Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

Pictures of Hell

Adolf Hitler (center) flanked by SS officers (German Federal Archive via Wikimedia)
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich, edited by Robert Gellately (Oxford, 400 pp., $39.95)

A fantasy possessed Adolf Hitler that “race is everything, all the rest is chaff,” as he expressed it in Mein Kampf, his confessional book. In his mind, races were engaged in a Darwinian free-for-all struggle for supremacy, and this gave Germans every reason and right to dispose as they saw fit of the lands, properties, and, in the end, even the lives of other races. One source of his anger against Jews was their failure to fall in with his fantasy; their nonracial definition of themselves could not coincide with his. The outcome of his fantasy was world war, and by the time it ended he had wrecked the political and the moral order of Germany and every one of the countries of Europe that his armies had conquered.

All that is knowable about Hitler and the twelve years of his Third Reich is almost certainly already known. The documents in the archives have been examined and published, and the testimony of any Nazis or victims still alive, all of them by now in their 90s, is likely only to add more detail. Generally speaking, the more information that became available, the more monstrous Hitler was seen to have been, and the harder it was for Germans to understand what they had done or what was done in their name.

Facts, even the most brutal, lend themselves to interpretation and special pleading. At first, Wiedergutmachung, or restitution, meant that Germans were saying sorry for the way they had carried out Hitler’s bidding so willingly and left millions of corpses in their wake. Probably the most influential book published in the country since the end of the war is Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, which makes out that a magician, a sort of Pied Piper, has exercised his powers to cast a spell that transformed good people temporarily into bad. In which case, Germans aren’t really and truly responsible for what they did, they couldn’t have helped themselves; the sole guilty party is the magician. Bypassing the painful and shameful past altogether, successive German governments have promoted the new collective identity of Europe. As Egon Bahr, the éminence grise of German foreign policy, once said to me, “Membership of the European Union is how to make sure we don’t go ape again.”

A diehard old Nazi some years ago told me that I would live long enough to see statues of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels erected in the capital cities of Europe. At the time, this seemed preposterous. Capital cities actually have put up Holocaust museums and memorials to the dead. A spectral Hitler nonetheless survives in the small but organized groups of obsessive men and women who perpetuate some version of racial fantasy, as often as not complete with a combative tattoo or a swastika armband on their uniforms. The market in Nazi memorabilia flourishes; a signed photograph of Hitler fetches up to 15,000 euros at auction, and a signed copy of Mein Kampf, $20,000. Published in various editions in almost all Arab countries, Hitler’s book is a runaway best-seller. Although long since exposed as an anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is another best-seller because it presents Jews as engaged in worldwide conspiracy that corresponds to a view of Israel widely held by Muslims. At political demonstrations they or their supporters are liable to be holding up placards with the slogans “Jews to the gas” and “Hitler was right.” Iranian officials arrange regular conferences at which they and fanatics they have attracted from far and near utter threats of annihilation and genocide in the purest Hitlerite style.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich is a collection of eleven essays written by academics, all but two of whom hold positions in English-language universities. The 150 or more photographs leave a slightly misleading impression that the book is intended to adorn coffee tables. Historiography is not a science: A. J. P. Taylor in Britain and Ernst Nolte and Klaus Hildebrand in Germany stand out among established historians for selecting facts purporting to show Hitler as a politician at the international level much like any other. The serious intention of these academics, however, is to scotch any idea of qualifying the harm Hitler did.

An autodidact at the mercy of prejudices that he could not even recognize, much less analyze, Hitler in normal circumstances would have passed through life leaving no trace. A glimpse of Hitler was enough for Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen to pin him down exactly in his Diary of a Man in Despair, one of the classics of that whole period: “So sad, so insignificant among the masses, so profound a failure.” What accounts for Hitler’s rise from obscurity was an instinctive street fighter’s sense of the strengths and weaknesses of others. German chancellor Heinrich Brüning, his successor Franz von Papen, and the aged President and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg were in a position to stop Hitler but failed to do so because they imagined they were playing him when he was playing them. Neville Chamberlain also should have been able to prevent Hitler from invading other countries, but his evident wish not to have to fight another world war made it easy for Hitler to out-maneuver him. He had seen the democratic politicians in action, Hitler told his aides, and they were worms.

The book has little or nothing to say about the crucial role of Goebbels, the man who mobilized the thugs to do Hitler’s dirty work. On the left, the Social Democrats had so firmly rejected having anything to do with the Communists that coalition between them was excluded. Instead, Stalin ordered Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the Communist party in Germany, to campaign against the Social Democrats, absurdly labeling them “social fascists.” This division was fatal. Stalin, Hitler’s sometime rival and sometime partner, put the final seal on Hitler’s victory, but this book has nothing to say about that either.

Hitler’s transition from Chancellor to Führer was immediate, and still serves to illustrate the formation of a totalitarian nation. The simple mechanism of an Enabling Act turned Hitler’s will into the law of the land. Within weeks, he was acting out his fantasy. Public and private associations, large and small, relevant and irrelevant, were all placed under the control of the state. Organized by Goebbels, the ceremonial burning of books marked the end to freedom of expression. Jews were banned from the professions, and storm troopers boycotted shops owned by Jews. The concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau were already operating, holding some thousands of prisoners.

Daily life under Hitler is vividly portrayed. “Give me four years’ time” was Hitler’s way of saying that he would change the appearance of cities and the culture within them as befitted the German race. His taste in art, literature, and music was supposed to give the Volksgemeinschaft, or people’s community, the due sense of themselves and of German racial superiority. Albert Speer, an architect by profession, built his career on models and designs grandiose enough to please Hitler. Constructed for the annual Party Day rallies, Speer’s new stadium at Nuremburg could accommodate 200,000 all told, the awesome scale enhanced by experimental floodlighting and gigantic banners. The twin technological novelties of photography and film, it is argued, were exploited for the first time as useful tools of propaganda. The point is well made that the party stage-managed a variety of spectacles, festivities, and even elections in order to manipulate feelings of togetherness.

The Third Reich was totalitarian in spirit but not always in form. Ian Kershaw is the author of a definitive two-volume life of Hitler that emphasizes that those in positions to take decisions were expected to “work towards the Führer.” Officeholders of any importance had responsibilities and powers defined so loosely that they overlapped with those of other officeholders. Administration at all levels was a matter of interpreting what might be in Hitler’s head, and therefore a recipe for endless turf wars. Obedience had a component of fear. The Night of the Long Knives in June 1934 and the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 were warnings that Germans as well as Jews could be murdered in full view of the public and nobody would be held accountable. Atrocities were praiseworthy. Invading the Soviet Union and declaring war on the United States, Hitler at last began to misjudge relative strengths and weaknesses: Here were opponents who would stop him no matter how great the cost.

Toward the end of this book some grim photographs of burning villages, hanged partisans, piled corpses, and S.S. men happy to be deporting Jews testify to the reality that resulted from Hitler’s fantasy. The essay about the Holocaust is somewhat theoretical and does not even attempt to discuss how it happened that so many ordinary men, and women too, all reasonably educated, were willing to take part in mass murder. A moral collapse so total has the power to put a question mark over the future of humanity. This book deals with it in the only possible way, doing its best to make sure that Hitler goes down in history as a monster.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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