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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Jonathan Steinberg's Review of Ian Kershaw's New Book in the Globe and Mail

According to Jonathan Steinberge's review,Ian Kershaw, British historian of Hitler, wonders how Germans could have remained “loyal” and “obedient” to Hitler despite mass murder (as per Holocaust) and, with the Allied bombing and bloody battles in the East, mass homicides. I assume that since homicide means any killing by any one of any other, the use of the term implies mass suicides – both in the literal sense of Germans killing themselves for fear of revenge and in the proxy sense of Germans, not having risen up against Hitler therefore, being massively bombed, expelled, tortured, and incarcerated by the Allies.

If Steinberg is right, Ian Kershaw’s book sits on several flawed assumptions. The main one being that Germans did not rise up against Hitler owing to their perverse tendency to “obey” the Führer. He links this to concepts that the Nazis themselves developed in their popular literature, namely, charisma and, more importantly, “personalization.” It would have been better to simply say that in the 1930s völkisch Nazis were obsessed with great personalities and the cultivation, in the form of popular literature furthered especially by the SS, of cunning, "holy" warriors.

Given Steinberg's review, what Kershaw forgets are two important things. First, the Nazis knew—(as did the population that read their propaganda disguised as heroic adventure stories from Germanic to Islamic ones)—that great personalities or god-like heroes lose their legitimacy instantly when a hint of failure is detected, which occurred, for example, with the demise of the 6th Army in Stalingrad. Hence the immediate and dramatic reaction of Goebbels first to close all theaters, movies, and other public entertainment (2 – 4.2. 1943), then to call out “total war” (18.2.1943) at the Berlin Sportpalast, and finally, about a month or so later open, with heroic generosity, new venues for mass entertainment in lieu of those destroyed by Allied bombs.

While it needs further study, this and similar Wagner-like antiques used by Goebbels and of course Himmler for propaganda purposes, had the long term effect of shoring up the legitimacy of Hitler, at least among its immediate supporters.

Second, Germans were not “obedient” to the Führer, but were boxed in by Goebbels’ propaganda apparatus, by Bormann’s heavy-handed control of Party matters including “disobedient” Germans even in foreign countries, by Himmler’s terror and think tank organizations, and by Speer’s architectural creations of cultic spaces. Furthermore, there was a Resistance; but with the exception of Hoffmann (1977), it is largely ignored in the English speaking world.

Instead of blaming and mystifying the Germans for crimes committed by the Third Reich’s thousands, but countable, fanaticized leaders, we should have researched how it is that we still do not recognize what those many führers did, and how they did it. And above all, we should research, something I have and am doing, namely, how it is that many of them, especially those who managed the religious-political worldview, survived detection after the war and lived to write sweet but poisonous books right into the 1980s.

To move forward in our thinking, we also need to put to rest Allied World War II propaganda, which at any rate was often a convenient adaptation of Goebbels’ propaganda, like his claims that the German people are uniformly behind their Führer, or the German Resistance was but a clique of reactionaries, and so on ad infinitum. Do that, and look at the religious mythological foundation of the National Socialist Worldview, and we might come to an understanding of what went on there and then—and what is going on in, for example, the Arabic and/or Muslim world now.

German readers might want to look at Ulrich Herbert's work who argues against Hannah Arendt's conclusion, for example, that Eichmann was incapable of moral judgment. Herbert points out that Eichmann did what he did because he was convinced that "it was serving a greater end" and "a higher law above conventional morality." Taking orders -- something done in all armies -- was done, but the likes of Eichmann did not do it for the sake of obedience to Hitler. They did it because they were convinced of their actions. They believed -- in the end -- their own propaganda, that is, their new religion -- as National Socialists said repeatedly.

At any rate, there is a better review of Ian Kershaw's book in a recent TLS.