The beginning of 2016 saw a significant passing: the Bavarian government lost control of the copyright to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This means that it became legal to print a new edition of the work in Germany. A massive 2000-page scholarly edition has accordingly arrived, which includes the 800 or so pages of the original text with ample commentary pointing out every factual error and self-contradiction. There has been some commentary suggesting that a way ought to be found to keep it illegal to produce new editions, but I don’t really see the point. Not only is the book freely available online, but it’s not like it’s a work of any real intellectual power – I have a hard time believing that anyone who’s read it has suddenly found himself converted to Nazism by the sheer force of the arguments.
I’ve never read Mein Kampf. I understand it’s far too long and terribly boring. My own nod to this particular anniversary will be this post, which reflects on the work of the best author by far that I’ve encountered who has treated Hitler.
I have read a fair bit on the Third Reich. Many know far more than me, but still, I’ve read many thousands of pages. However, it’s not the heavy tomes by Shirer or Kershaw or Bullock that have contributed the most to my understanding of the subject, but rather what are probably the two shortest relevant books I’ve read, both by the famous German writer, Sebastian Haffner. (I admit that it may be you have to go through a few of the 800-pagers to really get the most out of Haffner.)
The first of these books is Geschichte eines Deutschen, which means “Story of a German,” though the English translation is sold under the cringe-worthy title, Defying Hitler. (It seems publishers will do anything to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a title: Jesus Saves, but Hitler Sells.) The second is Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Remarks on Hitler,” though sold in English as The Meaning of Hitler, a translation disliked by the author.) You should read both.
Let’s start with the latter book. It is certainly by far the most insightful work on Hitler I’ve ever read. Part of its genius is the writing itself. Short, simple sentences. No big words, no massive accretion of footnotes with an immense bibliography at the end, no vast accumulation of facts in the manner of the 800-page tomes that historians so often produce – Haffner feels no need to impress us with this sort of thing (though a list of what he had read on the subject would have been long indeed). What does impress is his thought itself. Psychological insight, thoughts on the significance of the last eight months of the war, on Hitler’s decision to declare war on America, on the meaning of the Battle of the Bulge: there is a great deal to mull over in this book, and I think most of it is correct (Haffner does try to argue that Hitler would not have been remembered as a great man if he had died in 1939, which I don’t find so convincing: with genocide and war, the difference between talking and doing is an important one).
I will pause on one central thesis of the book, because it is not only worth dwelling on, but altogether compelling. Winston Churchill, in his memoires of the Second World War, declared himself content to be judged on his results. Haffner applies this criterion to Hitler, and comes to the conclusion that Hitler was a total failure, one of the greatest failures in history.
People look to the fact that Hitler got control of so much of Europe, and feel that he must therefore have been some sort of genius – an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. Haffner demolishes this view. Hitler succeeded only where people gave way to him; where he was opposed, he failed. Furthermore, he achieved the opposite of what he aimed at pretty much everywhere.
So, for example, one of his major aims was a war against Russia and Marxism; his actual accomplishment was to bring both into the heart of Europe, even onto the streets of Berlin. He tried to destroy Poland, and the Poles ended up with an awful lot of German land. He set out to destroy the Jews, and instead created conditions in which the creation of a Jewish state was all but inevitable (ohne Hitler kein Israel, says Haffner: “without Hitler, no Israel”). He did not set out at the start to harm Great Britain, but his war had the effect of radically reducing that country’s place in the world. Certainly Hitler did succeed in killing large numbers of people, including his enemies, but he was interested in the fate of nations, not of particular individuals.
The Russian campaign was the most fateful, and here Haffner remarks that Hitler might have won if he’d come as a liberator. This is exactly right but – and this is very often the case with Haffner’s short book – there’s a fair bit to unpack. I’m going to go into it because it’s an excellent illustration of the importance of the moral aspect in international relations. Hitler practised an extreme form of power politics that absolutely discounted the importance of morality, and ended up becoming a particularly potent example of the power of the moral element to determine events.
The thing that has to be kept in mind with regard to Hitler’s attack on Russia was that Germany had beaten Russia in World War One, and had done so at the same time as fighting the major democratic powers to the west in another land campaign. In 1941 Russia’s military (and Russia more generally) was greatly weakened by Stalin’s recent purges, and Russians after two decades of Marxism had rather more reason to rebel against their government than they’d had in the days of the Tsar. How was it that Russia surrendered to Germany in 1917, but Hitler lost in the 40’s?
The answer lies in Hitler’s peculiar genius, which found a way to make defeat all but certain. By waging an unprovoked war of annihilation and enslavement, he gave the people of Russia a reason – even a need – to fight to the death, calling forth in them tremendous reserves of determination and hatred, and further bestowing a legitimacy to Stalin’s government that it would never have achieved on its own. None of this was true in the First World War. In 1917, an end to the war against Germany, even though the terms might be highly disadvantageous to Russia, must have seemed an attractive and even tempting option to many average Russians; from mid-1941, it could not be a temptation at all. If, on the other hand, Hitler’s attack on Russia had been preceded by a propaganda campaign about the iniquities of the Marxist system and the sufferings it had brought to the Russian people, and if (after ‘provocations’ by the Russian state) Hitler had invaded making it clear in word and deed that he was a friend of the Russian people and an enemy only of its oppressive government – well, in that case it’s difficult for me to see how he might have lost. But of course, if he’d taken that route, he would have been somebody else.
Thus it seems to me that the moral element was decisive on the eastern front in WWII. One of Hitler’s (numerous) failings as a thinker was his inability to see the significance of this element. If you push out to the extremes, they push back; in this case, by denying that justice had any power, Hitler made himself utterly subject to it. He said that once the campaign had been won, nobody would worry about how it started; no remark could have been more blind. (Hitler was looking to Friedrich the Great, who made an unprovoked grab for Silesia, but he ignored the fact that Friedrich did not wage wars of annihilation against whole peoples, but rather campaigns against foreign monarchs – and even here the hatred aroused by an unprovoked attack never dissipated: Maria Theresa of Austria never forgave Friedrich and remained his implacable enemy for life.)
Above all, Hitler claimed to be acting for the benefit of the German nation and people, and here the gulf between aim and achievement is extraordinary. Nobody in human history has ever done his own country so much harm. In a speech in the 20’s, he declared “it cannot be that two million Germans died in vain;” in his own war, seven million would. The cities and towns in the more western part of Germany were largely bombed to rubble, but they got off easily in comparison to East Prussia and Silesia, which simply ceased to exist.
The fate of these territories is something of which there’s very little consciousness in the English-speaking world – in the histories I’ve read, it’s covered in a few sentences or not at all – so it’s worth going into a bit of detail at this point. Before the Second World War, Germany extended hundreds of kilometers to the east and southeast of its current border; Germans had been living there since the middle ages. After the war, the population was expelled. Before the war, nobody would even have imagined trying to dislodge the people of East Prussia and Silesia from their ancestral homes, and still less would anybody have been able to do so. Even if someone had somehow managed it, the idea that the people of those territories had a right to that land would have remained – and not only in Germany – making an attempt at taking them back all but inevitable (I think it was Foch who said of Versailles, “this isn’t a peace, it’s an armistice for twenty years”).
The unique genius of Hitler proved capable of overcoming all of these obstacles. Not only did he gradually get Germany into an unwinnable war, but he made sure it was waged with such brutality that he gave Germany’s enemies a terribly compelling reason to want to expel the eastern German population from their homes and force them to resettle as far as possible towards the west. That is, the further to the west the German population was, the safer Russians could feel in the future. And because Germany had by her actions aroused such hatred virtually everywhere in Europe, when the time came to redraw the map of Europe, not only did the Germans not have an advocate present, but nobody who was present was likely to have any sympathy for them.
Years ago at a job in Germany, when I was out with colleagues and we’d had a few drinks, I learned that all those who sat in my immediate vicinity at work were descendants of people who’d been expelled from Silesia or East Prussia. The password to one of our systems was explained to me as the name of a German town – or rather, it used to be German (it was deep in Silesia; my colleagues were all born at least 20 years after the war).
That’s the extent of my personal connection with the story, though I do have a large book of photos from Silesia. A City Hall built in the 14th century, churches, houses, monuments, Breslau (then among the six largest cities in Germany) – a world that looks very much like the Germany I’ve visited myself. It’s hard to imagine the disbelief and horror with which people would have reacted to the news: all Germans were to leave, on pain of death. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? But it was, and whole cities were driven onto the roads, bringing with them a maximum of 20kg baggage each, never to return. A world simply disappeared, and none of it could possibly have happened if not for Hitler. (It was a condition of the acceptance of German reunification by the major powers in 1990 that Germany would give up its claim to these territories, settling this Hitlerian achievement for good.)
An aside: the town of Görlitz, south-east of Berlin, is well worth visiting, not only because of its well-preserved old city, but also because one can visit a Silesian museum there: Görlitz sits on the only sliver of land in Silesia where Germans still live. One part of the exhibit has a collection of house keys: though people were told to leave them in the doors, many expected to return before long, and so brought their keys with them.
The other territory from which Germans were expelled was East Prussia, which stretched hundreds of kilometers to the east of Germany today. One example: more than five hundred kilometers to the east of Berlin was Königsberg, the city where Immanual Kant lived (and never left); it’s now Kalingrad, inhabited by Russians.
In his youth, Hitler had admired the Teutonic knights, who over centuries pushed German territory east; he himself would undo their work almost literally overnight. He also admired Friedrich the Great, who had added the (then German-speaking) region of Silesia to Prussia. Thanks to Hitler, not only was Silesia detached from Prussia, but its population was expelled. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Romania – all had had significant German minorities for centuries, but Hitler taught them all that they’d be much safer without these minorities, so all those Germans were expelled. There had even been Germans living along the Volga in Russia; they were resettled to the far east of Russia. (I met one of the Volga-Deutschen in the US some years ago. He came from a town now in Kyrgistan, called Kant.)
But Hitler achieved even more than this, for he waged the most effective assault imaginable on the very idea of being German: after him, many would say they felt ashamed to be German. This continues even today, when some in Germany support the European project so that they can abandon their German identity for a European one.
Hitler and his Nazis actually were what they declared the Jews to be: an utterly negative and essentially destructive force. Having declared that Germany had a Jewish problem, Hitler convinced Europeans that they had a German problem.
(If you ever want to meet someone who has a rabid, visceral hated of Hitler, try talking to a German intellectual: they’ve often thought an awful lot of this through. I can recall one occasion on which a German intellectual, entirely unprompted by me, have begun to lament the intellectual loss his country had suffered in the 30’s and 40’s – literary, philosophical, scientific giants, not only irreplaceable in themselves, but causing a permanent break and decline in the tradition.)
Such are my reflections on the basis of Haffner’s “Remarks on Hitler.” The other book, “Story of a German” (Defying Hitler in English) is, if anything, even better. Written in the late 30’s, when Haffner was a newly arrived refugee in England (with a Jewish wife), the book was not published until after the manuscript was found among his possessions when he died in 1999. It caused a sensation, as Haffner had become an influential journalist in Germany after the war, well known in his native country for his “Remarks on Hitler,” inter alia. The book is an autobiographical portrait of the times that brought Hitler to power. It not only reads like a novel (I read it in pretty much one sitting the first time), it also gives an implicit answer – the best I’ve encountered – to the question that Germans have been asking ever since: how could it happen?
This is already a rather long post, so I’m not going to say so much about the second book. We get a picture of the years of the First World War and the great shock of the final German defeat from a child’s perspective (perhaps not all that different from the reaction of a great mass of people). We get a portrait of life in the Weimar years; the account of the effects of hyperinflation on everyday life in Germany has always stayed with me. Each month, when his father got his paycheque, the whole family would set out for the market with a wheelbarrow and a great collection of bags, and buy as much mostly non-perishable food as they could. So swiftly was the currency declining, that within a few days, his father’s monthly pay would become worthless, so the family had to acquire the month’s food in a single trip. (incidentally, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin you can see bank notes for billions of Marks from this time.) In time, the Nazis came to power, and we get an idea of the sort of compromises forced on everyone in a dictatorship: Haffner’s father was, by the early 30’s, a retired civil servant, but to continue to receive his pension, he had to sign a document declaring his full support for the government. He contemplates refusal, but how would his son continue his studies? What would his wife live on once he’s gone? The document sits there for some days until finally, he fills it out, signs it, drops it in the post box – and upon coming home has a nervous breakdown that soon leads to his death.
Short, highly readable, rich in original insight, and packed with material that a thoughtful reader will be working through for some time after finishing each book, these two works by Sebastian Haffner are simply essential to anyone who wants to understand Hitler and the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the best summary of Haffner’s career is found a few blocks from the Frei Universität in south-west Berlin, on the building where Haffner spent his last years (incidentally, Albert Einstein also lived there for some of the First World War). The plaque by the door includes the words, er erklärte den Deutschen Deutschland: he explained Germany to the Germans.