HITLER 1936-1945: Nemesis
by Ian Kershaw
Rec. price: $69.95
Ian Kershaw’s second volume of his mammoth biography of Adolf Hitler, Nemesis, paints a picture of a modern, sophisticated society on the path to barbarism and self-destruction, led by one of the most self-destructive men in history. Covering the period from 1936 to 1945, Kershaw records Hitler’s accomplishments in regenerating German society in the wake of the Great War and the Depression, providing jobs and a new sense of national unity for many, while not allowing these facts to obscure Hitler’s essentially nihilistic character.
For the average German, Hitler’s appeal lay in his repudiation of the Versailles Treaty. It was a common feeling in inter-war Germany, across social classes and religious divisions, but particularly amongst the nationalistic, Protestant, middle class, that Germany had been unjustly punished by the treaty imposed by the Western Allies in 1919. Hitler made this the central platform in his appeal to the voters in the 1920s and 1930s.
Added to this was the belief amongst the masses that only radical measures could reduce unemployment and reunite the nation.
The radical, egalitarian spirit of Hitler’s appeal attracted many, as did his insistence that all this could be achieved without the need for the methods used in Soviet Russia. Fear of Bolshevism provided the third element in Hitler’s appeal to the nation.
And yet, having said that, certain sections of German society remained resistant to Hitler’s message. These included the industrial working class, especially those organised into trade unions tied to either the Social Democrats or the Communists, and Catholics, who had their own trade unions, clubs, youth groups and associations, and were wary of Nazis’ neo-paganism.
Though the evidence of Hitler and the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies was there right from the beginning for all to see, Kerhaw argues that it did not play a central role in attracting people to Hitler in the early 1930s.
From the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, to the invasion and annexation of Austria in 1938, Hitler’s appeal grew amongst the great mass of Germans, who began to feel a new pride and sense of superiority in being Germans.
Less popular, Kershaw reveals, was the forced annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and later the rest of Czechoslovakia. Many Germans, even those who admired the Fuhrer, felt that this was going too far. The Czechs were not even a Germanic people and therefore did not fit into the New Reich.
Germans were even less enthusiastic about Hitler’s showdown with the West over Poland. With the experience of the Great War still fresh in many minds, no one but the most fanatical Nazis were looking forward to another Continental war.
Despite this ambivalent attitude towards Hitler and his regime, many Germans were quite happy to prove their loyalty to the state. The phrase, “working towards the Fuhrer”, became common during the Thirties.
Many tried to anticipate the Fuhrer’s wishes by working to Nazify their institutions without any direction from Berlin. A classic example of this was in the German universities where pro-Nazi academics proceeded to expel Jews from teaching positions and to Nazify the curriculum, before any such orders had been promulgated by Nazi authorities.
Hitler proved to be one of the greatest failures of the 20th Century. All his stated goals – the uniting of the German people in one Reich, the destruction of Bolshevism, the eradication of the Jews – came to nought and he left Germany in 1945 beaten, impoverished and divided for almost fifty years, between the liberal West and the communist East.
But why the ongoing fascination with Hitler and Nazism?
Perhaps it is because Hitler and his henchmen threw down a challenge to Western, liberal society, unlike any other political movement or creed in the 20th Century.
Hitler proved that the Enlightenment belief in progress and reason was mistaken; that human beings preferred the appeal of myth and magic, to the dry rationalism of science; that democracy is not inevitable, as many presumed in the 19th Century, but rather, that dictatorship could prove more popular with the masses.