Saturday 7 December 2019

Inside the hollow horror of Hitler's mind

History: Hitler: Only the World Was Enough, Brendan Simms, Allen Lane, €35.99

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939, Frank McDonough,Head of Zeus, €25.99

Two books on Hitler examine his rise to power and his anti-Semitism
Two books on Hitler examine his rise to power and his anti-Semitism

JP O' Malley

The general consensus among most historians is that Adolf Hitler's pathological political paranoia stemmed from an irrational fear of global communism. Breaking free from this conventional belief within Hitler historiography, Brendan Simms now makes two bold new claims: the principal preoccupation of Hitler's political life was Anglo-American global capitalism, and, the Holocaust must be understood in this wider global ideological context.

Hitler: Only The World Was Enough is modern political history at its very best: thorough, impeccably well researched, and opinionated without descending into histrionics. The Dublin-Cambridge historian writes with authority, flare, style and convincing conviction - consistently favouring thematic analysis over the simple retelling of facts.

The book begins by delving into the roots of Hitler's anti-Semitism that began in the early 1920s when Hitler warned of a coming "Jewish World State". When the Nazis began to govern Germany in 1933, Hitler believed the so-called "Jewish Question" could be contained through myriad measures: anti-Jewish laws; propaganda; the dismantling of the Jewish press; thuggish street violence; and emigration.

These persisted for a time. But the script turned apocalyptic when the Second World War broke out. Emigration was difficult during wartime. But Simms points to another reason: early Nazi victories across Europe during the war meant Hitler was effectively responsible for most of the continent's Jewish population. Three million Jews resided in Poland alone. Over time the "Jewish Question" thus became the "The Final Solution".

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

The killing of Jews by Nazis in the Soviet Union was mainly carried out in pogroms where mass shootings took place. Simms notes how Hitler told soldiers on the eastern front at the time that they were defending Germany "against Jewish capitalist hyenas". Indeed Hitler had always seen a war in the east - first with Poland and then with the Soviet Union - as the ultimate showdown for lebensraum: living space for an ever-expanding German Reich.

The absurd logic of the Holocaust can therefore be whittled down to one word: space. Hitler believed there wasn't enough. And so genocide was justified. Hitler's obsession with physical space also helps explain why the Nazis decided to speed up the process of killing Jews in Occupied Poland: with gas chambers - rather than guns - in purpose-built death camps. The majority of which were confined to an area known as the General Government: the lawless Nazi colony became a laboratory for mass murder on a scale unprecedented in modern European history.

The first secret campaign of mass killings the Nazis implemented was framed as a euthanasia programme. It took place in a Berlin suburb in 1939 and was known as the T4 Programme. Carried out on infants, the disabled and the elderly, it served as a testing ground for the murder machine that would later be set up to annihilate European Jewry. Frank McDonough believes this is a good example of distinguishing between the clandestine and evil side of the Nazi state versus the propaganda they peddled in public purporting as truth.

This deceptive game of political poker would be instrumental in how the führer played his hand in two key areas: foreign policy and the racial war in the east. Both ideas are extremely important over the course of The Hitler Years: this first instalment of a general history of the Third Reich.

It begins in 1933 when Germany succumbed to fascism and concludes after the Nazi conquest of Poland in 1939. The British historian takes the opposite approach to Simms. This is old school history where a lucid and linear story unfolds. And there is no central thesis as such.

The book does make one bold claim to begin with though: had Adolf Hitler never been born, the course of 20th Century history would have taken a radically different direction - and the genocidal murder of six million Jews could have been avoided.

The basic tenets of the Nazi utopian dream are explained in simple terms too: a racially pure community where living standards would rapidly rise in tandem with euphoric feelings of cultural prestige and national pride.

McDonough points to the starker reality. In Nazi Germany, citizens worked more hours for less pay. Nor was there any great altering of class consciousness or redistribution of wealth as there had been in, say, the Soviet Union. The other central claim this excellent book makes is that Hitler's road to power was one where flexibility co-existed in tandem with shifting political events in real time. The historian insists that Nazi Germany was not a totalitarian society in the way that Stalinist Russia was. Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, after all, was both legal and constitutional. There was no violent revolution as there had been in Russia in 1917 or France in 1789.

The pivotal turning point in Germany turning towards a politics of cult hero worship came after the global recession of 1929.

In 1928, just 2.8pc of Germany voted for the Nazi Party. By March 1933, that figure had reached 43.9pc: the highest vote of any party in Germany since 1919.

The ballot box played a central role in Hitler's path towards power. But once Hitler arrived there the democratic foundations holding the Weimar Republic in place were dismantled immediately.

Nazi ideology thus began as most far right dogmas tend to: by clearly defining its enemies. Hitler had more than most: communists; trade unionists; capitalists; criminals; the racially unfit; the disabled; the long-term unemployed; and, of course, Jews. When spewing hatred wasn't enough Hitler began to live in a world of fantasy - beating a messianic drum of change, glory and victory.

The future would take time to build Hitler assured. But the results would be monumental: a 1,000-year glorious Reich that would match the Roman Empire. Germany, meanwhile, could finally return to Eden. But by the time the Red Army found the remains of Hitler's burnt body in a Berlin bunker in April 1945, hell had shown up instead of paradise. After a mere 12 years in existence the Third Reich collapsed.

Hitler: Only the World Was Enough, Brendan Simms, Allen Lane, €35.99

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939, Frank McDonough, Head of Zeus, €25.99

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top