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Part D: The Impact of Foreign Policy on Domestic Circumstances


An overall knowledge and understanding of Nazi foreign policy up to the outbreak of the Second World War is essential for this section but should be seen not just in its own right but in terms of what is says about Hitler, about the nature of Nazism. This foreign policy tackled one of Hitler’s main causes – the desire to end the Treaty of Versailles – and his success here helped sustain his popularity in Germany. The needs of foreign policy affected the economy very directly.
This section of the course will require notes on several aspects:


1.

The Main Episodes in Foreign Policy 1933-39




This involves considering:




(i)

Leaving the League and the disarmament conference




(ii)

Non-aggression pact with Poland




(iii)

Recovery of the Saar




(iv)

Naval treaty with Britain




(v)

Occupation of the Rhineland




(vi)

Deals with Italy and Japan




(vii)

Union with Austria




(viii)

Sudeten Crisis and Munich




(ix)

Danzig, Poland and the Nazi-Soviet Pact.




2.

The Impact of foreign Policy in Germany




This involves considering:




(i)

Its effects on employment and the economy in terms of conscription and rearmament




(ii)

Effects on popular acceptance of the Nazi regime and its methods




(iii)

Its effects on the Army’s attitudes to Hitler




(iv)

Its effects on Hitler’s personal standing.



Issue to debate


The historian Tim Mason has argued that Hitler was ‘worried by the fear that if the period of peace and relative prosperity of the late 1930s were to continue for too long, the German people would lose what he imagined to be their sense of aggressive discipline, militarism and ideological fervour.’

From ‘Re-evaluating the Third Reich’ ed T Childers and J Caplan, 1993,



Holmes and Meier
What can be said for and against this view of Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy?

PART TWO: CURRENT RESEARCH




Section 1: Introduction


Twentieth century German history in general and the history of Germany between 1933 and 1945 specifically continue to hold a collective fascination for many people. Indeed at school level in Scotland the Advanced Higher the German history context is by far the most popular option. The out-pouring of literature, most notably on the Third Reich, makes it a difficult and time consuming exercise for even the most conscientious of classroom teachers to keep pace with and assimilate the available literature.
Any student of the Advanced Higher German history course will quickly become aware that in the last three decades there has been a massive outpouring of historiographical material on Germany between 1918 and 1939. It is no longer sufficient, if it ever was, for any student of the period to simply explain and analyse what happened. Anyone looking at the German past must have a historiographical understanding of what has happened in the twentieth century. Three excellent historiograpical essays which collectively deal with the period 1918 to 1939 have been written by Eberhard Kolb, John Hiden and John Farquharson as well as Ian Kershaw. The historiography of the Weimar Republic is well-documented by Eberhard Kolb (The Weimar Republic, 1990) in a book in which the author gives a relatively up-to-date detailed explanation of the state of research on the period from 1918 to 1933. John Hiden and John Farquharson (Explaining Hitler’s Germany, 1983) have written a thorough and detailed guide of what historians have said about the Third Reich in the last fifty years. An excellent guide to recent debates on the Third Reich is by Ian Kershaw (The Nazi Dictatorship, 1993). Even at the school textbook level an author like Jane Jenkins (Hitler and Nazism, 1998, p.49, p.51 and pp.100-101) makes reference to key historiographical debates and arguments.



Section 2: Historiography of the Weimar Republic – 1970s-2000


Even with the passage of time, many books published in the last thirty years on the Weimar Republic continue to be implicitly as well as explicitly influenced by the darkening shadow of the Third Reich. As recently as 1993 E. J. Feuchtwanger (From Weimar to Hitler: Germany, 1918-33, 1993), in the Preface to his general history of the Weimar Republic, states ‘The history of the Weimar Republic is overshadowed by the catastrophic consequences of its collapse’. Feuchtwanger goes on to admit it is difficult ‘to prevent the question of ultimate failure from being too dominant.’ And yet it is worth remembering that, in simple arithmetic, the Weimar Republic lasted for fifteen years whilst the Third Reich lasted for only twelve years. A wide variety of books are available, especially in German, on the history and the historiography of the Weimar Republic. The 1980s and 1990s saw a significant growth in the number of English language books on the history of Germany between 1918 and 1933.
The history of the Weimar Republic can be conveniently divided into three distinct periods. Firstly came the establishment of the Republic between 1918 and 1923. This was a relatively neglected period of study until the late 1960s and early 1970s which saw a growth of research on the Republic’s early years and re-examined the political alternatives available to the revolutionary government in 1918 and 1919. Secondly there were the mid years of the Republic between 1924 and 1928.

This was a time when Germany’s new democracy enjoyed a period of relative political stability and economic prosperity. These, the least ‘dramatic’ years of the Republic have not, historically and historiographically speaking, attracted as much interest from historians as the other two periods. And yet the 1990s has seen a growing level of research into this period. This research has shown that social, economic and political conflict was much more in evidence in the so-called ‘golden years’ than had previously been thought possible. The final years of the Republic understandably dominated and continue to dominate much post-war research. Historians have tried to explain the long-term and immediate short-term reasons as to why to the Weimar Republic collapsed in 1933.


The German Revolution has been the subject of much historical debate. Historians have argued and continue to argue about the immediate post-war situation in Germany. Historians still debate the possibility of using the term the ‘German Revolution’ about the years 1918-1919. There are those who have argued that significant political changes had already taken place towards the end of the war and even before 1914. Debate also continues as to whether it was feasible for major social, economic and political changes to take place in a country that that was still essentially ‘conservative’. Perhaps in the past historians have focused too much on what was going on in Berlin and the other major cities and not looked enough at small town and rural Germany. Research into the early years of the Republic produced books in German by historians like Eberhard Kolb and Reinhard Rurup and in English by Francis Carsten (Revolution in Central Europe, 1918-1919, 1972). The consensus view of historians is that the social basis for change in Germany at this time was wider than had previously been believed. Moreover the forces for change on the extreme left were less strong than they appeared in reality, and therefore the ruling authorities had more freedom of action than had previously been thought possible. The timidity of the Social Democrats can be explained in terms of trusting the old elites and distrusting the spontaneous mass movements that existed in the immediate post-war years. Research in the last two decades has argued that the democratic potential of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, was decidedly contentious. Work on the economy (G. Feldman, The Great Disorder. Politics, Economics and Society in the German Inflation 1914-1924, 1993) and on business (H.A. Turner, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, 1985) has done much to shed light on Germany in the years after the end of the Great War. Viewed from the late 1990s, there has not yet been published a comprehensive and wide ranging English-language history of the November Revolution. From the East German perspective, it is significant that there have been two detailed accounts of the German Revolution, published in 1968 (J. Drabkin, Die Novemberrevolution 1918 in Deutschland, 1968) and 1978 (Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen November-revolution 1918-19, 1978). Until the late 1950s the Marxist-Leninist line in East Germany was that the German Revolution had been an unsuccessful proletarian revolution. However, from the late 1950s East German historians began to view the Revolution of 1918-1919 as being ‘by its character a bourgeois-democratic revolution’. Marxist orthodoxy argued that the masses had not yet been sufficiently organised, and this organisation was to be provided by the founding of the Communist Party at the beginning of 1919. (A worthwhile study of the historiography of the German Revolution from the East German historiographical perspective is provided by A. Dorpalen in German History in Marxist Perspective, 1985.)
On Weimar politics there is a need to research the lines of continuity or discontinuity between the political parties of the Wilhelmine era and those established in the immediate post-war years in the new Weimar Republic. More research also needs to be done on the collapse, particularly after 1928, of the party political system. It is interesting to note that the majority of German language studies on individual parties have tended to concentrate on the early and latter years of the Weimar Republic rather than on its middle years. For English language instances of this see, for example, the books by Evans on the Centre Party (The German Center Party, 1870-1933, 1981); by Leopold in a biography on Hugenberg with reference to the Conservative Nationalists or DNVP (Alfred Hugenberg. The Radical National Campaign against the Weimar Republic, 1977); and by Fowler on the Communists (Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic, 1983). Put briefly it should be noted that there are still many gaps in the political history of the Weimar Republic. There is a noticeable absence of good biographies of the Republic’s numerous Chancellors. Regional studies of the various parties are conspicuous by their absence. And finally there is also work to be done on the social composition of the parties and how, if at all, that changed composition between 1918 and 1933.
Until the 1960s political history dominated research on the Weimar Republic. However, a symposium held in West Germany in 1973 reflected the growing interest in the social and economic history of the Republic. Unfortunately for English language students, few of these studies have been translated from their original German into English. During the course of the next three decades numerous German language studies focused on the socio-economic background to political events in Germany between 1918 and 1933. A consensus developed amongst historians that the formation of the Central Working Association between trade unions, employers and government in 1918-1919, was significant as an exercise in co-operation, which, however, had ended by 1924. Inevitably much has been written about the inflation of 1923. Early studies looked at the events surrounding the years 1922 and 1923 in isolation. In the mid 1970s G. Feldman (The Great Disorder. Politics, Economics and Society in the German Inflation 1914-1924, 1993) looked the origins of the inflation back into the war years. (Coincidentally Feldman has also written extensively about the effects of reparations on Germany.) Borchardt has looked at length at who specifically gained by the inflation of 1923, and, how the inflated currency of that time in the short-term directly affected the German middle classes, and in the long-term indirectly led to the collapse of the Republic. In English Holtfrerich (The German Inflation 1914-1923, 1986) has argued that the inflation was inevitable. Fraenkel and others have seen the Ruhr lockout of 1928, when 250,000 workers were excluded from the workplace, as a significant turning point in the social history of the Weimar Republic. The lockout showed that even before the Great Depression, in the period of so-called ‘stabilisation’, the Republic was having to deal with a potentially explosive situation between employers, trade unions and governments. The years between 1924 and 1928 were not quite the ‘years of stability’ as they had once been perceived as labour and capital were in conflict and as the Republic saw the break up of the party system. Research on the mid years of the Republic, notably by Borchardt (Perspectives on Modern German Economic History and Policy, 1991), has shown that the Republic’s economy did not show an upturn that was suddenly reversed by the onset of the Great Depression. Put simply Borchardt argued the Republic after 1918 was living beyond its means.

He argued, in numerous publications in the early 1980s, that the German economy could not have, even if the Great Depression had not occurred, continued to carry on as it was doing. Yet some German historians have questioned the premise presented by Borchardt that economic sense lay with employers, rather than with trade unions and the various governments, and that the pressure for higher wages was acting as a destabilising force on the German economy in the 1920s. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a succession of numerous English language studies which looked at the economic factors involved in the collapse of the Weimar Republic. In particular Henry Ashby Turner has written extensively about the role of big business. The early chapters of one of Turner’s books (German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, 1985) provides a detailed account of big business during the Weimar Republic, not least in its relationship with National Socialism. Harold James (The German Slump: Politics and Economics, 1924-1936, 1986) has also written about the linkage of politics and economics from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s. There is no shortage of other English language studies recently published which look at the German economy and the problems it had to deal with and how they impinged on the politics of the day. See, for example the works by Abraham (The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, 1986); James (The German Slump: Politics and Economics 1924-1936, 1986); Kershaw (Weimar: Why Did German Democracy Fail?, 1991); Kruedener (Economic Crisis and Political Collapse, The Weimar Republic 1924-1933, 1991) and Balderston (The Origins and Course of the German Economic Crisis, 1993).


As mentioned earlier the collapse of the Republic dominated much of the immediate post 1945 research on the Weimar Republic. In the 1950s and 1960s the nature of presidential government after 1930 stimulated a great deal of historical debate, most notably between Conze and Bracher. The publication of Heinrich Bruning’s Memoirs in 1970 gave credence to the view that his appointment as Chancellor in September 1930 signalled a move towards an authoritarian form of government and an end to democracy. Various other topics relevant to this period, for example the SPD’s ‘toleration’ of the Bruning cabinet and the reaction of the SPD, trade unions and also the reaction of the Prussian government to von Papen’s coup d’etat against Prussia on 20 July 1932, remain the subject of historical debate and controversy. A number of historians continue to be critical of the passive role played by the SPD and the Prussian government in the early 1930s. And yet any attempt at armed resistance by democratic forces to save the Republic might well have led to the establishment of a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship. In the final analysis the extensive range of research on the viability of the Weimar Republic now points the way in favour of accepting that it was not doomed from the start and that monocausal explanations of its collapse have been superseded, in the light of much research, by multi-causal explanations of the Republic’s demise. Hitler’s accession to power was not inevitable. In the final analysis political miscalculation on the part of certain key individuals rather than any actions on the part of Hitler led to the end of the Republic in January 1933.
The collapse of the Republic is inevitably linked to the rise of the Nazis. The dramatic rise of National Socialism from 1928 attracted and continues to attract much attention from German and non-German scholars. Historians focused on specific aspects of the Nazi Party to give a clearer picture of the Nazi movement before 1933.

From the early 1970s numerous studies appeared which looked at the Party at a regional level most notably Jeremy Noakes (The Nazi Party in Lower Saxony, 1921-1933, 1971). The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the publication of numerous books on the organisational structure of the Party, for example on the SA by Bessel (Political Violence and the Rise of Nazism. The Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany 1925-34, 1984) and Fischer (Stormtroopers. A Social, Economic and Ideological Analysis, 1929-35, 1983); on the SS by Koehl (The Black Corps. The Structure and Power Struggles of the Nazi SS, 1983); on students by Giles (Students and National Socialism in Germany, 1985); and on youth by Stachura (Nazi Youth in the Weimar Republic, 1975). This period also witnessed a reassessment of the social basis of National Socialism and a re-examination and reassessment of the prevailing view that Hitler and his movement was supported by rural and small town Protestant Germans in northern, central and eastern Germany. Childers (The Nazi Vote. The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1933, 1983) argued that the social base of support for the Party was neither so static nor so narrow than had previously been supposed. Hamilton’s (Who Voted for Hitler?, 1982) analysis of voting patterns in selected German cities has shown that a significant number of upper and upper middle class voters voted for the Nazis. Even amongst the working classes, the Nazis, as various works by Fischer have shown (for example The Rise of the Nazis, 1995), made crucial inroads into obtaining their support at a time of high unemployment. The relationship of big business to National Socialism was inevitably the subject of much research in East Germany. Put simply East German historians argued that German fascism under the Nazi take-over was an extreme form of monopoly capitalism. By way of contrast the American historian Henry Ashby Turner (for example in German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, 1985) refuted the ‘well established’ view that the Nazis received a great deal of financial support from big business. Another historian Feldman, in various German language studies published in the 1970s and the 1980s, took issue with Turner and argued that money alone from big business did not pave the way for the Nazi take-over in 1933. Feldman argued that as the 1920s progressed big business moved away from supporting or having any sympathy in favour of the Weimar Republic in favour of supporting an authoritarian form of government.


Weimar foreign policy has been closely scrutinised by historians. Since 1945 German criticisms of the vindictive nature of the Versailles Settlement have somewhat abated and a greater understanding of the difficulties confronting the peacemakers in 1919 has gained greater credence. Schulz (Revolution and Peace Treaties, 1917-1920, 1974) argued that the Great War heavily influenced the terms agreed upon at Versailles. In a lengthy study Mayer (Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking. Containment and Counter-Revolution at Versailles 1918-1919, 1967) looked not just at the so-called ‘German question’ but also at how the domestic political circumstances of each of the powers represented at Versailles affected their country’s specific decision-making in 1919. Mayer even went on to argue that the desire to ‘contain’ Bolshevik Russia at the end of the War was the crucial feature of international politics at this time rather than any desire to punish Germany. There is certainly a greater willingness on the part of historians to accept that at Versailles Germany was treated more leniently than has been acknowledged in the past.

Indeed in a German language study Andreas Hillgruber (Grossmachtpolitik und Militarismus im 20. Jahrhundert, 1974) has contended that because Germany was treated ‘leniently’ in 1918 and 1919 then the room for diplomatic manoeuvre on the part of the Weimar Republic in international affairs was greater than it had been before 1914 under William II as Emperor or even when Bismarck was Imperial Chancellor. How the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of the Nazis and to the collapse of the Weimar Republic is still a matter of much debate amongst historians. Bracher (for example in The German Dictatorship, 1971) has shown that numerous factors led to the collapse of the Republic and that Versailles alone did not bring about the rise of Hitler. In the final analysis few historians would argue with the view that the Treaty of Versailles did play a role in destabilising the Weimar political system.


A great deal has been written on reparations. Given the complex nature of the subject it is no surprise to note that even the ‘experts’ disagree on how much the Germans actually paid. The release of French documents in the early 1970s led to the questioning of the long-established view that France pursued a draconian peace on Germany. McDougall (France’s Rhineland Diplomacy 1914-1924, 1978) and others argued that, on the contrary, immediate post-war French governments adopted a moderate stance on the issue of reparations. Poincare’s occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 occurred only when all attempts at a negotiated peace had failed. However, the theme of reparations and how it continued to affect post-war Franco-German relations is still the subject of continuing debate. Revisionist work on post-1918 French foreign policy by French historians like Baechler, Bariety and Jeannesson has done much to shed new light on German politics and historical writing of the time.
The relationship between Germany and Russia in the 1920s attracted much attention from German historians in the 1970s and the 1980s, not least because of the ongoing relationship of East and West Germany with the Soviet Union. The Treaty of Rapallo, signed by Germany and Russia in 1922, was viewed in the West for many years as a Russo-German conspiracy. Original research by a number of German historians from the 1950s through to the 1980s confirmed the view that there was no possibility of a Russo-German conspiracy against the West, and that it suited both Germany and Russia, as the international outcasts after 1919, to put pen to paper at Rapallo for mutually beneficial reasons. Writing in German in 1977 Klaus Hildebrand may be as close to the truth as any historian when he argued that a ‘fear of isolation’ propelled Germany into signing the Treaty of Rapallo.
Gustav Stressemann remains the dominant figure in German foreign policy between 1918 and 1933. Before 1970, with the obvious exception of Third Reich historians, the great majority of works on Stressemann were highly complimentary and saw him as a ‘good European’ whilst a few saw him as a ‘German nationalist’. After 1970 a consensus view evolved which saw him as being no different to any other European statesman of the time. He was a realist and a nationalist who ‘looked after’ the interests of his own country in the existing diplomatic system. In other words he was working within the European power system as it existed in the 1920s. Wishing to ensure a restoration of an independent German foreign policy after the War, Stressemann realised he would have to work within, however unpalatable it might be, the parameters set by Versailles in 1919. The use of Germany’s economic power was the only possible leverage available to him in the light of a lack of military power. All his ‘actions’ from the Dawes Plan to the Young Plan must be seen in this light. Moreover Stressemann never forgot that he would have to satisfy French demands for security to achieve his goals. With his death in 1929 there is no doubt that successive Chancellors, namely Bruning, von Papen and Schleicher adopted a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy.

Section 3: Historiography of the Third Reich - 1970s-2000


Over fifty years after its collapse, the legacy of the Third Reich continues to haunt the German people and the German historical profession. It is even debatable if they will ever be able to master the Nazi past – the so-called Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (See Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship, 1993, p.1). Some historians believe that the academic and intellectual tools of the historian are simply inadequate to deal with a phenomenon that was largely irrational. They see it as impossible to give an adequate explanation of Nazism. It is certainly true that the history of Germany between 1933 and 1939, and indeed up to 1945, is more a matter of contentious and heated debate amongst historians than the history of Germany between 1918 and 1933.
The issue of continuity and change continues to be a dominant theme when placing the Third Reich in a wider historical context in German history. Historians still argue over the extent to which Hitler and his movement was the logical culmination of German history extending back beyond the Weimar years into the nineteenth century and even into the more distant past. A consensus view largely prevails that the rise of Nazism can be placed in a short-term (for example the effects of World War I, the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic, and the effects of the Great Depression) and long-term (for example the effects of industrialisation and the political legacy of Bismarck) context linked to the political machinations which, in December 1932 and January 1933, brought the Chancellorship to Hitler. Disagreements continue to manifest themselves away from this bigger picture. It is highly unlikely that the issue of continuity and change will go away. Historians continue to be fascinated and intrigued by this topic. This continuing fascination is discussed at some length in a recent study by Richard Evans (Rethinking German History, 1990). The pioneering work of Fritz Fischer (Germany’s Aims in the First World War 1966 and also War of Illusions, 1973) continues to influence German historical scholarship in the field of continuity and change. The continuing relevance and topicality of his work was reflected in the translation into English, by an Australian historian Roger Fletcher, of his famous polemical essay Bundnis der Eliten (From Kaiserreich to Third Reich Elements of Continuity in German History 1871-1945, 1986).
The place of Hitler in the history of the Third Reich continues to dominate much historical scholarship on the period between 1933 and 1945. The question is continually asked how important is Adolf Hitler to an understanding of the history of the Third Reich? The last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed the debate between the ‘intentionalist’ and ‘structuralist’ historians as to the central importance or otherwise of Hitler. The ‘intentionalists’ argued that as an individual Hitler was pivotal to an understanding of the history of the Third Reich. Thus Klaus Hildebrand argued that Hitler’s pathological anti-Semitism led to the annihilation of European Jewry because it was his ultimate ‘intention’ to exterminate the Jews. (See also G. L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, 1964). In terms of foreign policy Hitler’s ideological goals, outlined in Mein Kampf and elsewhere, in the early 1920s, shaped his actions in the 1930s and 1940s.

Rainer Zitelmann has argued that Hitler wanted to ensure that the German economy was developed and advanced in technological and industrial terms and so he ensured the economic revival of Germany after 1933 because of his reflationary policies.


Such views which give Hitler a determining role in the period are refuted by the ‘structuralists’ who see an undue emphasis being given in history to the role of Adolf Hitler as an individual. Two prominent ‘structuralists were Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen. As a key ‘functionalist’ Martin Broszat moved away from the Hitler centred treatment of Nazism when looking at the nature of government in the Third Reich. First published in German in 1969, Broszat’s The Hitler State looked at the character and structure of government, policy formation and power relations in the Third Reich. Previously Bracher had argued that Hitler had consciously and skilfully ruled Germany by a ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Broszat however argued that the ‘divide and rule’ strategy was not consciously devised by the regime, but rather was the unwillingness of Hitler to establish an ordered system of authoritarian government. Hans Mommsen (for example see his article in G. Hirschfelsd’s [ed.] The Policies of Genocide) argued that the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ in the war years cannot be attributable to Hitler alone but rather needs to be explained in terms of improved bureaucratic initiatives which had their own inbuilt momentums. On anti-Semitism some ‘structuralists’ historians would argue the persecution of the Jews leading to the Holocaust came about largely because it was driven by lower-ranking officials in Nazi Germany. ‘Structuralists’ never seek to deny the importance of Hitler but they would contend that Hitler is not as important as made out by the ‘intentionalists’. Furthermore ‘structuralists’ would argue in favour of the importance of political and administrative structures in shaping the history of Germany during the Third Reich. These structures and institutions largely determined the history of Germany at this time with various interest groups competing frantically for power and influence in an anarchic manner.

An American critic of the ‘structuralists’, David Crew, has argued that their type of history does not deal with ordinary people in their everyday lives and so can be criticised because it depersonalises history. Another critic, the Cambridge historian Richard Evans, has argued that the ‘structuralists’ have tended to write in a political vacuum and not given appropriate emphasis to the social and economic forces at work in German society. Ian Kershaw (The Nazi Dictatorship, 1993) has come to the conclusion that there are elements in the ‘intentionalist’ and ‘structuralist’ approaches that can be brought together in some sort of synthesis to establish a greater understanding of the Third Reich.


Despite the publication of biographies by non-academics like Joachim Fest (1973) and John Toland (1977), the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a move away from writing biographical history by professional historians. This does not necessarily mean to say that the ‘Hitler industry’ showed or shows no signs of abating. (Christian Leitz [The Third Reich, 1999, p.2] makes reference to the fact that about 120,000 publications on Adolf Hitler have been produced.) Such a move is in keeping with the desire of historians to place Hitler, not least by the structuralists, in the wider context of the history of the Third Reich. Yet curiously enough the late 1990s saw the appearance of the first volume of a two part ‘biography’ of Adolf Hitler by the essentially ‘structuralist’ British historian Ian Kershaw (Hitler 1889-1936, 1998). Kershaw was at pains to explain how, in the context of his unique time, this obscure Austrian came to rule over the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

In his Introduction Kershaw argues that the circumstances of the time involving factors like social Darwinism, xenophobic nationalism, defeat in the Great War and the events surrounding the history of the Weimar Republic ensured that this Austrian drifter was catapulted to power. Even when Hitler came to power in 1933, Kershaw sees developments in Nazi Germany, taking place in spite of Hitler (through the actions and exertions of other leading Nazis and lesser officials and zealous supporters throughout Germany) and not because of Hitler (who was lazy and indolent).


The 1980s saw the so-called Historians’ Dispute or Historikerstreit which flared up between the distinguished historian Martin Broszat and other eminent German historians. (Anyone wishing to study the Historikerstreit at length should consult the edited collection of sources produced by Gates and Knowlton, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?) Quite apart from its content the Dispute showed how rancorous and personally vituperative German scholarship and German historians could be. Broszat argued it was important for the historical profession to try to understand Hitler and Nazism and move away from the continuing demonisation of Hitler and the Third Reich (or what Ian Kershaw has called ‘bland moralisation’). Broszat felt it was no longer adequate or analytically sufficient to call Hitler, as William Shirer had done, as ‘evil’ and possessing ‘a demonic personality’. He argued in various German language studies that Hitler should be brought back into mainstream history and analysed by historians as a historical figure and phenomena. In the jargon of the time he felt it was important to move towards the ‘historicisation’ or Historisierung of Hitler. In response, amongst others, Saul Friedlander argued that placing Nazism in the wider context of German history would downplay the moral awfulness of regime. Secondly the concept of ‘historicisation’ was too vague and open-ended and demanded clarification if individual actions by people during the Nazi era ranging from ‘normality’ to ‘criminality’ were to have any meaning.
In the 1980s Michael Sturmer (Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?, 1993) argued that it was important, in a domestic context of pacifism and a lack of national self confidence, that German historians should present their country’s history in a positive national identity for the German people. Sturmer argued that Germany’s unique and exposed position in central Europe had largely determined her tragic history. Therefore in a sense he felt the personal responsibility of German leaders for both world wars was somehow diminished. At the same time Ernst Noltke attracted enormous controversy by contending that Bolshevism in Soviet Russia and Nazism were interrelated and that Bolshevism triggered a response in Germany which crystallised into Nazism. Noltke went on to argue that Stalin and Pol Pot, amongst others, should be examined in the same context as Hitler. Some critics of Noltke interpreted this as an attempt to relativise or ‘historicise’ the Nazi era and experience. (For a sample of Noltke’s writing in English see ‘Between Myth and Revisionism? The Third Reich in the Perspective of the 1980s’, in H.W. Koch’s Aspects of the Third Reich.) Noltke argued in favour of Nazism as a bulwark and protective barrier against Communism and the evils of Stalinism. Furthermore he contended that the Nazi experience should be treated as dispassionately as other past historical events. In a wider perspective he placed Nazism as the counterpoint to Soviet communism in a European civil war between 1917 and 1945.

Critics of Noltke argued that his views were trying to ‘rehabilitate’ and ‘normalise’ and ‘relativise’ the Nazi past. (And yet it should be remembered that Noltke always strenuously denied that he was trying to ‘rehabilitate’ the Nazis.) Another German historian, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, has argued that the evils of the Third Reich should be faced and confronted so that Germany could move forwards as a liberal and democratic State. The German past, particularly the Nazi past, was crucial in impinging upon the politics of the present.


For decades after the Second World War many historians portrayed the Third Reich as a ruthlessly efficient and monolithic ‘totalitarian’ state. Such historians had looked at Germany ‘from the top’ down by investigating the nature of Hitler’s rule and how various institutions and organisations had been affected by National Socialist rule. Once again Hitler and his henchmen ‘influenced’ and ‘determined’ much historical writing. This image has been hard to dispel and still lingers on, at least in the mind of the general reader. However, in the 1970s social historians began to look at history ‘from below’ and how the ordinary German people themselves had been affected in their ‘everyday life’ or ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ by the Nazi regime. (Yet as long ago as the early 1930s a leading Communist, Ernst Ottwald, wrote about the ‘unknown National Socialist’. On this see Hiden and Farquharson, Explaining Hitler’s Germany, 1989, pp.167-68.) Major impetus to this new social history ‘from below’ was given by two massive studies taking place in Germany. In the south Martin Broszat and other German historians were editing the ‘Bavarian Project’, whilst in the west Lutz Niethammmer was editing the ‘Ruhr Oral History Project’. (It should, however, be noted that the ‘Ruhr historians’ still used fairly generalised ‘top down’ conceptual models.) Both research projects looked at the mundane and not so mundane ways in which the Nazi State impinged upon and affected the lives of individual Germans as they went about their daily business. Incidentally social history had thereby gained a respectability and credence amongst a number of German academics that would have been unknown and unheard of a generation earlier when political history dominated German historical scholarship. This new perspective of the Nazi regime ‘from below’ has done much to create a newer understanding of the Hitler State. The so-called ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ has also served the useful function of allowing younger people to understand how ordinary people like themselves behaved during the Third Reich. It is something they can identify with because of the personal nature of the history. This has been acknowledged by some of the more moderate critics of the Project. However more strident critics of ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ such as E. Hennig have said that this type of history has tended to lead to the accumulation of sterile facts describing what life was like without setting them in an analytical or theoretical framework.
The study of anti-Semitism continues to play a prominent role in the history of the Third Reich. It is still not easy to explain why possibly the most cultured nation in Europe carried out the brutal and systematic annihilation of 6,000,000 Jews. It is also not easy for the historian to use the tools of scholarship to come to an understanding of the Holocaust and the genocidal persecution of a people. The perspective provided by non-Jewish scholars is inevitably different from that provided by Jewish historians.

The controversial nature of this topic and the strong feelings it arouses, not least between Jews, was reflected in the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s (Hitler’s Willing Executioners, 1996) best-selling book in the mid 1990s. (For a discussion of the reaction to Goldhagen’s book see Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler, 1998, pp.337-68. The chapter in Rosenbaum’s book discusses the reaction to Goldhagen’s book at a symposium held North America in 1996 which the author attended.) Goldhagen claimed that the German people were aware of what was happening to the Jews in the east. He goes on to argue that up to half a million Germans were, by the end of the war, actively engaged in the persecution of European Jewry. Goldhagen believes that the roots of the mass killings went back in to the nineteenth century and was the result of an ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’. In 1997 another prominent Jewish historian, Saul Friedlander (Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1997) published a book in which he referred to what could be termed ‘redemptive anti-Semitism’. The German people were looking for a ‘redeemer’ who would ‘save’ them from their enemies and in particular the Bolshevik menace. Friedlander also wrote that the German people were a curious mix of racial and Christian anti-Semitism allied to a xenophobic Wagnerian nationalism. Research on the persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich has understandably concentrated on the Holocaust. (Otto Dov Kulka, ‘Major Trends and Tendencies of German Historiography on National Socialism and the ‘Jewish Question’ (1924-1984)’, Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute, 30, 1985; Saul Friedlander, ‘From Anti-Semitism to Extermination. A Historiographical Study of Nazi Policy Towards the Jews and an Essay in Interpretation’, Yad Vashem Studies, 16, 1984; M. Marrus, ‘The History of the Holocaust. A Survey of Recent Literature’, Journal of Modern History, 59, 1987.) Anti-Semitism as a topic of study on the Third Reich will continue to arouse controversy and heated debate.




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