civilised values.  For SS men, "[e]xcessive drinking or pilfering were significant moral failures; throwing a concentration-camp inmate off a cliff was unremarkable".  Burleigh shows how the demise of the rule of law was a central feature of the Nazi state, and quotes Hannah Arendt's paradox that there was a certain safety in being a ordinary criminal because that was likely to bring more predictable treatment than life as a homosexual or a Jew.  At the top of the rotten pile, of course, sat Hitler himself, a man whose "miserable existence gained meaning as he discovered that his rage against the world was capable of indefinite generalisation".  He managed the rare feat of creating an empire which left no legacy to speak of:
In contrast to other empires created by armed might, which bequeathed art and literature that are still widely admired, or administrations, customs, languages and legal codes... the tawdry Nazi anti-civilisation left nothing of any worth behind, except perhaps its contemporary function as a secular synonym for human evil.  Nazism's material remains number a few third-rate buildings... concrete coastal fortifications too dense to destroy, and the wooden huts, wind-swept parade grounds, watchtowers and barbed wire of the concentration camps....  Nazism was literally 'from nothing to nothing': with its powerful imaginative afterlife curiously disembodied from its pitiful achievements.
This book is lucidly written and impressively comprehensive.  Burleigh manages both to present the big picture and to incorporate a fascinating array of anecdotes and vignettes.  I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject.