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Swimming With the Tide
on 13 December 2009
History changes over time not because the facts are any different but because their interpretation does. In the case of Nazi Germany the biographies of Hitler by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest barely mention the Holocaust. For the last thirty years, particularly since the publication of David Irving's Hitler's War in 1977, the subject has had a central role in the discussion of the history of Nazi Germany. Consequently, this collection of essays involves historiography as well as history. Adding to the former are perspectives facilitated by the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Kershaw concentrates on four themes. Hitler and the Final Solution; Popular opinion and the Jews; The Final Solution in Historiography; and the Uniqueness of Nazism. All are inextricably mixed in the observation that "the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference". Many Germans lacked strong views about the Jews but acquiesced by virtue of latent ant-Semitism which translated into passive complicity in the genocide and moral indifference as to its meaning. In a society in which freedom of opinion was denied the extent of this complicity can only be estimated. It was to undermine this moral insensibility to the Jews' fate that was behind the determination of liberating forces to make local citizens view the product of their complicity when concentration camps were finally reached.
The role of Hitler in the Final Solution lies at the heart of revisionists' attempts to re-cast Hitler as being uninvolved in the policy for which the Nazi regime is most remembered. Kershaw deals extensively with this question, setting it in the context of Hitler's "prophecy" that Germany would go to war against the "Jewish Bolshevik" conspiracy, This "denoted the indelible link in (Hitler's) mind between war and revenge against the Jews" - the revenge being the "stab in the back" inflicted on Germany in 1918. Kershaw convincingly infers Hitler's approval for the Final Solution from a series of unminuted meetings between Hitler and Himmler in mid-July 1941, when the former authorised an extension of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen (killing squads) in the east. The Wanasee meeting of January 1942 was confirmation of what Goebbels called a "barbaric but fully deserved" judgement on the Jews.
Germany had a long tradition of anti-Semitism. This "probably did not go much further than an abstract dislike or distrust of the Jews". However, the appearance of racial anti-Semitism as an element of nationalist thinking became powerful during the late nineteenth century and it is known Hitler read the second edition of Human Hereditary Teaching and Racial Hygiene by Bauer, Fischer and Lenz before he wrote Mein Kamp. Alfred Rosenberg, Nazism's racial theorist, was influenced by the writings of Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Madison Grant. Rosenberg linked racial theories to Darwinism throughEugenics. In many cases opposition to maltreatment of Jews came from those who had an economic interest in their continuing to do business with them. Although some clerics were regular opponents of Nazi racial hatred, many expressed their opposition less vigorously than when the regime tried to Nazify their own churches.
Kershaw deals with the question of whether Nazism was unique. A J P Taylor argued that it was not but, just as the war could be traced directly to the personality of Adolph Hitler, the Nazi state could be traced to the character of the Germanic people. Race was central to Nazism in a way which did not apply to Fascism. Kershaw recognises the centrality of Hitler to an understanding of Nazism. Take away Hitler and there is no Nazism in the sense of a charismatic leader who could represent the process of "national salvation". The one man who might, Ernest Rohm, was despatched without ceremony in 1934. Kershaw concludes the uniqueness of the Nazi leadership cannot be explained by Hitler's personality alone. While latent anti-Semitism could be stirred up amongst the masses it was the lack of opposition in prominent sections of the German elites - civil service, armed forces and industry, which facilitated anti Jewish policies.
Underlying everything was the glorification of violence. Whether from the left with Georges Sorel or the right with Giacomo Marinetti, calls to violence appealed to societies in cultural flux where old values had been destroyed but new ones not yet accepted. Once these ideas were tied up with nationalism it often expressed itself as ethnic violence which, in Kershaw's view, is what makes genocide modern. The impact of nationalism provided states with a universal ideologicial reason for pogroms. "Being a Jew under Hitler, a Kulak under Stalin, an intellectual under Pol Pot, was tantamount to a death warrant." Kershaw hopes this will not be repeated in the future but the inability of human beings in political conflict to seek alternatives to war appear limited, if not impossible. Five stars.