The Magazine

One Historian's Quest

What were the Germans thinking?

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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Hitler, the Germans,
and the Final Solution

by Ian Kershaw

Yale, 400 pp., $35

This rich collection from Ian Kershaw's previous works was chosen by Israeli scholars, his friends and critics, with his concurrence. It reprints 14 articles and essays written between 1981 and 2006, each addressing the title. The burning issue and unifying theme of the collection is the German people's bond, or lack thereof, with Hitler and the Holocaust, which since the end of World War II has been a topic of incessant and often hateful debate.

A dense, engrossing 25-page retrospective introduces the collection, revising and updating the author's views on these subjects, while fulfilling a secondary goal: to give the reader "a clearer glimpse of the historian behind the history." The result is a rewarding opportunity for readers to look over the shoulder of the English-speaking world's foremost authority on Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.

Although Kershaw describes himself as "a historian of modern Germany, specifically of Nazism, and not directly of the Holocaust," he declares his "chief interest" in that history always to have been the Germans' step-by-step road to the Holocaust: "how the majority [of ordinary Germans] responded to the increasing persecution and extermination of the Jews."

Kershaw's is a surprising curriculum vitae. Not until 1969 did he begin to learn German and develop a professional interest in German history. As late as 1972 he was a trained and practicing scholar of medieval
English social and economic history. He credits his "German turn" to a chance meeting with an old Nazi in that year who shocked him by saying straight out that "the Jew was a louse." In the years thereafter, no modern historian has done more to bring about an understanding of how the Germans, then Europe's seemingly brightest and best, succumbed so completely to dictatorship, a second world war, and the persecution and extermination of the Jews.

Kershaw's new career in German history took flight in 1976-77 when he became a member of a Munich research team devoted to writing a total social history of the Third Reich, indispensable information if Germany's descent into utter darkness is ever to be satisfactorily and finally explained.

Known as the Bavaria Project, those years of research equipped Kershaw to answer the persistent question of his career: What was the ordinary German thinking and doing in the 1930s as national socialism ran rampant across the Fatherland? At hand in Bavaria was the information needed to begin to answer that question: The Nazis' own extensive year-by-year reports on the "mood of the German people," an assemblage of previously analyzed patterns of popular opinion and behavior.

In 1979 Kershaw published his first essay as a German historian in one of the Bavarian Project volumes, a piece on Bavarian anti-Semitism and popular opinion on Hitler. Both acclamatory and oppositional in its treatment of the subject, Kershaw's maiden essay exemplified his balanced scholarship within a historiography that has never taken prisoners. Thereafter followed his first monograph, published in German under the title, The Hitler Myth (1980).

As he read early Bavarian Nazi reports on the mood of the German people, Kershaw was struck by "how little" the persecution of the Jews invaded the everyday life of ordinary Germans. "Big anti-Jewish waves" did, however, reach "the foreground of popular opinion." Nazi attacks on the Christian churches were hugely disturbing, as were the Nuremberg Laws (1935) and the pogroms of 1938, events that exposed for both non-Jews and Jews the loose cannons their rulers really were.

Kershaw's investigations led him to conclude the "relative insignificance" of the Jewish Question in popular German opinion. For the larger population, the persecution of Jews was a rarely entertained part of daily life in the prewar years. Thus, majority German opinion toward the Jews was initially shaped by their own self-preoccupied indifference to Jews, rather than by Nazi propaganda efforts to instill "dynamic hatred" of Jews into the population. The latter, Kershaw points out, was not only unsuccessful, but also unnecessary, inasmuch as "latent anti-Semitism and apathy" were already there. As Kershaw summarizes the equation: "The road to Auschwitz was built by [Nazi] hate, but paved with [ordinary Germans'] indifference."

The big question was whether that latent anti-Semitism could readily be turned into pure Nazi gold.