The road to destruction. Hitler was not interested in world domination. He had only two real ambitions: to destroy the Jews and to make Germany master of Europe. Richard Gott on the Fuhrer's final failure

Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis

Ian Kershaw<em> Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1115pp, £25 </em>


Hitler was never much fun. He had breakfast when other people were ready for lunch, and his personal staff were often obliged to sit up half the night while he held forth on the past triumphs of the Nazi party. Wagner, Beethoven and Strauss were always available on record and, on most evenings, movies were shown, which the chauffeurs of visitors might be invited to attend. Yet nobody found it pleasant to be close to Hitler. He was not good at small talk, and had no intimate friends.

Only Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer enjoyed a close relationship with Hitler. They seem to have genuinely "worshipped" him, as did many of his other acolytes. The Fuhrer in his prime who emerges from the second volume of Ian Kershaw's magnificent biography resembles a demented prophet from the Middle Ages, surrounded by true believers. They treated him with the kind of awe and respect more often reserved for religious leaders than for politicians or military commanders.

Hitler, according to this reading, was a satanic Antichrist, holding the "charismatic community" of his disciples in absolute thrall. He was the Messiah, and they raised him up to the status of a "demigod". Hitler, too, was convinced that he was "walking with destiny, guided by the hand of Providence". The disciples might have wondered and marvelled in his presence but, whenever they entertained serious doubt - which some of them began to do when defeat followed the early wartime victories - they could not bring themselves to question him.

Kershaw's second volume begins in 1936, with Hitler as the idol of the mass of the German population. His ambition to shake off the chains of Versailles and to resurrect Germany as a European power was within his grasp. The recovery of the Rhineland was achieved without adverse foreign reaction; and in the Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin in the August, Germany won more medals than any other country.

Just before the Games began, Hitler made the first moves of a more outward-looking foreign policy, securing allies in the west. Meeting emissaries from General Franco in Morocco, Hitler agreed to provide support for the Nationalist side in the nascent Spanish civil war. In truth, Hitler had no real interest in the west. Since his youth, his eyes had been fixed in the opposite direction, on the fulfilment of his only two aims in life: to destroy the Jews and to make Germany master of Europe, creating "living space" for millions of German citizens "in the east". He cared little about the wider world. He had no interest in the United States or Japan. Unlike Napoleon, who was the strategist of a genuine world war, Hitler's interests were confined to Europe and its eastward extension. He viewed the world from the lower Danube, as an Austrian, not a Prussian. When the invasion of Russia was well under way, he dreamt of the German people driving in their Volkswagens down motorways to the Crimea - "their version of the Italian or French Riviera".

Hitler had great enthusiasm, however, for the British empire: he wished to emulate it, not destroy it. The empire was his model for the domination of conquered territories in the east. "His inspiration for the future rule of his master race was the Raj," writes Kershaw. Hitler told the Indian nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, as he put him on a submarine to Japan, that India needed another 50 years of British rule (a revealing anecdote that is not included in this book).

Kershaw has constructed a huge "life and times" biography; in volume two, the "times" inevitably triumph over the "life". For the last decade of the Fuhrer's career, little distinction is made between the story of Hitler and that of the Third Reich in general. Where the first volume contained a wealth of new or unfamiliar stories that leavened the lump of political history, the second volume is singularly focused and inevitably grim. Kershaw produces one wry smile, at Mussolini's expense. When the Italian dictator was imprisoned on the island of Ponza, Hitler arranged for the collected works of Nietzsche to be kept for him as a 60th birthday present. Evidently, Kershaw points out, he presumed that the Duce would have the time and inclination to reflect on "the will to power".

As in the first volume, the set pieces are written up quite brilliantly, starting with the extraordinary scenes in 1938, when the war minister marries a known prostitute and an army commander is accused of having an affair with a rent boy, and concluding with the multiple suicides in the Berlin bunker. This is first-class narrative history, based on extensive research and impeccable scholarship, and Kershaw always allows the story to shine through the detail. He is particularly good at explaining how Hitler was able to lead the various institutional forces of the nation down the road to disaster and moral obloquy. Wrong-footed by Hitler's great victory in the west, the army commanders were obliged to go along with his criminal plans to wage total war in the east. A few senior officers grumbled, and a handful began the long road to rebellion that ended so disastrously in 1944, but most of them fell in with Hitler's commands. They believed them to be right.

The Nazi zealots who surrounded Hitler were given significant powers of autonomy; they did not need to wait to be told what to do. They operated by "working towards the Fuhrer" (the management system of the Nazi state outlined by Kershaw in volume one); they imagined what Hitler would like them to do in any given circumstance, and would then act on their own account, without orders from on high.

The administrative conditions of the Third Reich were chaotic, with fresh bureaucratic creations overlapping existing institutions. Yet there was no excuse for not taking the initiative. As a result, Hitler was everywhere and nowhere, and his influence is surprisingly difficult to locate in written records. As David Irving correctly pointed out during his unsuccessful libel case against Penguin earlier this year, no actual documents link Hitler to "the Final Solution" of the Jews. His disciples, "working towards the Fuhrer", had no need for written instructions, or even for private debate. They knew what he would want done, and he knew what they were up to. Controversial subjects such as the destruction of the Jews were almost never mentioned in his presence.

In this context, Kershaw is particularly skilful at explaining how one decision led seamlessly to another. Hitler's programme to kill the mentally ill, authorised specifically in September 1939, was followed inexorably by the barbaric treatment of the Slavic Untermenschen of occupied Poland ("Asia begins in Poland," Hitler told Goebbels). Eighteen months of involvement in the brutal subjugation of the Poles prepared the way for "the readiness to collaborate in the premeditated barbarism" of Operation Barbarossa, in which Hitler sought to eliminate the Bolsheviks. This, in turn, led to the decision - hinted at, but never precisely spelt out - to embark on the extermination of the Jews.

The "euthanasia" programme eventually backfired, as casualties escalated on the eastern front. Rumours about killing mentally ill patients in asylums caused "intensified disquiet" in Germany. The idea of eliminating "life not worth living" was more threatening when ever larger numbers of injured young soldiers were being brought back from the front to be housed in hospitals and asylums throughout the Reich.

For one group, defeat in the east meant certain death. In Hitler's mind, Jews were inextricably associated with Bolsheviks, and the struggle against one was the struggle against the other. In the countdown to the Final Solution, Kershaw highlights the significance of a Reichstag speech made in January 1939, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, in which Hitler revealed publicly "his implicitly genocidal association of the destruction of the Jews with the advent of another war".

"If the Jews should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war," Hitler ranted, "the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the Earth, and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

Kershaw follows the threads of this "prophecy" through the succeeding years, as the comparatively small numbers of surviving German Jews were pushed eastwards to an uncertain future, into the old German lands "recovered" from Poland (the Warthegau), and then into occupied Poland itself. Here, the Nazis who were granted control of the eastern territories found a Jewish population numbering in the millions, further increased as the German armies marched into Ukraine. As the advance into the Soviet Union faltered, the fate of these Jews was finally sealed, and the death camps silently prepared.

Although no member of Hitler's entourage spoke up or complained, they were well aware of the enormity of the crime in which they were involved. Himmler told a group of SS leaders assembled in Poznan in October 1943 that the extermination of the Jewish people was "a glorious page in our history", yet he was obliged to point out that it was "one that has never been written and never can be written". In the final year of the war, as all other war aims evaporated under the pounding of Russian tanks and Allied bombers, the destruction of the Jews became Hitler's sole and terrible triumph.

Hitler was a fastidious person, and may not even have known the details. He was as careless of German lives as he was purposive in the elimination of Jewish ones. He refused to visit hospitals or bomb sites; once, when his train to the east passed a train carrying wounded soldiers in the opposite direction, he asked his man- servant to pull down the blinds of his carriage.

In this definitive account, Kershaw portrays Hitler not so much as a gambler, but more as a figure reminiscent of Mr Micawber, always hoping that something would turn up. Most of the time, and to everyone's surprise (including sometimes his own), something did. Time and again, friends and foes played into his hands. His opponents abroad were aghast and demobilised by his audacity; his critics at home (notably in the army) were astounded and silenced when his hunches proved correct.

Even when the tide had turned against him, with defeats on two fronts in 1943, Hitler continued to imagine that something would turn up. Improved U-boats or V-rockets - "secret weapons capable of razing London to the ground within a week" - were among his final hopes.

His last hope was the death of F D Roosevelt in April 1945, as the Russians were closing in on Berlin. "Here, read this!" Hitler shouted at Speer, pressing a horoscope into his hand that predicted an improvement in Germany's military position in the second half of the month. "You never wanted to believe it. Here we have the great miracle that I always foretold. Who's right now? The war is not lost. Read it! Roosevelt is dead!"

Within six weeks, Hitler, too, would be dead, killed by his own hand.

The Appeasers, the classic account of prewar British policy by Richard Gott and Martin Gilbert, is now available in paperback from Phoenix Press (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide