Sixty years after the start of the Nuremberg Trials, at which dozens of Nazi war criminals were brought to justice, three historians and a filmmaker discuss some of the issues arising from the years of Nazi domination in Europe. Here is Part Two of Vision publisher David Hulme’s conversation with Christopher Browning, Sir Ian Kershaw, Steven Ozment and Arnold Schwartzman.
DH Ian, you’ve explained Hitler’s dictatorship in terms of people working toward their leader. R.J.B. Bosworth adopts the same approach in his 2002 work on Mussolini.
IK Yes, I took it from comments made by a low-ranking Nazi functionary in a speech he made in 1934, and I deployed it as a device to help explain how that system could operate with Hitler representing certain long-range goals, one of which was the removal of the Jews. But how could these long-range goals be converted into practical policies without Hitler all the time having to take initiatives? “Working toward the Führer” simply meant that people second-guessed what Hitler wanted. That was the way to career advancement, to promotion, to all sorts of advantages within that regime, and it operated on an ideological level.
“People second-guessed what Hitler wanted. That was the way to career advancement, to promotion, to all sorts of advantages within that regime.”
Through this device it was possible to see how a number of developments could push along the dynamism of that regime without everything having to stem from Hitler. That doesn’t, I hasten to add, let Hitler off in the slightest from any responsibility. And even more than that, I would see Hitler as the indispensable mainspring for action. But actions were very often pushed through by others interpreting what they saw him standing for, and in that way it was a link between this leader, who was often outside the immediate focus of action, and those people on different layers below him who were forcing the pace of the action.
DH Are there parallels before or after Hitler?
IK Well, in one sense the notion is no more than what happens in conventional businesses. I think of the University of Sheffield, where I work. Many people would say they’re working toward the vice chancellor, the head of the university. They have some type of mission statement, and they’re trying to put that into operation in a number of ways. The difference here, of course, is that you have a leader who stands for certain major ideological goals. What I was trying to get at was the way in which, within a very short period of time, Hitler’s totalitarian state transformed its vague and cosmic goals—removal of the Jews and acquisition of living space—into practical politics. I can’t see that happening simply by Hitler himself giving out a string of directives. So what we have to find is an operational method between the different areas of the regime from bottom to top, and the focal point of these policies; that is to say, the wishes of Hitler up at the very top of the regime. You can see how these ideas began to take shape gradually as specific policies.
So it’s not removing Hitler from the equation in the slightest, but it’s just seeing a type of dialectic between Hitler’s own operations as leader of that state, and the operations of many levels of the regime beneath him.
SO I think the importance of Ian’s concept in that regard is that for so long the popular view—the alibi view—was that Hitler ran a totalitarian dictatorship, and it was done through coercion and orders from above. What Ian shows so beautifully is that, in fact, Hitler is not a hands-on micromanager. Things don’t run simply by coercion and orders from above, but lots of people below are taking initiative and seeking to figure out what’s expected of them. That helps us normalize the regime in an important way, to understand the process of policy-making. It was not fundamentally or radically different from the political policies of other regimes.
I was reminded of this in the middle of the Iran Contra hearings in the U.S. in the late 1980s. One of the men responsible was asked whether he had an order to do this. He said, “Well, no.” Then he was asked, “Did you disobey orders and do this on your own?” and he said, “No.” So his questioners asked, “Well then, how do you explain this?” and he said, “I knew what the president wanted.” It was as simple as that. Governments work because people don’t wait for orders; they are given the general outline, and they’re supposed to be go-getters who make things happen. This is not unique to Nazi Germany.
AS In the hearings that were going on recently in Washington for the new chief justice, several of the answers given by Judge Roberts were in fact just that. He said, “Well, I knew what the president wanted,” rather than saying it was an order, or it was law. He said he followed the law; but in fact, he knew that was the way the president wished these things to happen.
DH Chris, does this bring us to your concept that the Final Solution was not premeditated?
CB Oh, very much so, in the sense that what Hitler stands for is that there is a Jewish question; it is terribly important and must be solved, and it must be solved totally and systematically. Halfway measures and partial solutions are not acceptable. For a long time the solution was envisioned in terms of what we now call “ethnic cleansing”: chase all the Jews out of Germany. In Hitler’s January 1939 speech he made it clear that if it came to war, this vision of a region free of Jews would extend beyond German borders, but this was all free of any specifics. And as Göring said after Kristallnacht, “We’re going to solve the Jewish question one way or another.” These are people who are not micromanaging but making sure everybody beneath them understands the bar they’re going to have to get over.
In my own view, it really was not until the fall of 1941 that the old vision of some form of expulsion, whatever the concomitant loss of life, was replaced by the unique vision that they would try to keep every Jew in Europe so they could kill every last one. This really was an important change, even if it didn’t automatically mean everybody knew what the new policies were: how many Jews would be left alive for labor and for how long; what countries would be approached first. But there was a tipping point in which the older vision was replaced by a new one. That’s why I would say the Final Solution was not premeditated. It certainly was not an aberrational development or a reaction to circumstance and frustration. It came out of a political dynamic that was already under way.
“The Final Solution was not an aberrational development or a reaction to circumstance and frustration. It came out of a political dynamic that was already under way.”
DH Yet Hitler seemed to be involved in decision-making at every point along the way.
CB Not at every point, but at key points people had to come to him. You couldn’t mark Jews without his permission; you couldn’t deport Jews from Germany without his permission. We know these decisions were taken to him. We know that sometimes he said “not yet”—that he put on the red light when people thought the time was right to bring these things to him. He acted, in a sense, as a traffic cop, flashing red, yellow and green lights to the initiatives that he elicited. It’s an unusual style of decision-making. He elicited activity initiatives; then he said yes, no, maybe or wait; and then, when he gave the green light, he expected people to come up with more detailed plans and not to bother him with the details. I don’t think he was involved in hands-on planning. It was understood that these kinds of things should be done by someone else without bothering him.
IK I agree with that entirely. No one’s shown Hitler’s role in the steps leading into all-out genocide better than Chris. It only emerged in the summer or autumn of 1941 and in the spring of 1942, and that’s quite evident in terms of the Final Solution as we know it in history.
I have just one additional point. If you compare the Holocaust with other genocides, such as the Armenian genocide or Rwanda, then you see that it didn’t emerge over a very short period in the context of a war, but there was a predisposition to have a Germany (and then a Europe) free of Jews. That meant different things at different times, until it eventually meant killing all the Jews you could lay your hands on in the death camps. To that extent there was an element of intention to remove all the Jews in the Holocaust, which is different from the intention in the Rwanda or the Armenia case. There was certainly a great deal of brutality in these two cases before it turned into full-scale genocide. But as far as I’m aware, no one said two or three years before those genocides occurred, “What we have to do is to remove every single Armenian, or every single Tutsi, from this particular area.” So in that sense, too, the development of the Holocaust is somewhat different from these other genocides.
AS Do you think that if Herschel Grynszpan had not shot the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris on November 7, 1938, the process would have been much slower? It was almost a gift to the Nazis, I would have thought. And their reaction against the Jews—Kristallnacht—really did accelerate the process.
CB For those German Jews who were not yet fully convinced, Kristallnacht accelerated the realization that they had no future in Germany. After that almost no one was not trying to get out. It panicked German Jews who were still there and gave them a huge sense of urgency to do everything they could to escape. In terms of the German side, the third major stage of legislation and expropriation had been under way since the spring. The fundamental policies of 1938, in terms of despoiling the Jewish economic position in Germany and leaving them totally impoverished, were already well under way. I don’t see that they were speeded up much by Kristallnacht, or that it was crucial for the pace or the direction of German policy. I think it was crucial for Jewish consciousness.
DH Let’s talk about the amount of popular Hitler literature and the Anglo-Saxon predilection for anti-German feeling. What about the role of memory and how it distorts our view of a particular people?
SO There’s certainly interesting anecdotal evidence of deep-seated anti-Germanism in the Anglo-Saxon world, now 60 years after the end of the war. Less than two years ago, British publisher Richard Desmond made a widely publicized anti-German outburst replete with goose-stepping and Nazi salutes. Britons, of course, like Americans in our TV sit-coms, have the opportunity to see this kind of prejudice—although I think Fawlty Towers arguably had some very good humor intertwined as well, making it less shocking.
The most disturbing recent example of Anglo-Saxon difficulty with coming to terms with the Germans was an effort by the German government to raise the consciousness of British school teachers who were assigned the task of teaching German history. In the aftermath of Desmond’s outburst, the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer officially protested, because the German government feels there are so many of these outbursts. In response they invited about 20 British secondary school teachers to spend six days in Germany for an all-expense-paid tour of Berlin, Dresden and Bonn, during which these teachers stayed in fine hotels and ate in fine restaurants. The goal was to impress upon them how different a country Germany had become by comparison to what it had been in the 1930s and ’40s, and how retro it was to talk about Germans today in prejudicial terms. From reports I read, the response of the group at tour’s end was not what the Germans—even many Britons, I think—had hoped for. When asked if they would change the way they teach German history, some members of the group explained that evil is fascinating, and that Hitler and the war is the kind of German history students and teachers in Britain like, and hence they would continue to teach it pretty much as they had done before.
“I suspect that several factors will keep Germans and Britons at loggerheads for the foreseeable future.”
I suspect that several factors will keep Germans and Britons at loggerheads for the foreseeable future. There’s just too much 20th-century bad blood between them to see them arm in arm soon, although we often hope. But more importantly, Britons and Germans are, I think, too much like each other to ever be at peace with each other. They are the two archbishops of Europe now. These are the two great European powers who are going to take Europe through the 21st century, and one or the other will exercise the greater leadership in that process.
DH Gentlemen, after researching all these dreadful events and the barbarity that human beings can unleash, are you optimistic about human nature?
IK In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously said that life was “nasty, brutish and short,” and that people were controlled largely by authority. It’s a very pessimistic view, but I think it isn’t too far from the way in which I tend to think about it. Authority can go in different ways, as we see in the case of Nazi Germany. But as far as humanity in general goes, there are so many examples to make one optimistic about people until we’re brought up short by something we can barely comprehend. There is a great propensity for good and a great propensity for evil in so many aspects of modern society. But because of the thin ice of civilization, I tend to be somewhat pessimistic about human nature—unless that human nature is channeled through the civilizing elements, which in the West we have tended to take for granted. This question is one that’s almost impossible to answer as a blanket generalization, but my own inclination, I think, is to err more on the negative, the pessimistic side of human nature, than the positive. That is partly connected with what is symbolized by the name Auschwitz, but also, of course, we can look at so many other horrors in the 20th century that are barely comprehensible in the level of suffering inflicted by man on other men and women. When we generalize about that, then I think it gives us fairly scant grounds for being so optimistic about human nature in the 20th, and I daresay the 21st, century.
CB I wouldn’t go quite as far as Ian in embracing Hobbes, and I might actually lean a little more toward John Locke and the capacities to write on the blank slates either more positively or negatively as the thin tissues of socialization and civilization and political culture hold. Most of the time we don’t live in a constant fear of total collapse, but if we study this, we realize how fragile those restraints and the veneer of civilization are, and how horrible it is when they do collapse. I don’t see man as inherently good or inherently evil, but I would hardly spend my life as a teacher if I didn’t think that human beings can do something to remedy their vulnerable state, and that education and raising consciousness are part of the human endeavor to keep building the dike to hold back the Hobbesian world. I trust that in my lifetime, in my society, that dike is going to hold, even if I realize that in all too many cases it hasn’t.
AS I’ve always been an optimist, but with a great deal of pessimism. I always look for visual analogies about history repeating itself, and yesterday I came across a sign in a design book. It said, “The damage on this First World War memorial was caused by bombs dropped during the Second World War.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, on the Gulf coast, you saw the best and the worst of the situation. I tend to lean to the side of optimism.
“Yesterday I came across a sign in a design book. It said, ‘The damage on this First World War memorial was caused by bombs dropped during the Second World War.’”
SO I have five children, and I’ve just had a grandchild, so I speak not from Locke and Hobbes but from my own experience. I think that being an optimist is a matter of practical reason, and hence of personal experience, and not ultimately answerable by pure reason or historical evidence that very often shows the contrary and hence keeps one wobbling. Indeed, it would seem that one can only be an optimist by defying the evidence for pessimism!
Christopher R. Browning (Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; winner of the National Jewish Book Award, 1993): Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992); The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (2004).
Sir Ian Kershaw (Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield and fellow of, among others, the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society): Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (1998); Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis (2000).
Steven Ozment (McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University; winner of the Schaff History Prize, 1981): A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People (2004).
Arnold Schwartzman (graphic designer and filmmaker; winner of the 1982 Academy Award for best feature-length documentary; appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 2002): Genocide (1981), Liberation (1994).