Breathtaking Co-ordination

Jonathan Wright

  • The Third Reich in Power by Richard Evans
    Penguin, 941 pp, £12.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 14 100976 4
  • The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze
    Penguin, 800 pp, £12.99, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 14 100348 1

Richard Evans’s history of the Third Reich – it will be completed by a third volume covering the war – is an invaluable work of synthesis. The mass of specialist studies we now have makes a general history all the more useful, and not only, as Evans suggests, for those who know little about the subject. Evans, a social historian, aims to cover ‘not only politics, diplomacy and military affairs but also society, the economy, racial policy, police and justice, literature, culture and the arts . . . to bring these together and to show how they were related.’

The first volume, The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), traces its prehistory, from Bismarck to the consolidation of the Nazi regime in the summer of 1933. Its central questions are ‘How did this revolution occur?’ and ‘Why did the Nazis meet with no effective opposition in their seizure of power?’ Evans is keenly aware of the twin sirens of modern German history: on the one hand, the lure of determinism (German history leads inevitably to Nazism); on the other, the illusion of contingency (Hitler was an accident). Similarly, there is a balance to be maintained between admitting the peculiarities of German history – its much debated Sonderweg, or ‘special path’, to modernity – and seeing the Third Reich as simply the most horrific example of a much more general failure of democracy in interwar Europe. Evans acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of each view. He reminds us at the outset that ‘things could easily have turned out very differently.’

His discussion of pre-1914 Germany is a good example. Dangerous precedents were established when Bismarck divided nationalism from liberalism and set a powerful example of authoritarian rule, militarism, anti-Catholicism, anti-socialism and discrimination against Prussia’s Polish minority. Parallels for each of these policies can be found in other European countries: ‘Yet in no nation in Europe other than Germany were all these conditions present at the same time and to the same extent.’ Similarly, Evans locates the roots of Nazi ideology in the anti-semitic and racial hygiene movements that existed before 1914, but with the qualification that ‘the great majority of Germans still most probably believed’ in ‘freedom of thought, representative government, tolerance for the opinions of others and the fundamental rights of the individual’. War, defeat and revolution then tipped the scales alarmingly towards an authoritarian nationalism by polarising the electorate and rendering the right politically homeless in the Weimar Republic, which they saw as the creation of Germany’s enemies.

Evans goes on to give deft accounts of the growth of political violence, the unsettling impact of the great inflation, the energy of Weimar culture, its impact on education, crime and the judiciary, the new welfare state and the illiberal concepts of social health to which it could give rise: for example, the belief among a number of doctors and social workers that criminal behaviour could be inherited, and treated by compulsory sterilisation. Some even advocated involuntary euthanasia for the mentally or incurably sick.

Was the republic doomed? Evans is ambivalent but generally pessimistic about its chances. Even at its best, in the mid-1920s, it was ‘extremely fragile’. It might have survived ‘in other circumstances’ but ‘the idea that democracy was on the way to establishing itself in Germany at this time is an illusion created by hindsight.’ Yet later, when assessing the position of the Nazi party in 1929, ‘still very much on the fringes of politics’, he says: ‘The republic seemed to have weathered the storms of the early 1920s – the inflation, the French occupation, the armed conflicts, the social dislocation – and to have entered calmer waters. It would need a catastrophe of major dimensions if an extremist party like the Nazis was to gain mass support.’ In the concluding chapter he summarises: ‘Even without the Depression, Germany’s first democracy seemed doomed; but the onset of one of history’s worst economic slumps pushed it beyond the point of no return.’

It is worth pausing to ask a question that Evans does not pursue: what would have happened without the Depression? The view that the republic was doomed rests mainly on the proposition that it had won no significant converts since 1919; indeed, some who then rallied to it for fear of something worse, namely Bolshevism, were starting to distance themselves. The Catholic Centre Party, for example, had been part of the republican majority in 1919, but by 1928 was starting to give religious issues a higher priority than the defence of democracy.

By 1924, however, it was perfectly possible to believe, even if you were not a democrat, that the republic had come to stay. The question then became not whether it would be overthrown by the right or the left, but how to influence it. In retrospect, the growth of a pragmatic acceptance of the regime among elite groups is easy to overlook. It affected even some of those institutions, such as the army, whose generally obstructive behaviour Evans emphasises. Once General von Seeckt had been forced into retirement in 1926, his successors realised that operating as a state within a state had become counter-productive, and when General Groener became minister of defence in 1928 he insisted on obtaining cabinet approval of the secret rearmament programme. He also accepted that, given Germany’s military weakness, defence policy had to defer to the foreign policy of the long-serving foreign minister and leader of the centre-right liberal People’s Party, Gustav Stresemann, who wanted to renegotiate the Versailles Treaty by means of a détente with the Western powers.

There are many other examples. In 1926, Paul Silverberg, a leading Ruhr industrialist and deputy chairman of the employers’ association, who had been an outspoken opponent of the nationalisation of the coal industry and of Weimar’s social programmes, called on industrialists to adopt a positive attitude towards the new state and to co-operate with the Social Democrats and trade unions. Even the Protestant Church in its Prussian heartland – an institution Social Democrats regarded as the ‘praetorian guard of the monarchy’ – negotiated a treaty, a Protestant equivalent of a concordat, with the Social Democrat-led Prussian government, giving the state the right to raise political objections to the appointment of senior clergy.

Bitter opponents of the regime, such as the right-wing German National People’s Party, also had their pragmatic moments. In 1924, in the Reichstag vote on whether to accept the Dawes Plan – a provisional settlement of the reparations debt, backed by much needed foreign loans in return for a degree of international control over the economy – the party split down the middle, allowing the legislation to pass with the required two-thirds majority. In the search for influence, the Nationalists joined the Reich government briefly, in 1925 and again in 1927-28. After the 1928 elections, with a Social Democrat chancellor leading a majority coalition government and the extremes of left and right apparently in retreat, a policy of isolation appeared to be the road to nowhere, a route for ideologues and cranks. Under their new leader, Alfred Hugenberg, the Nationalists went in that direction but, as Evans notes, Hugenberg’s extremism made him unpopular with many of the industrialists he claimed to represent. And in December 1929, in the plebiscite organised by Hugenberg and his new allies, the Nazis, on the Young Plan – a scheme aimed at a final settlement of the reparations issue – they were able to muster only 13.81 per cent of the votes, little above their aggregate vote in the 1928 elections. The possibility that without the Depression pragmatic politics might have prevailed over extremism is worth bearing in mind. ‘The brutal fact,’ Evans writes, ‘was that, even in 1928, the republic was as far away from achieving stability and legitimacy as ever.’ That is too narrow a conclusion.

What is not in doubt is that pragmatism provided an insufficient basis for resisting the Nazis once the Depression took hold. The left, both Socialist and Communist, and the Catholic Centre party were able to hold their own, but the Protestant Nationalists lost heavily to the Nazis while the two Liberal parties and various middle-class splinter groups were virtually wiped out. The Social Democrats lost ground to both the Communists and the Nazis: as they were the party with consistently the largest vote until the elections of July 1932, between 20 and 30 per cent, that is hardly surprising. The Nazis also did well with new voters and previous non-voters, who were caught up in the general excitement.

But that was not enough to deliver a majority of the electorate. In fact, the Nazi vote fell in November 1932 to 33 per cent, suggesting they had peaked. More than half of voters continued to support the Social Democrats, Communists and Catholic Centre. Why were they not able to stop the Nazis? The Centre had lost faith in democratic politics and the Vatican looked instead for security in Hitler’s promises and a Reich Concordat. The Communists and Socialists were enemies, competing for the same vote. The Social Democrats were demoralised, particularly once they had lost their bulwark in Prussia in 1932, when Nazi gains made majority government impossible and Chancellor von Papen took over the government as part of an inept and illegal attempt to establish an authoritarian state. The Social Democrats turned to the law for protection but, although they won a partial victory, it did not restore them to power. Options for direct action were limited. A general strike, which had been effective against a military putsch in 1920, was impractical in conditions of mass unemployment. They could have resorted to armed resistance, using their paramilitary units, the Reichsbanner, but if the army, the Nazis and their allies in the ex-servicemen’s ‘Steel Helmets’ organisation had been deployed against them, they would have had no chance. Nevertheless, Evans suggests that this would have been their best hope; the army might have held back for fear of being seen to provoke a civil war.

Evans’s conclusion demonstrates that the polarisation of the electorate during the Depression had made democracy unworkable. But the anti-Nazi opposition had not gone away. The last section of The Coming of the Third Reich deals with the way in which it was overwhelmed and ‘co-ordinated’. Hitler showed political skill in adapting his rhetoric to his audience, exploiting legal loopholes to provide cover for the suspension of civil liberties, reassuring potential allies of his good intentions in order to secure a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag for an enabling act which in effect made the suspension permanent, while at the same time presiding over a campaign of terror against his enemies. Stormtroopers took their cue from above without waiting for specific orders, in a way that anticipated future patterns of violence. When this was not enough, Goering and Himmler provided direct encouragement. Individual acts of terror were soon complemented by the first concentration camps and legal restrictions on Jews.

Fear and the desire to conform combined to make the process of co-ordination, in Evans’s word, ‘breathtaking’ in its scale and scope. Civil servants, lawyers, teachers, those involved in universities, the press, film, broadcasting, music, literature, theatre, painting – all were to be brought into line in the new ‘total’ state, orchestrated by Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. There are painfully few examples of anyone showing solidarity with colleagues who were identified as political or racial enemies. That moral collapse – part opportunism, part an overwhelming desire to be identified with a ‘national’ awakening – was what ultimately made the Third Reich possible.

But what was the Nazi revolution for? In an interesting concluding chapter, Evans points out that its goals were far from clear. It wanted to reverse the revolution of 1918-19 and allow German history to resume its ‘natural’ course under a new leader. Indeed, its single most obvious aim was to establish the dictatorship of Hitler. But it was not a ‘restoration’. The new Reich would be defined by racial principles and would overcome class divisions; it would use modern methods and invoke pseudo-scientific teachings. Above all, it would overturn the European state system and impose its own racial empire on the continent and perhaps the world. It was ‘a vague yet powerful vision of the future’.

In a book as ambitious as this, there are bound to be omissions. One that isn’t trivial and is suggested by the conclusion is the almost complete absence of any discussion of Germany’s international relations, although the war is of course discussed, as is the Versailles Treaty and the French occupation of the Ruhr. The Dawes and Young Plans are mentioned only in passing. There is no reference to the security pact for the Rhineland frontier negotiated at Locarno in 1925 or to Germany’s joining the League of Nations in 1926, to the negotiation of tariff treaties or to the ideas of European economic integration that interested industrialists and political leaders on both sides of the Rhine. This is clearly because Evans believes that the coming of the Third Reich is to be explained by domestic forces. That view, which is commonly held, is an understandable reaction to an older German tradition that interpreted Prussia’s and Germany’s troubled history in the light of the security dilemmas associated with being a Central European state, a Mittellage, and sought an explanation – and sometimes an alibi – in the resulting ‘primacy of foreign policy’.

But it may be time to ask whether the reaction has gone too far. It is at least counter-intuitive to explain the rise of an extreme nationalist movement with so little regard to Germany’s international position. The interaction of foreign policy and domestic politics was central to the Weimar Republic and, indeed, to many periods of German history, in a way that has no parallel in British history. Some of the attitudes Evans describes can be explained only in terms of a political culture dominated by a sense of international injustice. An example, which Evans finds ‘astonishing’, is the SPD’s support in the Reichstag as late as May 1933 for Hitler’s demand for equality for Germany in disarmament negotiations. But, although it was allowing itself to be used and the policy aroused intense opposition among SPD members, the party was also being consistent in not allowing the Nazis to have a monopoly on patriotism.

Today, we can see that all of Europe had an interest in the success of the Weimar Republic, but how helpful were other European states? How much co-operation was there between the democracies? Was there hope of a breakthrough to a stable international order, a development that would have deprived the Nazis of their most effective propaganda? A history of the rise of Nazism needs this international perspective.

In his second volume, The Third Reich in Power, covering the years 1933-39, Evans once again dissects the social fabric of the regime with great skill. Again, there is a balance to be struck. How far did the regime succeed by coercion and propaganda in building the new society to which it aspired? Evans explores this through sections on the police state, the media and culture, religion and education, the economy, anti-semitism and the road to war. He concentrates on what life was like under the Third Reich rather than the way policy was made, though he emphasises Hitler’s role, particularly in developing anti-semitic policies and preparing for war. He is clear that the ambition of the Nazis was revolutionary, ‘a vast experiment in human engineering . . . If ever a state merited being called totalitarian, then it was the Third Reich.’

Given their starting point, with more than half the population sceptical or hostile, the Nazis clearly had an enormous task to perform in, as it turned out, less than seven years before the European war began. Evans does not accept the view that the regime came to enjoy widespread support after the first few years. Although political opposition had been silenced, violence and fear remained essential methods of control. The attempt to create ‘a new man’ had some success with the young, but Goebbels’s propaganda, Nazi experiments in education, the purging of culture and the constant round of fascist celebrations also bred boredom and escapism. The relative lack of opposition was to be explained in part, Evans suggests, by strategies of survival which allowed traditional patterns of life to continue under a veneer of conformity. Peasant farmers could still count on local loyalties; universities were able to confine Nazi studies in specialist institutes; religious life continued, though under threat and, in the Protestant Church, divided. People turned away from politics to private life. And in providing material benefits, the regime was at its most popular: the ‘Strength through Joy’ holidays, the welfare schemes, the promise, never fulfilled, of a ‘people’s car’, found a response among the working class, while businesses profited from rearmament and – some of them – from the expropriation of Jewish competitors.

The regime itself was caught in a contradiction. It wanted to create a new racist, warrior people to fight a great war, but to prepare for a great war it had to compromise in its dealings with existing institutions, with the army, with big business, even with foreign opinion – the last particularly obvious in the erratic tempo of anti-semitic measures up to and even after 1938. Nazi leaders weren’t always able to proceed with a clarity that might have provoked more opposition. In preparing for war, they were able to draw on the general resentment of the Versailles Treaty, and they made leaving the League of Nations, rearmament and the reoccupation of the Rhineland into genuine celebrations of national unity. The crisis over the Sudetenland in September 1938 found a public deeply divided and anxious, however, and in September 1939 there was none of the enthusiasm of 1914. It will be interesting to see how Evans develops this argument in his final volume, to explain the scale of Nazi atrocities and the range of Germans who were involved in them.

In The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze emphasises Germany’s relative economic weakness compared to that of the British Empire or the United States, making sense of the invasion of the Soviet Union ‘as the last great land-grab in the long and bloody history of European colonialism’ aimed at achieving for the German people the standard of living that Britons or Americans enjoyed. The imperative to acquire ‘living space’ had a certain logic, though it was ‘anachronistic’. Hitler faced enormous constraints – balance of payments problems, inflation, shortages of food, labour and raw materials, the time needed to complete major rearmament projects – which led to constant economic crises. The regime responded by making ever more frenetic attempts to control and manage the economy while exhorting, cajoling and threatening firms to provide what it wanted. But there were economic facts which could not be overcome by willpower or organisation: Hitler’s famous Four Year Plan of 1936 did not alter the balance of payments problem or the limits on steel production. Nor could the extraordinary achievements of the regime, for instance in raising the share of national output going to the military between 1933 and 1938 from 1 to 20 per cent, and in the first year of the war to more than 30 per cent, change the fact that by 1943 Britain was receiving four times as much material aid from the United States as Germany got from Occupied Europe.

Nevertheless, from 1939 to 1941, Hitler consistently chose to escalate the conflict, although he knew the odds were against his winning a war with Britain supported by the United States. Tooze suggests that this irrationality is to be explained by Hitler’s conviction that Jewish influence in Britain and America accounted for their hostility, leaving him no alternative but to fight. That implies that Hitler could have drawn back from war in 1939, 1940 or 1941 but for his belief in a Jewish conspiracy which linked the war in the West to the conquest of the East. But this assumes that living space in the East was in itself a negotiable demand for Hitler, and there is no evidence that it was.

There are a number of brilliant passages in Tooze’s book that dispel persistent myths – persistent despite previous criticism because they have an inherent plausibility. The first is the idea that Hitler held back from mobilising the whole economy for war until the crisis of 1942, because he was frightened of a collapse on the home front of the kind he believed had led to defeat in 1918. In fact, Tooze shows that in the first year of the war the share of national output going to the military rose by 60 per cent. Hitler resisted pressure from his advisers to prepare for a long war because he believed – correctly – that Germany could not win a long war. Instead, he insisted on the massive expansion of programmes for aircraft production, ammunition and artillery for the war in the West.

The second myth is that the war was planned as a Blitzkrieg. Here, it all depends on what one means by Blitzkrieg. Hitler knew that Germany could not win a long defensive war of attrition; he wanted to attack in the West at the earliest possible moment. The combination of aircraft and motorised army units had shown its worth in the Polish campaign. On the other hand, he expected the battle of France to have several phases, after which there would still be the battle of Britain, preferably before the United States was able to provide much assistance. The battle of France was a success because the Germans invaded through the southern Ardennes rather than through Belgium, and because Britain and France failed to anticipate this manoeuvre. The first campaign planned as a Blitzkrieg was the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, but it failed to achieve its objective of victory before the winter set in. Part of the reason was that Germany was already allocating resources to the air war with Britain and the United States that was to follow once the Soviet Union had been overrun. The reverse before Moscow in December upset these calculations, and from then on planning became an increasingly desperate attempt to avoid the reality that Germany was faced with a long war it could not win.

The third myth is that Albert Speer, minister for armaments production from 1942, was somehow able to square the circle and produce an ‘armaments miracle’. Tooze shows that Speer was, rather, a skilful publicist. He blamed others for failure while taking credit for successes that were the result of plans made before he took charge, and concentrated on particular sectors, such as tanks, which he was able to build by conscripting the necessary labour. In another sense, too, a Speer myth was born: that of the gifted technocrat who was somehow seduced by the regime. Tooze shows that Speer continued right to the end to produce self-serving statistics and to coerce concentration camp victims to maintain production, even when it was clear to all reasonable people that the war was lost. And Speer was not alone: there was no simple division between technocrats and ideologues in the Nazi regime. Rather, racist ideology led intelligent people during the war to contemplate any method of winning it. To maintain food supplies for German soldiers and the home front, planners in May 1941 calmly anticipated the deaths from starvation of millions of Russian civilians and prisoners of war. Similarly, food was extracted from the General Government of Poland in 1942 in full knowledge of the consequences. Indeed, Tooze argues that the extermination of the Jews was also related to economic determinants: ‘“pragmatic economic” motives and genocidal ideology were inseparably intertwined.’ There could be no clearer example of the combination of racist ideology and scientific method, the ‘dark side of modernity’ as it has been called, which was at the centre of Nazism.