The Age of Dictatorship: Europe 1918-1989 - Hitler

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The second lecture in the series turned to Germany, where the economic depression that began in 1929 destroyed the Weimar Republic and ushered Hitler and his Nazi Party to power. Hitler's dictatorship combined intensive political repression with comprehensive propaganda, racial engineering and preparation for European conquest.

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Professor Richard J Evans

Hitler, like Mussolini, was made by the First World War. True, in his autobiography Mein Kampf   - ‘My Struggle’ – he claimed to have formed most of his opinions already before 1914. But we have to treat its claims with scepticism. There is for example little or no evidence that he was antisemitic before the First World War, and unlike Mussolini he was not politically active in any way until the war was over. Hitler was born in 1889 and from an early age he wanted to be an artist. He tried and failed to get admission to the Vienna Art Academy and for a while drifted aimlessly, living in doss-houses and earning a meager living off painting and selling postcards with views of Viennese buildings. A small legacy was all that kept him from going under altogether. Like Mussolini, therefore, he had experienced poverty and marginality in his youth.
And like Mussolini, Hitler experienced the First World War as a liberation. It gave his life a meaning and structure it had never had before. Everything was simple and straightforward, there were none of the complexities and ambiguities of ordinary everyday life in the civilian world. Hitler served throughout the war, as a messenger on the front, was promoted to corporal and decorated for bravery. Although he was Austrian, one political belief he had developed before 1914 was the conviction that German-speaking Austrians were really German and that Austria should be detached from the multinational Habsburg Monarchy and absorbed into the German Empire. When the war broke out he was already living in Munich, and he volunteered for service in the German army. After four years he was invalided out suffering from a poison gas attack, and it was in hospital that he learned of Germany’s defeat at the beginning of November 1918.
Defeat and revolution were what politicized Hitler. From this time on, the memory of two dates framed everything he did. The first was August 1914, when, he thought, the German people had united in a common spirit to confront the enemy. When he came to power he did everything he could to re-create this spirit of aggressive unity in what he called ‘the people’s community’, the Volksgemeinschaft. The second date was November 1918, when he believed this spirit had been undermined from within by a conspiracy of revolutionaries led by Jews, who from 1918 onwards he thought of as an international threat to Germany’s existence. It might have been a series of chances that led him into politics, when after attending a course of political education organized by the military he was asked by the army to observe a small far-right organization in postwar, post-revolutionary Munich called the German Workers’ Party, and began speaking at its meetings; but it is hard to believe that with his new-found convictions he would not have found his way into the political world anyway. Like Mussolini, Hitler was a man of words, but while Mussolini’s main asset was his written journalism, and there was always something rather staged and artificial about his speaking, Hitler was a born orator, whose speeches had an electrifying effect on their audiences.
Before long, Hitler had left the army and taken over the German Workers’ Party, renaming it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Its flag, which he designed himself, symbolized its drive to unite the different extremes of German politics: a red background for socialism, a black swastika in a white circle for racism and antisemitism, and the three colours together, black, white and red, the colours of the old German Empire, for opposition to the newly created Weimar Republic. Gradually in the early 1920s Hitler gathered around him a group of subordinates who bolstered his confidence and persuaded him that he was the man to lead Germany in the future – the propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the air ace and man of action Hermann Göring, the ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, the antisemite Julius Streicher, the military adventurer Ernst Röhm, and the slavishly adoring Rudolf Hess, who acted as his secretary and general factotum.
Partly under their influence, his ideas developed further. Germany, he argued, had been humiliated by the Peace Settlement of 1919, which took away territory, restricted the German armed forces to a minimum size with no modern equipment, and imposed a huge burden of financial reparations on the economy. Germany had to repudiate the Peace Settlement, rearm, regain the lost territory and avenge the failure of 1918. The Jews had to be banished to ensure they would not perpetrate another 1918 and the Communist Party had to be utterly destroyed for the same reason. Germany had to conquer Eastern Europe to create a ‘living-space’ in which Germans would treat the Slavs as the Americans had treated the Sioux or the Cherokee. The democratic parties, all of them, he thought, run essentially by the Jews who were setting Germans against one another when they should really be united in the spirit of 1914, had to be swept aside and replaced by a Germany run on the ‘leadership principle’, starting with himself at the top and going all the way down to local Nazi party bosses at the bottom. The new strong Germany would become the world’s leading power, ready to take on an overseas empire much bigger than the one lost in the Peace Settlement, ready indeed to take on the United States in the struggle for dominance. Later, Hitler symbolized these megalomaniac dreams in his plans for a new world capital, Germania, a renamed and redesigned Berlin that would contain the largest buildings on the planet. The comparison with America was never far from his mind, and even his plans to redesign Germany’s largest seaport, Hamburg, included a skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building and a suspension bridge across the river Elbe with a span longer than San Francisco’s Golden Gate.
These ideas were still not fully developed when Hitler, inspired by Mussolini’s self-styled ‘march on Rome’, attempted to conquer power by a violent uprising in November 1923. Hitler modelled his brown-shirted stormtroopers on Mussolini’s black-shirted squads, and like the squadristi, many of the stormtroopers were ex-soldiers or young men who sought to prove themselves by being even more violent than their elders in the battle to defeat the enemy within. In postwar Germany, violent clashes between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionary ‘Free Corps’ units had turned the city centres of Munich, Berlin and smaller towns into battlegrounds, and throughout the 1920s and early 1930s there were continual clashes on the streets between the armed paramilitary units associated with the different parties, such as the Steel Helmets, the Reichsbanner, or the Red Front-Fighters’ League. The Nazi stormtroopers outdid them all in the level and extent of their violence. In November 1923 the political situation had deteriorated into such chaos, with hyperinflation out of control, the French in the Ruhr, and a threatened Communist takeover in Saxony and Thuringia, that Hitler decided the moment had come for action. He gathered his troops in a beer-hall and marched on the centre of Munich as a prelude to mobilizing Bavaria’s forces for a march on Berlin.
But the attempt was a fiasco. He did not have the support of the Bavarian political elite, the Bavarian army, the Bavarian police or the Bavarian business community. Ten years later, he made sure to have the support of all these groups on a national level as he moved to take over power in Germany. His attempted coup was dispelled in a hail of police bullets. Hitler was arrested and gaoled under conditions lenient enough for him to receive over 200 visitors and dictate Mein Kampf to Hess. The idea of a direct, violent seizure of power would clearly have to be abandoned. It was in any case based on a misconception. For all his cultivation of the myth of the ‘march on Rome’, Mussolini had in fact been appointed Prime Minister by the Head of State in the normal way. Hitler now set out to achieve the same goal.
This meant fighting elections. To begin with, even after Hitler had reformed his Party following his release from prison, the Nazis – short for National Socialists, on the model of the Sozis, short for Social Democrats – won less than 3 per cent of the vote in the elections of 1928. There was nothing pre-programmed or inevitable about their rise to popularity, in other words, and Hitler could certainly not have achieved it by his oratorical charisma alone. But the next year, 1929, saw the onset of the Depression, which affected Germany more severely than any other country. With well over a third of the workforce out of a job by 1932, bankruptcies at record levels, and unemployed workers flocking to join the Communist Party, which won 100 seats in the Reichstag in the elections of November 1932, middle-class voters turned from the divided and dispirited parties they had formerly supported and cast their ballots for the Nazis instead. Hitler’s appeal went wider than that, however: the dynamism of the Nazi Party, the ceaseless activism of the stormtroopers, the sense of purpose and direction Hitler conveyed to his audiences in his speeches, all won over substantial voters from the Protestant farming community and from previously unorganized sectors of the working class as well. With over a third of the vote going to them in the elections of July 1932, the Nazis became the largest party in Germany.
By this time the Weimar Republic was in a terminal state of crisis. So deep were the divisions that the Depression had opened up between the parties that governments were ruling by decree, and increasingly power had migrated upwards to the circle around the aged President Hindenburg, and downwards onto the streets, where violent and murderous clashes were taking place every day. Only an authoritarian government seemed capable in the view of the country’s military, business, and conservative political elites of solving the crisis. On 30 January 1933, therefore, not long after the Nazis had lost a substantial number of votes in the elections of the previous November and appeared to be seriously weakened by internal divisions and growing financial problems, Hindenburg was persuaded to appoint Hitler as head of a coalition government dominated by authoritarian conservatives in which, it was thought, the involvement of what was still the country’s largest party would give legitimacy to the destruction of democracy, and backed by the army. What they got, however, was a lot more than they had bargained for.

The 30 January 1933 marked the beginning not the end of the Nazi seizure of power. Over the following five months Hitler achieved what it had taken Mussolini several years to do, namely to convert his position as a conventionally appointed head of government in a democratic political system into that of a dictator in a one-party state. Hitler was much more careful than he had been a decade before to maintain the fiction that all of this was being done legally, and most Germans were desperate enough for the restoration of order to accept this. Two key acts stood out here. The first was a decree suspending many civil liberties and freedoms, issued on 28 February 1933, the day after the Reichstag building had been burned down by a lone Dutch anarcho-syndicalist, Marinus van der Lubbe. Hitler and Göring pinned the blame on the Communists, though there was as little evidence for this as there was for the counter-claim that it had been the Nazis themselves who had started the fire. This allowed the stormtroopers, given the status of auxiliary police across most of the country, to arrest Communists by the thousand and effectively ban the party from political activity. The decree also cast a widespread net of fear and intimidation across the country and affected many other sectors of society as well. The second key legislative act was the Enabling Law, passed by the Reichstag on 23 March 1933. This allowed Hitler and his cabinet to make laws without reference either to parliament or to the President, in effect handing him dictatorial powers so long as he could bring the rest of the cabinet into line. There followed a flood of further measures, allowing the government to purge political dissidents and racial minorities - above all the Jews – from the civil service, banning political parties apart from the Nazis themselves, and converting municipal and regional democracies into administrative units run on the ‘leadership principle’. Germany was formally a one-party dictatorship by July 1933, a position cemented after Hindenburg’s death just over a year later by the declaration of Hitler as head of state, known generally, like his counterpart Mussolini in Italy, as ‘the Leader’.
It’s important to remember, however, that these measures would not have succeeded without the Nazis’ application of widespread, unrestrained violence on the streets. Over 100, 000 people, including many Social Democrats and a number of key members of other political parties, were arrested and put into the camps, where they were brutally maltreated or tortured or even murdered – at least 600 according to the best estimates. Hitler got the leaders of the middle-class parties to agree to dissolve them by threatening a bloodbath, just as he persuaded them to vote for the Enabling Law by promising civil war if they did not. In the elections of 5 March 1933 he effectively banned campaigning by all other parties, and used the stormtroopers, now more than two million strong, to put the other parties’ organizations out of action. Despite all this the Nazi Party failed to win more than 44 per cent of the vote, and the government only got an overall majority with the support of the Nazis’ Nationalist coalition partners.
The Social Democrats and the Communists, whose candidates were allowed to stand so that the working-class vote would be divided, still got just under 31 per cent of the vote combined. But they were rapidly destroyed by the rampaging stormtroopers, who occupied and trashed their offices, closed down the trade unions, and sequestered their funds. The Social Democrats, with a long tradition of abiding by the law, offered little resistance, while the Communists, convinced that the Nazi seizure of power was capitalism’s last gasp, heralding the total collapse of society and opening up the way to a proletarian revolution, continued to direct most of their hostility towards the Social Democrats, who they thought were weakening the revolutionary potential of the working class by taking votes away from themselves. Town halls and regional administrations were forcibly taken over by stormtroopers across the land, while voluntary bodies of every conceivable kind, from male voice choirs to football clubs, from employers’ and professional pressure-groups to agricultural associations and women’s groups, were Nazified, opponents of the regime thrown out, and members threatened with violence or withdrawal of benefits or losing their jobs if they did not conform.
The massive wave of intimidation that underpinned the creation of the one-party state subsided towards the end of 1933, and the stormtrooper movement, which wanted it to continue, was curbed at the end of June, 1934, largely at the behest of the army, who feared it as a rival, when Hitler ordered the arrest and murder of its leaders such as Ernst Röhm, coupling this with the shooting of a number of prominent conservatives and even a couple of generals, as a warning that his regime was not going to settle down into a dull authoritarianism either. But the element of coercion in Nazi rule continued, above all through the regular police and the new Special Courts, who under new treason laws and laws forbidding ‘malicious gossip’ and any other kind of criticism of the regime condemned thousands of Germans to prisons, which contained 23,000 political prisoners by 1935 compared to a total concentration camp population of 7.500, many of whom were not political prisoners but so-called ‘asocials’ and other non-political offenders.
It was one of the key characteristics of Nazism, however, just as it was of Italian Fascism, that it needed not just to hold power by violence and intimidation, but also to legitimize itself by giving the appearance of popular consent. To this end, the Nazis held frequent plebiscites and elections, for which massive intimidation, manipulation and falsification of ballot papers yielded the inevitable result of a 99 per cent support for the regime. In some areas, indeed, so many ballot papers were forged in one plebiscite that the number of yes votes actually exceeded the number of electors. Newspapers, radio and cinema were all brought into line, purged of dissidents, and issued with regular, detailed instructions on what news to report and how to report it. Oppositional books and books by Jewish authors were notoriously burned in university town squares on 10 May 1933, but more significant in the long run was state control of publishing, and the state’s success in forcing almost all oppositional writers, artists and musicians into exile.
At the same time, however, the Nazis also made strenuous efforts to bring the voters who had not supported them on 5 March 1933 round to their way of thinking. Perhaps their most striking innovation was the creation of a Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels. The new government, Goebbels declared on 15 March 1933, ‘will not be satisfied for long with the knowledge that it has 52 per cent behind it while terrorizing the other 48 per cent but will, by contrast, see its next task as winning over that other 48 per cent for itself.’ Goebbels and other leading Nazis converted the education system into an instrument of Nazi indoctrination, set up training camps for teachers and students, and ensured that the co-ordinated and regimented mass media sent out a constant stream of pro-Nazi propaganda. There is a lot of evidence that all this had some success with the young, but older generations, the middle-aged and elderly who had formed their views and gained their values before 1933, were more resistant. Soon there were widespread grumblings recorded by the SS’s elaborate monitoring of popular opinion about the boring and repetitive nature of newspaper stories and broadcasts, and Goebbels was forced gradually to increase the entertainment content of the mass media’s output to keep people happy. By 1939 people, especially in working-class areas where the Communists and Social Democrats had formerly been popular, were paying the regime little more than lip-service, putting out the flags on Hitler’s birthday and keeping their heads down if they did not like what the regime was doing.
The apparatus of surveillance and control was all-pervasive by this time, with every street for example having one or more ‘block wardens’ to ensure outward conformity and record dissent or violations of the law. The sanctions they could impose ranged from withdrawal of benefits all the way up to reporting to the Gestapo in serious cases. Factories and workplaces had similar officials with similar functions. People withdrew into family and private life; the fact that the proportion of “malicious gossip” cases arising out of incautious criticisms of the regime uttered in a state of insobriety in bars and inns fell from a majority to almost nothing between 1933 and 1939 suggests that even the pub was an area of limited sociability under the regime.
But this does not mean people did not support the Nazis. As rearmament gathered pace, employment picked up, and by 1939 there was a serious labour shortage, and workers were earning good overtime wages; however much they complained about the long hours, they conceded that things were in no way as bad as they had been before the Nazis took over. Following the example of the Italian Fascists, the Nazi Labour Front created a mass leisure organization known as “Strength through Joy”, which was widely popular, offering cheap travel, cultural trips, cruises and even a specially made car, designed by Hitler himself with the technical help of Ferdinand Porsche. No production models were actually made before the war, but many thousands of people began saving up for them, and when it was put into production after 1945 it attained worldwide popularity as the Volkswagen Beetle (its original name was the “Strength-Through-Joy Car”, though that doesn’t exactly describe the experience of driving one). The middle classes applauded the restoration of order on the streets, conveniently forgetting that much of the disorder of the late Weimar years had been caused by the Nazis themselves. The aristocracy rallied to the Third Reich, seeing in it a means of recovering the status they had lost in the 1920s.
Above all there were two factors that won people over to the regime. The first was Hitler himself, portrayed in the relentless barrage of Goebbels’s propaganda as a common man risen from the ranks, a universal genius, unmarried, vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking, who sacrificed his life for the good of his country. His name was everywhere. If you stand on almost any town square in Germany today, whatever name it carries the chances are that between 1933 and 1945 it was called Adolf-Hitler-Platz. Criticism of Hitler was almost unknown until the second half of the war; people who were dissatisfied with things put the blame on his subordinates: the “little Hitlers” were reviled, the man himself was revered.
The second and possibly the most important factor in gaining people’s support was Hitler’s successful foreign policy. Almost all Germans, of whatever class or political persuasion, were convinced that the 1919 Peace Settlement was an injustice, and nothing Hitler did was so popular as overturning it, leaving the League of Nations, rearming, winning back the Saar from the French in a plebiscite, remilitarizing the Rhineland, annexing Austria, and incorporating the Sudetenland through the Munich Agreement of 1938. But these triumphs were only popular because they were achieved without war. On each occasion, SS surveillance reports recorded widespread popular anxiety beforehand, amounting to what Goebbels called in the summer of 1938 a veritable “war psychosis”.

Despite massive indoctrination, military training, bellicose rhetoric, and much else besides, the Nazi message that war was desirable and inevitable simply did not get through to the vast majority of Germans. When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, there were no cheering crowds as there had been on the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Most Germans were worried about the future, especially about the prospect of being bombed from the air, and they were right.
Only in the spring and summer of 1940, after the spectacular victories over France and other western European countries, was the apprehension quelled, but even then, most Germans seem to have wanted Britain to sue for peace and the war to come to a swift end. Yet this was not to be. Like Mussolini, Hitler had long since come to believe in his own myth. He was invincible, he declared, the greatest German in history. In June 1941 Hitler launched a huge invasion of the Soviet Union, his ultimate military aim from the very beginning. But Germany’s resources were simply not large enough to sustain a prolonged campaign against Europe’s largest state. Hitler thought that one push against the Soviet Union’s borders would bring the whole house of Stalinism tumbling down. Here was a state of Slavic subhumans run by a gang of Jewish crooks, he thought; it could not possibly last. But it did. Within a year Hitler’s offensive had ground to a halt. By the spring of 1943 the German armies were on the retreat, and German cities were beginning to feel the full weight of Allied bombing raids. Hitler’s popularity began to fade, and in the last months of the war German resistance to the Allies was held together only by rapidly escalating Nazi terror in the west, and justified fear of the Red Army in the East. It was, in the end, the Red Army that defeated Hitler. At no point after June 1941 were less than two-thirds of the German armed forces engaged on the eastern front. The D-Day landings came late in the day, and had little overall effect on the general outcome of the war, though they did succeed in preventing a Soviet takeover of western Europe.
And it was as the Red Army was overrunning the centre of Berlin that Hitler decided the game was finally up and committed suicide, along with his long-term partner Eva Braun. They were followed, or in many cases preceded, by a wave of suicides virtually unprecedented in history – not only senior Nazis like Goebbels (with his wife, who also killed his six children), Himmler, Bormann, and subsequently Göring, but also Nazi officials at every level, army officers, and whole families of civilians in the east, who often poisoned or drowned themselves to avoid falling into the hands of the Russians. All of this was a testimony to the fanaticism of the National Socialists, many of whom simply could not imagine that life would be worth living after the fall of the Third Reich. Yet this wave of suicides was only one aspect of the mass human destruction that the Nazi regime had brought upon Europe, and I want to turn in the final part of this lecture to asking briefly what the causes of this destructiveness were, and how it was put into operation.

The destructiveness of Nazism, far greater than that of, say, Italian Fascism, derived not just from the fact that Germany was by some distance Europe’s most powerful and best organized economy in the late 1930s, apart from that of the Soviet Union. In 1941 the Soviet Union was ill-prepared for war, while war was at the centre of Nazism and preparation for war had governed the whole management of the Nazi economy since 1933. War was what Hitler and the Nazis were working towards from the very beginning. Many of their internal policies were designed to make Germany fit for war, as they saw it. The Jews for instance had, in Hitler’s mind, destroyed Germany’s efforts in the First World War; so in a series of measures they were deprived of their jobs, their citizenship and their rights, while constant violence against them from stormtroopers on the streets created an atmosphere heavy with intimidation and violence. This broke out into the open in November 1938, when Hitler and Goebbels staged a nationwide pogrom in which over 1,000 synagogues were burned to the ground, 7,500 Jewish shops destroyed, Jewish homes ransacked, and 30,000 Jewish men taken off to concentration camps, where several hundred died and the rest were only released after promising to emigrate. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 banned Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with non-Jews, and as a result of all this, over half of Germany’s Jewish population had emigrated by the time the war broke out. Since the Nazis regarded most human qualities as being inherited, they also moved to isolate and imprison so-called ‘asocials’, the ‘work-shy’, Gypsies, petty criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other non-conformists. Nearly 400,000 mentally handicapped or socially deviant people were compulsorily sterilized, and during the war a campaign of mass murder against the supposedly incurably mentally ill or mentally deficient led over 70,000 Germans into specially built gas chambers in mental hospitals and more still, including over 5,000 children, to be killed in hospitals by starvation and lethal injections.
This so-called “euthanasia” campaign was halted in August 1941 after growing protests by the families of those killed had resulted in open condemnation of the action by the Catholic Church in Germany, led by the Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen, and senior figures in the Protestant Church, notably Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh. The killings continued on a smaller scale but the gassing specialists were taken east, to set up new killing centres for the Jews. When Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union towards the end of June 1941, the initial, stunning successes bred a kind of euphoria in which anything seemed possible. His plans, implemented in particular by Himmler and the SS, envisaged the reduction of the Slavic population of eastern Europe by some 30 million, and the settlement of the region by ethnic Germans and Germans from the Reich, who would live in large modern towns linked by rapid, broad-gauge railways and massive, gleaming autobahns. Almost as soon as they were captured, Soviet prisoners of war were left to starve in makeshift camps; at least 3.3 million out of a total of 5.7 million were deliberately killed in this way by the end of the war. Thousands of villages in the occupied areas were burned to the ground, millions of civilians were killed. Thousands of ethnic Germans were forcibly resettled in areas of Poland cleared of their Polish inhabitants and incorporated into the Reich.
It is in the context of this gigantic campaign of ethnic reordering that the sharp radicalization of Nazi policy towards the Jews in 1941 has to be seen. The invading German forces in Poland in 1939 had already by this time herded the country’s large Jewish population into ghettos, killing many of them in the process, and leaving them to die in growing numbers from malnutrition and disease. In July and August 1941, as German armies were storming across the Ukraine, the moment seemed to have arrived for what the Nazis termed the ‘final solution of the Jewish question in Europe’. By October Jews had been banned from emigrating, scores of thousands were being shot in organized mass killings of Jewish  men, women and children carried out behind the front by special SS task forces, whose victims eventually numbered well over a million. And camps were being planned and constructed with the principal or even the sole purpose of killing Europe’s Jews. In January 1942 a conference, postponed from November, was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to co-ordinate the administrative details. By the spring of 1942 Jews were being deported from across Europe to the newly established death camps. At Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz, millions were gassed to death, and the Nazis were continuing the killing programme even in the final stages of the war, when they knew they were facing defeat. In a host of other camps, more than 7 million forced labourers, including many Italians captured after Italy left the war in 1943, were housed in inhumane conditions, where many perished, working for Germany’s munitions industry. In Germany itself the campaign of eliminating supposed defects from the chain of heredity also continued, with some 20,000 German inmates of state prisons being taken to concentration camps and killed in yet another murder programme begun in the autumn of 1942.
These killings were carried out directly and indirectly, or with the knowledge and co-operation, of large numbers of Germans and smaller numbers of their allies. Apart from a small number of fanatics, people did not commit them because they were rabidly enthusiastic antisemites, nor did people carry out these policies on the other hand because they had no alternative but to obey orders. The mass murders were not the products of desperation or brutalization by terrible conditions on the eastern front; they began well before things got bad, and large numbers of regular soldiers are recorded as having brutally mishandled, tortured and killed Jews, Poles and citizens of the occupied territories in the east both in the late summer and early autumn of 1939, during the invasion of Poland, one of the easiest campaigns the German armed forces ever undertook, and in the high summer of 1941, when they encountered a similarly weak resistance from the Red Army during the initial stages of the invasion of the Soviet Union. The killings, rather, were in my view the result of a combination of long-term prejudice, especially against supposedly subhuman Slavs, which one can see even in the Social Democratic working class before the First World War, and medium-term indoctrination by the Nazi propaganda and education machine, particularly with respect to the Jews. Most rank-and-file soldiers, after all, were young men who had been exposed to Nazi antisemitism for a far greater portion of their lives than had their elders, and it is significant for example that objections to the maltreatment and murder of Polish Jews in 1939-40 came from older, more senior officers, not from the junior ranks of the officer corps.
The medical killings of the handicapped, by contrast, reflected the medical profession’s strong support for the Nazi regime (45 per cent were Party members) and their belief that the Third Reich would deliver a medical utopia that would perfect the human race, both by boosting the health of the German people through measures such as banning smoking in offices, introducing compulsory gymnastics for workers, and similar measures, and by preventing the undermining of the people’s health by the perpetuation, as they saw it, of the physically and mentally weak. Psychiatrists in the 1930s believed they had found new ways to cure many kinds of mental illnesses, but to gain the resources to do so, they had to free the hospital system of the burden of caring for people they regarded as incurable, and this too played a role.
Finally, in all these cases it was Hitler who set the general ideological parameters, Hitler who either gave a direct order, as in the case of the so-called “euthanasia” campaign, or whose general statements, both public and private, on the need to rid Europe of the Jewish race, prompted Himmler to devise and set in motion the machinery of mass destruction. As a historian has recently said, “if you want to know at any time what Hitler was thinking, you need to look at what Himmler was doing.” It has been argued by some historians that Nazis at every level did not really need to know what Hitler was thinking; they merely had to imagine it, and in the phrase of one of them, bemoaning the lack of precise directives from above, “work towards the Führer”. But this, I think, does not really do justice to the way decisions were made. More illuminating is the report provided by the Supreme Party Court early in 1939 on the murders of Jews committed during the pogroms of 9-10 November the previous year, which concluded that although nobody had actually ordered the men responsible to kill the Jews in question, Goebbels, with the authorization of Hitler, had issued a general and vague statement that “spontaneous” demonstrations against the Jews were not to be stopped. As the report said, the Party had become used under the Weimar Republic to its leaders making vague statements to avoid being arrested for what followed, and their subordinates interpreting these statements as instructions to take action. Something like this is what happened in the case of the mass murder of the European Jews, an action to which Hitler referred in private conversations and on which he was demonstrably kept informed.
Just as the Nazis were aware of the fact that the violent actions they took during the Weimar Republic were illegal, what was striking about these mass murders was the consciousness of the people who carried them out of the fact that they were committing serious crimes that would be execrated by the world and most probably not understood by the mass of the German people. Himmler himself described the mass murder of the Jews as “a page of glory in our history that will never be written”. Laws, regulations and much else besides attempted to ensure that the killings were kept secret and not discussed explicitly in public. In the so-called “euthanasia” campaign, the doctors involved falsified documents, gave themselves fictitious names, and tried as hard as they could to disguise the true cause of their patients’ death.
And yet, of course, the murders became known amongst the general population. Soldiers on leave from the east, BBC broadcasts, and much else besides, contributed to the spread of information from fairly early on in 1942, and of course, Germany’s Jews themselves were aware of what was happening almost as soon as it began. The regime itself issued veiled allusions to the killings, which people had little difficulty in decoding, not least because it wanted to bind their loyalty by creating a degree of complicity that would make them afraid of retribution from outside if the war was lost. There are many indications that the mass of Germans felt both paralysed by fear of what would happen if they tried to object, and racked by guilt because they did not; hence their silence about it all after the war. Still, in the “euthanasia” campaign they did object, and their failure to do so over the murder of the Jews does, I think, indicate a degree of antisemitic indoctrination that persuaded them that the Jews were less than human. The Jews of Germany at least were a small minority –even in 1933, less than 1 per cent of the population - who had been progressively been marginalized then removed from society, and whose fate did not involve the majority community as much as that of their own mentally handicapped or sick relatives did. In a similar way, the Churches were willing to speak out against the murder of Christians, but did not feel obliged to when it came to the murder of Jews.
Resistance came only from three quarters. The most widespread resistance to Nazism came from the left, from socialist groups of various hues, some of which managed to help a small number of Jews survive or escape. But the socialist and communist resistance had been effectively destroyed by the Gestapo in the mid-1930s, and the vast majority of former members of left-wing parties and organizations were kept under tight surveillance and unable to do very much, though there were exceptions, notably the clandestine spy ring known as the ‘red orchestra’. There were also a few liberal objections to the Nazis and in particular their genocidal policies during the war, notably the courageous students who protested in public in the “White Rose” movement, and paid for it with their lives. Secondly there were, as I have already mentioned in the case of the so-called “euthanasia” campaign, the churches, and a number of individual pastors and priests attempted to resist the regime in various ways, again often landing in concentration camps or suffering the same fate as the young people of the White Rose. Finally there was the aristocratic-military resistance that led to the Stauffenberg Bomb Plot of July 1944, which was motivated in part by moral objections to the Nazi genocide, but whose main thrust was to sue for peace and rescue Germany from total destruction at the hands of the Allies. None of these amounted to much in practical terms, however heroic they were when regarded in a moral light. Had Hitler been killed, Germany would probably have descended into civil war between the Nazis and the army, with incalculable results; it seems highly likely, however, that millions of lives, both of Germans and of Jews, would have been saved.
There were of course no partisans in Germany as there were in the countries Germany occupied. Strikingly, however, there were no partisans, there was no resistance movement in Germany after the war. The overwhelming majority of the population accepted, even welcomed, the Allied occupation, and this more than anything else makes me think that Nazism had never penetrated more than skin-deep into the psyche of the great majority of Germans. Hitler was dead, of course, so the loyalty most Germans felt towards him was now meaningless. And the massive destruction that Allied bombing had caused in German cities had convinced most Germans that they had been right to want to avoid a war. Ever since 1945, Germany has been the most pacifist country in Europe.
How unique was all this in the Europe of the dictators? Hitler’s antisemitism distinguished his regime from that of Mussolini, who did not introduce any discrimination against the Jews until he fell under Hitler’s influence in 1938. During the war, a small number of other states, notably Romania and Croatia, undertook the mass killing of Jews of their own accord, while reactions to the Nazi ‘final solution’ elsewhere varied from Denmark, where the population secretly transported almost all the country’s Jewish population across the Baltic to neutral Sweden, to France, where the Vichy regime began rounding up and transporting Jews even before the Nazis told them to. The Nazi forced sterilization of the mentally ill and handicapped and the ‘asocial’ had parallels in other countries, from a number of US states to Scandinavia, and indeed in Sweden this policy continued until the middle of the 1970s, but it was far larger in scale than any of these, and nowhere else was sterilization succeeded by mass murder. The influence of the Catholic Church in Italy prevented the introduction of eugenic measures on Nazi lines, which indeed had incurred the censure of the Pope already in the 1930s. Nowhere else except in Nazi Germany did a dictatorship claim to be reordering society on scientific lines, ignoring conventional precepts of religion, morality and humanity. Finally, other dictatorships were nationalist, aggressive and militaristic, and Mussolini, as we saw, aimed to create a new Roman Empire in the Mediterranean, but only Hitler’s Germany aimed at European and in the long term world dominion; in Europe, indeed, only Hitler’s Germany was in a position to do so.
What this suggests, therefore, is that there were a number of different kinds and varieties of dictatorship in 20th-century Europe, and its to this topic, and to the colourful collection of what have been called the ‘little dictatorships’ that I’ll be turning in my next lecture.

© Professor Richard J Evans, Gresham College, 26 October 2006

This event was on Thu, 26 Oct 2006

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Professor of Rhetoric

Professor Sir Richard Evans FBA was Provost of Gresham College from 2014-2020. He is a world-renowned historian and academic, with many of his books now acknowledged as seminal works in the field of modern history. He was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge from 2008 until his retirement in September 2014. 

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