Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

Part III

IDEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF NAZISM

In Part III, we turn to the vexed questions of where the Nazis got their ideas from and how far these ideas were generally acceptable in German society and among German elites. From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, it is fair to say, the intellectual history of Nazism was a rather neglected subject. A long tradition of tracing back a variety of National Socialist ideas to great thinkers of the German past, from Novalis to Nietzsche, had fallen into disrepute as a result of contextualized studies of these thinkers which had revealed the many different readings to which their work had been subjected. Nietzsche, for instance, as the late Richard Hinton Thomas showed, was widely regarded in Wilhelmine Germany as a liberal, even a left-wing thinker whose message was fundamentally one of human liberation and personal autonomy. Under the influence of Marxism and social history, research turned instead to detailed, often quantitative investigations of the class basis of Nazism and its antecedents in the discontents of the petty bourgeoisie, expressed in organizations such as the Anti-Semitic Parties, the Fatherland Party, and pressure-groups of the lower middle classes.

By the end of the 1980s, however, attention was turning back to ideas. This was partly because the social theory of Nazism had seemed to have reached the limits of its explanatory power, and partly because of the emergence, in however diluted a form, of postmodernist approaches to history, from psychoanalysis to discourse theory, which focused more on what people were saying than on what they were doing. But it also reflected a broader shift in the way that historians understood the whole phenomenon of the Third Reich. The rediscovery of the forgotten victims of Nazism’, from gypsies and the ‘antisocial’ to the mentally and physically handicapped who were first sterilized and then exterminated in the so-called ‘euthanasia’ programme launched at the beginning of the Second World War, moved racism, eugenics and Social Darwinism into the centre of the picture, displacing class analysis, proletarian resistance and elite collaboration, all subjects which had dominated research during the

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