Birth of Adolf Hitler - Consequences

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Jeremy Noakes, History Today Volume: 30 Issue: 7 1980

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria on April 20th, 1889. In this article, 'Makers of the Twentieth Century: Hitler', from our 1980 archive, Jeremy Noakes argues that Hitler's contribution to the history of the twentieth century has been one of destruction. The war he started in 1939 was to recast the pattern of our world irreparably.

In his speech to the Reichstag on January 30th, 1941 to celebrate the eighth anniversary of his appointment as Reich Chancellor, Hitler boasted that the Nazi revolution was leading to 'the biggest upheavals which have ever taken place on earth'. One of the most authoritative of his recent biographers, Joachim Fest, agrees with him. 'No one else produced a solitary course lasting only a few years such incredible alterations in the pace of history. No one else so changed the state of the world and left behind such a wake of ruins as he did.' Moreover, Fest continues, 'the eruption he unleashed was stamped throughout by his guiding will.' There can be no doubt that Fest is expressing the conventional wisdom about Hitler's impact on world history. Nor is this impact judged simply or even primarily in terms of its scope. It is much more the evil nature of Hitler's actions that has shaped our view him. For those who survived the Second World War and for the subsequent generation, Hitler figures as a modern Attila or Genghis Khan and the term Nazi has become the most abusive epithet that can be bestowed in politics.

The first of Fest's statements is less controversial than the second. There is widespread agreement among historians that Hitler more than any other individual bears the main responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War. His were, after all, the orders which sent German troops into Poland in l939, despite the British and French guarantees of its integrity, it was he who ordered the invasion of Russia in 1941 in contravention of the Nazi-Soviet pact August, 1939 and then, six months later, declared war on the United States, although there was no binding obligation on him to do so under Germany's alliance with Japan. And the results of 'Hitler's War' are all around us today: the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as 'superpowers' and the division of Europe into spheres of influence between them, the effective colonisation of eastern Europe by the Soviet Union; the loss of one-third of German territory and the division of the rest into two separate German states; the destruction of the pre-war settlement in the Middle East and the creation of some of the problems in that area which still plague us today; and the drastic acceleration in the process of decolonisation outside Europe provoked by the war, although here the impact of the Japanese war was even greater than the German one. Indeed, more generally, the main effect of the war was to accelerate change - political, economic, social and technological change - in all those countries involved in it and in many that were not, perhaps most notably the development of nuclear weapons many years earlier than would otherwise have happened, with all its repercussions for post-war international relations. But, of course, the impact of Hitler and of Nazi Germany on the rest of the world was not felt solely in terms of the effect of the Second World War. The appalling atrocities committed in the concentration camps and, in particular, the Jewish holocaust were not only catastrophic events in themselves, but the fact that they were perpetrated by one of the most culturally sophisticated nations raised grave doubts about the vulnerability of Western culture, doubts which have continued to trouble the second half of the century.

But how far were all these developments the result of Hitler's own actions and stamped by his 'guiding will'? 'Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler,' Rudolf Hess was wont to proclaim to Nazi party rallies. But was he? In theory, of course, his power was absolute. But what did this mean in practice? He could not have carried out his policies without a framework of active operation and passive acquiescence on the part of a wide range of organisations, groups, and individuals. How far did these participants themselves help determine events? Moreover, like any other politician, Hitler was operating within a context of social, economic, administrative, and diplomatic pressures and constraints. How much freedom of manoeuvre did he really have? And what effect did he personally have on German and world history?

These are difficult questions to answer. One method of attempting to calculate his historical impact is to speculate on what would have happened had he never existed - to write him out of the script so to speak. There are of course problems about such 'counter-factual' history - notably the assumption that all the other historical factors would have remained same. Nevertheless, by focusing attention instead on the main historical factors, forces, and trends that were operative within Germany and Europe during this period, it may be possible to bring out more clearly the extent to which Hitler did or did not personally influence or determine what actually happened and what his real significance was. Before going very speculative exercise, one is struck by points in particular firstly, Weimar Republic rested on very weak foundations and, even without Hitler, it appears unlikely that it would have survived, secondly, even without Hitler Germany would almost certainly have attempted to reverse the verdict of the First World War and, what is more, would have stood a very good chance of succeeding the pressures within Germany for expansion were very considerable and Germany's strategic position was potentially extremely strong.

After about 1928, there was a growing determination on the part of the traditional German élites - the Army leadership, heavy industry and particularly the overcapitalised heavy industry of the Rhineland and Westphalia, the Junker landowners of East Elbia, and administrative grade civil servants - to replace the democratic political system of Weimar by a more authoritarian one modelled along the lines of that which had existed in pre-1918 Germany. They resented the fact that under the Weimar system organised labour and the consumers were able to gain effective representation for their interests, imposing concessions on employers in the form of higher wages and welfare benefits, and also resisting attempts to protect the German market from cheap imports. There was also resentment at waht was felt to be the weakness of the Republican politicians in asserting Germany's national interests abroad. The most immediate concern was the question of reparations and the clauses of the Versailles treaty which restricted Germany's actions in various fields. But most members of these elites shared more far-reaching ambitions. Their political thinking was still determined by the ideology of naked power politics and the imperialist visions characteristic of pre-war Germany. Few would accept less than the re-establishment of Germany as a major world power and many wished to establish Germany as the dominant power in Europe. These elites felt thwarted by the fact that, although the Republican politicians also wished to free Germany from the Versailles restrictions and restore Germany as a great power, they believed the best way of achieving this was by international conciliation rather than by aggressive diplomacy, let alone military action.

By the early 1930s, however, it was not the elites alone who were discontented with the Weimar Republic. Under the conditions of economic crisis large numbers of people among both the middle and working classes deserted their existing political representatives and voted for the two extremist anti-Republican parties - the Nazis and the Communists. The creation of the Nazi party was Hitler's first major political achievement. During the post-war years, there were numerous small anti-semitic groups in Germany as well as right-wing political and paramilitary formations of various sizes and degrees of militancy. To have forged out of these politically alienated individuals a cadre organisation ready to exploit the mass discontent which erupted with the onset of the depression was a remarkable demonstration of political leadership. But this raises the question of what would have happened to this discontent if the Nazis had not existed. Would a combination of hostility to the existing order and fear of the Left have driven the mass of the lower-middle-class Nazi voters into the ranks of the ultra-rightist German National People's Party (DNVP), despite its reactionary reputation? Or would some alternative populist movement have emerged on the Right in any case - less effective without Hitler as leader but performing a similar role? In any event, it seems certain that the German elites would have tried to impose a right-wing Presidential dictatorship such as von Papen envisaged or in the more broadly-based form advocated by General von Schleicher, supported by the bayonets of the Reichswehr, paving the way for a restoration of the monarchy. Even such a relatively moderate figure as Bruning, while not wishing to destroy parliament, hoped to reduce its role drastically in favour of the executive. This in turn raises the question of the reaction of the mass of the population to such a move. Would there have been a civil war?

Asking these questions helps to focus attention, firstly, on the fundamental weakness of the Weimar Republic - the 'Republic without Republicans', the probability of its not surviving the crisis, and its almost certain replacement by a more authoritarian regime, even had Hitler never existed. Secondly, however, this approach also focuses attention on the key role which Hitler and the Nazis played in destroying parliamentary democracy in general and the Left in particular without, at the same time, much danger of provoking a civil war, since the Nazi movement provided a mass basis of support and the illusion - indeed, to some extent, the reality - of democratic legitimacy.

To begin with, Hitler and the Nazis on the one hand and the traditional German elites on the other appeared more or less equal partners. They shared a common goal: the mobilisation of Germany's of support and the illusion - indeed, to a major power. It was a goal which stood a very good chance of realisation. For the policy of revisionism through reconciliation - at any rate with the West, pursued by Weimar foreign ministers such as Stresemann, had disguised the fact that, after 1918, Germany's strategic position was potentially extremely strong. The Versailles Peace Settlement had left her territory substantially intact, and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine and parts of her eastern territories was more than compensated for by a fundamental shift in the European balance of power in her favour. In the first place, the collapse of the Habsburg empire in 1918 meant that a power vacuum had emerged on Germany's south-eastern borders - a great power had been replaced by several smaller ones, in some cases hostile to one another, and in almost every case politically and economically unstable. Secondly, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the death and destruction wrought first by the Great War and then by the civil war, the defeat by Poland in 1921 and the resultant loss of territory had all critically weakened Russia and, at the same time, placed her beyond the pale as far as the west European powers were concerned. As a result, France had lost her main ally against Germany; and the rebirth of Poland, a state which fatally developed aspirations to great power status without the resources to match, could be no substitute. Thirdly, Italy felt that her participation in the war had been inadequately rewarded by the Paris Peace Settlement and, after the Fascist takeover in 1922, her frustrated ambitions took on an increasingly strident and aggressive form. She was willing to come to an arrangement with any other power prepared to assist her in satisfying these ambitions; and this was inherently more likely to be another revisionist power such as Germany, rather than those states such as Britain and France, that were basically committed to upholding the status quo. Finally, after 1918, Britain and France, both of which were weakened by economic difficulties and a crisis of morale, became divided in their approach to Germany. Britain preferred to appease Germany, partly because peaceful reconciliation had become her traditional diplomatic approach, partly from a realisation that her resources could no longer match her worldwide commitments, and partly from a sense of guilt about what was felt to be the injustice of Versailles. France, on the other hand, determined to try and organise resistance to the threat of German expansion but was increasingly forced to recognise that she could not act without Britain and that Britain was not prepared to act.

In view of these trumps in his hand, Hitler's spectacular diplomatic achievements after 1933 appear rather less impressive. Any German government would have been in a strong position after 1933 - particularly after the reparations problem had been resolved by the agreement of the Allies to cancel reparations at the conference at Lausanne in July, 1932. For example, while it is true to say that Germany did not succeed in converting south-east Europe into an economic sphere of influence until she had won political control of Austria and Czechoslovakia, it is difficult to imagine that in the long run the east European states would not have succumbed to the growing political and economic weight of Germany, particularly since her main political and economic rivals there - France and Britain - evidently did not feel strong enough to resist such a development. Thus, it is clear that Chamberlain and Halifax were prepared to accept the transformation of eastern Europe into a German satellite area, provided that she did not insist on overt political control. They did not feel that the risks entailed in opposing it were worth running; and it would also have had the advantage of providing an effective barrier against the Soviet Union which was viewed as the more dangerous enemy. Eventually, presumably Britain and France would have been compelled to realise that they were faced with a threat similar to that which had confronted them in 1914; but the balance of forces would this time have been very different. Without Hitler and Nazism, the United States would have seen less reason to intervene and, without the weight of America, it would have been impossible to counter-balance the growth of German power. Much, of course, would have depended on Germany's relations with Russia. She would have had the chance of playing on Western anti-Communist sentiments and acting against Russia with Western support or benevolent neutrality, or of exploiting the tradition on the German Right of co-operation with Russia against the West which went back to Rapallo and beyond.

Thus it can be argued that Germany's strategic and economic position in the 1930s was potentially such as to enable her to acquire a very powerful position in Europe without the need to go to war - provided she was prepared to wait and let existing trends do her work for her. Only a limited degree of self-assertion would have been necessary for her to get her way in the long run. Hitler, however, was not prepared to wait; he was a man in a hurry. Arguably, therefore, Hitler's major significance for world history consisted not only of the more obvious effects of the Second World War, but also in the fact that by his precipitate and aggressive actions he provoked the formation of a coalition that was sufficiently powerful to defeat Germany. In short, he played his hand so badly that he threw away the almost certain chance of Germany becoming the most powerful state in Europe.

This raises the question, however, of the reasons for Hitler's 'precipitate and aggressive actions'. Were these the result of carefully calculated policies, of his 'guiding will'? Or had he rather become a prisoner of the forces that he had done so much to unleash?

In the past decade or so, most Western historians of Nazism, and this includes Western Marxists, have divided into two main schools of thought on the question of Hitler's role: the first tends to include those scholars concerned mainly with the domestic aspects of the regime, while the second consists mainly of those studying foreign and strategic policy. The first group, although they vary in emphasis, are united in wishing to escape from the tendency to reduce the reality of Nazism to the will and ideology of one man. They are concerned to relate Hitler and his regime to German society and to discover what function he and his regime performed for that society or for particular elements of it. They tend to stress the extent to which Hitler's actions were determined by the nature of the regime that he had established and by the dynamic social forces that he had helped to mobilise in his takeover of power; the extent to which the administrative processes of the new regime acquired a momentum of their own. In the first place, they point to the existence of an anarchic structure of conflicting bureaucratic state and party apparats , each of which was engaged in a competitive demonstration of its superior effectiveness and doing so within a framework of values defined by Nazi ideology. These bureaucracies were operating without close supervision by Hitler and hence were continually producing faits accomplis which he was then obliged to sanction - and always in a more radical direction. Secondly, they point to the fact that Hitler had come to power through the mobilisation of large sections of the middle and lower-middle classes. He had done so by exploiting irrational forces of hope, ambition and fear, which among party militants were focused on vague ideological goals of a largely negative kind the revival of a greater Germany through the destruction of internal and external enemies. The combination of an anarchic administration and the energies unleashed by the process of social mobilisation carried out by the Nazi movement produced a dynamic which obliged the regime to embark on ad hoc actions. Such actions wereessentially without any coherent aim but moved in a more and more radical direction. According to this view, Hitler was in a sense the prisoner of this process. The goals that he proclaimed were not part of any rationally defined programme of action being followed through in a more or less systematic fashion. Indeed, according to one of the leading exponents of this view, Martin Broszat: 'Up until 1939 the aim of winning living space in the East primarily had the function of an ideological metaphor, a symbol to rationalise continuing diplomatic activity a movement of endless progression and power accumulation.' Such was the dynamic within the regime, however, that Hitler was increasingly obliged to take these goals seriously because there was no other way of satisfying the movement which he bad unleashed. Objectives such as the elimination of the Jews from German society and the acquisition of living space in the East, which had begun as ideological instruments for the 'mobilisation of political energy and co-operation, then had to be realised as a diversion from the failure to produce a rational and stable social order out of the antagonistic social forces unleashed by Nazism. In other words, the policies of territorial expansion and the extermination of the Jews were essentially a product of the nature of the regime and its problems rather than the regime being a mechanism for the achievement of those goals.

The alternative view was first stated some years ago by Hugh Trevor-Roper in an essay on 'The Mind of Hitler' and has since been elaborated by a number of other historians. These scholars argue that, while many areas of the regime were indeed characterised by anarchy and confusion, particularly in the domestic sphere, this should not obscure the fact that Hitler and his regime did have a set of goals set out in Mein Kampf and elsewhere, which they pursued more or less systematically from the beginning. These objectives, which were sufficiently coherent as to constitute a programme - though without a timetable or blueprint attached - were in the fields of foreign and racial policy. They were, first, the acquisition of 'living space' in the East through a carefully phased expansion, preferably in alliance with Italy and above all Britain and, it is suggested by some scholars, with the ultimate aim of world hegemony; and secondly, the defeat of 'world Jewry', involving initially the progressive elimination of the Jews from German political, economic and social life. The domestic side of the régime simply reflected these priorities. Hitler was only interested in domestic matters in so far as they impinged on his foreign and strategic policies. The chaos and confusion in some spheres disguises calculated emphases in others. His foreign policy and racial programme were autonomous factors in the situation, indeed, ultimately the determining factors. As Klaus Hildebrand has put it: 'Hitler did not seek political and military power for its own sake in order to be swept away by the politics of permanent action and movement which had been set in motion. But rather he regarded both his regime and the state as a means to an end, namely the achievement of the racial and diplomatic goals which he had established.' This did not mean, of course, that these goals were entirely independent of everything else. The timing, the extent, and the form of their implementation were determined by both external and internal factors. Indeed, the dynamic unleashed by the regime did increasingly limit Hitler's room for manoeuvre; but it did not affect the goals themselves, only the way in which they were implemented in particular, by undermining any careful phasing of the programme.

In fact, it appears questionable whether these two viewpoints are quite as irreconcilable as their protagonists sometimes suggest. Certainly, a one-sided emphasis either on Hitler's goals and decisions on the one hand, or on the autonomous nature of the dynamic within the regime on the other, is liable to distort historical reality. Thus, in view of the fact that not only did Hitler reiterate again and again his determination to pursue certain goals - the destruction of the Versailles Settlement, the acquisition of 'living space' in the East, and the elimination of Jewish influence in the world - but also came remarkably close to achieving those goals, it seems a little foolhardy to deny much connection between action and intent. On the other hand, to assume that the course of events between 1933 and 1945 was determined solely or even mainly by Hitler's 'programme' is to be guilty of a measure of historical naivety. It is now clear, for example, that Hitler did not set out from the beginning with the clear aim of exterminating the Jews; the Final Solution came about as an ad hoc response to a set of overwhelming administrative pressures. On the other hand, had Hitler and his movement not made hatred of and discrimination against the Jews into a cardinal principle of the regime, those Jews would not have died, and it is also inconceivable that the massive programme of extermination could have been launched without Hitler's knowledge. This was too major a policy not to have required Hitler's approval at an early stage. It was a 'twisted road to Auschwitz', just as it was a twisted road to the Second World War. In both cases Hitler had a general idea of the direction in which he wanted to go, but how he got there or even where he ended up was determined by many factors other than his own intentions.

Perhaps two factors in particular combined to produce the dynamic within the regime that, in turn, contributed to Hitler's precipitate course of action. The first was the programme of rearmament which was launched in 1933-43 and expanded over the following years. It was a process characteristic of the Nazi regime, whereby an initiative from Hitler was seized upon by subordinates, in this case the armed services, and from then on acquired its own momentum, periodically stimulated by further unco-ordinated initiatives from Hitler. Soon rearmament began to impose its priorities both on economic and to a lesser extent on foreign policy, thereby restricting Hitler's room for manoeuvre. For his attempt to produce both guns and butter overtaxed the resources of the German economy until he was left with the choice of cutting down on rearmament or of securing more resources through conquest, since he did not dare cut down on the consumer sector too drastically for fear of the unpopularity that would ensue. At the same time, German rearmament eventually provoked other powers to rearm in turn and Hitler then came under pressure to act while he still had a head start.

The second main dynamic element was inherent within the nature of the regime itself. At the core of the Nazi political system was the peculiar quasi-religious quality of Hitler's leadership; he was seen as a kind of prophet, destined to lead Germany out of the wilderness of economic crisis and national humiliation to a promised land of prosperity and restored national pride. But this was a relationship between leader and followers born of acute personal and national traumas, a relationship that was sustained by a sense of crisis. The Nazi movement had emerged in a period of real post-war crisis and Hitler developed his characteristic style of leadership during this period. Furthermore, it had also come to power at a time of genuine national crisis and arguably this was the main reason for the Nazis' success in transferring the exceptional character of Hitler's authority from his movement to the German people as a whole. His whole position of authority, however, depended on the hopes of success which were focused upon him. Moreover, the prospects envisaged by his followers and enthusiastically cultivated by his movement were not those of solid but un- spectacular achievement, but rather of drama and glamour - of crises overcome and glory to be. Humdrum routine and everyday life would be lethal to a regime built on such foundations. In fact, however, Hitler's goals and the ideology of Nazism ensured that the regime would never be in any danger of being undermined by normality. For Hitler had developed a view of his own role in terms of a much more fundamental crisis than that which appeared to face the German people. It was a crisis of cosmic significance - the supposed threat of Jewish world domination and the destruction of the Aryan race. Hitler saw his role in terms of ensuring the defeat of this Jewish threat and the acquisition of at the very least an impregnable and, if possible, hegemonic position for Germany in the world. Furthermore, he saw the key to success in terms of overcoming the conflicts which divided the German people by the mobilisation of the population behind an ideology of integral nationalism. These were, of course, utopian goals based on an irrational view of the world. And, because they were irrational and utopian, they were bound to lead to a destructive collision with reality and hence to war.

Dr Jeremy Noakes is Reader in History at the University of Exeter.

Further reading: 

  • A Bullock, Hitler. A Study in Tyranny , Penguin (London, 1962)
  • W. Carr, Hitler. A Study in Personality and Politics , Edward Arnold (London, 1978)
  • J.C. Fest, Hitler , Penguin (London, 1977)
  • S. Haffner, The Meaning of Hitler , Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, 1979)

Birth of Adolf Hitler | History Today

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