Why It Happened the Way It Did | The Nation


Why It Happened the Way It Did

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It's been fascinating following Ian Kershaw's trajectory as a historian over the years. Trained as a specialist in the social and economic history of English monasteries in the Middle Ages, Kershaw changed countries and centuries in the late 1970s, in search of topics more relevant than medieval estate management. Two pathbreaking books were the result: The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich (published in German in 1980; translated into English in 1987) and Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945 (1983).

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Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. His books...

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Having begun his research independently, Kershaw had by this time become closely involved with the "Bavaria Project," led by Martin Broszat, then director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. Like other historians working on the project, Kershaw sought to reconstruct the history of Nazi Germany "from the bottom up" by using the extensive reports of the SS Security Service and local government officials on public morale and the voluminous and very detailed accounts of popular opinion smuggled out to the exiled German Social Democratic Party leaders in Prague by agents based in Germany. The resulting picture was complex and highly differentiated. Instead of presenting the conventional postwar clichés of a ruthless dictator bending everyone to his will, Kershaw showed a huge variety of popular responses to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, ranging from resistance and opposition through dissent and indifference to enthusiasm and praise.

In this vision, relatively few Germans were committed Nazis; most were lulled into acquiescence by Nazi propaganda and Nazi achievements in one or another area, objecting--sometimes with success--only when the regime interfered directly with the innermost values of their daily lives, most notably in matters of religious practice. All of this of course raised the question of how the regime managed to put its policies into effect. In The "Hitler Myth" Kershaw showed how the propaganda image of the Führer provided until near the end of the war a repository for people's hopes and aspirations that deflected many of their discontents onto his subordinates or held out the prospect that he would eventually find a remedy. People were reluctant to believe that in reality Hitler was a man driven by a fanatical hatred of the Jews, a boundless desire for conquest and, at bottom, a deep contempt for the mass of ordinary Germans.

Kershaw's pioneering study of Hitler's propaganda image thus seemed to point naturally to the next step, a biography of the man himself. After a decade of research, the resulting two volumes--Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000), totaling nearly 2,000 pages--established themselves immediately as the standard works on the German dictator. Among their many virtues were their scrupulous scholarship, their meticulous sorting-out of fact from myth and, not least perhaps, Kershaw's new, more relaxed style of writing, displaying a hitherto unsuspected talent for taut narrative, gripping description and the atmospheric re-creation of past events and situations.

Kershaw came to the biography, as he confessed at the time, from the "wrong direction": not from the history of high politics and decision-making but from the history of everyday life and opinion in Nazi Germany. What resulted was a book that for the first time related Hitler convincingly to his historical context, that showed him as created by his times rather than acting independently upon them. The biography, indeed, rushes impatiently through Hitler's obscure early life, dismisses psychological speculation about his motives (his alleged fears of Jewish ancestry, supposed homosexuality, early failure as a painter, etc.) and devotes only minimal and evidently somewhat irritated attention to the few episodes we know about in his personal life.

In Kershaw's account Hitler appeared, in many ways, as a kind of blank space on which Germans, or rather key groups of them, projected their ambitions and aspirations. As time went on and he came to believe in his own myth, largely fashioned for him by others, Hitler assumed a more decisive--and ultimately disastrous--role in the formulation of policy, especially with regard to the war. This structuralist approach to the dictator's role in the Third Reich has led to the charge, leveled most recently by Christopher Browning in The Origins of the Final Solution, that "Kershaw portrays Hitler's role in actual decision making on Jewish policy," as in other areas, as "passive, simply assenting to pressures and proposals from others."

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that in his latest book, Kershaw returns to the theme of decision-making, this time on a much broader scale. Here he offers a narrative and analysis of ten decisions, each influencing the ones that followed, starting with Britain's decision to fight on in the spring of 1940 and Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union, and moving through Japan's decisions to ally with Germany and Italy and then to strike at Pearl Harbor, the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini's somewhat belated decision to join the war, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's decisions to aid the British and then to escalate this into undeclared war against Germany, and Hitler's decisions to declare war on the United States and to attempt the extermination of Europe's Jews. As one might expect from Kershaw's previous record, he does not delve too deeply into the psychology of the world leaders whose actions in 1940 and 1941 shaped the course of World War II, and thus the parameters of the postwar order. Like Hitler in the two-volume biography, they remain remarkably bland and elusive. Indeed, at times they virtually disappear as individual actors altogether. Thus, for example, Kershaw concludes that "the colossal risks which both Germany and Japan were prepared to undertake were ultimately rooted in the understanding among the power-elites in both countries of the imperative of expansion to acquire empire and overcome their status as perceived 'have-not' nations."

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