Michael Burleigh's recent work "The Third Reich - A New History" was widely praised for its novel explanation of Nazism in the context of religion. Anyone who has read Joachim Fest's excellent book however will, among other things, know that this particular analysis was hardly new or innovative. In form, The Face of the Third Reich is a psychological profile of both individual Nazi leaders and various sections of German society at the time. Through this approach though, the main causes of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis are explained. Among other things, Fest lucidly illustrates the essential nihilism of the Nazi movement, whose ideology as such was based on the acquisition of power as as end rather than a means. The vacuous adoration of and devotion to Hitler was in itself a cornerstone of Nazi philosophy, the Fuhrer cult providing the basis for Fest's religious analogies. He also discusses how initially vague assertions of Aryan superiority and Semitic evil were later focused after the seizure of power and developed and expanded on by Himmler and the SS. The portraits of the main personalities are fascinating. Fest is invariably amazed by how such unremarkable individuals were able to attain such immense power and commit such extravagent atrocities. He shows how almost all were linked by a moral corruption and a cynical lust for power. The chapter on Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz is particularly arresting. Reading this, one is reminded of Orwell's 1984 and the ability of man to subjugate himself to authority and in turn to deceive himself into committing the most unfathomable crimes. Fest is one of the foremost German authorities on Nazism and the book throughout is filled with an intellectual disgust and contempt of the regime. For anyone trying to make sense of that period, this book must be read.
This insightful book into the characters of The Reich Chancellor, Adolph Hitler, and his closest National Socialist consorts goes some way to explaining the almost inexplicable power that bound its leaders. At the core of National Socialism lies the idea of racial superiority. As Fest explains in his chapter on Reinhard Heydrich. ‘It was directed at will against whatever groups those in power wished to destroy … beginning with the sterilization and euthanasia programmes and ending with the Final Solution.’
What I found most interesting in this somewhat out-of-date book is the variety of characters who bound themselves whole-heartedly to Hitler, at least until his downfall. From Goring, the infantile gormand who loved playing with toy soldiers to the cultured Goebels and the non-Aryan Heydrich all found cover for their insecurities in racism. The same went for Hess, Ribbentrop and Himmler. Although ‘The Moscow Pact struck a decisive blow against Alfred Rosenberg’s naïve loyalty to his Führer,’ only Albert Speer disputed Hitler’s invulnerability.
Although Rudolf Höss was the commandant of the extermination camp at Auschwitz he found he was ‘not suited to concentration camp sevice.’ But in his autobiography, this man whose father intended him for the priesthood bowed down to authority; ‘from my earliest youth I was brought up with a strong awareness of duty. In my parents’ house it was insisted that every task be exactly and conscientiously carried out.’ The thought of refusing an order never entered his head.
When the book was published in 1963, Germany was divided into zones and Fest shows considerable fear of the ‘totalitarian infection’ of the German people. But since then we have had gladnost and an enlarged European community. Nationalism in Europe is comparatively benign these days, but who knows for how long the sleeping giant will remain comatose?