Interpretations of Nazi Germany

By Claydon, John | History Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Interpretations of Nazi Germany


Claydon, John, History Review


John Claydon charts a course across the complex minefield of Nazi historiography.

More words have been written about Nazi Germany than any other period of history, and there is no sign whatsoever of the flood drying up. Indeed the intensity of interest and debate, especially about the Holocaust, is greater now than it has ever been. The enormities of the Holocaust offer almost too much evil and suffering for us to comprehend, but in truth the whole of Nazi history, in the sheer scale and audacity of its ideas and the opportunism and ruthlessness with which they were implemented, defies our understanding. Yet there is a compulsion to try to work out how such things could happen in a time so comparatively recent, especially when we can reconstruct the past from the dialogue of large numbers of people who lived through it.

The key issues

Because there is such a huge literature on the subject, and because that literature continues to expand on an almost daily basis, no one can feel an expert on Nazi Germany. Nevertheless interpretations of Nazi Germany have always revolved around two main issues: firstly, the role played by Hitler himself and, secondly, the extent to which the German people knew about, and were willing to take part in, the persecution of the Jews and other minority groups which culminated in the Holocaust. Students of the period are fortunate in being able to trace very clearly the evolution of different interpretations of the Nazi period. This is particularly fascinating because three distinct groups of people have had to come to terms with their experiences and communicate about them with the generations of their children and their grandchildren. These groups are the oppressors, that is those who were members, or instruments, of the Nazi Party; their victims; and the mass of the German public, who were more or less actively involved in the worst features of the regime. The involvement of these later generations in discovering the true story of the Nazi years makes for compelling analysis in its own right, and there is of course the added complication that Germany became divided soon after the Second World War into two separate countries. West Germany was allowed to develop as a free and democratic power, while East Germany was directly controlled as a satellite power by the communist Soviet Union, which had suffered immense casualties at the hands of the Nazis.

The Communist interpretation

In the aftermath of the fall of the Nazi regime, historians from the Communist bloc gave little weight to Hitler's personal impact and emphasised in crude terms the economic forces which they claimed had created the Nazi era. They argued that big business in Germany had nursed Hitler's career along in order that he should act as its agent in the resurgence of capitalism in Germany and its search for domination over the rest of Europe and eventually the world. In short, the framework within which Hitler and the Nazis operated was dictated throughout the period of Nazi rule by these so-called imperialist forces. Clearly this is an unashamedly extreme Marxist position and gives a hopelessly inadequate role to Hitler and far too much influence to the political power of big business. In fact the Marxist camp has never succeeded in producing a credible view of Nazi Germany giving sufficient importance to Hitler.

Hitlerism

Opposition in the West to this stereotyping came in the much more sophisticated biographical approach of Alan Bullock's Hitler: A study in Tyranny, written in 1952, which has remained a standard introduction to the subject, though clearly dated now because there has been so much subsequent research. In West Germany, in the years following the war, there was a predictable need to find scapegoats who could no longer answer back for themselves for the horror of what had gone on. This desire essentially to lay all the blame for the whole Nazi programme squarely on Hitler's shoulders, to dismiss it all as Hitlerism, is most fully articulated in the massive biography of Hitler written by Joachim Fest in 1973. …

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