Commentary Magazine


The German Dictatorship, by Karl Dietrich Bracher; The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany, by Gerhard L. Weinberg

Ideology and Policy

The German Dictatorship: the Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism.
by Karl Dietrich Bracher.
Translated by Jean Steinberg. Introduction by Peter Gay. Praeger. 553 pp. $13.95.

The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany: Diplomatic Revolution in Europe, 1933-1936.
by Gerhard L. Weinberg.
University of Chicago Press. 397 pp. $12.75.

Karl Dietrich Bracher, professor of political science and contemporary history at the University of Bonn and the author of major studies on the dissolution of the Weimar Republic and on the Nazi seizure of power, is one of the new generation of German historians who in recent years have come to confront their national past without evasion or self-pity. In The German Dictatorship (the first of his books to be published in English) it is no exaggeration to say that he has produced a work of unparalleled distinction, combining the most scrupulous objectivity with a passionate commitment to the democratic ethos. As Bracher writes in the preface: “This book is dedicated to the hope that a sober picture of the German dictatorship may help Germany avoid both old and new dangers, primarily the traditional authoritarian concept of the state, but also a radical utopianism—both expressions of intolerance and conceit, and, moreover, profoundly unpolitical modes of behavior.”

A good part of the book deals with the history of modern Germany prior to 1933, in a wide-ranging effort to uncover the roots of Nazism. Bracher emphatically rejects the theory of a universal, undifferentiated fascism, invoked by many scholars to explain the rise of the Nazi dictatorship. Though he takes into account the fact that nationalist, racist, elitist, and pseudo-socialist ideas were rife throughout Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, he indicates that these did not result in a uniform effect; the fascist phenomenon varied from locale to locale, and the German brand can best be understood by tracing it, as Bracher does, from its roots in Bismarck’s Germany and in the Hapsburg Empire, to the critical events in post-World War I Germany. Bracher also rejects the currently fashionable theory of totalitarianism that views right-and left-wing dictatorships as similar phenomena and that fails to make critical distinctions between authoritarian-traditional modes of rule and totalitarian-revolutionary ones as to their premises, goals, and content. For Bracher, National Socialism was a purely German manifestation, without precise precedent or analogue—not merely the outgrowth of “prefascist philosophers and their pseudo-scientific theories,” but “the specifically German phenomenon of the ready acceptance [of these theories] in a concrete political and social situation.”

National Socialism, he contends further, was given its unique shape and force by certain developments in modern German history so peculiarly localized as to defy ready comparison with or accommodation to one political theory. These included:

. . . the fragility of the democratic tradition and the powerful remnants of authoritarian governmental and social institutions before and after 1848; the susceptibility to nationalistic, imperialistic ideas, a product of the belated and never fully realized creation of a German national state; the problems arising out of the unexpected defeat and the resultant stab-in-the-back legend, and the widespread disgruntlement over the Versailles peace; the permanent crisis of a republic which never won the full support of the majority of the people; the explosive consequences of the Depression on this highly industrialized, socially and religiously divided state with its feudalistic, traditionalistic remnants; and, finally, the middle class’s fear of proletarianization and Communism, and the added resentment and panic of a rural population threatened by the spread of modern technology.

In addition to the emphasis on the specifically German character of National Socialism, Bracher also stresses the importance of ideology as a factor in the Nazi ascendancy, even though the movement’s thinking was eclectic, its conduct opportunistic, and its “ideas of power politics vulgarly Machiavellian.” Nevertheless, he argues that it would be a mistake to ascribe National Socialism’s rapid success merely to luck or improvisation. Indeed, “the basic and fatal error” which was made prior to 1933 first inside Germany and later everywhere else was to underestimate the Nazi movement and the terrible directness with which Hitler moved to realize the Nazi doctrine and ideology on both the domestic and foreign fronts. That ideology, with whose “absolute truth” Hitler and his cohorts were obsessed, had been outlined in Mein Kampf . Its three cardinal principles were hatred of the Jews, Lebensraum (Germany’s own brand of racial-national imperialism), and the supremacy of Fuehrer dictatorship.

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The importance of ideology in the Nazi scheme emerged most clearly with regard to the “Jewish Question.” From the outset, National Socialist doctrine assigned primacy of place to anti-Semitism, making Jew-hatred, with all its tragic consequences, a cardinal feature of state policy. Anti-Semitism became, in Bracher’s words, the Nazi party’s “one basic principle to which Hitler subscribed deeply, blindly, and ruthlessly.” Whereas the “socialist” notions which Hitler and the NSDAP had originally claimed to profess evaporated almost immediately, the elitist racist doctrine and radical anti-Semitism “remained the only genuine kernel of Hitler’s ideology,” regardless of what the party publicly proclaimed. From this obsession there evolved that fatally effective conjoining—detailed in the chapter “Disenfranchisement and Persecution”—of the anti-Semitic terror “from below” with its official sanction by the authorities. The Nazis, as is well known, regularly employed pseudo-legal procedures in an attempt to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the most criminal of actions, but in no other area of their domestic or foreign policy was this practice so pronounced, nor the intent so transparent. It all culminated, of course, in mass murder, revealing “the racist ideology of National Socialism to be an end in itself”; indeed, at the height of the war, when the effort expended on genocide might, from an economic or military standpoint, have been put to more profitable purpose, the Nazi hierarchy insisted on murdering the Jews instead of exploiting their labor.

Support for the Nazi regime, Bracher maintains, rested on a widespread longing of the German people for a strong state, a proclivity nourished by the party’s propaganda and reinforced by Hitler’s successes on the domestic and foreign fronts. It was this eagerness on the part of so many Germans to submit to the authoritarian state which, in his view, even more than the terror and the coercion, serves to explain the failure to develop a unified resistance movement.

The earliest to offer resistance were those who first felt the brunt of the Nazi terror—the members of the organized labor movements of the Left. But intensified surveillance and persecution destroyed whatever opposition they could muster, and after 1936 all that remained in the way of resistance were the “self-sacrificing” acts of “individuals and minute groups, mutual help, close contact with reliable friends, exchange of information.” Later, during the war, there was the tenuous resistance of certain military and conservative groups. The resistance of the religious and political idealists was even more fragile. The heroism of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for instance, who regarded opposition to the Nazi regime as an “act of penitence,” was an isolated example of its kind. And the now famous White Rose movement was small and insubstantial. This student group, which emerged in 1942 at the University of Munich, launched its rebellion (in February 1943) by distributing leaflets calling for resistance to Hitler as follows:

Even though we know that National Socialist power must be broken militarily, we want to achieve the renewal of the badly wounded spirit from within. This rebirth, however, must be preceded by the acceptance of the guilt which the German nation has heaped upon itself and by a ruthless battle against Hitler and his all too many accomplices.

The members of the White Rose were all apprehended, tried by a People’s Court, and executed. Not a single member of Munich’s academic community dared to petition for their pardon. Resistance, Bracher observes, was “a lonely and disreputable affair.”

Looking at present-day Germany, Bracher notes that many of the conditions that prompted the rise of the Nazi movement still exist—“the social and ideological feelings of imminent crisis, antidemocratic and völkisch-nationalist emotions, authoritarianism and antimodernism,” along with a refusal to accept historical experience.

The German dictatorship has failed, but German democracy has not yet been secured. Securing it remains a task that demands full awareness that the road to a real and realistic democratization is a narrow one, still strewn with many obstacles. It runs between the continuing burden of the past and the increased demands of the future, between the threats of the authoritarian tradition and the exaggerated promises of ideological radicalism which prevented the maturing of democracy in Germany and paved the way for the most terrible dictatorship mankind has known. The heritage of National Socialism lives on—negatively in the dangers of a relapse, positively in the opportunities of an educational process drawing on the experience of the past. In this special situation Germany—West and East—will have to live so long as national sovereignty remains the motive force in contemporary political life.

A somber ending to a disquieting survey, and one deserving of the most earnest attention. This is a book for layman and scholar, for those who lived through the Nazi era, as well as for those to whom the German dictatorship is as distant an echo of the past as the Crusades.

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Another book that could well serve the same purpose, though far more specialized, is Gerhard L. Weinberg’s The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany, the first of several projected volumes of what will surely be the definitive study of its subject. Professor Weinberg, who teaches history at the University of Michigan and has written extensively on Nazi Germany, has likewise produced a work of meticulous scholarship; and again like Bracher, he too sees Hitler’s domestic and foreign policies as interconnected and as functions of Nazi ideology.

Hitler’s ideas about race were linked to the concept of territorial space. Both race and space, as Weinberg shows, determined his view of international affairs and shaped a foreign policy that differed radically from traditional diplomacy.1 Hitler’s ideas of foreign policy took as their starting point the German defeat in World War I, the infamous “stab-in-the-back” myth which blamed the Jews and their “henchmen” for sapping Germany of its vitality and contaminating its racial purity—a condition that would find rectification only when those elements responsible for the collapse had been eradicated, and a nationally-conscious government (led by the NSDAP, of course) installed in power. That accomplished, with democracy eliminated and the military rearmed, Germany could then embark on a foreign policy consonant with its racial imperatives.

At this point Hitler’s notions of race and space combined to form his theory of Lebensraum . In his mind the struggle of the races for survival was fundamentally a struggle for space, and space to Hitler meant, above all, arable soil sufficient to support the population and the national purpose. The space that Germany “needed” to maintain the requisite “racial vitality” was located, as the world came to learn, in the East, in the vast expanses of Russia. The Lebensraum would have to be acquired by war, but the human costs of military conflict, as Hitler stressed continuously, would be offset by the racial gains. He expounded this doctrine openly in Mein Kampf:

. . . we National Socialists must hold unflinchingly to our aim in foreign policy, namely, to secure for the German people the land and soil to which they are entitled on this earth . And this action is the only one which, before God and our German posterity, would make any sacrifice of blood seem justified. . . . The soil on which some day German generations of peasants can beget powerful sons will sanction the investment of the sons of today, and will some day acquit the responsible statesmen of blood-guilt and sacrifice of the people, even if they are persecuted by their contemporaries. [Italics in the original.]

He also gave voice to the theme in an oratorical performance before Germany’s top industrialists privately assembled in Düsseldorf a full year before the seizure of power. Once he became Chancellor, Hitler refrained from publicly asserting his racial-territorial objectives, but privately he continued to articulate such intentions. And all the while, as he prepared for the military climax, he pursued a series of diplomatic strategies, “with a combination of caution and bravado, of opportunism and consistency,” as Weinberg writes, all designed to advance his goals.

By mid-1936 Hitler had reached the point where he felt he had accomplished the first stage of his foreign policy—internal purgation of the opposition, consolidation of his power, rearmament. He was now ready to embark on a policy of aggression. The heart of the story—and here Weinberg is particularly adept at threading his way through the welter of details of Germany’s foreign relations—is German rearmament and the remilitarization, by 1936, of the Rhineland, two achievements which marked a signal triumph for Hitler, bringing about as they did the collapse of the post-World War I security system and resulting in a drastic change in international power relations. Flushed with the success of having secured tacit international acquiescence to his policies, Hitler was now ready to take the next giant step toward war and, in August 1936, in a secret memorandum, he promulgated the Four Year Plan outlining the procedures for military and economic mobilization to prepare the nation for war, a war of conquest that would gain Germany her precious Lebensraum and achieve the prize of racial empire. Goering, to whom Hitler entrusted the execution of the Plan, confided to his air-force generals: “We are already at war; only the shooting has not yet started.”

These words were uttered at the end of 1936, the terminus ad quem of the present inquiry. The volume to follow, no doubt, will carry the investigation into the actual “shooting” and Hitler’s conduct of the war, and Professor Weinberg, I am certain, will bring to that task the same special competence that so distinguishes the first volume of his series.

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Footnotes

1 Weinberg—and Bracher, too, for that matter—summarily dismisses A.J.P. Taylor's perverse attempt at historical revisionism in The Origins of the Second World War (1962), in which Hitler is depicted as an 18th-century diplomat, seeking redress without desiring war.

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