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.

Among the Israeli scholars engaging Kershaw over the years, Otto Dov Kulka challenged his scholarly caution in weighing the role of the German masses in the Holocaust. Meeting for the first time at Harvard decades ago, the two men began a lasting dialogue that has continued to the present day. Where Kershaw saw "indifference" in ordinary Germans, Kulka found "passive complicity," citing the German masses' approval of the imposition of the "Yellow Star" on the Jews and their steady commitment to the removal of all Jews from Germany.

In 1986, Kershaw conceded to Kulka that "indifference" was indeed "a less than ideal concept" to describe ordinary Germans' interest, or lack thereof, in the plight of the Jews. Yet, he insisted that putting it that way was not to "whitewash" the issue.

"Indifference," he now argued, was more than a "lack of concern." It was "a turning of one's back on an evil one recognized one could do nothing about," hence, a "moral indifference .  .  . compatible with the growing depersonalization of the Jews."

Thus redefining "indifference," and even conceding that it had "lethal" consequences, Kershaw held nonetheless to his term. In doing so, he was giving the majority of Germans in the Nazi era the benefit of the doubt. In the 1930s, Germans coped in a new world too, and their livelihoods and lives were also threatened. So unforgivably, if understandably, they put self before others and lost sight of the plight of the Jews. Further balancing his case, Kershaw emphatically recognized the existence of a "sizeable Nazi section of the population" that both welcomed the yellow star and later supported the death camps.

In drawing the semantic line for German culpability at "moral indifference with lethal consequences," Kershaw, perhaps courageously on this loaded issue, was refusing to pursue this line onto the path of what would, sadly, later become Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's German nation of uncountable, eager ordinary Germans "willing [to be Jewish] executioners" (1996).

Finding it impossible to know precisely what people were then thinking, Kershaw continued to urge his critics to devote their energy and wrath to "a comprehensive social history of anti-Semitism during the Weimar Republic." Therein would be found the evidence required to assign those 12 terrible years to their fair and just place in history, and assess blame and responsibility within them and beyond.

Writing at the time from the field of battle, Kershaw defended his position:

I returned to the passivity [argument], which I saw as reflecting the low level of priority in German consciousness accorded to the fate of the Jews. .  .  . Pessimistically, I alluded to the questionable liberal assumptions that human beings under threat will be defended in an open society. In this, my last attempt to wrestle with the intractable sources on popular opinion and the fate of the Jews, I tried to distinguish between what people then could and did not know (quite a lot), what they made of the information (an awareness that genocide .  .  . was taking place, though ignorance of scale and detail led to only partial comprehension), and reactions (a spectrum running from overt approval to blank condemnation, the most widespread of which being an apathetic turning away from unpalatable knowledge and events which could not be averted).

To settle up, Kershaw cites the guideline of a fellow traveler in German history, Jeffrey Herf: "The beginning of wisdom in these matters is a certain restraint and much less certainty regarding what 'ordinary Germans' made of Nazi propaganda." To which Kershaw responds that he is today "more cautious and agnostic than ever about generalized conclusions on opinions in the German population regarding the fate of the Jews." While still recognizing "a not small minority" of fanatical Germans "fully persuaded by radical propaganda," he rejects the Israeli scholars' claims of a "quite widespread" public German identification with the Third Reich from the start.

Looking forward, Kershaw urges scholars to approach the Nazi years "as if one were dealing with the French Revolution or the [Protestant] Reformation." He reminds his readers that the Nazi era, like every other, had "a [benign] social history of daily life .  .  . depicting under the conditions of the Nazi dictatorship a 'normality' distinct from the criminal characteristics of the regime." And he is quick also to remind one not to forget the hermeneutically rich centuries of German history that precede and succeed those years.

How different the present-day reality! Popular fascination with the Third Reich runs so deep that it has made the Nazi era sui generis, a bracketed "resort for lessons of political morality." In the absence of deep historical context and integration, the Holocaust has only grown in speculative importance, now the acclaimed "defining episode" of the entire 20th century. And thanks to what Kershaw calls "the spur of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's flawed book," "race ideology" has also muscled sound historical analysis aside.

Sixty-three years after the Third Reich's fall, the closing of the books on the era is still obstructed by pervasive fear of a perverse whitewashing of those untouchable years, especially by the hands of the experts. When, in the mid-80s, leading German historians attempted to bring some closure to the Nazi era by treating it objectively and dispassionately, their perceived "irreverence" left still more ruined reputations and shortened careers behind. Also, scholarly efforts to compare Nazism with other contemporary "terroristic and inhuman regimes"--e.g., Stalinism, an inference that the Third Reich was a species within a larger political genre of the age--were met with moral outrage and the accusation of coddling evil.

As Kershaw sees the present situation, not until Auschwitz can be studied together with the everyday life of the Third Reich and Hitler's regime takes its place "in the continuities that led beyond 1945 into the German Federal Democratic Republic," the Nazi era that so few can take their eyes off will continue to remain the least understood in German history.

In the late 1980s, Kershaw resolved to take his case to ground zero by writing a comprehensive biography of Hitler. At the time he believed Hitler's leading biographers, Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, had underestimated the Führer's political vision and abilities. Beyond the "ideological fanatic" everyone then agreed Hitler to be, Kershaw found a "consistent mind [that] knew how to mobilize politically" and extract everlasting loyalty. He believed Hitler's persona fitted Max Weber's concept of the "charismatic leader," typical of overpowering figures who radically change history.

In his research Kershaw stumbled upon a statement of a Nazi functionary, writing in 1934, that perfectly stated the mysterious bond he believed the Führer forged between himself and the nation. That statement was: "It is the duty of everybody to try to work towards der Führer along the lines he would wish."

In Kershaw's opinion, the dynamic of the Nazi regime came not from ordinary Germans across the land but from the Führer's "utopian vision of national redemption through racial purification." Seemingly by charisma alone, he exploited the naïve messianic hopes and illusions of post-World War I
Germans, gained complete control of the instruments of Europe's most modern state, and set the guidelines its bureaucracy would loyally follow.

From the beginning, a strong, deep anti-Semitism radiated from Berlin, sealed with the Führer's prophecy that the German Jews would be destroyed in the next war. The "power of the presumed wish of the Führer," palpable throughout the nation, was "the prelude to the Final Solution."

Although Kershaw believes Hitler alone is not enough to explain
Germany's "extraordinary lurch" into radical brutality and destruction, he does find his dictatorship to be original--successful beyond any other previous ruler and regime. Never before in history had such a package been so successfully delivered to so willing a people at so high a cost.

For Israelis, Germans, Americans, and all other people who today live in a true democracy, Kershaw's story of the Nazi regime is riveting history. In the 1930s the German people, Europe's presumed best and brightest, stressed by their recent history and preoccupied with their everyday lives, proved to be no match for a clever, charismatic leader and his complementary kitchen cabinet.

As people in democracies know and forget, always to their peril: A nation is not its leader, and woe to any whose leaders think they are. In every moment of its life, a nation is simply the present-day generation of people who live and work in it, marry and multiply for its future, and having given it their best, move on respectfully.

Kershaw's advice to vulnerable democracies is to study, learn, and take to heart their own history. He also suggests that, upon those occasions when one may be blinded by the bright lights of moral or political evil, do not hang around and gawk at them too long.

Steven Ozment, McLean professor of history at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.