The Long View: The Last Division: A History of Berlin 1945-1989

While Kennedy did say something that could have been seen as funny in his famous Berlin speech, if you watch video of the speech it is pretty clear the crowd didn't take it that way.

I have a number of personal connections to Berlin that make this review interesting to me. As a child, I met a friend of my father's who had escaped from East Germany. Also my wife's grandmother was a native of Berlin who met her US Army husband because of the garrisons there.


The Last Division: A History of Berlin 1945-1989
by Ann Tusa
Addison-Wesley
Publication Date May 1, 1997
ISBN: 0-201-14399-2

 

I Am a Doughnut

 

The problem with the Cold War was not so much that it threatened to go on forever as that it was so godawful boring. Year after year there were indistinguishable stories about unsatisfactory arms control negotiations, proxy guerrilla wars in places you never heard of and speculation about the health of the old hacks who ran the shabby but durable Soviet Empire. The frozen ninth circle of international tedium was, of course, Berlin. There the confrontation between East and West was most direct and the web of explicit agreements and insoluble differences was thickest. In literature, the Berlin espionage industry became a familiar metaphor for the ambiguous nature of the human condition, or something. Metaphorical treatment was necessary, perhaps, since thinking about the status and future of the divided city itself was likely to produce unconsciousness in anyone who did not actually work for the Brookings Institute. Just as the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall was unimaginable even a few months before it happened, so it may seem unimaginable that there could be either pleasure or profit in a history of how the Wall got there and how the city lived with it for 28 years.

Ann Tusa, co-author of two other books on postwar German subjects, has done the unimaginable. “The Last Division” is a serious, detailed and vastly entertaining history of the city of Berlin from its largely ruined state in 1945 to that wonderful street party that erupted on the night of November 9, 1989. The story concentrates on the 1950s and the events that precipitated the building of the Wall in 1961. We get only a cursory glance at West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Oestpolitik” that resulted in 1971 in a Four Power agreement on the status of the city. President Kennedy’s 1963 visit is mentioned primarily to note that his famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” idiomatically means “I am a doughnut.” Still, the book gives us a perceptive look at the key personalities of mid-twentieth century European history and a somewhat disconcerting introduction to the mechanics of diplomacy at the summit.

The story as told here rightfully ignores a lot of revisionist nonsense. It is, for instance, refreshing to read an account of John Kennedy’s administration that assumes the president was preoccupied with matters other than Addison’s Disease and Marilyn Monroe’s panties. (It helps, perhaps, that the author is highly British.) The book concentrates as narrowly as possible on Berlin, but simply by being factual it leaves little doubt about who was responsible for the Cold War. The basic cause of the recurring Berlin crises from the Soviet blockade of 1948 to the closing of the interzonal border in 1961 was that the Western Allies had neglected to get an ironclad agreement from the Soviets at the end of World War II regarding the governance of the city. The wartime leaders had vaguely agreed that the Western allies would share in the occupation of the city with the Soviets. The Western leaders seemed to have assumed that questions of supply for their garrison forces and for the civilian population would look after themselves. They didn’t.

Whenever the Western powers disagreed with the Soviets over any of the growing list of unresolved questions regarding the occupation of Europe, they would find services to their part of the city disrupted and road links to the West either cut or subject to interminable delays. In the blockade of 1948-49, the Soviets seem to have actually intended to make the Western powers choose between maintaining a presence in Berlin and reconstituting a democratic Germany in the West. Since the blockade was answered with an airlift, the scariest moments in the years thereafter were those when the Russians threatened to interfere with air transport, too. For instance, the Russians made a fuss when high-flying jets began to replace low-flying turboprops on the Berlin routes. Ann Tusa crystallizes the atmosphere of these events for us with this memorable footnote:

“Someone in the British embassy in Bonn had the spiffing wheeze of sending Lord Mountbatten to Berlin in a high altitude Comet to see what the Russians would do about it. It was rather reminiscent of the old ‘Beyond the Fringe’ sketch in which a hapless young man is told by his commanding officer ‘The time has come for a meaningless sacrifice. We have chosen you’ -- and not at all the conventional treatment for the Chief of Imperial General Staff.”

Western leaders tried hard to accommodate understandable Russian insecurity. They tried the personal touch. They sometimes tried something akin to bribery. None of it worked. One-on-one summit meetings with Khrushchev by Macmillan, Eisenhower and Kennedy all demonstrated that humoring the Russians did not work. The effort often seemed to make things worse, if the threatening tone of Khrushchev’s rhetoric was any indication. (In a particularly colorful turn of phrase, Khrushchev once remarked to John McCloy that Kennedy would be the last president of the United States. What a character.)

Part of the problem was that the Russians were not motivated simply by insecurity. It was not at all obvious in those days, for one thing, that command economies could not outperform market economies. As long as economic development was a matter of concrete and steel production, the Soviet economy was actually doing pretty well, and the Soviets expected to be deferred to accordingly. A deeper difficulty, perhaps, was that the Russians did not understand how contractual relationships among equals work. There is an old saying that Russians play chess and Americans play poker. What happened in the course of the Cold War was that the Russians eventually forced everyone who dealt with them to play chess, too.

Throughout the 1950s, this meant that the small Western garrisons of indefensible West Berlin enacted a nerve-wracking kabuki play with their Eastern counterparts over interzonal cross-points and rights of inspection. Everyone, including the Russians, had a lively awareness of how the First World War had started, and neither side pressed too far. However, the fact was that the Russians were the ones who wanted the status of the city changed. In fact, what they really wanted was a Germany demilitarized and ruled by a confederal government with a guaranteed Communist component. In that case, the status of Berlin would have been unimportant to them. The least that they would settle for, however, was recognition of their satellite, the German Democratic Republic. In that case, a Berlin in which people could move freely between East and West was a threat. In over ten years of negotiations, no one seems to have put forward a proposal as simple as trading recognition of the East German regime for the security of West Berlin. In the event, however, that is exactly what happened.

The Wall itself went up because of a demographic crisis of the Communists own devising. Emigration from East Germany to the West, largely through Berlin, had been a trickle through most of the 1950s. Towards the end of the decade, however, the East German government pressed a collectivization program against both small industrial firms and small farms. They thus started to lose farmers and skilled workers in large numbers. Peasant opposition caused food shortages, making the East an even less desirable place to live. Additionally, in 1958, Khrushchev began issuing a series of ultimatums, or what sounded like ultimatums, which demanded that the German question be settled in a specified period of time. The deadline kept changing, but increasing numbers of reasonable East Germans concluded that they would much rather be elsewhere if the border were sealed. By the time barbed-wire preliminaries to the Wall were put up on a sleepy weekend in August 1961, the small Communist republic was losing over 2000 people a day.

The Western Allies were outraged, after a fashion. They were certainly surprised. All kinds of scenarios had been prepared against forceful measures by the Communist governments. Most of them were variations on the blockade of 1948, with the envisioned remedy a much larger airlift. The one possibility they had not considered was that the East Germans might just isolate West Berlin from East Berlin but leave access to the West more or less alone. While it is clear enough that Western leaders did not collude in the establishment of the Wall, nevertheless they were clearly relieved. The Wall solved the practical problems the Russians and East Germans had been having, though it was another ten years before Willy Brandt’s diplomacy gave the solution an acceptable legal formulation. Western leaders got a standing photo opportunity whenever they visited Germany. “This wall proves the failure of communism!” they could say for three decades as they posed in front of it. West Berliners, in contrast, had trouble believing that a power that could keep a large selection of their friends and relatives permanently locked away was altogether impotent.

If the Cold War was a chess game, the Communist government of East Germany lost it in a way that in fact closely paralleled many games of chess. A doomed player may have considerable freedom of movement and just as many pieces as the other side until quite late in the game. Then, quite suddenly, the player’s position will collapse. The sacrifice of major pieces may buy a little more time. Even then, however, the end can be hastened by a panicky blunder. All the eastern regimes were doomed by Gorbachev’s decision not to support them militarily against internal unrest. East Germany in particular clearly did not have long to last after Hungary opened its borders with Austria in September 1989, providing a route for so many East Germans to leave that basic services began to break down. However, the sudden fall of the Wall was an accident. On November 9, a hapless spokesman for the East German government read a roomful of reporters an incomplete draft of a new regulation that would have let East Berliners get visas to travel to the Western Zones. It sounded, inaccurately, like a declaration of unrestricted passage. Once the guards at one crossing point started letting people through, the interzonal border simply dissolved.

Today, of course, the East Germans are very grumpy about the way things turned out. They think that they did pretty well in the postwar years, given that all the Russians left them after exacting reparations with was “Walter Ulbricht [the first East German leader] and a few potatoes.” They had some accomplishments to their credit, they say, that the West Germans should have respected. Probably they have a point. Still, the division of one of the great cities of Europe was not to anyone’s benefit, least of all theirs. Once upon a time, as this book shows, it seemed that the outcome of world history would turn on what happened in Berlin. As things turned out, however, the division ended without war, without riot, without even a cathartic lynching. This is one history book with a happy ending.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Jane Jacobs on Cities

Jerry Pournelle recommended reading Jane Jacobs, so I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was an absolutely fascinating book. In retrospect, I'm not surprised that Jerry recommended it. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a masterwork from the era of the Kennedy Enlightenment. It represents the best that post-WWII American liberalism had to offer, which was in fact pretty good. However, it also represented a certain amount of hubris, and an over-quantification of things that cannot necessarily be quantified. Jacobs saw something true and good about American cities, and then her disciples tried to enshrine that insight in zoning laws and the results were not uniformly pretty.

The increased risk of death at out of hospital birth isn’t small after all

This was a pretty interesting study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The headline for this study is: out-of-hospital birth more risky than in-hospital. That was intriguing, and after reading the study the best I can say is: maybe. The study used a nice data set from Oregon that allowed the authors to tease out a distinction between births that actually happened out of the hospital, compared with births that were intended to out of the hospital but ended up in the hospital. If you only look at births that happened outside hospitals, the overall risk of perinatal death [stillbirths plus deaths during or shortly after childbirth] is the same as in the hospital. However, if you include women who transfer sometime during labor from outside the hospital to inside, the risk goes up to something like double. This is a tricky study, because the patient populations are way different in these two cases. For one, only something like 4% of all births in Oregon aren't in the hospital, which is among the highest rate in the nation. Also, out-of-hospital births are among women older, whiter, and richer than average. Those things matter. I think the most important sentence in the study is this one from the results section: 

In post hoc analyses that assessed the risk of a composite neonatal outcome (fetal death, infant death, a 5-minute Apgar score of less than 4, or neonatal seizures) and the risk of cesarean delivery in subgroups defined according to parity, maternal age, maternal education, and maternal risk profile, we found a significant interaction of maternal age with the planned birth setting for the neonatal composite outcome (P=0.02 for interaction) and of parity and maternal education with planned birth location for the outcome of cesarean section (P<0.001 for interaction for both). 

There is a lot to parse here, but when I was trained in statistics, finding an interaction means you don't report on the main effect at all. What do I mean by this? I'll show you a picture from the article to illustrate:

Two of the risk factors really stand out from the rest. Maternal age [meaning 35+] and high-risk [meaning gestational diabetes and/or eclampsia]. Either of those things in isolation increases risk for childbirth. Both together are pretty bad news. I think the real story here is that women over 35 with high-risk pregnancies [diabetes, eclampsia] shouldn't deliver outside of a hospital, but I would have said that without reading this study. To really answer the question, the authors should have compared the risk in the same higher risk population from their in-hospital dataset. Unfortunately, they didn't. I know why the results got spun the way they did. In an era of social media, that is the best way to get attention. I read about this on Twitter [on my phone, no less]. Unfortunately, that carries some risk too.

Germany on the Brink

The New Year's Eve mass sexual assault/riot in Cologne looks really, really bad for Angela Merkel. 

Hillary's Emailgate goes Nuclear

John Schindler, current historian, former NSA, wonders about the real source of Sid Blumenthal's email to Hillary Clinton. 

The Long View 2002-09-05: Parasitic Globalism

The strangest thing about the transnational progressives 10 years ago, and the social media justice warriors today, is their strange client-patron relationship with business. If Fortune 500 companies stopped supporting this kind of thing, it would quickly evaporate. It would be easy to point to government pressure as the critical factor here, but I think there is something else.

The one thing the tranzies couldn't, and the SMJW can't, actually do is bring a corporation to its knees. If they tried, a nasty self-defense reaction would set in, and then nobody would be happy. Sure, you get a sacrificial goat from time to time, like Brendan Eich, but it is never anyone really important in the business world, and never all that many. Do you really think the executive class of America is gung-ho for the progressive cause of the week? There is a kind of perverse sense in this, because all of this really does provide an important social safety valve/smokescreen that allows for business as usual. It is just a cost of doing business.

The American left's progressive movement is broader based than the transnational progressives, but it lacks truly popular support. As such, it has power, but isn't really a threat to the status quo. What is a threat? To judge by the behavior of the wealthy and powerful, it is this:

PEGIDANigel FarageAmerican militias at Bundy Ranch

It is fine if you hound someone from their job for their political opinions, but God forbid the hoi polloi express their dissatisfaction in the polling booth.

Parasitic Globalism

Once upon a time, everyone knew that the great and small states of "Germany" needed to be hooked up. For about two generations in the 19th century, between the end of the Holy Roman Empire and the beginning of Bismarck's, liberal democrats tried to do this through consensus, negotiation, and subversion. It didn't work; the problem of order was finally solved by force and acquiescence

The global system seems to be taking a similar trajectory. This is the real significance of events like the World Summit for Sustainable Development, which ended this week. Media commentators are full of praise for the practical approach taken by the conferees, especially as represented in the Final Statement. In fact, what seems to have happened is that the international environmental and social-welfare activists have entered into the sort of patron-client relationship with industry that characterizes much of the domestic politics of the West these days, particularly in Europe. This means that the activists will rarely be seen trying to close down whole industries. It also means that they will receive subsidies that will make them immortal.

In some ways, this is a step forward; the totalitarian tone that characterized the Rio Summit of 1992 has been mitigated. The pure looter element was still present, of course. Claims were made at the Summit that hunger, particularly in southern Africa, is caused by the liberal economic order. However, the claims were made in part by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, whose country is the most perfect example in the world today of hunger caused by aggresively bad government.

The people who attend meetings like the Summit represent international civil society, a small population that exists largely but not exclusively in the developed West. It consists of foreign policy bureaucrats, academics, businessmen, and the representatives of not-for-profit organizations. Writing in American Diplomacy, John Fonte has described the characteristic ideology of these people as "transnational progressivism." We may note that such people are sometimes derisively called "tranzies," but I will forbear to use the term. For now.

Transnational progressivism is post-democratic. It seeks to implement a new, global environmental and cultural regime, whether majorities can ever be found to support the agenda or not. Indeed, it seeks out international forums precisely because the agenda experiences relatively little success in domestic politics. It is therefore naturally anti-national. It supports group rights and opposes the assimilation of immigrants. It interprets "fairness" to mean the distribution of social goods in proportion to the size of recognized social groups, most of which are defined as victim groups. It goes without saying that it is anti-American. For its American adherents, it is a post-American identity.

Fonte goes on to suggest that transnational progressivism could eventually defeat liberal democracy, whatever Francis Fukuyama says. It is, after all, "modern" too, and maybe modernity still has some evolving to do.

I think perhaps this does transnational progressivism too much honor. It is, after all, a loser ideology. As we have seen, the "transnational" element comes in only because the progressive agenda has been largely rejected by democratic electorates, and indeed by most non-democratic regimes, too. What we are dealing with here is a corrupt fragment of liberal democracy, the worldview of reactionary social-welfare bureaucracies and environmental jihadists. Though it is a persistent feature of domestic politics, its role can never be more than parasitic. It is capable of impairing necessary governmental functions, such as law enforcement and education, but experience has shown that it is not impossible to reduce its influence.

Transnational progressivism has fastened onto the nascent institutions of the international system and is draining them of life. The primary practical interest of its adherents has always been patronage, which might not in itself be unmanageable. The problem is that it has hijacked the concept of international law, by reinterpreting it as the hortatory measures enunciated by unelected and irresponsible global conferences. When these exhortations are embodied in multilateral treaties, that simply undermines the seriousness which has traditionally been accorded to treaties.

We are entering a period in which most necessary measures for the maintenance of world order will be made "lawlessly," because the institutions that might make the necessary law are in the hands of a tranzie rabble. There: tranzie; I said it and I'm glad.


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The Long View: Hitler's Thirty Days to Power

More Nazi Germany alternative history from John. The occasion for his speculations this time is a sober historical analysis of the political fecklessness that brought Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933. In short, the responsible adults in Germany felt that a dictatorship was a good idea, and they picked Hitler to keep the chair warm while they dickered about who it should be.

A moment of clarity on the part of any of the senior political figures involved gives us an excellent departure point for alternative history. The twentieth century was going to be a bad one in almost any conceivable history, but there were at least some better alternatives that might have been possible.

Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933
by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.
Addison-Wesley, 1996
272 pages, $25.00
ISBN: 0-201-40714-0

 

 

There are any number of theories explaining why the Nazi regime was inevitable. Cultural or economic determinism seem to serve about as well for this purpose. Some historians have detected a peculiar flaw in German culture that made the country peculiarly susceptible to antisemitic fascism. (Daniel Goldhagen argued for a form of this interpretation in his "Hitler's Willing Executioners.") A widely-accepted view is that Hitler was a creature of German big business who just got a little out of hand once he got into office, though in fact support for this thesis is thin in the record. What these explanations have in common is the search for a cause worthy of the effect. Nazi Germany was, of course, a Big Thing, and so it seems reasonable that it should have a big cause.

This book by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., a Stille' professor of history at Yale most noted for his study of the role of big business in the advent of the Nazi regime, takes a wholly different approach. This is a day-by-day, indeed sometimes an hour-by-hour, account of the actions of the leaders of Germany during the weeks leading up to Hitler's appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933. By examining the negotiations that led to the fateful swearing-in ceremony in President Paul von Hindenburg's office, Turner purports to show that the advent of the Nazis to power was in fact largely a matter of dumb luck.

Turner does not deny the role of large, impersonal forces in the establishment of the Nazi regime. Certainly the economic depression of the 1930s and German cultural predilections made Nazi Germany possible. Turner's point is that they did not make it inevitable, or even particularly likely. Unusually for a serious historian, but with more than enough justification in this case, he gives us a long speculation on what in fact was the most probable outcome at the time. We are thus treated to an examination of ten or twenty years of German history that never happened, but that would have happened had it not been for the folly and incompetence of three or four German politicians. As Turner points out, the twentieth century without Hitler would have been a very different time. Still, one may wonder whether it would have been quite as different as he suggests.

Since the beginning of the Depression three years before November, 1932, the Nazis had seemed like the wave of the future. They were a negligible sect at the time of Hitler's release from Landsberg prison in 1925, where he had been sentenced after attempting a farcical coup. When the brief prosperity of the Weimar period ended, however, the Nazi party changed the political map of Germany. They absorbed many of the adherents of the smaller right-wing parties, making themselves the chief vehicle for protest votes. The established parties, the Communists, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center, seemed helpless to cope, or even to match the Nazis in innovative campaign technique.

The acme of Nazi voting success came in the July parliamentary elections, when their percentage of the vote reached the high thirty percent range. This made them the largest party in the federal Reichstag, though far short of a majority. The chancellor at that time, Heinrich Bruening, was a respected, fatally stubborn member of the minority Catholic Center. He was also a presidential appointee, since he could not count on majority legislative support. Under the Weimar constitution, it was possible for a chancellor to conduct a government with just the backing of the president's emergency powers, provided the Reichstag did not actually return a vote of no-confidence against him. Eventually, however, his policies of fiscal austerity caused his fall from office. After Bruening, no chancellor was able to count even on the toleration of a parliamentary majority. Thus, by the summer of 1932, Germany had already ceased to be a functioning parliamentary democracy. Law was increasingly made by President Hindenberg's emergency decrees. A more explicit form of dictatorship seemed not just reasonable, but inevitable.

Then there was a pause. Nazi electoral success in early '30s did not depend, as many people charged at the time, on subsidies by bankers and industrialists eager to set up a dictatorship friendly to capitalism. The Nazis did have some wealthy sympathizers, notably the great industrialist, Fritz Thyssen. Still, to a surprising degree they were a shoestring operation, supported by generous membership contributions and the time and labor of their members (many of whom, after all, were not otherwise employed at the time). The problem with this kind of organization, of course, is that it is a kind of pyramid scheme. As long as the membership keeps growing, more money comes in to fund the drive for new members. When growth falters, however, the whole structure is in danger of collapse. That is very much what happened to the Nazi party when its share of the popular vote dropped by over 10% in the next round of elections in November.

Why did this happen? The simplest answer may be that their natural share of the electorate was about a third. There have been many profiles of the "Nazi voter." This creature was more likely to be Protestant than Catholic, more likely rural than urban, more likely to run a farm or small business than to work in a factory. The Nazi electorate was even disproportionately female. In any event, the percentage of the population likely to find Hitler and his organization attractive was large but limited. Their ability to attract protest votes outside their natural constituencies diminished after they became the largest parliamentary party. The Nazis then, as far as the public was concerned, had become part of the establishment, and so had to take part of the blame for the continuing dysfunction of the government and the economy.

Though still the largest party in the Reichstag, they no longer looked like the inevitable party of the future, and members who had already devoted a great deal of time and money to the Nazi cause began to drift away. Nazi stormtroopers took to the streets, not to intimidate their opponents, but to beg donations from passersby. Farsighted observers began to surmise that the window of opportunity for the Nazis had closed, since by the end of 1932 the German economy was plainly beginning to recover. All that the leaders of Germany had to do was exercise a little prudence and common sense for another six months. By then the political crisis occasioned by the Depression would have been solved.

Unfortunately, neither prudence nor common sense were conspicuous features of Franz von Papen, President Hindenberg's next appointee after the dismissal of Bruening. Whatever else the November elections may have proven, they left the Reichstag more fractured than ever. Papen was another member of the Center Party, but unlike Bruening could not count on their support, since he had accepted the chancellorship without the party's permission. He did little to any purpose during his few weeks in office, though he did succeed in alienating labor by various decrees. He toyed with schemes for a temporary dictatorship. Since these would probably not have worked but would have required the cooperation the president, their chief effect would have been to deprive the Weimar Republic of what little legitimacy it still possessed. His chief accomplishment, one that would prove fatal for Germany and the world, was in gaining the lasting trust and affection of President Hindenberg and his son, Oskar. Without a functioning Reichstag, Hindenberg was in effect the government of Germany. That fact, and the fact that the old man was likely to take any advice that Papen gave him, were the decisive elements in the events of January, 1933.

The chancellor during this period was Kurt von Schleicher, a career officer and longtime minister of defense who retained that portfolio even while chancellor. For years, he had been regarded as the power behind the throne of German politics. He had arranged for the appointment and dismissal of both Bruening and Papen. He was largely responsible for long-term foreign policy and strategic planning, areas where he met with some success. Despite the ministerial instability of the Weimar era, the Republic had succeeded in freeing itself from most of the onerous conditions imposed by the Allies at the end of the First World War. These things were achieved in no small measure because of the continuity in policy engineered by Schleicher and his colleagues. However, as Turner remarks, Schleicher seems to have "risen to the level of his incompetence" by actually becoming chancellor himself.

Schleicher lacked the sycophantic skills of Papen, so necessary to staying on the right side of Hindenberg. He deluded himself into believing that he did not need them, since he had an elaborate scheme for gaining the acquiescence, if not quite the active support, of a majority of the Reichstag. His plan had too many moving parts. It involved splitting off the moderate wing of the Nazi Party under Gregor Strasser and getting at least some labor support from the Catholic trade unions. When these things failed to materialize, all he could suggest to the displeased Hindenberg was that Reichstag should be dissolved and no new elections scheduled, despite the constitutional requirement for elections within 60 days. As Turner also remarks, a better general would have prepared a more plausible line of retreat.

This explains why Schleicher was kicked out, but how did Hitler get in? Turner's answer is that the proximate cause of the advent of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship was the spite of Franz von Papen. Papen was humiliated by the way his old friend Schleicher had engineered his removal from office. Papen, and Hindenberg, would have preferred another Papen chancellorship when it became clear that Schleicher could not muster the parliamentary support he had promised. However, even Papen had to acknowledge that such a step would simply have returned the political state of the country to what it had been in November, when Papen's attempts to rule in opposition to the Reichstag had provoked threats of civil war. Very well then, Papen made it his business to find someone else to replace Schleicher, someone Papen could be sure of controlling. He hit upon what seemed the obvious solution, the hapless ideologue Hitler.

Probably no one else could have prevailed on Hindenberg to appoint Hitler chancellor. As leader of the largest parliamentary party since July, he had of course been the obvious candidate to be asked to form a conventional majority government. Despite the notorious dislike that Hindenberg had taken to Hitler, the president had in fact offered him just this opportunity in the fall of 1932. Hitler declined. Part of the reason was practical. The Nazis were, was we have seen, far from having a majority themselves, and the closest thing to a parliamentary ally they could claim was the absurd Alfred Hugenberg's German-National Party, which tended to get smaller in each election as the Nazis ate them alive. The deeper reason, however, was that Hitler did not want to be beholden to any parliamentary coalition. Perhaps he would not really have been happy even with a majority Nazi Reichstag. What he wanted was to be a presidential chancellor, like Bruening and Papen and Schleicher. This would permit him to act quickly and radically, without reference even to what his own party thought. Though it seemed irrational, he held out for these terms from the disastrous parliamentary elections of November through the disintegration of the Schleicher government in January. Papen saw to it that Hitler got just those terms. In return, Papen got the meaningless post of deputy chancellor in the new cabinet and the appointment of various make-weight aristocrats to other ministerial posts. Hitler's cabinet, of course, never actually functioned.

Turner spends several pages assigning praise and blame to the non-Nazis who contrived to bring Hitler to power. The most guilty, in his estimation, was President von Hindenberg himself. Turner finds no basis for the widespread belief that the mind of the octogenarian president was fading in early 1933. Rather, Turner asserts that Hindenberg had as much vanity as integrity. He favored ministers who would flatter him and shield him from all criticism. He routinely dispensed with his presidential chancellors when they needed his authority to take unpopular measures. Maybe his job was too much for a man of his age, but he had sought and won reelection in 1932. It was no one's fault he was president but his own.

Papen's guilt, and that of the other people around the president, is perhaps mitigated by the fact that the chancellorship of the Weimar Republic had long since ceased to be an altogether serious job. Parliamentary and, later, presidential chancellors routinely replaced each other after a few months. There seemed little reason to believe that a Hitler government would prove to be any more durable. Papen hoped to replace Hitler in short order. (For that matter, the Communists looked forward to a Nazi regime as "capitalism's last throw," which might be followed by a revolutionary situation.) Turner reviews the scant media attention given to Hitler's appointment at the time. Hardly anyone seemed to realize that Hitler was not a normal politician, and that his government would not be a normal government.

Nevertheless, informed people knew that the Weimar constitutional system could no longer be made to work. Some kind of authoritarian regime was widely expected, one that might retain the form of the Republic but that would in fact be a modified dictatorship. To some extent, this was just what Hitler did. He ruled on the strength of an "enabling act," passed in March by a Reichstag denuded of its recalcitrant members. There never was such a thing as a "Nazi Constitution." Hitler was not the person that the German establishment wanted to take these steps: people like Papen simply wanted him to keep the chancellor's seat warm for the real dictator, once they had selected him. Folly of this magnitude is rare in any land or age.

This brings us to the might-have-beens. Turner sometimes seems to suggest that it was the world's tragedy that Schleicher did not aspire to become military dictator himself. Turner is sure that Schleicher or someone like him could have done this, parlaying an initial appointment as presidential chancellor into a durable post-democratic regime. According to Turner, nothing like the Second World War would then have occurred, either in Europe or the Pacific. (Turner takes care to point out that Japanese expansionism in the '30s and '40s was predicated on the preoccupation of the European colonial powers with their own security troubles, the chief of which was Nazi Germany.) Had there been no Nazis, Turner believes, a revanchist Germany would have fought a war to recover the corridor to East Prussia from Poland, perhaps with the cooperation of the Soviet Union. Aside from that, however, he does not think that the other elements of the Nazi agenda would have occurred. The annexation of Austria, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and above all the extermination of the Jews were Nazi preoccupations. No other German government would have conceived of such things, much less attempted them.

Eventually, of course, the military regime would have ended, perhaps as the Franco regime did in Spain, without much fuss. With eastern Europe unconquered by the Soviet Union, there would have been no occasion for the Cold War. For that matter, atomic weapons would have gone uninvented, since the Manhattan Project was specifically conceived to stop Hitler. All in all, Turner suggests, we have been living in far from the best of all possible worlds, since what actually happened was far from what was most likely to have happened.

Maybe, but if we are speculating on this level, then let us speculate further. Perhaps the total sum of human misery in the world could have been greatly reduced if a few meetings in January of 1933 had gone less well, or if certain politicians had achieved their adolescent dream and gotten into art school. On the other hand, perhaps there is a law of the conservation of catastrophe in human history. Perhaps if there had been no Nazi regime, the Communist assessment of Germany's future might have been correct. A Soviet Germany would proven just as disruptive for Europe as the Nazi one was. Even the war against Russia might have occurred in such a case, since the USSR and Red Germany would have been in immediate competition for leadership of the world communist movement.

More plausible than a Communist revolution in Germany, however, would have been the civil war that many had come to fear by the end of 1932. In addition to the Nazis, the Communists and the Social Democrats all had substantial fighting forces, more than enough to give Germany's small post-Versailles army something to worry about. (For that matter, the army would have found a formidable foe even in the Prussian police.) Despite an improving economy, the Weimar party system still might not have been salvageable. Schleicher was not anxious to become military dictator, perhaps, because he knew that establishing such a regime would have been more easily said than done. Hitler could do it because he had a substantial party behind him. Schleicher, in contrast, could have relied on nothing but the state's institutional authority. It is easy to imagine Germany unraveling rather like Spain did a few years later. The Nazis might then have succeeded in fighting their way to power, as Nazis like Ernst Roehm had intended all along.

For that matter, one wonders whether a rightist dictatorship in Germany would have been as prudent as Turner suggests. The historian Fritz Fischer, remember, started a famous "battle of the historians" in the 1960s by arguing, plausibly, that Imperial Germany had entertained hegemonic ambitions comparable to those of the Nazi regime. Even without a Blitzkrieg into France, a German invasion of Poland could still have set off a general European war in stages, in something like the scenario H.G. Wells describes in his 1933 novel, "Things to Come." There were many landmines strewn across Europe in those years. Maybe not only Hitler could have set them off.

All of this is simply to suggest that some kind of Second World War was fairly likely even without the Nazis. The First World War had ended in a truce, a pause for a breath that could not be held forever. Nevertheless, one does not doubt that Turner's basic intuition is correct. The Nazis were not a normal political phenomenon, and the war they waged did not have normal goals. The Holocaust did not have to happen, and even the conventional features of a second round of world war need not have been so widespread or so devastating as what happened in fact. Taken in this way, Turner's excursion into alternate history holds a valuable insight for statesmen. Even if you can't be blamed for preventing the bad from happening, you can be blamed for failing to prevent he worst.

 

 



Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clarivoyant

This is exactly the kind of story everyone loves. Nazis. Magic. Glimpses of an alternative future that might have been. But there are hints of something more. A secret Jew who was prominent in Nazi Germany. A stage magician and entertainer who seemed to make uncannily accurate predictions, at least some of the time. An finally, the character behind all of these things was first murdered, and then surreptitiously dropped from history. Makes you go "hmm..."

Erik Jan Hanussen:
Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant
By Mel Gordon
Feral House, 2001
273 Pages, $24.95
ISBN: 0-922915-68-7

 

The subject of this biography is scarcely obscure. He was a major figure in the European magic-show circuit in the 1920s, and the subject of sensational accounts in the American pulp magazines of the 1930s. Tales of his mysterious relationship to Hitler, capped by his brutal assassination in March of 1933, reached a more respectable audience as war approached. Articles about him appeared in the better magazines, and he figured in several novels. A contract was actually signed to do a major Hollywood biopic about him. Then silence about Erik Jan Hanussen descended quite suddenly, in September of 1942. There were no more major treatments in print, and the plans for a movie were shelved. Much later, interest in Hanussen revived in Europe. Some minor films were even made about him. Nonetheless, he dropped out of the popular memory of the English-speaking world.

This biography may help to end that anomaly. The author is Mel Gordon, a professor of theater at the University of California at Berkeley. He has written on the culture of the Weimar period before, in "Voluptuous Panic." Readers who have fond memories of Otto Friedrich's "Before the Deluge" are in for too much fun.

"Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" is sprinkled with small, apt photos and graphics from the Weimar era, as well as from the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Hanussen was born and raised. There are also short articles by Hanussen and his contemporaries, in translation, about stage-show magic and psychic phenomena. Most of all, though, there is the improbable tale of Hanussen himself, the secret Jew whose life is a cautionary tale about what happens to boys who run away to join the circus.

The subject of all this mystification was born Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider on June 2, 1889, less than two months after Hitler and not so far away, in the cell of a police precinct in Vienna. (Why there? It's a long story.) His parents were marginal theater-people. Herschmann (usually "Hermann" or, later, "Harry") left home at an early age, to seek his own career in small-town theaters and circuses. The term for such a person is "Jenischmann," the Middle European equivalent of "carney."

Harry's talents extended beyond the carnival. As a young man, he worked in Vienna as a songwriter and tabloid journalist; the latter activity seems to have involved some polite extortion of prominent people who did not want their private lives exposed. Still, he was essentially an entertainer, a function he continued to perform in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War.

It was because of the more upscale audiences that he encountered during the war that he adopted the stage-name "Erik Jan Hanussen." He took that identity with varying levels of seriousness, sometimes billing himself as "Hanussen-Steinschneider." On the other hand, there was a time when he claimed to be a Danish aristocrat. Usually he was content to be thought of as an ordinary Dane, though he spoke no Danish. He managed to diddle his Nazi admirers for a while with the story that he was a Danish orphan who had been raised by Bohemian Jews. In any case, the Hanussen name is how history knows him.

Even before the war, Hanussen had begun to specialize in mind reading, hypnotism and fortune telling. He was good at these things, in the several ways of it. One of the merits of this book is the explanations it gives, some of them provided by Hanussen himself, about how mind-reading acts work. This involved such things as information discretely gathered from the audience before the performance, or verbal and body-language codes used between the psychic and his aides. Some of the art is no more than the skilful playing of the game of "20 Questions." However, especially when the psychic was using an audience member to lead him to a hidden object, it also involved "muscle reading." This is essentially a hands-on form of the anxiety-detection that polygraphs do. Supposedly, it can be done without physical contact, simply by closely observing the subject. The effect would look like telepathy. If the technique works as described, it would be rather like the wiles of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert's "Dune."

On the other hand, though Hanussen was, for the most part, clearly just a stage magician doing stage-magician tricks, there were times when he himself thought there was more to it. There are gray areas in the work of a magician that require intuition, and at these he was unusually convincing. He described strangers and their history with an accuracy that was hard to account for. He was also good with the future, at least if you look at his prophecies selectively. His accurate predictions of public things, like the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the timing of World War II, might have been no more than keen political insight. On the other hand, there is a great treasury of anecdotes about correct forecasts of events in the lives of private persons, from auto accidents to murders, that he should not have been able to foresee and that he, probably, could not have caused himself.

Hanussen's career was not confined to the stage. Among his other pursuits, he had a lively and well-publicized practice as a "psychic detective." He seems to have been no worse than the police at finding lost people and things, even those that he had not stolen himself. In one famous case, he nabbed the culprit at the Austrian central bank who had been stealing freshly printed money. This secured him the public gratitude of respectable officials, who ever after attested to his uncanny gifts. Hanussen, in fact, managed to collect a long list of testimonials from businessmen, politicians and psychologists. The last group tested his psychic abilities repeatedly. Their conclusions were often along the lines of yes, he does cheat, but maybe not all the time.

All of this stood him in good stead during his prolonged trial in the Czechoslovakian town of Leitmeritz, were local officials charged him with fraud in such a way that they would have had to disprove the reality of psychic phenomena in order to win a conviction. Hanussen gained so much credit from his acquittal in what was called "the last witchcraft trial in Europe" that one wonders just why the prosecutor chose to pursue the case.

Other adventures include his work as a film producer, usually with himself playing Dr. Caligari-like roles. One long diversion, however, was a stint as an impresario. In that capacity, he was the long-time nemesis of the Zionist strongman, Sigmund Breitbart. Determined to show that anyone could do the feats of strength and invulnerability that Breitbart displayed on stage, Hanussen designed and promoted a Strong Woman act. The performer, "Marta Fara," bit through chains, lay down on a bed of nails and survived being run over by a wagon. The act played well in Europe, and even in America, though unscrupulous Yankees fleeced Hanussen there. The problem was that the premise of the act was wrong; "Marta Fara" suffered broken ribs and lost teeth. Three women played the role at various times, all departing to nurse their injuries and accuse Hanussen of tyranny and abuse.

Though he had had some experience of Berlin as young performer, it was only in the late Weimar period that Hanussen made the city the focus of his work. He appeared on stage, he did psychic consulting, he mixed with the wealthy and gullible. From about 1930, he became a fixture of Berlin life. Hanussen ran a considerable publishing business, specializing in newspapers and magazines that dealt with scandals and astrology. These were not partisan publications. Hanussen himself seems to have had no politics. However, in 1932, he began predicting that Hitler would soon become chancellor and that a rightwing dictatorship would ensue.

The amount of contact that Hanussen had with Hitler is a matter of dispute, as is the timing of any meetings they may have had. Hanussen, typically, bragged about his Nazi contacts; he almost certainly exaggerated them. Gordon cautiously says that we can be fairly sure that Hanussen and Hitler met more than once in 1932. This would be quite enough to make Hanussen an interesting figure, but I should point out that other accounts are willing to credit a very strong connection. According to John Toland in his biography, "Adolf Hitler," Hitler and Hanussen first met as early as 1926, at the home of a wealthy socialite:

 

"…Hanussen's first words were: 'If you are serious about entering politics, Herr Hitler, why don't you learn how to speak?' A master of body language, Hanussen explained that Hitler was not taking advantage of movement to emphasize his words. In the next few years, so Müllern-Schönhausen claimed, they continued to meet briefly and Hanussen not only taught him the tricks of elocution but also advised him on the selection of his associates."

As with so much about Hanussen, that's a good story that would be even better if we knew it were true. There are better stories yet, however. Consider this poem, which Toland says that Hanussen presented to Hitler on New Year's day, 1933, and which he assures us was "publicized and ridiculed":

The way to the goal is still blocked,
The right helpers have not yet gathered,
But in three days—from three countries,
Through the bank everything will change!
And then on the day before the end of the month,
You stand at your goal and a turning point!
No eagle could carry you on your path,
The termites had to gnaw your way!
To the ground falls what was rotten and withered.
It already creaks in the beams!

This poem correctly forecasts Hitler's accession to the chancellorship on January 30. The phrase "through the bank" is a literal translation of "Durch die Bank," but the phrase also means "completely, across the board." In any case, Hitler had already received an invitation for negotiations at the home of a prominent banker about the possibility of forming a government. It is not at all unlikely that Hanussen knew that. The interesting thing is that the Hitler chancellorship was not a done deal until late January. As Henry Ashby Turner emphasizes in Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, there was no sentiment in the German establishment for a Nazi government. Even on the Right, the consensus was that the influence of the Nazis had already peaked. However, at the beginning of 1933, there was a particularly intractable cabinet crisis. All the serious candidates cancelled each other out. Hitler was chosen by President Hindenburg's advisor, Franz von Papen, as part of a petty scheme that was supposed to bring Papen himself to power. (Actually back to power: Papen had led a brief and unsuccessful government in 1932.) All of this was purely hypothetical at the beginning of 1933, however, so Hanussen surely deserves credit for foresight, if not necessarily clairvoyance.

This brings us to an incident that could not have been foreseen by ordinary political analysis. On the evening of February 26, the day before the Reichstag Fire, Hanussen held a memorable séance at his Palace of the Occult. Gordon gives this account:

 

"Hanussen asked her what she saw. Maria closed her eyes. She saw red. The master Clairvoyant wanted to know more. Could the red be flames? Maria straightened up. Yes, the red shapes could be flames. Flames from a great house…The Dane filled in the girl's prophetic image. 'There are fires. I see a Great House is being consumed by flames."

Noting that Hanussen's papers had for months been forecasting "the destruction" of the Reichstag in connection with parliamentary elections, Gordon waxes incredulous. While not dismissing the possibility that Hanussen may have really foreseen the fire, he prefers two other possibilities: either Hanussen had learned from his Nazi contacts that arson was planned, or he set the fire himself. We are told that there was some evidence linking Hanussen to the fire, but it has been destroyed. At least one of those who might have been in the know committed murder-suicide in public. This happened under a chandelier, as Hanussen had predicted many years before. That was a conspiracy with style.

The Reichstag Fire was certainly convenient for the new Nazi government. It permitted the declaration of a state of emergency from which the country never really emerged until 1945. Still, Gordon ought to have pointed out that most historians today are persuaded that the fire really was set by a single arsonist, the young Dutchman and former Communist, Maurinus van der Lubbe. The story that the Nazis set the fire themselves was the Communist Party line all over the world; it was being promulgated before the details of the incident were known.

Taking note of old accounts of Lubbe's distracted demeanor at trial, Gordon plays with the hypothesis that Lubbe may have been suffering from post-hypnotic suggestion. Maybe Hanussen, in collaboration with the Nazis, had hypnotized the young man, either to set the fire, or to take the blame for it. Again, that's a good story. It's probably too good a story, even for Hanussen-Steinschneider.

Hanussen's assassination was "over determined," as historians say of an event that has so many sufficient causes that it is hard to pick just one. He had no lack of professional and personal enemies. He eventually made peace with Breitbart, but Berlin was also full of jealous husbands. In later years, he had acquired political enemies on the Left. At first they disliked him because they believed that magic was reactionary; his later association with the Nazis outraged them. They were chief among the ill wishers who made sure that information about Hanussen's Jewish background found its way into Nazi dossiers. Hanussen's lethal error, however, seems to have been lending money to senior members of the SA.

Here is the version of Hanussen's end that Gordon tells. A squad of SA picked up Hanussen from his apartment on the evening of March 24. They demanded all documentation related to the debts owed by important Nazis. Then he was taken away, interrogated for several hours, and released. Returning home, he made panicked calls to friends and family. He was arrested again early the next morning.

Hanussen's body was found two weeks later, beaten and shot and partially eaten by vermin. His enterprises quickly evaporated, including the astrology sheets. Indeed, the next year the government banned fortune telling and most aspects of the commercial occult. It is reasonably certain that the Nazis did this, not because they did not take such things seriously, but because they took them very seriously indeed. The horoscope for Hitler that had appeared in Hanussen's publications was banned; later astrologers during the Nazi era fudged the hour of birth in order to suggest a less catastrophic end.

Then, of course, there is the wizard's final prophecy. Gordon supplies the text of a note that Hanussen is supposed to have written on that final evening, to an alienated show-business partner. It appeared in the May 1942 issue of "Redbook Magazine":

"Let's be friends again at the end…I always thought that business about the Jews was just an election trick of theirs. It wasn't. Read carefully what my colleague Daniel has to say on the subject, in Chapters 11 and 12. Count the days, but only after they have destroyed a hundred temples in a single day—that's the time to start counting. The first date you get will mark the fall of the man who wants to become ruler of the world by brute force. And the second date will mark the day on which will occur the triumphal entry of the victors. This is my farewell to you."

The passage he was probably thinking of has been the hope of the persecuted for over 2000 years:

"From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the horrible abomination is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is the man who has patience and perseverance until one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days."

Daniel 12: 11, 12.

The date that leaps to mind from the letter is November 9, 1938, known to history as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Since the date of publication of the letter is fairly late, 1942, it may well be that Hanussen did not write it, and that the real author was thinking of Kristallnacht, too. In 1942, that meant a comforting prophecy of a fairly short war. On the other hand, maybe Hanussen did write the letter, and, not altogether unreasonably, applied to Hitler the familiar prophecy of the downfall of the Man of Sin. Readers may entertain themselves by working out their own interpretation. Hanussen's shade can still keep people guessing, even after all these years.


Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View 2002-05-14: Thanks & Goldhagen

I used to support John by buying on Amazon through his site. All of his Amazon links and such have been stripped away, although you can still buy his books. If you still want to do something for him, pray for him. It is what he would have wanted.

For a while, he was an independent scholar, and he updated his blog frequently. After a few years, he got a regular job, and only updated on the weekend, but I found that I enjoyed what he had to say even more when I had to wait for it.

Thanks & Goldhagen

 

Before I forget again, I would like to thank those of you who have been chipping money into the Amazon Honor System boxes on this site. The system does not tell me who you are, which is probably just as well. I hope you are getting notes of gratitude. These are sincere, even if they are sent automatically. Thanks to the rest of you, too. Feedback and visit-counter clicks are not quite the same as wire transfers, but they are very much better than nothing.

Thanks are also in order to Ronald J. Rychlak, for his rejoinder in the June/July issue of First Things to Daniel Goldhagen's notorious piece in the New Republic, "What Would Jesus Have Done?" In that article, Goldhagen accuses Pius XII of silence and inaction with regard to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In fact, he repeats just about every claim ever made against Eugenio Pacelli, regarding his career before and after he became pope. Some of his accusations are even posthumous. My reaction was that Goldhagen's article was a poor interpretation of the historical record, but I did not quarrel with most of Goldhagen's facts. Rychlak has gone a long step further. He shows that Goldhagen systematically misstated the record, suppressing information contrary to his thesis and distorting the information he does cite.

It is hard to know where to start. Contrary to what Goldhagen says, the Vatican protested early and often about the deportation of Jews from the occupied nations of Europe. The list of protests includes diplomatic representations to the governments of France, Slovakia and Croatia. The protests to the Vichy government were met with threats. Nonetheless, when the French bishops publicly protested, Vatican Radio broadcast the text for days. Goldhagen, of course, tells us specifically that the Vatican was silent about that protest.

Goldhagen says that the Nazis did not actually carry out repraisals for protests to their Jewish policy or the euthanasia program. This is simply wrong. When Cardinal Galen protested the killing of the handicapped, the German government did not arrest him, but it did arrest dozens of clergy from his diocese. This kind of thing happened routinely whenever the government was criticized. Also, contrary to some accounts, the euthanasia killings did not stop, though they were no longer done publicly.

Frankly, in the controversy about the attitude of the Vatican toward the Jews during the Nazi era, I never thought the Concordat with Hitler's new government was particularly significant; treaties like that are too routine to signify anything. Be that as it may, Rychlak points out that the Concordat was not the first treaty the Nazis signed, as Goldhagen said. He misstated a secondary source. The Concordat was the first bilateral treaty the Nazi government concluded, but that government had already signed some important multilateral agreements.

It might be said in Goldhagen's behalf that the piece in the New Republic was at least nominally a long review article of secondary sources, on which he was dependent. Maybe when his own book on the subject comes out later this year, he will have done his homework. Well, maybe he will, but he seems to be doing now what he did with his sources in Hitler's Willing Executioners, which also rested on tendentious use of secondary sources.

Goldhagen must have the opportunity to defend himself. However, as things stand now, we have to ask whether his behavior goes beyond mere mistake. Can Goldhagen's work in this be compared to that of Michael Bellesiles's book, Arming America?

As every history buff in America knows, that book argued that the widespread use and ownership of guns is a fairly late development in American life. The author based his argument on statistics found in old records from local court houses. The problem was that, since his thesis touched on how we should interpret the Second Amendment today, several historians took the trouble to check his primary sources. They found that he seems to have routinely mischaracterized the sources the other historians could find. The really disturbing element, however, was that they could not find much of the material he claimed to have used, even though it was supposed to be on the public record.

Goldhagen has not quite reached that point, if only because he has yet to publish original research on Pius XII and the Holocaust. Should he proceed with his plans to publish, we may be sure that his work will receive the closest attention.

 

* * *

Speaking of unscrupulous authors, I should mention that I have an article in the June/July First Things, too, a review of Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics. As per FT's eminently reasonable author's contract, I will be able to put the review on my website after 90 days.


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The Long View: Fascism: A History

Calling one's political opponent a fascist is still a popular political slur, but the actual occurrence of fascist ideas on the Right remains somewhat unclear. John was undubitably correct to note that the rise of popular parties on the right in Europe has mostly been tied to immigration, and also that anti-semitic ideas and Holocaust denial do have genuinely popular appeal nearly everywhere [not only on the Right].

John also notes that the world has in some ways only just returned to the conditions that prevailed before the Great War. International finance, and the relations between nations are beginning to relax again after the extended crisis that started in 1914, and only truly ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The interesting question for us is: how will it be different this time around?

Fascism: A History
By Roger Eatwell
Penguin Books, 1996
$14.95, 404 pages
ISBN: 0-14-025700-4

One More Time?

"Fascism is on the march again. Its style may at times be very different, but the ideological core remains the same -- the attempt to create a HOLISTIC NATIONAL THIRD WAY [Italics in original]...[A]n ideology that places so little emphasis on constitutions and rights, and so much on elite-inspired manipulation, must always be mistrusted. Beware of men -- and women -- wearing smart Italian suits...the aim is still power, and the fantasy of the creation of a radical new culture."

 

----"Fascism," page 361

 

This is the very alarming conclusion of this general history of fascist ideology by Roger Eatwell, a Reader in history at the University of Bath. It is all the more alarming because this is not a very alarmed book. Certainly it is free of "anti-fascism," which in this context often means the sort of Marxist analysis that assumes the whole political spectrum beyond the radical left is fascist in some imprecise but irredeemable way. What we do get is a brief description of the common intellectual heritage of fascism from the late nineteenth century, plus short histories of the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain. The sections dealing with fascism in these countries after World War II, and especially the more recent New Right, are the most interesting in the book.

Since we are not dealing with a partisan tirade here, it is genuinely disturbing when Eatwell ends the book by suggesting that, though fascism died in a sense in 1945, it may well be about to experience a resurrection in time for a bright future in the 21st century. Whether this hypothesis proves correct or not, still this analysis does illustrate yet another way in which Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century has returned to many of the problems that faced it at the century's beginning.

The ideological component of fascism has often been neglected in favor of psychohistories of fascist leaders and morbid prose poems about national character. This is understandable, since one of the defining features of fascism is ideological syncretism. Usually, this has meant combining "socialism" with some form of nationalism, but even this minimum requires qualification. The study of fascist ideology is made even more difficult by the fact it was most systematically expressed where it had the least influence, in France and Britain. (Eatwell is not an admirer of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, but he does give him credit for producing the best thought-out fascist party-platform. The best platform so far, that is.) In any case, at the local level, fascism often had little theoretical content, beyond the privilege of beating people up with impunity. Nevertheless, fascism does have an intellectual history, and the phenomenon as a whole is not so diffuse as to defy definition.

Fascism would not have been possible without Friedrich Nietzsche. There has been no lack of anti-theistic philosophers both before and after Nietzsche, but he is almost alone in honestly facing the consequences of living in a world in which everything is permitted. Most thinkers have sought to preserve some fragment of the intellectual structure that depended from the hypothesis of the Christian God, and so they appeal to reason or history or science. Nietzsche would have none of it. If the skies are really empty, then there are no imperatives. There is, however, life, which in the case of human beings expresses itself not just as biology but as the will. Now Nietzsche, unlike Schopenhauer and unlike many of his own followers, recognized the will is itself a composite entity. It is not a primary physical force, and it is not a god. It does, however, actually exist, and its exercise is all the meaning that life can ever have.

The proposition that the meaning of life is the exercise of the will leads to two kinds of conclusions. The most obvious, and the most popular, is the cult of cruelty. Naturally, the street-fighters who normally figure in the public activities of successful fascist parties are rarely well-read in the literature of philosophical nihilism. Nevertheless, even the nihilist violence of the German SA and the Italian "squadristi" chimes with high theory. Fascism promotes ruthlessness for the same reason that it promotes conspiracy theories: for a fascist, nothing is going to happen unless some will makes it happen. One suspects this consideration is also a factor in the usual fascist suspicion of free markets.

The other conclusion to which an ontology of the will leads is the transformation of politics into art. Whole societies become instruments for the expression of the will of elites, or often of a single great individual. In fascist theory, this is all that politics ever was, no matter what purportedly disinterested purposes the ruling elites of the past believed they served. The difference that Nietzsche made was that this reality could become conscious.

Fascism is not quite coincident with the great man theory of history. Since human beings are social animals, the will is to some extent a social phenomenon. Thus, reality is an intersubjective construct, a fable that people make up amongst themselves. The construct is not entirely arbitrary. Most fascists have also posited a strong racial or biological element conditioning the way that leaders and their peoples behave. Still, even in highly racialized forms of fascism, the leader stands to the people as the will stands to the individual. Politics, then, is not an arbitrary art, but an art whereby the leader makes the unconscious will of the people explicit.

In addition to Nietzsche, the other seminal influence on fascism whom Eatwell discusses at length is Georges Sorel. Now Sorel is remembered as the chief theorist of socialist syndicalism, and like Nietzsche his thought has influenced people who are not fascist by any definition. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a primary source of the nuts-and-bolts of practical fascism, which was chiefly concerned with integrating restive populations of industrial workers into fragile national communities. (The widespread use of the word "community" to refer to classes of people who could not possibly know each other is mostly Max Weber's fault, though to me it has long carried fascist undertones. Well, that is another story.)

Sorel's socialism was of the sort that combined plans for the betterment of the masses with considerable contempt for their intelligence, indeed contempt for almost everything about them as they actually existed. Sorel believed that the masses could be integrated into a social force only through slogans and myths. Sorel's favorite myth was that of the "general strike." Actual general strikes, in which the whole of a country's organized labor force walked off the job at the same time, have been tried a few times, with mixed success. The myth of the general strike, however, is like the vision of Judgment Day. It is the goal in whose name organizers organize, it is the reason to pay union dues. It is an ultimate threat, like the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, that creates a world by defining its limits. It is not entirely dishonest; the leaders may believe it in a heuristic sense. Such subtleties, however, are not for the people they lead.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the political systems of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was precisely their use of myth and symbol. (As Salvador Dali once remarked, Nazism was essentially surrealism come to power.) The widely-bought if sparsely-read "Myth of the Twentieth Century," by the Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, seems to have used "myth" in a Sorelian sense, the myth in this case being the origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis and its leading role in later history. More generally, both the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes seemed to be exercises in government by grand opera. (Götterdämmerung and Don Giovanni, no doubt.)

The myths used to organize the elites were not necessarily those provided for the masses. The Nazi leadership in particular cultivated a sort of occultism (though if figures like Julius Evola are any indication, this enthusiasm was not absent from Italy, either). The people, however, were pushed with more conventional forms of nationalist xenophobia and pulled with quite prosaic promises of economic improvement and social welfare (promises on which both regimes could in large measure deliver). This difference of integrative principles was consistent with the fascist notion of society as an organic entity. Organism implies differentiation, so it was only proper that elites and masses be organized through different means.

Was antisemitism an integrating myth for the people? Certainly this was not the case in Italy, where fascism made much of cultural chauvinism but tended to mock biological racism. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in order to please Hitler. The legislation was never as harsh as that in Germany, and was in any case ignored by the people and the government with some enthusiasm. (This changed after the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, when Mussolini became a puppet ruling a rump-state under German control.) As for Germany, there is little evidence that antisemitism ever added to the Nazis' popularity. Certainly the Nazis downplayed the Jewish theme when electoral victory became a real possibility after 1929. While it is true that surveys taken after World War II showed high levels of antisemitic feeling in Germany, this is as likely to have been an effect of the Nazi regime as one of its causes. The truth of the matter seems to be that, if antisemitism was a Sorelian myth, it a myth embraced by the elites rather than the masses.

England and France both had proto-fascist and self-consciously fascist movements between the wars. Eatwell notes the many writers with fascist leanings in France during this period, some of whom, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, commanded large popular followings in the 1930s. (Charles Maurras and his Action Française were too traditionally conservative to quite qualify as fascist.) As a serious political movement, French fascism needed the Popular Front politics of the Left to fight against, and so it pretty much collapsed along with the Popular Front government in the mid-'30s. English fascism started off just after the First World War on a disarmingly dotty note, with a tiny party that advocated, among other things, lowering taxes on gentlefolk so they could reduce unemployment by hiring servants. However, the movement was dominated in the 1930s and after the war by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Mosley, not unlike Churchill, was a black-sheep establishment figure, an institutional outsider but not quite a mere eccentric. He maintained a measure of credibility quite late into the decade; he was even briefly touted by the press-lord Rothermere. Still, in neither France nor England did any fascist party come within shouting distance of playing a major role in national government, much less of inaugurating a fascist revolution. Eatwell emphasizes two key reasons why they did not go the way of Germany and Italy.

The first major difference was that Britain and France had respectable national right-wing parties during the 1920s and '30s, while Germany and Italy did not. In Italy, a proper conservative establishment never got a chance to form. To a large extent, the Kingdom of Italy had always been something that northern Italians did to southern Italians (and this without the blessing of the Church, which was still annoyed at the way the Papal States had been annexed in 1870). Therefore, the local notables who might have formed the backbone of a conservative party were alienated from the national government. In Germany, of course, the old establishment had been discredited by the war. The lack of responsible right wings meant that irresponsible persons in these countries had a chance to fill the political space such parties normally occupy. The opportunity came when the narrowly-based political establishments appeared to be incapable of dealing with a national crisis.

For France and Britain the interwar years were for the most part dreary decades, but in neither country were they attended by a general sense of social crisis. France, despite the proliferation of socialist theorists of all descriptions and the growing strength of the Communist Party, seems to have been singularly immune to Red Scares. Unemployment was muted even during the Depression, partly because the country was still so rural that unemployed industrial workers simply went back to the land. For England, the '20s was in many ways the more troubled of the two decades, with intractably high unemployment even during good times and the General Strike of 1925. In the '30s, on the other hand, the effect of the worldwide depression was not nearly as severe as in other countries, and for much of the decade the economy was conspicuously innovative and dynamic.

Italy's crisis came early. In the years between the end of the war and Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, revolution was in the air, particularly in the rural areas of the north. As in Spain during the prelude to that country's civil war in the '30s, local socialist governments were often uninterested in protecting private property from seizure by workers. Right-wing terror squads, usually led by strong-men without any particular ideology, also enjoyed official indulgence in some regions (as well as a measure of popular support). Mussolini, a sophisticated socialist with anti-clerical leanings, came to power by organizing the strong-men and convincing at least a section of the establishment that he could bring social peace. When he first met the king to demand the primiership, Mussolini wore a fascist uniform. For the second meeting, he wore proper morning clothes.

Hitler wore morning clothes, too, when he went to see President Hindenburg to be sworn in as chancellor 11 years later. Germany's crisis was far more a matter of economics than Italy's had been, though exasperated by the fact the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was even more fragile than that of the Kingdom of Italy. Eatwell takes us through a quick review of the "Who Was To Blame" literature regarding Hitler's final ascension to the chancellorship. He finds little merit in the theory that Hitler (or Mussolini, for that matter) was essentially a tool of big business. What he does suggest is that the acquiescence of a weak establishment was a necessary precondition for such an improbable figure to be appointed head of a government.

Since the early 1930s, there has never been another coincidence of a weak establishment, a crisis, and a group of men with the proper ideological predispositions necessary for the formation of a fascist state. Franco's Spain was not fascist because Franco was not an artist, but a cop (or, as they used to say in my old high school, a "Prefect of Discipline"). The rulers of Vichy France, for all their authoritarian tendencies, were hardly in a position to view themselves as bold supermen. After the war, fascism was an enthusiasm only of cranks everywhere in Europe except in Italy, where the former regime never lacked for a small party of defenders. (Mussolini's widow got a regular ministerial survivor's pension.) Until the end of the Cold War, this looked like it would be the state of things for the foreseeable future. The problem with the end of the Cold War, of course, was that it made the future much less foreseeable.

In the 1990s we have seen a historically fascist party, led by Gianfranco Fini, achieve junior-partner status in an Italian government. (The party he leads changes names. Not long ago it was "The Italian Social Movement." Latterly it has been "The National Alliance." The Communist Party of Italy has undergone similar mutations in nomenclature, and also claims to have mellowed ideologically. Maybe they have.) Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National" in France seems to have a lock on from 15% to 20% of the vote. In Germany, in contrast, the party system has rebuffed the attempts to organize New Right sentiment. (This is not the case in Austria, where Jörg Haider's "Austrian Freedom Party" has polled up to 28% of the vote.) Throughout Europe, just as after the First World War, small groups of violent youths with proto-fascist leanings became conspicuous. Perhaps the most alarming thing we have discovered about the German Democratic Republic is that it did not so much extirpate Nazi ideas among the people as preserve them in ice, like dinosaurs in a science fiction movie that wreak havoc when defrosted.

One may, of course, quarrel about whether the European New Right as a whole should be consider proto-fascist, or crypto-fascist, or even fascist at all. Still, the deeper you look into any of these organizations and their leaders, the less comforted you are likely to be.

On a popular level, the issue which has the most resonance for the New Right is immigration. Everywhere in Western Europe (and in much of the United States), ordinary people are spooked by changing demographics. They are also alienated by the tendency of establishment opinion to dismiss this concern as mere reflexive racism. Persistent levels of high unemployment, often seen as a function of the presence of too many foreigners, similarly undermines the credibility of the governments of the major European states. Issues like this, however, are not the stuff of which revolutions are made, fascist or otherwise. Additionally, while right-wing leaders are at pains to keep themselves free of the least taint of racism in general or antisemitism in particular, the fact is that at ground level their organizations are, for the most part, virulently antisemitic. There is a significant public for Holocaust-denial theories. However, in no country are such things electorally useful.

The distinctive thing about fascism, however, is that it has always been a doctrine for masters rather than followers. Eatwell has some very alarming things to say about the growth of "up-scale" fascism, of ideological resources for people who either belong to existing elites or would very much like to start one. This has been made immensely easier, at least in my own view, by the spread of relativist philosophies in the Nietzschean tradition in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly at the elite schools. No matter the intent of the instructors, it always seemed singularly ill-advised to me to tell young people, who by virtue of native intelligence and social position were going to wind up running a fair slice of the world anyway, that life was really just about power. There is always some danger they might believe it.

A sentiment that seems to find increasing currency is what might be called "Euro-fascism." While fascist parties between the wars built their followings on nationalistic platforms, still from the very beginning fascism has always had a universalizing streak. Nietzsche pronounced himself a "good European." In these days when political theorists speak in terms of the clash of civilizations, New Right theory seems to be moving in the direction, not of renewed hypernationalism, but of an integrating theory for the European Union. Eatwell notes that the EU as it stands is a disedifying entity, run by bland bureaucrats who are most concerned with setting standards for bottled jam. Current plans for future integration will go no further toward turning Europe into a true political community (that word again). Eatwell asks whether anyone is ever going to be willing to die for the Bundesbank. Maybe what Europe needs is a Sorelian myth to hold it together. Work is in progress.

So, are we really just back where we started at the beginning of the 20th century, waiting for some crisis that will delegitimize the existing establishments and start the ball rolling again? One way to look at the 20th century is as one long recoil from the process of globalization. It was only in the 1990s, for instance, that international capital flows again reached the levels relative to the economies of the major countries that they had reached before the First World War. Similarly, it is only recently that international trade in general became as important as it was around 1900. What happened thereafter was that the governments of the leading nations sought to gain unprecedented control of their countries' destinies. Partly this was accomplished by war, partly it was accomplished through the creation of command economies. Stalinism was simply Lloyd George's "War Socialism" made permanent, something that happened in greater or lesser degree throughout the West. In every case, the goal was to replace the power of capital with the power of the will, whether the will was that of an electorate or of a would-be Nietzschean superman. When, starting in the 1980s, the military and economic systems of command began to be relaxed, the world economic system began to look again something like the way it had looked before these measures were implemented. The process of globalization began again. So did the attempts to stop it.

It would be wrong to say that all attempts to stop globalization of economics and communications and culture are fascist. Most resistance to universalism comes from a positive desire to preserve local identities and traditions. Such things may or may not be worth preserving. The balance between the local and the universal is not something that can be dictated categorically. Fascist nationalism, in contrast, was perhaps just an improvisation, made necessary by the fact that nations states were the largest units that fascist elites could hope to control. At a deeper level of fascism is the ideal of the universal empire, of the whole world subject to a single will. The goal is repeatedly deferred only because it is obviously so much harder to achieve.

Fascist statecraft is by its nature manipulative, a game that elites play with deluded masses. The fascists in the '20s and '30s did not come to power by promising to create a society beyond good and evil. They did it by promising people things that really were good, such as safe streets and private property and a country with a culture they could recognize. The opponents to fascism too often fell into the trap of opposing these things simply because the fascists endorsed them. This is an important point for the world's liberals (or progressives, or whatever they call themselves locally) to keep in mind. As for the conservatives, they must beware of the company they keep.



This article originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Werwolf!

Werwolf wasn't the only partisan organization organized in post-WWII Germany. However, Werwolf was probably the best known. Here, John imagines what might have been if the remaining Nazis in 1945 hadn't been too otherwordly to be effective.

Werwolf!
The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944-1946
by Perry Biddiscombe
University of Toronto Press, 1998
455 Pages, US$ 39.95
ISBN: 0-8020-0862-3

 

Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda and Gauleiter of Berlin, showed no signs of slacking in the months before he killed himself in Hitler's bunker on May 1, 1945. According to the selections from his diary edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper and published as "Final Entries 1945," he not only attended to his ordinary duties regarding national editorial policy and the defense of the city, but also found time to do things like review the new tax code and to arrange for an annoying colleague to be drafted. Of all these activities, however, perhaps the most surreal was his enthusiastic support for the "Werwolf" movement.

Goebbels spoke of the Werwolf almost as if it were an electoral campaign. Despite the other things he had on his mind, he exerted himself to create a new Werwolf radio station, and even tried to found a newspaper. (The radio station actually operated for a few weeks.) Propaganda for and about the Werwolf were among the last products of the regime. In retrospect, some commentators have tended to dismiss the Werwolf as something of a Nazi hoax, one whose primary effect was to induce the western Allies to invade Germany on a broad front, rather than go directly for Berlin. Still, I for one have sometimes wondered just what this "Werwolf" effort was, and how seriously the Nazis took it.

Perry Biddiscombe, an assistant professor of history at the University of Victoria, answers in "Werwolf!" all the questions you are likely to have about the movement, and in a very readable form. (Don't be intimidated by the apparent size of the book, by the way: the text ends at page 285, followed by notes and appendices.) "Werwolf!" provides valuable insights into the "polyarchic" nature of the Nazi regime, both in its salad days and in its dissolution, as well as a general overview of the last few months of the war in Europe. Finally, though the author does not address this matter, the book may provide some useful ideas for counterfactual speculation about the possible evolution of National Socialist society, had it survived the war.

The term "Werwolf" is the equivalent of the English "werewolf," meaning "man-wolf" or "lycanthrope." There is, however, another term, "Wehrwolf," which is pronounced about the same as "Werwolf," but which means "defense wolf." "Wehrwolf" actually has a long association with irregular warfare in Germany. A famous novel by that title, written by one Hermann Loens and published in 1910, was a romantic treatment of peasant guerrillas in northern Germany during the 17th century. Though this novel was in fact promoted by the Nazi government, particularly the Hitler Youth, the spelling "Werwolf" was favored when the Germans began planning for partisan warfare, because the Nazis had had a competitor on the Right in the 1920s called the "Wehrwolf Bund." Besides, "Werwolf" sounded more feral.

As with so much else the Nazi government did, the Werwolf initiative was something of a pillow fight, with different actors competing for control of Werwolf organizations and with different ideas for what the Werwolf was supposed to do. The original concept was clear enough, however.

"Clausewitzian partisans" are part of orthodox military doctrine. They are militia who operate behind the lines in territory occupied by the enemy. Their function is to cut supply lines and generally cause confusion, but their operation presupposes the continued existence of a national government and a conventional army. The Germans had experience fielding irregular forces of this nature, both against Napoleon and in the form of the independent "Freikorps" units that operated in eastern Germany during the chaotic period just after the First World War. The Germans started thinking about them again as soon as the situation on the Russian front began to deteriorate, and in fact anti-Communist partisans did the Red Army appreciable damage. It was only in the last half of 1944, however, that the Germans began to focus on the possibility that the Allies might have to be resisted within Germany itself.

This was a job that no major player in the German government or the military wanted to be associated with until the last moment. Thinking about the penetration of Germany, even the extended Germany of Hitler's annexations, implied a fair amount of defeatism. Additionally, the military was not keen on sharing its dwindling resources for training and material with civilian stay-behind groups. In principle, the Werwolf was commanded by SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, through a back channel consisting of local chiefs of police. These middle-aged men tended to regard partisan activity as somewhat disreputable, and in any case had no idea how to go about it. Far more dynamic, and only nominally under SS command, was the Werwolf program operated by the Hitler Youth. The story of the Werwolf proper, in fact, is largely a cautionary tale about what happens when you give teenagers a license to kill.

Despite all obstacles, training programs were improvised for youths and adults, though the courses sometimes lasted just days. Underground bunkers were prepared in isolated areas, from which the Werwolf were supposed to emerge to strike terror into the enemy. Werwolf was supposed to mesh into the larger project of establishing an "Alpine Redoubt," a base in Austria and mountainous southern Germany to which conventional forces might retreat. Certainly the major Werwolf training bases were located in that area. The last-minute attempt to build underground facilities in the Alps were too little, too late, and the armies ordered to go there never arrived, for the most part. In the final few days, Hitler decided to stay in Berlin, rather than go south and try to organize the Redoubt from Berchtesgaden. Still, it was not quite just a propaganda ploy.

What did the Werwolf do? They sniped. They mined roads. They poured sand into the gas tanks of jeeps. (Sugar was in short supply, no doubt.) They were especially feared for the "decapitation wires" they strung across roads. They poisoned food stocks and liquor. (The Russians had the biggest problem with this.) They committed arson, though perhaps less than they are credited with: every unexplained fire or explosion associated with a military installation tended to be blamed on the Werwolf. These activities slackened off within a few months of the capitulation on May 7, though incidents were reported as late as 1947.

The problem with assessing the extent of Werwolf activity is that not only official Werwolf personnel committed partisan acts. Much of the regular German fighting forces disarticulated into isolated units that sometimes kept fighting, even after the high command surrendered.. In the east, units that had been bypassed by the Red Army tried to fight their way west, so they could surrender to the Anglo-Americans. In the west, the final "strategy" of the high command was to stop even trying to halt the Allied armored penetrations of Germany, but to hit these units from behind and cut off their supplies. Perhaps the most harrowing accounts in the book are those relating to the expulsion of the ethnic German populations from the Sudetenland and the areas annexed by Poland. The latter theater in particular seems to have been the only point in the European war in which a civilian population was keen about a "scorched earth" strategy.

Very little Werwolf activity was directed with an eye toward political survival after the complete occupation of Germany. The Nazi leadership could not bring themselves to think about the matter. Certainly Himmler could not. In the last days before his own suicide, he tried to close the Werwolf down, the better to curry favor with the western Allies. Still, elements of the movement did make some plans for after the war. The Hitler Youth branch devised a political platform for a peaceful, postwar, Werwolf political organization. They also took steps toward ensuring financing for these efforts. In the last days of the war, forward-looking Nazis scurried about Germany with funds taken from the Party or the national treasury, buying up businesses "at fire-sale prices," as Biddiscombe dryly puts it. These enterprises prospered slightly in the months following the end of the fighting, but were wrapped up by the occupation authorities by the end of 1945.

This brings us to the role of the Nazi Party in the Werwolf movement. An aspect of the Third Reich on which Biddiscombe lays great stress is the surprisingly derelict state of the Party itself. When the Party was new, it was in many ways a youth movement, or perhaps a brilliant propaganda machine that mobilized a youth movement. Even before the war began, however, it had become little more than a patronage organization, notable mostly for its corruption. The old guard, who had come to power with Hitler, had no new ideas themselves and stubbornly refused to make way for new blood. The Gauleiter, or district leaders, were not an elite, and the organizations they commanded did not attract persons of the first quality.

This situation particularly frustrated the "old fighters" like Goebbels and Robert Ley, the labor chief, and Martin Bormann, Hitler's party secretary. Though they continued to have considerable influence on policy because of their strong personal relationships with Hitler, nevertheless they had long been losing institutional power as the Party was eclipsed by the SS. That organization could make some claim to being an elite. At the very least, it was still more feared than despised. Thus, in the closing months of the regime, some of the Party leaders saw the Werwolf as an opportunity to wrest power back from the Reich's decaying institutions.

Goebbels especially grasped the possibility that guerrilla war could be a political process as well as a military strategy. It was largely through his influence that the Werwolf assumed something of the aspect of a terrorist organization. Where it could, it tried to prevent individuals and communities from surrendering, and it assassinated civil officials who cooperated with the Allies. Few Germans welcomed these activities, but something else that Goebbels grasped was that terror might serve where popularity was absent. By his estimate, only 10% to 15% of the German population were potential supporters for a truly revolutionary movement. His goal was to use the Werwolf to activate that potential. With the help of the radical elite, the occupiers could be provoked into savage reprisals that would win over the mass of the people to Neo-Nazism, a term that came into use in April 1945.

Bizarre as it may seem, Goebbels saw the collapse of the Reich as the opportunity to put through a social revolution, particularly a social revolution manned by radicalized youth. Always on the left-wing of the Party, Goebbels felt that Hitler had been mislead by the Junkers and the traditional military into bourgeois policies that had corrupted the whole movement. With Germany's cities in ruins and its institutions no longer functioning, the possibility had arisen to start again from scratch. Biddiscombe notes that Hermann Rauschning , a former Nazi official who defected to the West before the war, called Nazism a "revolution of nihilism." Biddiscombe suggests that the radical wing of the Party, freed by defeat from the responsibility for actual government and the constraints of a conventional war, reverted in the final days to the nihilistic essence of Nazism.

In some ways, Goebbels' policy resembled what Mao Zedong did in China. Even the plans for the Alpine Redoubt are reminiscent of the Long March to the base at Yennan. Before the Long March, the Chinese Communist Party was a fairly conventional Stalinist organization. It presupposed the facilities of civilization for its operation. When it descended from the mountains after the war with Japan ended, however, the Communist Party was something like a new society in itself. Goebbels hoped for something similar in Europe, counting on the sudden outbreak of a war between the western and eastern Allies to provide the strategic breathing room for a renewed regime to coalesce. When no such war broke out, and the Alpine Redoubt proved to be just another Nazi pipe dream, the Werwolf simply evaporated.

While perhaps one should not press the Chinese comparison too far, still it is probably significant that the most radical manifestations of Chinese Communism appeared a good 15 or 20 years after the Party came to power. They appeared in time of peace, as old party hands tried to retake control from the conventional organs of government. If the Nazi state had won its war with the Soviet Union and fended off invasion from the West, might something similar have happened? The early Nazi enthusiasm for socialism and social solidarity had become largely rhetorical by 1939, but the ideas always remained, ready to the hand of bold Party officials who might someday find the arrogance of the SS too threatening.

Perhaps the Werwolf is the dim reflection in our world of another future. In that world, the 1960s see Brown Guards take over the streets of Germania, the new Nazi capital. Egged on by Old Fighters behind the scenes, they demand that the aristocrats of the SS get off their high horses and learn from the Volk. Ancient universities are closed down or turned into schools of indoctrination. Elderly scholars are sent to country districts to raise pigs. Gullible journalists arrive from abroad, and send home admiring articles about how the Germans must be understood on their own terms.

Any scenario in which the Third Reich lasts longer than it did is unpleasant to think about. In this one, however, there is at least a built-in consolation. The Nazi empire, held together by coercion, would probably have blown up as soon as the effectiveness of its military was degraded by revolutionary fervor.

 


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The Long View: If the July 20 Plot had Succeeded.....

More alternative history from John. Often, the main thrust of his thinking was that the world could have been very much worse than it was, even though it was frequently awful. Hitler may have been a bad leader, but Himmler would have probably been worse....

If the July 20 Plot Had Succeeded.....

On July 20, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by placing a bomb in the conference room at the East Prussia command center where Hitler was holding a meeting. The bomb went off and von Stauffenberg telephoned to his confederates in Berlin that Hitler had been killed. The conspirators had planned to stage a coup, using elements of the skeletal Home Army in Germany, perhaps supported by some of the generals on the Western Front. However, the would-be putschists in Berlin dithered for several hours, trying to get confirmation that Hitler was really dead. They did not seize the government ministries, or the telephone exchanges, or even the radio stations. When Goebbels was able to confirm that Hitler was alive and convince the army units in Berlin of this fact, the coup collapsed in short order. Apparently, all that saved Hitler's life was the absent-minded placement by his adjutant of the bomb from one side of a wooden table support to the other. Suppose the bomb had not been moved, and Hitler had been killed?

The conspirators had some foggy notion that they might be able to surrender to the Allies in the west, or at least negotiate a withdrawal to Germany's western border, while continuing to fight defensive battles in the east. Certainly they had gone much further in sounding out the western commanders about their attitude to a coup, though in some ways the most forceful member of the anti-Hitler network involved in the assassination attempt was Major General Henning von Tresckow of Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. (They had also attempted covert negotiations with both the Anglo-Americans and the Russians. They managed to talk to unofficial representatives of both sides, but without results.)

Objectively speaking, something like this might have been possible. The military position of Germany in July 1944 was grim. At the beginning of the month, the Russians had crossed the pre-war eastern border of Poland. Hitler was having that conference in East Prussia because the Russians were only about 60 klicks from the province. In the west, the Anglo-Americans were breaking out of Normandy, and Paris would fall in August. Still, the Germans were far from beaten. Armaments production, for instance, peaked in July. In the months before Germany finally surrendered, they would stabilize the situation more than once, and even conduct some notable offensives. In other words, they still had something to bargain with, and both sides knew it.

...

The Long View: The World Hitler Never Made

Alternative history, which gets the unusual name allohistory in this book review, has been one of my favorite genres. When done well, you tend to learn a lot of real history by proxy, since good alt history is based on real events. One can never invent stories near so wild as what actually happened.

The book John reviews here is a survey of alternative histories about the Third Reich. Some are about a world in which the Nazis never were, and some are about a world in which the Nazis triumphed. None of the stories are actually pro-Nazi. [John managed to find a partial example the author missed] However, the kind of stories we tell about the Nazis have changed over the years. The most vicious and diabolical portrayals came from the immediate post-war years. As time has passed, the Third Reich began to be portrayed as something that was the more banal evil of later Communism, gray, and bureaucratically neglectful. In the end, Hitler has become a joke, Godwin's Law non-withstanding.

We can't take Hitler seriouisly anymore


The World Hitler Never Made
By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
Cambridge University Press, 2005
524 Pages, US$19.80
ISBN 0-521-84706-0

 

Every generation gets the space invaders it deserves. In H. G. Wells's day, they were aggressive railroad trestles armed with late Industrial Revolution death rays and poison gas. By the 1950s, they were subversive vegetable bodysnatchers that tried to appear 200% American. Now comes Gavriel Rosenfeld, a historian at Fairfield University who specializes in the postwar reception of the Third Reich, to propose that every generation gets the alternative Hitler it deserves. We can learn quite a lot about how Western society has dealt with the memory of the Nazi regime, he suggests, by examining the speculations that have appeared over the years about how that stretch of history might have been different. Most important, by noting how these speculations have changed, we can make some useful inferences about the working of historical memory and about the political cultures of the several nations in which these speculations have appeared.

The book covers four classes of hypotheticals: Hitler wins; Hitler loses but escapes; Hitler is deleted from history; and hypothetical Holocausts (both Holocausts avoided and Holocausts that were more complete). According to the cumulative table of sources in the Appendix, this survey covers 116 works, including novels, short stories, essays, films, television productions, and some academic histories. The works that are discussed are of very variable quality. They range from novels of great merit, such as George Steiner's "The Portage to San Cristobal" and Len Deighton's "SS-GB," to the unfortunately never-to-be-forgotten film, "They Saved Hitler's Brain." (There is an image from that film on the book's dustjacket: they saved not only the brain but the whole head, cowlick and all.) Alternate history (or alternative history, or uchronie: the author prefers "allohistory") has been a recognized genre for some time. It will be easy for attentive readers to point to a few examples the author overlooked, but this survey is remarkably comprehensive.

Allohistorical stories involving Nazi Germany are chiefly an Anglo-American phenomenon, but about 15% of the author's sources are German or Austrian. British and American stories (including a few novels) about the consequences of a German victory began to appear even before the Second World War began. After the war, speculation about that topic took a rest. Such works as did appear, such as Noel Coward's well-received 1947 play about Britain under German occupation, "Peace in Our Time," and John W. Wall's novel "The Sound of His Horn," portrayed Germans as diabolical and their victims as heroes. In comic books and pulp magazines, however, there were numerous stories about how Hitler had escaped and the terrible things that would happen to him when he was caught. In the late fifties and early 1960s, interest revived in allohistory about Nazi victory, either in terms of global conquest or the occupation of Great Britain. Some writers depicted the victims as collaborators. It is to this period that we owe what perhaps remains the best-known "Hitler Wins" novel, Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle, as well as some notable British teleplays, such as Giles Cooper's "The Other Man."

In the 1970s, Rosenfeld tells us, the Hitler Wave began. Popular culture and historical studies treated many aspects of the history of the Nazi era. In allohistory, the Germans began to be portrayed as less absolutely villainous. Alternative historical scenarios were increasingly used to critique the increasingly troubled societies of their authors.

The last great inflection came with the end of the Cold War in 1989. At that point, it became easier to believe that the defeat of the Nazis had not simply cast out the fascist Satan with the communist Beelzebub. The outcome of the Second World War again seemed optimal, and allohistory in large part reflected this. However, well-thought-out works like Robert Harris's "Fatherland" depicted a Nazi-dominated Europe that seemed less like the Hell of earlier allohistorical speculation and more like ordinary unhappiness. Rosenfeld calls this evolution "normalization." As we will see, it worries him mightily.

The early British interest in the subject is not hard to explain. During the war, every adult Briton had reason to contemplate what life would be like if the Germans invaded the country, since the Germans were evidently preparing to do exactly that. British civil defense work involved some preparation for that eventuality; some people even trained for a partisan underground that would operate under a German occupation. And after the war, of course, the German plans for the occupation became public, and featured in many essays and news articles.

In the early postwar era, the British prided themselves on being made of sterner stuff than the continentals. Even if the Germans had occupied the country, the early stories said, the British people would not have collaborated. During the revival in the 1960s of allohistorical speculation (occasioned by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Rosenfeld suggests), some British writers took a different view. Though the Germans were still portrayed as very bad, the British became no better than the French. Some would have resisted, but not always in an admirable fashion; many would have joined enthusiastically with the projects of the Greater Reich.

This difference acquired a political coloration. Leftists tended to portray the British after a lost war as behaving no better than the people across the channel. Their stories implied that there would be nothing to lose by Britain merging with a supranational Europe. Nationalists, in contrast, held up the ideal of the "finest hour" (which Rosenfeld, inexplicably, almost always refers to as "the myth of the finest hour"). In the 1990s, though, it was two generally conservative historians, John Charmley and Niall Ferguson, who debated British membership in the European Union allohistorically. Charmley, notoriously, argued in his biography of Churchill that Britain could have maintained its empire by letting the Germans have their way, especially toward Russia. Ferguson thought otherwise, though we may recall that he thought most of the unpleasantness in the 20th century could have been avoided if only Britain had not intervened in the First World War.

The American question had always been about intercontinental neutrality: a question that is, curiously, asked in allohistory far more often about the Second War than the First. Early stories and assessments by historians portrayed American nonintervention in the Second World War as an unmitigated disaster. Usually it would result in the conquest of the United States, but it always made the world far worse. By the 1970s, however, some Americans of all political persuasions were arguing that the Cold War had ruined America. Allohistorical writers pointed out, reasonably enough, that the Cold War was the result of the eclipse of Germany. American writers of a libertarian bent produced stories in which Eurasia was left to its own devices. The result might be a crumbling Nazi tyranny or a hemisphere of ruins, but it would leave America prosperous and unharmed. (Even Robert Heinlein had thoughts along these lines.) Leftists, in contrast, suggested that the survival of the Nazi regime would have made the world no worse, and therefore that there was no real difference between a Nazified world and an Americanized one.

A common variation on this thought was the backstory of Norman Spinrad's famous "The Iron Dream," a science-fiction novel that was supposed to have been written by Hitler after his political projects failed and he immigrated to the United States. In this scenario, which is really a variation of the Hitler Deleted class, a Nazi-like movement forms in the United States because of the anxiety created by the Soviet annexation of Europe. In this type of story, the Third Reich is implicitly the Awful Example that the United States needs.

German-speaking writers were last into the allohistorical field, and were always more likely to think these problems through in essays than in fiction. (As a German once put it to me, Germans don't need to imagine alternate history because for Germany the first half of the 20th century was alternate history.) The earliest allohistorical stories argued that a Nazi victory would have been a disaster for Germany, too, as the regime got stranger and stranger. Later efforts, though, tended to fall into politically tinged classes, like their Anglo-American counterparts. Politically conservative people, who thought well of the postwar Federal Republic, continued to depict the world of a Nazi victory as dramatically worse than the real world. Leftists, however, often created scenarios in which such a victory resulted in a world not very different from our own, with the implication that liberal democracy was just a mellower form of fascism.

Later German allohistory explored the possibility that too much historical memory can be a bad thing. Some works described scenarios in which the Morgenthau Plan for the postwar deindustrialization of Germany was actually implemented. In a novel of this sort, the younger generations were forced to enact grotesque rituals to commemorate the misdeeds of their ancestors. The effect, of course, was to create resentment, so that whatever regret that Germans might have felt about a black spot in their history was obviated by the injustices done to them in the present. This sentiment is a fictionalized representation, Rosenfeld suggests, of the real feeling in the German world.

Such thoughts are not unknown in the English-speaking world, however. Perhaps the best Hitler Escapes novel, "The Portage to San Cristobal," features an aging Führer who is tried by an Israeli court in the Brazilian jungle. The book suggests that the very attempt to seek justice for the Holocaust keeps Hitler and Nazism alive. Rosenfeld does not dismiss this possibility, but he is clearly troubled by it. He is after, all, a student of the memory of the Holocaust, and his study shows that the increasingly popular genre of allohistory works to undermine the historical specificity of that event.

Rosenfeld does not record a single pro-Nazi allohistorical novel (I came across just one, online, and I believe it was never completed). Nonetheless, the trend in allohistory has been to move from stories in which a Nazi-dominated world is surreally evil to stories in which the Nazi empire has mellowed into a drab totalitarian state. A good example is Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which simply transferred the fall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union to the fall of the Nazi Party in Greater Germany. Indeed, in such a case, verisimilitude requires that the regime be credited with some laudable achievements. Even Stalin built the Moscow subway.

The flaws of the allohistorical regime cease to be the flaws of the actual Third Reich. They become universal flaws. All those Hitler Deleted stories in which Nazism arises in the United States suggest that fascism is a danger inherent in human nature. That may or may not be true, but making that point can distract attention from the history of what actually happened in Germany. For better or worse, however, the effect of allohistory on the memory of the Third Reich has been normalization and universalization. Allohistory itself, Rosenfeld suggests, is characterized by "presentism": these imaginary histories are wholly at the service of the conflicts and controversies of the time in which they are written.

There are some features of the allohistory of the Third Reich that seem to defy explanation. For instance, almost all stories in which the Holocaust is eliminated by well-meaning time travelers turn into variations of "The Monkey's Paw": when you get three wishes, the last one will be "put it back the way it was!" There is also a strange consensus that the result would have been much worse if the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded. I myself wrote a long essay arguing just that; I seem to have been caught up in the collective unconscious when I did so.

Finally, there is the fate of Hitler himself. In his earliest postwar allohistorical incarnations, he is up to his old tricks: inciting neofascist movements and devising superweapons in jungle exile; in one American television drama he is the colleague of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. By the 1970s, he is portrayed as a decrepit old man, almost pitiable. Revenge against such a creature seems irrelevant in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. In his most recent metamorphosis, though, he meets as strange a fate as any allohistorical scenario: he has become a clown. Increasingly over the last 30 years, der Führer has been appearing in comedy sketches and comic books, where he displays a short temper and a certain talent for explosive epigram.

Hitler's final state may be that of Mad Baggins, who, as Tolkien tells us, used to vanish with a flash and bang in fireside stories and became a favorite character of legend after all the true events were forgotten.

It may be allohistory, but you can't make this stuff up.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: If Germany Had Won World I.....

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919   By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum Collections: Website Webpage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2212540

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919

By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum Collections: Website Webpage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2212540

Given John's penchant for cyclical models of history, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that if Germany had won World War I, not much would have changed. We like to think of battles and wars as momentous things, and sometimes they are, but the outcome of the twentieth century was overdetermined, at least according to Spengler and Toynbee.

By way of proof, consider this: Spengler started writing the Decline of the West in 1911, and finished it in 1914. Weimar culture, famed for its decadence and defeatism, started before the war too. Its analogues started in England, France, and the United States about the same time.

Here is John's boldest claim:

I would go so far as to say this: something very like the Nazi Party would still have come to power in Germany, even if that country had won the First World War. I realize that this assertion runs counter to the historiography of most of this century, but the conclusion is inescapable. Politics is a part of culture, and the Nazis represented a kind of politics which was integral with Weimar culture. Salvador Dali once said, perhaps ironically, that he approved of the Nazi Party because they represented the surrealists come to power. The connection is deep, as with the Nazi affinity for the modernist post-rationalism of the philosopher Heidigger, and also superficial, in the styles the party promoted. The Nuremberg Rallies, for instance, were masterpieces of Art Deco stagecraft, particularly Albert Speer's "cathedral of ice" effect, created with the use of searchlights. As a young hopeful in Vienna, Hitler once passed up the chance to work as a theatrical set designer because he was too shy to go to the interview. But whether he knew it or not, that is what he became. People with no fascist inclinations at all love to watch film footage produced by the Nazis, for the simple reason that it is very good cinema: it comes from the same artistic culture which gave us METROPOLIS and THE BLUE ANGEL. The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich formed a historical unit, one whose advent was not dependent on the accident of who won the First World War.

Leni Riefenstahl deserves mention here too. A Triumph of the Will was a masterpiece of a movie, and continues to be influential today, although no one would be so foolish as to admit it influenced them. The Nazis were stylish and popular, a reflection of the spirit of the times.

John gets even more contrary towards the end. He suggests that despite the colossal waste and horror of the Great War, the way it turned out may have been better than some of the likely alternatives. This is worth considering.


If Germany Had Won World War I.....

In a way, this is a more interesting hypothesis than the more commonly asked question about what the world would be like if the Germans had won World War II. Several historians have noted that both world wars should really be considered a single conflict with a long armistice in the middle. If this viewpoint is valid, then the official outcome of the first phase of this conflict may have been important for reasons other than those usually cited.

As a preliminary matter, we should note that the actual outcome of the First World War was a near thing, a far nearer thing than was the outcome of World War II after 1941. While it is true that the United States entered the war on the allied side in 1917, thus providing vast new potential sources of men and material, it is also true that Germany had knocked Russia out of the war at about the same time. This gave the Germans access to the resources of Eastern Europe and freed their troops for deployment to the West. The German Spring Offensive of 1918 actually succeeded in rupturing the Allied line at a point where the Allies had no significant reserves. (At about this time, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was heard to remark, "We are going to lose this war." He began to create a record which would shift the blame to others.) The British Summer Offensive of the same year similarly breached the German lines, but did a much better job of exploiting the breakthrough than the Germans had done a few months earlier. General Ludendorff panicked and demanded that the government seek an armistice. The German army did succeed in containing the Allied breakthrough, but meanwhile the German diplomats had opened tentative armistice discussions with the United States. Given U.S. President Wilson's penchant for diplomacy by press-release, the discussions could not be broken off even though the German military situation was no longer critical. While the Germans were not militarily defeated, or even economically desperate, the government and general public saw no prospect of winning. Presented with the possibility of negotiating a settlement, their willingness to continue the conflict simply dissolved.

The Germans were defeated by exhaustion. This could as easily have happened to the Allies. When you read the diaries and reports of the French and British on the Western Front from early 1918, the writers seem to be perfectly lucid and in full command of their faculties. What the Americans noted when they started to arrive at about that time was that everyone at the front was not only dirty and malnourished, but half asleep. In addition to their other deleterious effects, the terrible trench warfare battles of that conflict were remarkably exhausting, and the capacity of the Allies to rotate out survivors diminished with the passage of time. Even with American assistance, France and Britain were societies that were slowly falling apart from lack of ordinary maintenance. Both faced food shortages from the diversion of farmers into the army and from attacks on oceanborne supplies. Had the Germans been able to exploit their breakthrough in the spring, or if the German Empire had held together long enough for Ludendorff's planned autumn offensive to take place, its quite likely that either the French or British would have sued for peace. Had one or the other even raised the question of an armistice, the same process of internal political collapse which destroyed Germany would have overtaken both of them.

Although today it is reasonably clear that Germany fought the war with the general aim of transforming itself from a merely continental power to a true world power, the fact is that at no point did the German government know just what its peace terms would be if it won. It might have annexed Belgium and part of the industrial regions of northern France, though bringing hostile, non-German populations into the Empire might not have seemed such a good idea if the occasion actually arose. More likely, or more rationally, the Germans would have contented themselves with demilitarizing these areas. From the British, they would probably have demanded nothing but more African colonies and the unrestricted right to expand the German High Seas Fleet. In Eastern Europe, they would be more likely to have established friendly satellite countries in areas formerly belonging to the defunct empires than to have directly annexed much territory. It seems to me that the Austrian and Ottoman Empires were just as likely to have fallen apart even if the Central Powers had won. The Hungarians were practically independent before the war, after all, and the chaos caused by the eclipse of Russia would have created opportunities for them which they could exploit only without the restraint of Vienna. As for the Ottoman Empire, most of it had already fallen to British invasion or native revolt. No one would have seen much benefit in putting it back together again, not even the Turks.

Communist agitation was an important factor in the dissolution of Imperial Germany, and it would probably have been important to the collapse of France and Britain, too. One can imagine Soviets being established in Glasglow and the north of England, a new Commune in Paris. This could even have happened in New York, dominated as it was by immigrant groups who were either highly radicalized or anti-British. It is unlikely that any of these rebellions would have succeeded in establishing durable Communist regimes in the West, however. The Soviets established in Germany and Eastern Europe after the war did not last, even though the central government had dissolved. In putting down such uprisings, France might have experienced a bout of military dictatorship, not unlike the Franco era in Spain, and Britain might have become a republic. Still, although the public life of these countries would have been polarized and degraded, they would probably have remained capitalist democracies. The U.S., one suspects, would have reacted to the surrender or forced withdrawal of its European expeditionary force by beginning to adopt the attitude toward German-dominated Europe which it did later in the century toward the victorious Soviet Union. Britain, possibly with its empire in premature dissolution, would have been forced to seek a strong Atlantic alliance. As for the Soviet Union in this scenario, it is hard to imagine the Germans putting up with its existence after it had served its purpose. Doubtless some surviving Romanov could have been put on the throne of a much- diminished Russia. If no Romanov was available, Germany has never lacked for princelings willing to be sent abroad to govern improvised countries.

This leaves us with the most interesting question: what would have happened to Germany itself? Before the war, the German constitution was working less and less well. Reich chancellors were not responsible to parliament but to the Kaiser. The system could work only when the Kaiser was himself a competent executive, or when he had the sense to appoint and support a chancellor who was. The reign of Wilhelm II showed that neither of these conditions need be the case. In the twenty years preceding the war, national policy was made more and more by the army and the bureaucracy. It is unlikely that this degree of drift could have continued after a victorious war. Two things would have happened which in fact happened in the real world: the monarchy would have lost prestige to the military, and electoral politics would have fallen more and more under the influence of populist veterans groups.

We should remember that to win a great war can be almost as disruptive for a combatant country as to lose it. There was a prolonged political crisis, indeed the whiff of revolution, in victorious Britain in the 1920s. Something similar seems to be happening in the United States today after the Cold War. While it is, of course, unlikely that the Kaiser would have been overthrown, it is highly probable that there would have been some constitutional crisis which would have drastically altered the relationship between the branches of government. It would have been in the military's interest to push for more democracy in the Reich government, since the people would have been conspicuously pro-military. The social and political roles of the old aristocracy would have declined, since the war would have brought forward so many men of humble origin. Again, this is very much what happened in real history. If Germany had won and the Allies lost, the emphasis in these developments would certainly have been different, but not the fundamental trends.

All the bad and strange things which happened in Germany in the 1920s are conventionally blamed on the harsh terms of the Versailles treaty. We forget, however, that the practical effect of these terms was really very limited. The diplomatic disabilities on Germany were eliminated by the Locarno Pact of 1925. The great Weimar inflation, which was engineered by the government to defeat French attempts to extract reparations, was ended in 1923. The reparations themselves, of course, were a humiliating drain on the German budget, but a system of financing with international loans was arranged which worked satisfactorily until the world financial system broke down in the early 1930s. Even arms development was continued through clandestine projects with the Soviet Union. It is also false to assert that German culture was driven to insanity by a pervasive sense of defeat. The 1920s were the age of the Lost Generation in America and the Bright Young Things in Britain. A reader ignorant of the history of the 20th century who was given samples from this literature that did not contain actual references to the war could reasonably conclude that he was reading the literature of defeated peoples. There was indeed insanity in culture in the 1920s, but the insanity pervaded the whole West.

Weimar culture would have happened even if there had been no Weimar Republic. We know this, since all the major themes of the Weimar period, the new art and revolutionary politics and sexual liberation, all began before the war. This was a major argument of the remarkable book, RITES OF SPRING, by the Canadian scholar, Modris Ekstein. There would still have been Bauhaus architecture and surrealist cinema and depressing war novels if the Kaiser had issued a victory proclamation in late 1918 rather than an instrument of abdication. There would even have been a DECLINE OF THE WEST by Oswald Spengler in 1918. He began working on it years before the war. The book was, in fact, written in part to explain the significance of a German victory. These things were simply extensions of the trends that had dominated German culture for a generation. They grew logically out of Nietzsche and Wagner and Freud. A different outcome in the First World War would probably have made the political right less suspicious of modernity, for the simple reason that left wing politics would not have been anywhere nearly as fashionable among artists as such politics were in defeat.

I would go so far as to say this: something very like the Nazi Party would still have come to power in Germany, even if that country had won the First World War. I realize that this assertion runs counter to the historiography of most of this century, but the conclusion is inescapable. Politics is a part of culture, and the Nazis represented a kind of politics which was integral with Weimar culture. Salvador Dali once said, perhaps ironically, that he approved of the Nazi Party because they represented the surrealists come to power. The connection is deep, as with the Nazi affinity for the modernist post-rationalism of the philosopher Heidigger, and also superficial, in the styles the party promoted. The Nuremberg Rallies, for instance, were masterpieces of Art Deco stagecraft, particularly Albert Speer's "cathedral of ice" effect, created with the use of searchlights. As a young hopeful in Vienna, Hitler once passed up the chance to work as a theatrical set designer because he was too shy to go to the interview. But whether he knew it or not, that is what he became. People with no fascist inclinations at all love to watch film footage produced by the Nazis, for the simple reason that it is very good cinema: it comes from the same artistic culture which gave us METROPOLIS and THE BLUE ANGEL. The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich formed a historical unit, one whose advent was not dependent on the accident of who won the First World War.

The Nazi Party was other things besides a right wing populist group with a penchant for snazzy uniforms. It was a millenarian movement. The term "Third Reich," "Drittes Reich," is an old term for the Millennium. The Party's core began as a sort of occult lodge, like the Thule Society of Munich to which so many of its important early members belonged. It promoted a racist theory of history not unlike that of the Theosophist, H.P. Blavatsky, whose movement also used the swastika as an emblem. The little-read ideological guidebook of the party, Alfred Rosenberg's MYTH OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, begins its study of history in Atlantis. Like the Theosophists, they looked for a new "root race" of men to appear in the future, perhaps with some artificial help. When Hitler spoke of the Master Race, it is not entirely clear that he was thinking of contemporary Germans.

This is not to say that the Nazi Party was a conspiracy of evil magicians. A good, non- conspiratorial account of this disconcerting matter may be found in James Webb's THE OCCULT ESTABLISHMENT. I have two simple points to make here. The first is that the leadership had some very odd notions that, at least to some degree, explain the unique things they said and did. The other is that these ideas were not unique to them, that they were spreading among the German elites. General Von Moltke, the chief of the General Staff at the beginning of the war, was an Anthroposophist. (This group drew the peculiar ire of the SS, since Himmler believed that its leader, Rudolf Steiner, hypnotized the general so as to make him mismanage the invasion of France.) The Nazi Party was immensely popular on university campuses. The intellectual climate of early 20th century Germany was extraordinarily friendly to mysticism of all types, including in politics. The Nazi leadership were just particularly nasty people whose worldview bore a family resemblance to that of Herman Hesse and C.G. Jung. The same would probably have been true of anyone who ruled Germany in the 1930s.

Am I saying then that German defeat in the First World War made no difference? Hardly. If the war had not been lost, the establishment would have been much less discredited, and there would have been less room for the ignorant eccentrics who led the Nazi Party. Certainly people with no qualifications for higher command, such as Goering, would not have been put in charge of the Luftwaffe, nor would the Foreign Ministry have been given over to so empty-headed a man as Von Ribbentrop. As for the fate of Hitler himself, who can say?

The big difference would have been that Germany would been immensely stronger and more competent by the late 1930s than it was in the history we know. That another war would have been brewed by then we may be sure. Hitler was only secondarily interested in revenge for the First World War; his primary goal had always been geopolitical expansion into Eastern Europe and western Asia. This would have given Germany the Lebensraum to become a world power. His ideas on the subject were perfectly coherent, and not original with him: they were almost truisms. There is no reason to think that the heirs of a German victory in 1918 (or 1919, or 1920) would have been less likely to pursue these objectives.

These alternative German leaders would doubtless have been reacting in part to some new coalition aligned against them. Its obvious constituents would have been Britain, the United States and Russia, assuming Britain and Russia had a sufficient degree of independence to pursue such a policy. One suspects that if the Germans pursued a policy of aggressive colonial expansion in the 1920s and 30s, they might have succeeded in alienating the Japanese, who could have provided a fourth to the coalition. Germany for its part would begun the war with complete control of continental Europe and probably effective control of north Africa and the Near East. It would also have started with a real navy, so that Britain's position could have quickly become untenable. The coalition's chances in such a war would not have been hopeless, but they would been desperate.

It is commonly said of the First World War that it was pure waste, that it was an accident, that it accomplished nothing. The analysis I have just presented, on the contrary, suggests that the "war to end all war" may have been the most important war of the modern era after all.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Spymaster The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police

Another old review, written when John was reviews editor of Culture Wars magazine. John decided to part ways with Culture Wars, for reasons he explains here. A fascinating look at espionage and the Cold War, overlapping slightly with my own book review on American Spies.


Spymaster: The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police
by Leslie Colitt
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company 1995 (November)
304 pp. (Hardcover), $23
ISBN: 0-201-40738-8

Even before the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was liquidated in 1990, it seemed churlish to me to make fun of it. It was obviously such a dismal country that further comment was cruel. Not everybody thought the way I did, however. A friend of mine who visited it on a business trip about 1985 found it hard to keep a straight face. Squired around East Berlin in an official East German car by an official East German official, he and the other Americans guffawed at the dinky little Trabant cars and the appalling architecture. Building facades that were not ghastly concrete slabs were likely to have unrepaired bullet holes in them from the Russian assault in 1945. The group went to a crowded restaurant for lunch, where they were entertained by the spectacle of a drill-sergeant waitress ordering a tableful of her hangdog countrymen to go sit somewhere else so the foreigners could stay together. The highpoint of the trip was the Eastern Block cherry pie that came for desert. The visitors spent many merry minutes noisily demonstrating its amazing impenetrability to eating utensils. The crowd in the restaurant seemed to be able to follow most of this conversation. Their expressions went from morose to suicidal. Surely none of this rudeness was necessary, I told my friend when he got back. When the GDR imploded, I felt no desire to gloat.

Well, I have changed my mind. Few countries, living or dead, have so richly deserved to be razzed as West Germany's evil twin, and many of the reasons can be found in Spymaster, a brief and straightforward account of the East German foreign espionage agency, the Hauptverwaltung fuer Aufklaerung (Central Intelligence Administration, or HVA), and how it interacted with the rest of the GDR's security apparatus. Colitt was long the Berlin correspondent for the Financial Times of London, and for me, at least, one of the merits of this book is that it does not read like a spy novel. However, if you like spy novels, this book gives you all the nuts and bolts you might desire. (I learned far more than I wanted to know about the role played in world history by the lavatories on the interzonal Berlin trains.) The book's central personality is Markus Wolf, the relentlessly elegant head of East German espionage from the early 1950s to the middle 1980s. Wolf was the prototype for "Karla," the archetypical masterspy developed by mystery writer John Le Carre' into one of the demigods of Cold War mythology. Wolf ran a truly formidable service, one that was at least as important for Eastern Block espionage in Europe as the KGB was. Indeed, it is perhaps the measure of his society that its foreign spy agency was the most competent thing about it.

Markus Wolf is invariably portrayed as a romantic figure. Athletic, handsome, cultured, he was the mysterious "Man without a Face" to Western intelligence until the 1980s, when they finally managed to get a photograph of him. Thus, for many years, he was free to travel secretly through much of Europe. He regularly met and charmed his chief moles personally, sometimes spending holidays with them at resorts in neutral countries while engaging them in wide-ranging discussions of politics and culture. He took care to see that lesser agents received birthday greetings and secret medals. For a senior East German official, he had an irregular private life. He was married thrice, not a good idea in a profession where resentful ex-wives are notoriously likely give information to the opposition out of sheer spite. However, the chief irony in the life of the romantic Markus Wolf is that, all his life, he was a "good communist," which is not very different from saying he was a "good Scout."

Wolf was born in 1923 in Weimar Germany. His father, Friedrich, was a playwright of international reputation, a homeopathic healer, and a Communist. The Wolf family fled to the Soviet Union when the Nazis came to power, even though they had a choice of possible havens. Friedrich insisted on listing his nationality in his internal Soviet passport as "German," though he was ethnically Jewish and that category would have made his life easier. His son, who also became a Soviet citizen, followed suit. During the purges, when German Communist exiles in the USSR tended to disappear into the Gulag, Friedrich contrived not only to avoid arrest but to travel to the West in his artistic pursuits, while the family remained in Moscow. Markus became thoroughly Russified; his friends always called him "Mischa." He served mostly in Red Army propaganda units during the war. When the GDR was created in 1949, he was prevailed upon to renounce his Soviet citizenship for the good of the Party so he could serve in the new state's Moscow embassy. In 1951, the Russians decided he was a good candidate to reorganize the primitive East German foreign espionage organization, then known simply as Central Department 4 of the State Security Ministry. He became its head the next year. In 1956, the department became known as the HVA .

Wolf retired just thirty years later at age 63, very young for an important Eastern Bloc figure who was not actually dying. Colitt takes him at his word when Wolf says, in effect, that he had achieved everything he could in his career. However, reasonable people might find it suspicious that he then became a "reform communist," speaking and writing about the Stalinist purges and advocating various incremental reforms in the GDR. He was an early supporter of Gorbachev at a time when the GDR leadership was dead-set against even minor relaxation. For the first time in his life, he was famous. Not that it did him much good. When the Berlin Wall came down, nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. It may be, as he claims, that he was giving vent to years of pent-up liberalism. On the other hand, perhaps he saw before all his colleagues which way the wind was blowing, and imagined that he could be the one to save socialism.

The most fascinating aspect of Spymaster is not the spies, but its description of the society Wolf was trying to save. East Germany may have been the most police-ridden country in human history. It kept long, very long, dossiers on about a quarter of its 16 million people, plus a million more selected foreigners, primarily people in West Germany. Most of this information was collected by ordinary East Germans spying on each other at the behest of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Sometimes the arrangement was informal; neighbors agreed to have regular chats about people at work with other neighbors who worked more directly for the state. Many, on the other hand, were paid agents who had signed cooperation agreements with Stasi itself. Bosses and teachers wrote regular, elaborate reports on the opinions and activities of employees and students, who might in turn be writing similar reports on the bosses and teachers. In some cases that became well-publicized after reunification, the husbands of apparently happy marriages spied on their wives, and vice versa. Almost all dissidents "cooperated" with the regime to some degree. This sometimes took the form of actually informing on members of dissident groups. Many intellectuals, however, seem to have genuinely imagined themselves to be negotiating with the regime for eventual liberalization. The Ministry of State Security itself was straight out of Kafka. Its officials took degrees, doctorates, in the applied psychology of mind control and personal intimidation. Somewhere in the former East Germany even today, perhaps, there may be a library of really, really scary doctoral theses.

Because the country pretty much evaporated in the few months after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, it is easy to see most of this crepuscular activity in retrospect as a make-work project. Those dossiers running to hundreds of pages on people who had never actually done anything very interesting, much less subversive, generally served no useful purpose. Even if the files had been computerized, still it would have exceeded the wit of man and his automatons to collate the data. Doubtless the system provided a mechanism, though a grotesquely inefficient one, for finding out what the people really thought. However, since the reaction of the country's leadership to this information was usually to try to make the people think something else, the regime does not seem to have drawn much benefit from this ability. Of course, by making such a large fraction of the people at least slightly guilty of helping the state blackmail and threaten their friends and relatives, it did ensure that few people felt morally secure enough to cast the first stone against the government. A charitable observer, or maybe a former German Marxist adept at reading between the lines, might surmise that this was the real goal of the Stasi system, to make every man his own cop. Or, on the other hand, maybe the system was just as stupid as it looked.

Markus Wolf's HVA stood somewhat apart from the Stasi. Of course, it was part of the Ministry for State Security and Wolf's boss was the thuggish Erich Mielke, the only founding member of the East German state to live through the whole regime into a resentful extreme old age. However, the foreign espionage division that Wolf ran was something of an elite. Its primary missions were the collection of military information of interest to the Warsaw Pact, surveillance of West German political parties, and economic espionage. Mielke in the early years of the regime was skeptical about the need for East Germany to have an elaborate spy-network at all. He had a point. After all, the GDR did not have an independent diplomatic or military policy, so in effect his ministry would simply be spending its own money to do the Russians' work for them. Wolf, however, soon showed such an ability to pull espionage rabbits out of hats that the HVA became one of the chief sources of the ministry's prestige within the government.

Wolf was the great 20th century master of the mole, the long-term agent who lives an apparently normal life in the target country, rising in due course to positions where sensitive information is available for the taking. The discovery in the early 1970s of his most famous mole, Guenter Guillaume, in the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt soon forced Brandt's resignation. Some of his spies were simply paid. For instance, a relatively low-level U.S. Army electronics warfare specialist once sold the HVA what there was to know about American plans for disrupting Warsaw Pact command-and-control in the event of a war in Europe. However, his most important agents tended to be West Germans who served him at least in part for personal reasons, which often included an ideological component. Academics and businessmen provided information to the East because they thought they were "protecting the peace" or, more rarely, "building socialism." An opportunity for spies of this type was provided by the structure of West German political parties. Far more than American parties, they have elaborate central organizations where experts are paid to think deep thoughts about foreign policy and military strategy. Should the party come to power, the party bureaucracy provides the experts for the new government. Wolf placed or cultivated such people while they were still young, and saw his efforts richly rewarded in later years.

And then, of course, there were the secretaries. As Colitt notes, Wolf did not discover the fact that it is usually easier to recruit the secretary of an important person than it is to recruit the bigwig himself. Neither was he the first to make use of "Romeo agents," spies who insinuate themselves into the affections of strategically-placed women and then exploit the relationship to obtain information. However, Wolf used these tactics with such skill and persistence that he seemed at times to be running a male escort service. (To judge from this book, there was a dearth of Mata Haris to balance the Romeos.) One of the recurring themes of the book is the sloppy work done by the West German security agencies throughout the Cold War. They did cursory checks on the staff of officials in sensitive posts, failed to implement even minimal in-office security procedures, and were singularly obtuse in pinpointing the possible source of a leak when they finally realized that one had occurred. Since secretaries, to do their jobs, must have access to the same information their bosses do, the HVA's job was often childishly simple. The culpability of the secretaries themselves varied greatly. They, too, often came to believe that they were helping to keep the peace by letting one Germany know what the other was up to. One particularly gullible woman was led to believe that her Romeo was actually a member of the British Secret Service, and that she was helping the Allies keep track of her own, unreliable government. One point that must be kept in mind about the moral calculus of these people is that nothing very terrible happened to them even when they were caught. Germany provides a maximum sentence of only 10 years for espionage. Typical sentences are for four years, themselves rarely served in full. Since, obviously, their country did not regard what they were doing as the worst of crimes, it is hard to see why the secretaries should have done so.

Did any of this do any real harm? Did it do any good, even from the East German perspective? The question has been of more than academic interest for the spies in the West who found that the end of the long, twilight struggle left them in the revealing glare produced by captured files and vindictive prosecutors. After reunification, the German government undertook to try those who had been involved in espionage for the GDR, even if they had never set foot in West Germany while doing so. Wolf himself was tried and convicted under this policy. However, an appeals court reversed, noting that the courts of the Federal Republic of Germany simply lacked the jurisdiction to try a man who was, in effect, a foreigner living in another country at the time the acts in question were committed. However, there was no lack of people in western Germany, probably well over a thousand, who richly deserved to have something unpleasant happen to them because of their relationship with East German intelligence over the years. One of the factors the courts have to consider in sentencing is the degree of damage the spies did. In the great majority of cases, the damage has been found to be negligible.

The point is not that espionage is an inherently futile enterprise. Wolf's organization found out most of what there was to know about NATO strategy and capabilities, enough, perhaps, to have affected the course of a war. The irony of the Cold War spy era is that, once the East Germans had found out everything there was to know, they still kept looking. The phenomenon was pure institutional inertia. Wolf's moles in the German political parties were happy to send him all the internal memoranda he was willing to pay for. The secretaries provided information on their bosses' private lives that Wolf's own bosses just could not get enough of. Wolf himself knew that this information was essentially junk. It was simply resume-fodder for the controlling agents in the HVA, who naturally tended to tout the value of the information they handled. As Colitt observes, the spy agency came to resemble an old-style Eastern European factory that won awards for the weight of the machinery produced, whether the machinery worked or not. Even information that seemed useful at the time, such as that relating to the latest Western computer technology, often did more harm than good. In practice, the ability to steal new technology discouraged the development of institutions that might have created it locally. Let them take note who think that the CIA should go into the economic warfare business.

As even the Clinton Administration discovered after a few years in office, plain old international power politics is not an obsolete institution. Therefore, neither will espionage be obsolete. Markus Wolf ran for many years the best "human intelligence" spy organization in the world. U.S. intelligence has long concentrated on such things as spy-satellites and electronic eavesdropping, so maybe we have something to learn from his story. Or maybe not. Even if the world is again divided in a geopolitical stand-off between power blocks, still that would not necessarily mean another Cold War (though it could easily mean a hot one). Ideology gave the Cold War a special nightmare affect. The participants secretly feared that history was really against them, or knew that it would bring them final victory despite all setbacks. Good and evil were plotted on a new grid for that conflict. It produced a new kind of novel because the frontiers ran not just across maps, but across individual human hearts. The HVA's successes were due to the fact that its Western moles and agents were of one people with that of the GDR. It is hard to imagine now what configuration of power and hope could divide the world in the same way again. There really is, it seems, such a thing as progress.

This article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly