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Author: Ian Kershaw
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Ian Kershaw on Hitler's Place In History: The Lecture Podcast

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019
Ian Kershaw, renowned as one of the leading experts on the Third Reich, unpicks the question of how history should view Adolf Hitler.

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The lecture is split into three parts:

Introducing Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw

Presenter: Good evening and welcome to the first annual Open University BBC Four History Lecture. Our lecturer tonight is one of the most distinguished scholars currently working in Britain, Ian Kershaw, who’s Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. I’ve had the great privilege of working closely with Ian on a variety of television projects over the last ten years or so, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that he isn’t just a brilliant academic, he’s a first rate communicator as well. In fact, once at a public gathering of historians I think I may have damaged his career very slightly by suggesting he would have also made an excellent television producer.

Ian of course is one of the world experts though, if not the single greatest expert on the life and times of Adolf Hitler. His two volume epic biography of the Nazi dictator is now the standard text on the subject, and he’s speaking tonight, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Hitler’s suicide in a lecture entitled Hitler’s Place in History. And I think I can safely promise that on this particular subject there’s no one else on the planet who we ought to be listening to more. After Ian’s talk there’ll be the chance to ask him some questions, but first can I ask you to give a very warm welcome to Professor Ian Kershaw.

The Lecture

Adolf Hitler attends a groundbreaking for an autobahn project In this propaganda shot, Hitler takes part in a groundbreaking ceremony at the commencement of an autobahn project

Sometime between half-past three and four o’clock on Monday, the 30th of April 1945, Hitler shot himself. Eva Hitler née Braun, his wife of one day, took poison at the same time. It was another week before Germany capitulated. The brutal war in the Far East would drag on for another four months. But Hitler’s death marked the symbolic end of the Second World War. German capitulation had been impossible as long as he was alive. Now, within hours of his death, the remaining bunker inmates were vainly attempting to negotiate a capitulation with the commander of the Red Army in Berlin. For them, Hitler was already history. All they could think of was saving their own skins.

The Nazi grandees who had turned up in the bunker ten days earlier to offer Hitler their congratulations on his fifty-sixth birthday thought the same way. The end was plainly imminent. They couldn’t wait to get away. They wanted to survive, not join Hitler’s Götterdämmerung. Göring was quickly off for southern Germany. He wore a drab khaki uniform, not his usual resplendent silver-grey finery. Somebody said he looked like an American general. Himmler, Speer, Ribbentrop, and others offered Hitler their perfunctory congratulations. Then they, too, left at the first opportunity. You could say it was one of the few occasions in history where the sinking ship deserted the rat.

Two days later, on the 22nd of April, something sensational happened in the bunker. Hitler’s voice thundered through the corridors in an uncontrollable outburst of white-hot fury: he’d been betrayed on all sides, and the war was lost. Nobody had heard anything like it before. That in itself is remarkable. One of the things that struck me when I was working on my Hitler biography was how he was able so consistently and for so long to hold on to the fiction that the war could still be won. It was an extraordinary display of willpower. But now he gave up. For the first time, he was openly resigned to defeat. He refused to leave Berlin. The bunker inmates were condemned to wait with him for the inevitable. The Red Army was getting closer every day. But as long as Hitler lived, there was no escape. The main topic of conversation was how to commit suicide. Hitler saw treason all around him. Göring was peremptorily thrown out of the Nazi Party for suggesting that he take control if Hitler was incapacitated in Berlin. The last straw was the news that Himmler had been trying to do a deal with the western allies. Himmler’s own loss of reality matched Hitler’s. He thought he could still play a leading role in a new struggle of Germany with the western powers against Bolshevism. His only worry was whether he should bow or shake hands when introduced to Eisenhower.

During the night of 29-30 April, Hitler dictated his testament and, in a weird noctural service, married Eva Braun, his mistress of many years,. The Russians were by now very close. Hitler didn’t care about the colossal suffering he was still inflicting on the people of the Reich capital through persisting in the futile struggle. He thought only of himself: that he shouldn’t be captured alive and put on show in Moscow. He told his orderlies that he and Eva Braun would kill themselves that day, and gave them instructions about burning the bodies. Around half past three that afternoon, Eva Braun and Hitler said their last farewells and withdrew into their private quarters. Eventually, Heinz Linge, Hitler’s chief orderly, entered the room. He found Hitler and Eva Braun slumped on the sofa. A pool of blood on the floor trickled from the wound in the right side of Hitler’s head. The distinctive smell of bitter almonds wafted up from Eva Braun.

I did wonder whether we should be noting the sixtieth anniversary of his shabby and sordid end at all. I’ve some sympathy with those who think we already hear too much about Hitler. It seems at times that you can hardly open a paper or switch on the television without seeing some further trivial bit of information about Hitler. Anybody could be forgiven for thinking we’ve reached just about saturation point. But let’s just remind ourselves what lies behind this near-obsessive preoccupation with Hitler. I think it boils down to this. No single individual left such an imprint on the twentieth century Hitler did. Looking back, sixty years after 1945, we can see that the Second World War was a defining episode of that century. It fundamentally reshaped the balance of world power. Its victims totalled over fifty millions. Close on two-thirds of them were civilians.There’s been no other war like it in history. Its main author was Adolf Hitler. The other defining episode emerged in the context of that war: the murder of the Jews and others the Nazis deemed racially ‘undesirable’ – what we now call the Holocaust. In intent, planning, scale, and method, there has been no other genocide like it in history. The Holocaust has lastingly reshaped our views of humanity. Its main author was also Adolf Hitler. These alone are sufficient reasons to take the anniversary of Hitler’s death as cause to reflect briefly on his place in history.

How did Hitler see his place in history? It’s harder to answer this question than we might presume, especially for the last years of his life. To do so, we have to remind ourselves of the main driving-force behind his political ‘career’. This ‘career’ was truly astonishing. In the first half of his life he was an absolute nobody. In the second half he made the world hold its breath and wrought destruction on Europe unmatched even by Attila the Hun.

He was made by one war. He fought another to undo its consequences. The first war instilled in him an extraordinary will to destruction. The second war – his war – saw him carry out that destruction. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the First World War was the central episode in Hitler’s life. But not as he described it. He always spoke of it as the best years of his life. We haven’t much reliable evidence to go on. But I doubt very much that he really experienced it as that.

Like so many soldiers, he had gone into that war with great enthusiasm and passionate belief in Germany’s cause. But, like so many, he soon had to live with daily death and destruction all around him. In the very ‘baptism of fire’ of his own battalion, already in autumn 1914, 80% of his comrades were wiped out. For four years, with hardly a break, he was a first-hand witness to the carnage on the western front. He became hardened to human loss on a huge scale, indifferent to death and suffering. In a telling letter written in 1915, he said the sacrifices would be worthwhile if they brought ‘a purer homeland, purged of alien elements’. More than three years later, in hospital recovering from mustard-gas poisoning, he was shocked to the very core at the wholly unexpected news of Germany’s defeat and the socialist revolution that followed it. So the terrible sacrifice had after all been in vain after all. That couldn’t be true. He looked for an explanation – and found a scapegoat.

The First World War was the time when Hitler’s existing more or less conventional antisemitism became pathological, proto-genocidal. Hatred of the Jews had been mounting sharply during the war. It now gripped Hitler, too, as never before, not even in his Vienna years. The reasons for the war, and the disgrace of defeat, became crystal clear to him. The Jews were to blame - for the war itself, and for what he saw as Germany’s shameful capitulation in 1918. Hitler was a convert to the stab-in-the-back legend before it was even invented. He believed the Jews had undermined Germany from within. His first written statement on antisemitism, in September 1919, said the ultimate aim of a national government had to be ‘the removal of the Jews altogether’. In Mein Kampf, in the mid-1920s, he wrote that the sacrifice of millions of Germany’s best men could have been avoided if ‘some or twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters had been held under poison gas’ as the war started. The link between the Jews and war was indelibly etched on his mind. And the Jews were for him all-powerful – running western capitalism, directing Soviet Bolshevism, and wrecking Germany. Another war had to destroy that power. It had to be a war against the Jews. It had to be the unfinished business of the First World War. More than all else, it had to expiate the shame of capitulation in 1918.

What’s crucial to note, then, is this: for Hitler, the Second World War was revenge for the First. As a second world war loomed, Hitler returned to the connection with the Jews in the infamous ‘prophecy’ he first made on 30 January 1939. He said: ‘If international Jewish financiers … should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevising of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe’. This wasn’t mere propaganda. Nor was it a prior announcement of the ‘Final Solution’. But it did reveal Hitler’s intrinsic genocidal mentality. It highlighted his conviction that another war would, somehow, bring about the destruction of the Jews. He’d go on to invoke his ‘prophecy’ more than a dozen times between 1941 and 1945, as the Jews of Europe were engulfed in the ‘Final Solution’. And he’d always misdate it to 1 September 1939, the day of the German invasion of Poland, the day the war began. So we have to see: the genocide against the Jews was, for Hitler, not something separate from the war. It was central to the war itself. It was only logical, then, that on the night before his death he was still urging the nation on to the fight against the Jews. He pointed out in his Testament that he had this time left no one in any doubt that the sacrifices would not take place ‘without the real culprit having to atone for his guilt’. For Hitler the war was no conventional conflict. It was an apocalyptic struggle for revenge and salvation. It’s important to hold on to this point. It links to the way Hitler saw his own place in history.

In his typical dualistic fashion, he’d only ever posed the stark alternatives of total victory or total defeat. By early 1945, total victory was long out of the question. Total defeat loomed. Why did Hitler reject outright the suggestions coming from Goebbels, Ribbentrop, Göring, Himmler, and others to try to negotiate an end to the war with one side or the other? Well one reason was his vain hope, of course, that the anti-German alliance would split. He’d dreamt that one last victory would concentrate the minds of the west on the need to join Germany in the fight against Bolshevism. He said he’d only negotiate from strength. Such hopes were ever more illusory. But his loss of grip on reality wasn’t such that he was blind to that. He wasn’t so stupid that he couldn’t see, like anyone else, that the war was hopelessly lost. He knew that he personally was a barrier to any negotiated settlement. He couldn’t survive one. Nor could he allow himself to fall into the hands of the enemy. But he could have killed himself at any point, saving the calamitous human losses of the last months of the war – heavier than in any other year of the conflict. He did it only when the Russians were at his very door. Why hold out in an obviously lost cause until then?

One reason was certainly the unheroic determination to cling on to his life, whatever the cost to others, to the very end. But Hitler wasn’t a coward. And he spoke more than once of how easy it would be to end his own misery by putting a bullet through his head. We come back to what Hitler thought he was fighting the war for. And to his view of his place in history.

The war, for Hitler, couldn’t conceivably be ended by a compromise peace – for him, another sell-out. He knew his Clausewitz. The great German military thinker had written: ‘Even the loss of freedom after an honourable and bloody battle secures the rebirth of the people’. Hitler followed this maxim. There could, therefore, be no thought of a negotiated settlement. For Hitler, would have been another capitulation – the mark of cowardice that would defile the nation yet again. The very purpose of the war had been to expunge the capitulation of 1918. There will be no repeat of November 1918, he stated over and again. ‘The war can last as long as it wants. Germany will never capitulate’, he declared. It wasn’t propaganda. He meant it. He told his Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, at the end of 1944: ‘We’ll not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we’ll take a world with us’. Honour in an epic defeat, a ‘heroic’ death, maximum destruction of the enemy to the last: these were what Hitler wanted to bequeath as his legacy to what he called ‘the coming man’. This was Hitler’s own view of his place in history as Germany’s defeat became inevitable.

It was different to the place in the history he’d once imagined. He’d said, in March 1939 as what remained of Czechoslovakia was occupied by German troops, ‘I’ll go down in history as the greatest German’. If he’d won the war, that would have been the case. Even in the early 1950s, a quarter of Germans still had a good opinion of him. We can now see plainly the destructive will that was a key to Hitler’s character. But that scarcely explains his mass appeal in the 1930s. For that, we have to acknowledge a creative, visionary side to Hitler, however repellent it is to us. That was what the first spin-doctor, Joseph Goebbels, exploited in building up the public image of the great Leader. In a society gripped by panaoia of national decline and decadence, Hitler offered a breathtaking vision of Germany’s future grandeur and glory, of regeneration, resurgence, and redemption. Millions were enthralled by the vision.

The vision was underpinned by the aesthetics of power. These were new, and spectacular. Albert Speer was one of those swept away by the grandiose perspectives, by the monumentalisation of history. Hitler, the would-be artist and architect, was mesmerised by building plans. His extraordinary fantasies could now be put into practice. They reflected an amazing gigantomania. Plans for the new capital, Germania, included an assembly hall sixteen times bigger than the interior of St.Peter’s, Rome, to hold up to 180,000 people. The dome would soar to 726 feet. Money was no object. What mattered, so Hitler told Speer, was building for eternity. His buildings were to be a lasting monument to Germany’s glory. They should be there for future generations like the pyramids of Egypt stood as testament to the greatness of the pharoahs.

In many other spheres, too, Hitler released immense, pent-up energies. He made the unimaginable seem possible. Engineers were thrilled at the prospect of creating huge trains to run on wide-gauge tracks, so-called ‘travelling hotels’ that would carry German holidaymakers to the Crimea. Doctors relished the chance to experiment not just on animals, but on humans. This was, of course, the reality behind the fantastic vision. It meant a seismic break with the Judaeo-Christian-humanitarian values that had been the basis of European civilisation. Hitler rejected the ‘softness’ of Christianity, as well as the hold of its churches over the people. He evoked the grandeur, but also the cruelties of the classical world, linked to the heroic values embodied in Germanic myth. It was a world-view that glorified strength, conquest, dominance at the expense of the weak, the feeble, the disinherited. It was the crudest possible doctrine of survival of the fittest, with the weak seen as justifiably going to the wall. It amounted to a complete upturning of Christian-humanist tradition.

Those seen as a racial or genetic threat were to be wiped out by one means or another. Gassing methods were first tried out on the mentally sick. Target groups for the racial engineering widened as time went on. Gypsies, homosexuals, antisocials, habitual criminals, and many others social groups were included. But a special place in the pantheon of racial enemies was held by the Jews – Hitler’s own perceived arch-enemies. The murder of the Jews, we can now see clearly, was intrinsic to Hitler’s utopian vision. It is the prime example of something never previously encountered in history: the meticulously planned, state-directed, attempt to wipe out an entire people, and by modern, industrialised methods of killing. Goebbels described Hitler as the Final Solution’s ‘unswerving champion and spokesman’. He was right. But the Holocaust would only have marked a beginning. The General Plan for the East, first formulated by SS planners in 1941, envisaged no fewer than 31 million Untermenschen, mainly Slavs, being deported from Germany’s new colonial territories over the subsequent 25 years. Few were envisaged as surviving the Siberian wastes for too long. Such a vision of inhumanity defies the imagination. But it was only too imaginable at the time. This was because Hitler’s own boundless fantasy about the future German Reich breached all the moral and legal constraints that had shaped European civilisation, and opened the floodgates to murderous initiatives of every conceivable kind. Using the phrase of a Nazi functionary in 1934, I called the preemptive initiatives ‘working towards the Führer’, and made the concept the interpretative cornerstone of my biography of Hitler.

The more you look at Hitler, the more the point strikes home. He alone was capable of such a monstrous vision. He alone was prepared at all stages to think the unthinkable, unhesitatingly to take the most radical options, to burn all bridges behind him. But in presiding over such breathtakingly terrible inhumanity, all he need to do for much of the time was provide ‘guidelines for action’, and authorise the initiatives of others. His fantasies could only be converted into reality because of the type of power he held. We can best call it, following the great German sociologist, Max Weber, ‘charismatic authority’.That is, Hitler’s power rested in the first instance on personal loyalty, not governmental function - on a belief in his historic mission, his heroic qualities, his incomparable achievements. There was a quasi-religious strand to this belief. It was most fervently held in the inner circle of Hitler’s devotees. But in various forms, if diluted, it stretched into wide sections of the German population. Strong reserves of it still remained long after the war had turned sour for Germany. Before that, at his zenith, Hitler embodied distant, visionary goals that by their very utopian nature had the capacity to touch upon the more limited interests of most Germans. That’s why so many were prepared, often for non-ideological reasons, to do all they could to ‘work towards the Führer’.

We can now locate Hitler’s place in history from another perspective. His end can be seen to have been epochal. That is, it encapsulated a turning-point in European – and world – history. It brought to an end one epoch, and ushered in another. Naturally, we shouldn’t personalise this. Nor should we imagine a change overnight, a sudden and once-and-for-all break with continuities. I haven’t the time here to explore this fully. But I think the old argument remains valid: Hitler’s rule had unwittingly brought about a revolution of destruction. And with that, Germany – and also Europe – began the crossing to a new era.

Part of Hitler’s success was that he had been the intersection point of important strands of German political culture. There were important counter-strands, embracing socialism, liberalism, personal freedom, and democracy. But these had been defeated by 1933. Those that had triumphed, and helped produce Hitler, included a sense of cultural and racial superiority, nationality based upon ethnicity, the right to a ‘place in the sun’ befitting a great power, deep resentments at national weakness and humiliation, and a feeling that Germany was the last bulwark of western civilisation against ‘asiatic’ Bolshevism. In each case, Hitler built on these cultural values, distorted them into their most extreme, radical form, then broke their hegemony in Germany’s total defeat and occupation. The old continuities that had helped create Hitler, had made Germany a problem for Europe, and a key element in Europe’s second Thirty Years’ War, were shattered by defeat and destruction. There was, of course, no ‘Stunde null’, no ‘zero hour’ when everything stopped, then started again in a totally different key. But within a decade of the war ending, a new Europe was emerging from the ruins left by Hitler. Much brutality, bloodshed, suffering, and repression were still to be encountered on the way. But Hitler’s revolution of destruction provided a starting-point for new structures and new values to evolve. It gave Europe – Germany most of all – the chance of a new beginning.

Hitler’s direct political legacy, the Cold War, was wound up between 1989 and 1991. It might have been thought that our preoccupation with Hitler would then fade. Instead, it’s grown. Never since the war has there been so much about Hitler as recently. It seems at times near-obsessive.The danger of this is over-personalising the catastrophic impact of the Third Reich.

Historians themselves have long since left behind extreme Hitler-centric interpretations that reduced the Third Reich to little beyond the expression of the dictator’s will. At the same time, the counter-interpretation of Hitler as somehow a ‘weak dictator’, hesitant, indecisive, preoccupied largely with his own prestige and upholding his image, always lacked credibility. So in my own biography, I tried to adopt a new approach, one that could incorporate wider social and political forces while still doing justice to Hitler’s unique, personal role. In my interpretation, Hitler’s importance isn’t diminished one jot. He’s still the indispensable driving-force. But it’s not at all the picture of a madman overriding the wishes of others. Hitler was a political fanatic wielding immense state power, not a madman. Unfortunately, until it was too late, large numbers of sane and rational people, among them non-Nazis in Germany’s power elite (for example, in the army leadership, the state bureaucracy, or industry), thought what he was doing was good. They endorsed and applauded his decisions. Much of the public gave their acclamation. In the mid-1930s, Hitler was the most popular head of state in Europe. one leading German historian once said: ‘It’s unbearable to think that the will of a madman plunged Germany into the war’. That sort of apologia is no longer tenable.

But it is probably not too far from a still prevalent popular view. In contrast to the shifts in historical understanding, popular images of Hitler have remained remarkably unchanged across the decades. The carpet-biting madman showering out dictats to a totalitarian society completely in his grip, single-handedly taking Germany down the road to perdition comes close to summing it up.

The obsession with Hitler amounts at times less to a justifiable search for explanation of Europe’s great catastrophe than to a macabre fascination with Hitler’s bizarre personality, rapidly descending into trivialisation and distorting historical interpretation through over-personalisation of complex events. The fascination can sometimes take weird forms. In letters I’ve received I’ve been asked: did Hitler drink Tokay wine on his wedding night? Or, repeatedly – regurgitating the old legend – did he visit Liverpool in 1912? Naturally, I said I couldn’t see him on the terraces at Anfield shouting ‘come on you Reds’. I also had a letter insisting on the basis of ear-measurements that Hitler was really Prince John, the prematurely deceased son of George V. The fascination with Hitler is kept alive through incessant media attention. Documentaries and films are legion. Bernd Eichinger’s recent film, personalising Germany’s ‘downfall’ through the drama in the bunker, was watched by over five million Germans. It was seen as sensational in Germany for treating Hitler as a human being. What a sensation: Hitler was human. And all the time we’d thought he was a monster from Mars. But what a specimen of humanity. He pats the Goebbels children on the head, strokes Blondi - his dog, not Eva Braun - and gives chocolates to his secretary - then in the next breath gives out orders that condemn thousands to death. Still, peering into this strange individual’s inner world evidently retains its fascination, even after all these years. And Hitler is a taboo figure like no other. British newpaper editors dressing up as Hitler at office parties cause scandal, but sustain the attention. The antics of a royal prince in Nazi uniform do the same. Hitler has entered popular culture. No other dictator, not even Stalin, attracts the same attention. Hitler has become the very icon of evil. But that just enhances the fascination. The minutiae of his personal life, his medical condition, his women- or men-friends: all evoke endless (and mainly fruitless) interest and speculation. It was once thought that any book on Hitler’s sex-life would be among the shortest volumes ever written. But a recent study purporting to ‘out’ Hitler as a homosexual has undermined that assumption. Another investigates the equally tenuous evidence that Hitler had contracted syphilis from a prostitute in Vienna in 1909 or 1910. The implication of such approaches, taken to logical absurdity, is plain. In the one case a Munich rent-boy, in the other a Viennese prostitute was to blame for all the ills of the world that Hitler caused.

Of course, in some ways it can help historical understanding to focus an an iconic individual. But it can also lead to serious distortion, to an over-readiness to magnify the role of the individual in history at the expense of more complex causes of significant historical developments. The tendency is extreme in the case of Hitler. This is in part because of the extremes of the personality cult constructed by German propaganda during Hitler’s lifetime, attributing all ‘achievements’ to his personal ‘genius’. The opposite distortion is to attribute all the evil of Nazism to Hitler. In some ways, it seems as if the impression created by the personality cult has persisted – but in reverse. Where Hitler was once seen as a superman, he is now a super-demon. Where once he was a beloved leader, he is now the iconic hate-figure. Where once he was a genius, now he’s a madman.

These images preclude deeper understanding of how Nazism could grip a society. At their worst, they trivialise the past and distort the present, reinforcing crude anti-German stereotypes and even skewing attitudes towards Europe through their caricaturing of Hitler and Nazism.

How, then, should we look upon Hitler’s place in history? Primarily, as the inspiration of the most lethal and destructive war in history, and of the most terrible genocide the world has ever seen. He left behind him not just physical, but also moral, ruination such as history has never previously experienced. He represented an extreme pathology of modern society. He showed us the most radical face of modern inhumanity – how an advanced society can undergo a breathtaking descent into modern barbarity that’s quite without precedent. That’s what, with the passage of time, we can see was historically defining about Hitler. Never before Hitler’s time had we seen so clearly what human beings are capable of.

Secondly, we do have to acknowledge that he was an extraordinary individual, however repulsive. Every now and then through the ages, history has produced a remarkable individual – someone who shapes his era and leaves behind a drastically altered society. The crucial point here, I think, is Hitler’s apocalyptic vision of war as revenge and redemption, to reverse the results of the First World War, and to destroy those he held responsible for it.

But, thirdly, we shouldn’t mystify Hitler’s personality. The uniqueness of Nazism can’t be reduced to that strange personality. Another time, another place, and Hitler would have had no impact at all. He couldn’t have derailed a modern society without that society itself making a major contribution to its own fate. What we can see is how special the conditions had to be to give Hitler his appeal, to make him the spokesman and representative for such widespread hopes and expectations, as well as fears and anxieties. At a time of comprehensive crisis of state and society, Hitler seemed to offer so many the hope of national salvation. Expectations of national rebirth were projected on to him. We can see how time-bound these were. We shouldn’t be complacent about the future. New forms of fascism and racial intolerance rightly appal and worry us. Even so, Nazism isn’t on the march again. And future threats to world peace are unlikely to arise within Europe. Sixty years on, the generation that might celebrate Hitler’s memory and reputation is nowhere in sight. The world is a very different place. We are still in a way captivated by Hitler’s vision, but now in a wholly negative way. This, too, is part of Hitler’s legacy. We now have a society whose prime values of human rights and dignity, however often they are breached in practice, are the exact opposite of Hitler’s. The revolution of destruction that he spawned and the symbol of evil that he has become have left him with a place in history that he never imagined.

What will that place in history look like when we come to the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Hitler’s death? Using unseemly ‘body-counts’, it is often claimed even now that, somehow, Stalin was ‘worse’ than Hitler. Certainly, Hitler and Stalin can both be viewed as very different spearheads of grotesquely inhumane forms of utopian social engineering. But it’s as if, somehow, acknowledging the terrible crimes of Stalin should make us think Hitler wasn’t so bad. So there is a concern that Hitler’s evil will be relativised over time. It was once famously said that the Nazi past was a past that will not pass away. That’s been true up to now. But as the generations that directly experienced Hitler’s era pass away, so, inevitably, Hitler will become a part of detached history, rather than a lasting, emotional trauma. And with growing distance will come shifting perspectives. We don’t view massacres in the distant past like we view those of yesterday. After all, we devote little attention to moral condemnation of Ghenghis Khan and other horrors of more distant history. So will we come to look more favourably on Hitler in time, by-passing the enormity of his crimes? Historians are only good – sometimes - at predicting the past. They’re no better than anyone else as soothsayers. But what we can do is to remind ourselves of the essential point about Hitler: he represented the most fundamental and frontal assault ever launched on all that we associate with humanity and civilisation. Unless those values themselves are undermined and destroyed in ways we can’t at present imagine, even a hundred years from now our descendants will surely still continue to think of Hitler as the complete abnegation of all that we hold good and precious.


Presenter: I know there’s lots of people in the audience who’ve got questions they want to ask you. There’s a gentleman there in the pink.

Audience: Do men make history or does history make men? I don’t know whether you’ve answered that question to my satisfaction.

Prof Ian Kershaw: Well it’s a huge question, and of course naturally it’s a combinational thing, so we have a set of circumstances within which an individual can operate. But let’s say if there’d been a Reich Chancellor Hermann Goering, would the Holocaust have come about? Very probably not. Without Hitler but with a very strongly nationalist government in Germany would there have been the final solution within eight years of that government taking office? Almost certainly not. Would there have been general European war by the end of the 1930s? Very probably not, Goering himself said in August 1939: “Mein Fuehrer, must we go verbaum, must we for broke?” And Hitler’s reply was: “Goering you know all my life I’ve gone for broke”.

So, with another leader, you’d have had of course revision of Versailles but would you have had general European war that so many, that many of the generals as well wanted to pull back from? It probably wouldn’t have happened under another even nationalist leader. There would have been discrimination against Jews, without the slightest doubt, legislation and so on, but there almost certainly would not have been the Holocaust. No Hitler, no Holocaust. But of course, without those conditions no Hitler.

So the two things go together, but once you’ve got the conditions, then it takes somebody with that type of imagination, warped imagination and strength of will to push these things through, and that was the point that when Hitler was giving these guidelines for action, everybody knew what Hitler stood for, it was the most radical of the alternatives.

Presenter: Lady here.

Audience: Do you think there’s a possibility that Hitler was mad?

Prof Ian Kershaw: There was a possibility that Hitler was mad?

Audience: Yeah.

Prof Ian Kershaw: The most thorough investigations that have been made of Hitler’s mental condition have come to the conclusion that he wasn’t. Hitler, for most of the time, was certainly an unusual individual, eccentric in all sorts of ways but not mad, and the only time that that has been this type of derangement has really been pushed forward has been for the very last phase of his life, and by then you have a society which has committed itself to the way that Hitler’s gone. This was a society taken itself down to the road to perdition, it was a society doing that with the collaboration of so many others in it who were quite blatantly not mad, so I don’t think Hitler was mad and I don’t think the madness thesis really contributes anything to understanding of the Third Reich.

Presenter: Okay, more questions, gentleman here.

Audience: I was wondering, to what extent do you think he was personally responsible for the strategic errors which led ultimately to Germany’s defeat in the Second World War?

Prof Ian Kershaw: The one strategic error, the colossal strategic error that everybody will point to, I suppose, is Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. After that they came thick and fast, but I mean that’s the one that set the parameters for it. Some of the generals thought that was a mistake but nobody spoke up against it. But not only that, but now from December 1941 onwards he takes charge of tactics as well as strategy, and there’s no other war leader, Stalin didn’t do it, he backed away from that as the war went on, Churchill didn’t do it and so on. Nobody else was actually running a state and in charge of military tactics. What you needed were the professionals who would then look for the right retreats to better fighting position and so on. Hitler was incapable of thinking in that way, so it was always fight it out, hold out, don’t give an inch and all the rest of it, and that’s where he just went from calamitous to totally catastrophic.

Presenter: This gentlemen there in the pit.

Audience: I notice you don’t mention any of the propaganda against the organisations of the German working class, you say it was just against the Jews, but surely the propaganda was directed against Jews and against Bolsheviks, and the two of them were tied together, there were Bolshevik Jews that were overthrowing the German nation.

Prof Ian Kershaw: Yes, of course, thank you, it’s a good point. The first victims and the first opponents of the Nazis when they came to power were in a systematic fashion not Jews but the political opponents of the Left, of the political Left, and it wasn’t simply a matter of associating all these with Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks were still largely seen as Russian. So the figment of imagination that he had about Russia was Russia run by Bolshevik Jews. So Bolsheviks and Jews were one and the same thing for him. In Germany, Marxism went for him much wider than simply the Communists, and he saw it as a major, the major first step was to combat the political enemies on the Left, and those included the Social Democrats. So the first wave, tens of thousands of people put in concentration camps in the Spring of 1933, these were in their vast numbers Communists in the first instance and then Social Democrats.

Presenter: It’s one of the big popular misconceptions isn’t it, in this country, don’t you think this confusion about the role of the concentration camps and the death camps. A lot of people were saying the concentration camps set up in 1933, everyone must have known they were exterminating the Jews and so on, and yet so many people one’s met, former Nazis, not just former Nazis, ordinary Germans actually see the concentration camps in those early years as a very positive thing.

Prof Ian Kershaw: Yes, I mean there is obviously that difference. The concentration camps were absolutely horrific places, absolutely horrific places, the thirty-odd thousand people died in Dachau between 1933 and 1945, but they were very different in their function from the extermination camps. There were lots and lots of concentration camps by the end all over the continent, and some very big ones in Germany, but the extermination camps, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, these were very different in the function that they existed to kill people in great number, so very different from the concentration camps. As you mentioned the concentration camps were meant to be known about, it was meant to be a deterrent. So when the concentration camp at Dachau, the first was open in March 1933, it was in the papers, this is opened, and this is what will happen to you if you don’t tow the line you’ll be sent to Dachau, and nobody knew precisely what went on there except that it was a nasty place.

So there is that, there was that difference in function, and of course the extermination camps arose at a much later stage in 1941 in the occupied parts of Poland with this now function of simply exterminating Jews and others described as, seen as indescribables.

Presenter: The gentleman here in the glasses.

Audience: Even with the most tyrannical of despots in history somebody can normally find something good to say about them, is there anything positive in the contribution that Hitler has made to history?

Prof Ian Kershaw: Well they always say the motorways, Autobahnen. But even those weren’t Hitler’s invention, of course he simply took them over from, copied the Italians, and he was very keen to latch onto the suggestion that plans were already in existence when he took power. But I mean that’s in danger of reinventing the old legend that when Hitler was around the streets were free of crime, he built the motorways, he cleared off unemployment and so on. The point to keep in mind about this is that it’s all part of the end which came, which was inexorable, so you can’t detach those. So ultimately there is nothing that we can say was good about Hitler.

Presenter: Thank you Ian, and I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for, apart from the most important task of all, which is for us to thank Ian Kershaw for such a stimulating lecture.

This lecture was originally broadcast on BBC Four as the 2005 Open University Lecture


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