A Nation under Guilt

A Nation under Guilt

Mini Teaser: Two recent histories of Nazi Germany shore up the dyke against the rising flood of "Germany as victim" revisionism.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

This is a far more serious and thorough work than William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, yet it remains readable. Evans explores in some detail the nature of the Bismarckian state and the degree to which it precluded the emergence of a democratic civil society. Bismarck played the politics of divide and rule with brilliance; his legacy was to leave Germany with a schismatic electorate, separated into six main political parties. His Anti-Catholic measures had provoked the emergence of the Center Party to defend Catholic interests, whose votes were thus not available to buttress other parties. There were two conservative parties, one of which accepted Bismarck's merging of Prussia into Germany and one that did not. There were two liberal parties, one of which accepted Bismarck's rule that the parliament could not control the military budget, and the other that did not. And there were the Social Democrats, who were sufficiently patriotic to vote for the war credits in 1914. But the Social Democrats would never forgive the bourgeois parties for not fighting Bismarck's draconian Anti-Socialist Law (introduced after an attempted assassination of the kaiser in 1878). Thus fragmented, Germany's political institutions were ill adapted to the challenges of rebuilding the state after the defeat of 1918, the subsequent abortive revolution, and the economic collapse due to inflation.

Evans has an eye for the telling detail and the arresting anecdote. He notes that one distinctive feature of the Bismarckian state was the guarantee that every conscripted soldier who stayed on in the army to become a career non-commissioned officer would later get a secure job in the civil service, as a policeman, postal worker, railwayman or clerk. This meant that most of the representatives of the German state, particularly those with whom the public came most into contact, "behaved in the military fashion to which they had become accustomed." He explores the surge in antisemitism in the late 19th century, the bizarre warping of Darwinism into theories of racial destiny, the Wagner cult, and suggests that they grew in importance because of the social dislocations brought on by headlong economic growth. "Germany, unlike any other country, had become a nation-state not before the industrial revolution, but at its height", and so, "German society did not enter nationhood in 1871 in a wholly stable condition."

While working with the libel defense team against David Irving, Evans had a young research assistant, Nikolaus Wachsmann, who has now produced a fine book of his own, Hitler's Prisons. Subtitled, Legal Terror in Nazi Germany, it sharply questions the Dual State thesis by demonstrating that there was far more overlap between the traditional German judicial system and Nazi injustice than generations of German lawyers have sought to maintain. "There was a striking continuity with the Third Reich, with about 80 percent of former officials re-employed", Wachsmann recounts.

Even former members of the most lethal Nazi court, the Peoples Court, continued their legal careers in postwar Germany. In total, some 72 former judges and prosecutors from the Peoples Court were re-employed by the West German state, some of them serving into the 1970s. In view of this continuity, it is hardly surprising that not a single Nazi judge or prosecutor was convicted by his colleagues in West Germany. (The exception was the case of a few members of the civilian drumhead courts martial, who got away with very lenient sentences.) The legal system proved utterly incapable of facing its own Nazi past.

Noting that the full verdict of the Nuremberg trials was not published in German until 1996, Wachsman makes it clear that the German courts and penal institutions had much to hide, for they "played a central part in the criminalization of political dissent and the politicalization of common crime."

And yet Wachsman concludes, "the Third Reich did not become an all-out police state." There was a reason for this. Had the Nazi regime relied solely on the police and concentration camps, it would have destroyed the semblance of the rule of law vital for its popular support.

The population of the concentration camps (as opposed to the death camps) did not exceed the population of the conventional prison system until 1943, a time when Hitler became seriously alarmed that food rationing and the effects of the strategic bombing campaign were threatening to build a wave of internal dissent that he was determined to crush.

It is in detailed studies such as Wachsmann's that the cumulative evidence builds to suggest that the Dual State theory will not wash and that the Nazis were less an aberrant and evil parasite on a sound German culture than a symbiote of the authoritarian state system founded by Bismarck. Whether one looks at the colonial history of pre-1914 Germany and the deliberate genocide of the Hereros of southwest Africa; or at the persecution of Roman Catholics in the 1870s, which saw 225 priests in prison, the suppression of all non-nursing religious orders and the wholesale dismissal of bishops and archbishops; or at the routine press controls, or the complaisant way in which German universities in the 1930s cooperated with the purge of Jewish academics, the continuities from Second to Third Reich are striking. It is understandable that the current German government and much of the German intelligentsia seek to downplay this, but Evans's work is too powerful to be easily gainsaid.

History's Riddle

It may be said that the riddle of German history is far too important to be left to the historians. And yet others have reached similar conclusions. The novelist Thomas Mann also blamed the authoritarian Bismarckian Reich for so denying any real political space that the German middle class simply ignored politics and thus could mobilize few defenses against the Nazi assault. W.H. Auden, who called Hitler "a psychopathic god", went back much further, writing:

"Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad."

The novelist Dennis Wheatley, recruited by Churchill in 1940 as a special propagandist, contributed the idea that Germany remained essentially barbaric because it had never known the civilizing hand of the Roman Empire. Others followed Auden to focus on the occasional antisemitism and xenophobia of Martin Luther, or explored the nationalism of Herder, the idealization of the state in Hegel and so on.

Charles de Gaulle, in his 1924 book The Enemy's House Divided, drew on his reading of the German press as a prisoner of war from 1916-18 to conclude that the nation had suffered a shattering psychological blow. After the collapse of Russia in 1917, the German army and people had been convinced that the great spring offensives of 1918 would bring victory. When the offensive stalled and the Allied counterattacks cracked the German lines, morale crumpled:

"A sort of moral stupor all at once gripped a proud and authoritarian sovereign, a formerly tenacious government, a docile political world, a confident and resolute military command, an obedient and courageous soldiery. At a blow, as by the fatal strike of a magic wand, that stupor annihilated the warlike qualities of the German people and suddenly enlarged their faults."

But, De Gaulle added with some foreboding, the ghost of Nietzsche lingered amid the ruins of the Wilhelmine Reich:

"They voluntarily resolved to be part of that formidable Nietzchean elite who are convinced that in pursuing their own glory, they are serving the general interest; who exercise compulsion on the mass of slaves, holding them in contempt; and who do not hesitate in the face of human suffering, except to hail it as necessary and desirable."

The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor suggested that the fault lay in the failure of the liberal revolution of 1848--"the turning point at which history failed to turn." But Taylor noted that the great symbol of that moment of liberal nationalism, the Frankfurt Parliament, chose as its slogan, "Einheit, Freiheit, Macht": Unity, Freedom, Power. Even the liberals thought instinctively in terms of Machtpolitik.

Perhaps the most telling single contribution came from a German historian who was not looking at Nazism at all, but concentrated instead on the question of German responsibility for the outbreak of World War I. Fritz Fischer's seminal work of 1961, Griff nach der Weltmacht ("The Grasp for World Power"), was based on the rarely used archives of the sub-kingdoms of the German Reich who kept "embassies" in Berlin. It made a powerful case that German generals and officials wanted and deliberately provoked war as a pre-emptive strike against a fast-industrializing Russia.

Fischer's work had important implications. An important feature of the "innocent Germans, guilty Nazis" theory was that Germany has simply been unlucky. World War I was nobody's fault, or everybody's. A diplomatic crisis in the Balkans had got out of hand. The mobilization plans of the various armies then took over. Germany had to defeat France in six weeks, before sending the vast armies back by train to the Eastern Front to confront the advancing Russians. Once defeated, Germany was then unfairly blamed for starting the war and suffered punitive vengeance at the hands of the victors, which caused the great inflation that destroyed the savings of the German middle class and left the country demoralized and prostrate before the Great Depression. Adolf Hitler seemed to have the answers, not least in defeating the communists, but then led the country astray with his racial insanities and lust for conquest.

Essay Types: Book Review