Friday, 21 December 2012

Review: The Hitler Myth by Ian Kershaw

The Hitler Myth, Image and Reality in the Third Reich.

  Today I’ll be reviewing a book that has already been out for some years, but I still think deserves more attention. In Ian Kershaw’s “The Hitler Myth”, the author sets out to explain the social relationship between the Fuhrer, the Nazi Party, and the populace. Following Max Weber’s “ideal types”, Prof Kershaw categorizes Hitler as a “charismatic” leader, typically emerging in pre-political times or moments of crises, in the absence of a legitimate state and bureaucracy. 
  Through an exhaustive use of reports from the SD, and from the remaining Social Democrat opposition groups, the author reveals how the image of Hitler created through propaganda campaigns, was radically detached from the realities of who he was. 
   Hitler’s speeches inspired the masses, and his early bloodless military victories (over the Sudetenland, the Rhineland coup etc) were enough to prove to them that he was a military genius. It was this image of him - the military genius - that also shielded him from criticism in moments of domestic crisis. The persecution of the churches for instance, which was met with much hostility from the populace, was blamed squarely on the Nazi Party, and the “radicals” that filled its ranks. Hitler on the other hand, was assumed to have known nothing about such excesses, and the excuse was made that if he had only known about what was taking place, he would have done something about it. An instance of this was the Rohm Putsch in 1934, or the “Night of Long Knives”. The SA, by 1934 were not viewed with much respect, as their hooliganish behaviour, and their sexual deviancy was looked down upon. When Hitler spilled their blood, the popular response was not one of horror, but of relief that their dear leader had stepped in to protect his beloved people from the excesses of his Party. So detached was the Fuhrer and his Party, in the eyes of the German people, that one ballot paper in Potsdam had scrawled across it: “For Hitler, Yes, for his Big-Shots (the party), No.” (pp.68). 

Max Weber, (1864-1920),
German Sociologist.
  Using Max Weber’s terms, as a “charismatic" leader, the basis of Hitler’s power lay "principally outside the sphere of everyday life" (pp.120). As long as this distance could be maintained, Hitler retained his influence as a symbol of national unity. 

  An interesting development was that the inner ring of the Nazi party, did not merely view the “Hitler myth” as a tool of propaganda. Goebbels especially, and Hitler himself began to fall under their own spell.
   To use less mystical terms, let me ask the obvious question: Given that Hitler had been vindicated as a strategist after having previously ignored the mounting criticisms and advice from the military leadership  in taking Czechoslovakia, (for more on this, see Irving’s Hitler’s War), what would this have done for his ego? Indeed, as Kershaw puts it, “The day on which Hitler started to believe in his own ‘myth’ marked in a sense the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.” (pp.82).
The boost in confidence from his previous victories, and the high esteem the German people held him in, deprived Hitler of his wits, and caused him make serious blunders. As the sanguinary campaign in the east extended for years - despite being promised a short victory - the German people could no longer bring themselves to exempt Hitler from blame, given that they had previously done so on the grounds that he was too occupied on said military and diplomatic efforts. The Hitler salute faded from public life, direct criticisms of the Fuhrer himself increased in number (as the SD reports demonstrate), and gradually the people increasingly wanted an end to the war, even at the cost of victory. 
“In this sense”, Kershaw argues, “the Hitler myth was a fundamental component of the underlying instability of the Nazi regime and its untrammelled dynamic of destruction.” (pp.264). What we learn then, is that the Hitler myth was not only a great boon to the Hitler state, but eventually planted the seeds of its destruction.
  The book was written (in English) originally in 1987, long before Kershaw received his knighthood, but even today it is hard to find a more impressive work of scholarship on such an important aspect of the Third Reich. Given its short length, its lack of academic jargon when discussing the “Hitler myth” (something commonplace in the works of Roger Griffin and Michael Burleigh for instance), and the importance of its subject, I recommend this book to everyone.

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