Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ian Kershaw's "Hitler" - have we heeded the "warning from history"?

Ian Kershaw's "Hitler" is probably the longest book I have ever read. Spread across two volumes and in excess of 700,000 words it covers the life In meticulous detail. And yet never for one moment does it drag. To describe such a book on such a subject as a "page turner" may seem odd. But there are quite frequent moments when a sense of disbelief cuts in and you inwardly say "Surely not?". And you turn the page to see if it is true. It always is. As with most lives there is chance mingled with ambition and design. Hitler nearly died as a child. He could have lost his life in the Great War. His personal ambition could have been - should have been - stifled long before he gained supreme power. Nothing in his early life qualified him for, or pointed him to, his leadership of one of Europe's most cultured and sophisticated nations. And yet it happened. Nothing in Hitler's character and personality suggested that he would be revered and followed in a messianic way. And yet he was. 

All lives, certainly politically significant ones, have to be seen in the context of their times. Of the many human tragedies that resulted from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 nothing was greater than its precipitation of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Prior to the Crash Germany, if not prospering, was at least strongly recovering from the nadir of the post war years. The hyper-inflation was gone. Employment was increasing. Democracy seemed (for the first time in the still young country's history) solid and coalition meant that governance was comparatively stable in the Weimar Republic. These were not conditions in which the political extremes would benefit. Hitler's Nazi Party lingered at well below 10% in most elections and its threat, real a few years earlier, seemed to have subsided. The Communists were equally marginalised. But the Crash changed all that. Hitler polarised opinion but his eventual rise to power had two drivers. First the feeling that conventional politics had failed and something new should be tried. Secondly the view held by many that the real threat was Bolshevism and its local arm the German Communist Party (KPD). Hitler was fervently anti-Bolshevik and this combined with the novelty and promise of his pitch was to propel him to power.

Kershaw's meticulous research means that there is surely little of significance to learn about Hitler that he hasn't revealed. Before he entered politics in the 1920s Hitler had achieved nothing. He had a minor talent as an artist but insufficient for him to enter Art School. He was a drifter without profession or qualification before the Great War. Decommissioned from the Army in 1919 at the age of 30 (with an Iron Cross for bravery in action) he gradually become involved in politics and started to form his personal political credo. This was strongly nationalistic, violently anti-Semitic and strongly opposed to Bolshevism. His personal testament "Mein Kampf " - written when he was in prison for leading an incompetent coup in Bavaria - is an extended rant within which these themes dominate in an almost paranoid, certainly obsessive, way.

Kershaw shows that there were four main factors in Hitler's rise to power. The propitious (for his message) economic circumstances of 1929 and the next few years. The scapegoating - blaming identified targets for Germany's problems. The immense power of Hitler's oratory. And the chilling, but technically brilliant use of propaganda. The "Hitler myth" was created by the speeches and the staging. There was no precedent for such events as the Nuremberg Rallies in modern history and yet, bizarre though they were, they were effective in building the "Hitler brand". The brand had all the classic elements that those of us familiar with brand management will recognise. Powerful imagery, clear messages (the "brand promise"), a "benefit" offer,  slogans, and an effective delivery vehicle (Hitler himself). Brands will, however, only prosper if they deliver the benefits they have promised. In his early years in power Hitler delivered. The peaceful retaking of the Rhineland in 1936 was popular as evidence of Germany's nationalist reemergence after the humiliation of Versailles. And these years (up to the outbreak of war in 1939) also saw economic recovery driven by public sector spending on infrastructure and above all the military. Unemployment virtually disappeared. In parallel with this "progress" went the tightening of totalitarian control and the grotesque victimisation of minorities - especially the Jews. When "Reichskristallnacht" happened in 1938 - an event unthinkable in a democratic state - it was just part of a sequence of increasing institutionalised victimisation and anti-semitism. 

Dictators - and by 1936 Adolf Hitler had become one - cannot rule alone. That he was uniquely evil is arguable - though Kershaw doesn't argue it. Instead this comprehensive biography details how the dictatorial powers he assumed were supported by an entourage and a system which, if not as venal as Hitler himself, was absolutely complicit in implementing his schemes and sustaining him in power. Not only that. The German people as a whole supported the Führer. I say "as a whole" to emphasise that there was resistance - increasingly brave as opponents were eventually simply wiped out of forced away. But in the main Hitler had high levels of popular support. This reached its apogee with the military successes of the first year or two of the War but Hitler's hold on power had been largely unchallenged from the mid 1930s onwards. Crucial to this was the closeness of a few at the top of the Nazi Party. Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Goering,Hess, Speer and the rest provided the support but also the implementation. As did the Army leaders - at least at first from the defeat of Poland, France, Belgium and the rest in the early war years. The scope and scale of the Nazi tyranny was such that a massive infrastructure had to be created to apply it. At all levels - from the regional Gauleiters to the lowly concentration camp guards there had to be compliance and a willingness to implement. And there was. Himmler and co. oversaw all this and Hitler rarely involved himself in the detail. There was also the phenomenon that Kershaw calls  'Working Towards the Führer" the premise of which is that there was a sort of assumed authority and delegation which came from those at all levels taking actions which they knew or assumed Hitler would approve of - even if they actually had no authority or orders to do so. Chillingly the euthanasia of those with mental illness or other handicaps was an example of this - as was much of the detail of the Holocaust.

This is a huge biography but Hitler's personal life remains obscure. His relationships with women, even with Eva Braun, are sketchy largely I think because there is insufficient evidence to draw upon. Some have alleged a homosexual period in Hitler's life but Kershaw does not address this - largely I suspect because there is absolutely no evidence to support it. The personality causes of Hitler's malignancy are also hard to fathom. Was he "mad"? Well by any rational definition of the word the answer is surely that he was? But in fact from a purely clinical and psychoanalytical perspective there is little to support this. And if he was mad were all of those at all levels who implemented his policies mad as well? Obviously not.

With his armies poised to invade Britain in late 1940 Hitler stood on the brink of absolute domination of Western Europe. The military achievement both in its scope and swiftness of results had been extraordinary. Germany clearly had very good Generals and an effective Army. Hitler held back. Kershaw describes clearly how in power Hitler had not wanted conflict with "England" as he called it. Munich was part of this - there was a genuine wish to keep Britain neutral. Hitler admired Britain's Empire - not least because it gave her the "Lebensraum" (essentially geographical territory) which he believed Germany lacked. Hitler's war aims were primarily about lebensraum - along with the determination to break Bolshevism which was, of course, to lead to the invasion of the Soviet Union. With hindsight from the moment that Hitler moved his armies into Russia, the Ukraine and the other soviet republics the war was over. It did not seem so at the time - least of all to Hitler. Once the war started slowly to turn against Germany Hitler turned against his Generals and against Goering whose Luftwaffe he saw as having let him down. The armed forces fought tenaciously and with courage on two fronts. On the Western front, after D-Day, it was only a matter of time - especially with the Americans in the front line. Hitler became increasingly delusional certain that the Allies would start squabbling among themselves, that his new weapons (V1 and V2) would swing the war back his way and that he could still win what had become "Total War". Kershaw focuses in some detail about the breakdown in relations between Hitler and the Generals - something that became more apparent to him after the unsuccessful attempt on his life in 1944 which was led by disaffected Army officers. The horrors of the Eastern Front were such that it was quite clear, had it not been before, that Hitler had a complete disregard for the value of human life. His armies became as much cannon fodder as the German forces had been towards the end of the Great War - ironically because it was in part Hitler's memory of that conflict which drove him on ever after to restore Germany's reputation. National pride was a key driver of all that he did.

The Holocaust is covered with restraint but Ian Kershaw shows its roots in Hitler's malign philosophy and describes how anti-semitism, along with anti-Bolshevism, drove everything that he did. There is an incrementalism to this story which is chilling - not least because we know what it was eventually to lead to. As we have seen Hitler was not hands-on in the detail but of course he knew what was going on and had inspired it. Kershaw made a famous television series about the Nazis called "The Nazis: A Warning from History" and he addresses the same aspect of "warning" in the biography - though without at any time moving away from a strict fact-based interpretation of what happened. The facts are enough. That thousands of ordinary Germans were willing to take part in unparalleled acts of barbarism - and in genocide (and that the military/industrial complex that was the Third Reich functioned to make this possible) is truly frightening. That is the warning. It is true that in a dictatorship the  rule of fear is ever present - people do what they do to survive. "Obeying orders" and keeping their heads down and looking the other way. But it is clear that the majority of the population were complicit (or if not that unwilling to challenge) because they chose to be. 

The compliant population lasted until the War turned against Hitler by which time it was too late. Today we call the phenomenon of ordinary people accepting things that might previously have been anathema to them as "Normalisation". At its most trivial this is the "Well he got the trains to run on time" syndrome where we surrender our previously held assumptions as to what is acceptable behaviour in our leaders because key aspects of life (employment, availability of food and shelter, security) are delivered where they were absent or under threat before. As we have seen Hitler initially delivered. How he did it is subservient to the fact that he did. Ian Kershaw has  described it as follows: 

"Dictatorship emerges where an individual or clique takes over power, usually at a time of crisis, on behalf of and often with the support of the people, and substitutes personal authority for the rule of law"

So the most important "warning from history" is not to normalise - not to accept that  the means justify the ends. Or at least to be wary if the "means" seem inconsistent with our previously established norms. There is no such thing as a "benevolent dictatorship" when the Dictator - Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco - replaces an elective democracy with a totalitarian exercise of power. History teaches us that the "benevolence" doesn't last long. 

Have we all learned from the warning that the Hitler years gave us?

In the 21st Century we may argue that the lessons of Germany in the Hitler years have been learned, that the post-war checks and balances are such that we have taken note of history's "warning". It would be naive and dangerous to assume that this is the case. President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia are both following a not dissimilar path to the early years of the Third Reich (or the years immediately preceding them). Individual liberties have been limited and state power has been used to eliminate opposition. In Donald Trump's America we see overt nationalism backed by propaganda and simplistic sloganising ("Make America Great Again"). One of Hitler's first acts on taking power in 1933 was to withdraw Germany from the "League of Nations". Trump is also contemptuous of international cooperation bodies such as the UN and NATO. And scapegoating is Trump's natural way - Muslims and Mexicans as well as Democrats and Judges. 

The United Kingdom has a strongly nationalist Government and a Prime Minster who wishes to eliminate dissent. The 48% of the voters who voted against the proposal to eschew international cooperation and to leave the European Union are being told by the Prime Minister that they should come in line and by the propagandist pro-Brexit newspapers that support her that those who oppose her are "saboteurs". Theresa May has attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary debate and votes on this issue - though some of our parliamentarians and judiciary have managed to stop the worst excesses of this extreme political dirigisme (bordering on one-party dictatorship). The pro-Brexit vote was delivered by nationalist rhetoric (about "Sovereignty") and by a xenophobic anti-foreigner and (above all) anti-immigrant pitch. May's calling of an early General Election is clearly based on her wish further to entrench the power of her increasingly nationalistic one-Party state. This also extends to withdrawal from such bodies as the European Court of Human Rights

That democracy is under threat today in countries that previously had entrenched it is not in doubt - and this should be a warning. That some elected politicians, once they secure power, exercise it undemocratically is there for all to see. That scapegoats are sought and victimised has uncomfortable parallels with the past. That dissent is not allowed is also increasingly common. And that propaganda - usually delivered by compliant Media owners from "Fox News" to "The Sun", the "Daily Mail" and the rest - is insidiously employed to reinforce the governing hegemony is surely not in question. 

After the Wall Street crash Germany plunged into darkness. Millions of dead and fifteen long years later she emerged, and was utterly determined to heed the warning from history that the Hitler years had been. The United Nations and institutions of international justice and political and economic partnership in Europe facilitated that progress. But others seem not to have heeded the warning in the same way - at least rectify. The nationalist and isolationist path on which America and Britain are launched is certainly as foolish as it is anachronistic. It could also be catastrophic.