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Role of Adolf Hitler

LAURENCE REES: To what extent do you think that the individual character and personality and leadership of Adolf Hitler was crucial in what happened, in Poland and in the war happening at all?

MARY FULBROOK: I think Hitler was crucial to it all, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. He was crucial both to the timing and the manner of these things unfolding and to the character of the rabidly racist and ideological project. But Hitler was not alone, and you have to remember that. You can find any number of nutters standing up on Hyde Park Corner or ranting under the bridges on the Thames and they’re not going to carry a following. You have to see Hitler in his context, and so what we have to understand is that Hitler was there, and was still there in 1939, because of the support of a pile of other groups, particularly the conservative nationalist elites who bought into quite a lot of the project and were, I think, more racist than we’ve really given them credence for, for quite a long time. However, they balked, perhaps, when it came to the more violent physical manifestations of that racism when it comes eventually to what they call the 'Final Solution'.

LAURENCE REES: And what would the general population, do you think, have thought was happening in the autumn of ’39?

MARY FULBROOK: I think the vast majority of people in the old Germany, away from the borders, first of all were initially terrified, and did not want to go back to war. There was a real feeling against war at that point, but then when Poland was so rapidly crushed and it appeared to be so relatively bloodless on the part of the German troops, not for those they were crushing, but with relatively few casualties on the German side, then I think there was probably a degree of relief that the war will be over soon, that we’ve revised the Treaty of Versailles; especially when you were away from the borderlands, when you were in, let’s say, Düsseldorf or Bavaria, you didn’t really know what was going on in the borderlands. I think the soldiers invading Poland actually had a very different view of it and I think they probably reported that back and then I think things start then to shift as the autumn of ’39 proceeds, and particularly as the racial project in Poland gets underway in ’39 to ’40, ’41. Then I think perceptions start to shift dramatically and it’s seen as something rather different than simply regaining territory.

LAURENCE REES: Do you think that actually they, to some extent, 'lucked' into the victory over France?

MARY FULBROOK: Yes, I mean, if you look at the military manoeuvring and the difficulty of part of the German invasion, the fact that they actually made it through and that they came out the way they did was extraordinary. That certainly, in my view, was the high point of the war for Hitler, I think there’s no doubt about it.

LAURENCE REES: And why do you think that the Germans might well have emerged the victors from the war pre-Barbarossa?

MARY FULBROOK: First of all I never quite believe in doomed from the start scenarios because I think history’s always open. There is always the possibility of something going wrong, something going differently, so I don’t think we can ever be certain of doom from the start. I think there’s no doubt that the interpretation that says Germany was prepared for a Blitzkrieg lightning war but not for a long term war is correct, and so in that sense, yes, they couldn’t sustain a long war. On the other hand, I think it was by no means over. My own view is that you cannot actually predict how things could have gone in different circumstances there, and had Hitler stopped short, at what might have looked like a traditional war of territorial reorganisation in Central Europe, he might have had more chance of coming out with some kind of a settlement without going for the doomed scenario that we actually got.

LAURENCE REES: What would be the scenario in which you imagine he might well have emerged the victor?

MARY FULBROOK: Well, you see, so many of these things are hypotheticals. I think the difference between Chamberlain and Churchill was the crucial moment where things could have gone quite differently, if Churchill had not come on board as leader at that point. If you’re just going to do hypotheticals you can do anything and make a different scenario. We could have had Elser being successful in the previous November in bumping Hitler off in the Beer Hall in 1939, so many things could have been different.

I think there were many people in Germany who thought that if Hitler stopped short with the Blitzkrieg victories that he achieved in ’39 to ’40 there would have been the possibility for a settlement that would have worked in some way, and probably that’s the long and short of it, but that wasn’t the kind of war that Hitler was fighting, it wasn’t the kind of war he was aiming for, that wasn’t the kind of leader he was, so it’s a nonsense in a sense.

LAURENCE REES: So Hitler's not going to win.

MARY FULBROOK: What I’m trying to say is that had it been a conventional war, which it wasn’t, and had he been a different person, which he wasn’t, then there would have probably been some kind of conflict in Central Europe to resolve issues left from the Treaty of Versailles, given all the kind of embroiling resentments and nationalist problems in Central Europe in the 1930s. 

There would also have probably been some kind of settlement required which might or might not have entailed military conflict. Had it not been for Hitler there might have been some other kind of revision. But we’re dealing in such hypotheticals that it’s going down an odd route.

LAURENCE REES: To what extent would you agree with people who say Hitler imagined what was going to happen much later on - the extermination of the Jews in particular - in fact imagined all this from the early Twenties?

MARY FULBROOK: I think this is a really significant question and that you have to be very, very clear about what you’re saying or what’s implied by what you’re saying. It’s quite clear that Hitler himself uttered all sorts of crazy utterances over a long period of time so that in his own mental universe he would happily have exterminated the Jews. On the other hand, that is not to say that that is the explanation of the 'Final Solution'. In other words, if you use that to say he had a plan, he intended it all along, it was the unfolding of the plan, that is not the way it took place. There is a world of difference between one man’s visions and what happens in actuality and how it can happen.

My view on that one is that Hitler was undoubtedly murderously anti-Semitic. He was murderous in all sorts of other respects as well, for example bumping off the leadership of the SA in 1934, so murder was always a weapon for Hitler; a legitimate weapon. The notion, however, of ridding Germany of the Jews was, for a long time, seen rather differently. If you remember, it’s stigmatisation, it’s exclusion, it’s pressure for emigration, and the switch from the notion that we must make Germany free of Jews using a variety of means including emigration or ghettoisation or concentration in some way, to a notion that the only way we can do it is the 'Final Solution', I think that is very slow. That is very late. That is a much more complex process than is implied by the notion of 'a plan' which is going to be realised when the time is right. And so I don’t think we can hold Hitler’s anti-Semitism as the causal explanation of the 'Final Solution'.

LAURENCE REES: Is it a helpful way to look at it, as some people do, and think that Hitler always wanted 'rid' of the Jews, and what form that 'getting rid' of would take would vary from time to time?

MARY FULBROOK: I think that is slightly simplistic. The notion ‘vary from time to time’ doesn’t quite encapsulate this extraordinary process of taking radical, sometimes rabidly violent measures, sometimes legal measures to exclude them and then suddenly noticing what the consequences of those are and thinking, 'oh, my God, now how do we deal with this because we’ve got a ‘new’ problem?' There is so much creation and production of what appears to be chaos, or what appears to be a major problem, and then a shambling improvisation to deal with that so at each stage it ratchets up and I’m not even sure that you can at any time say that there is an overall plan.  There are a series of decisions in different places at different times about removing different populations and dealing with them, and in each case it’s a question of partial improvisation. It’s a very different, difficult and complex process.

LAURENCE REES: At what point in that journey do you think we can say that Hitler makes a decision that there will be total extermination?

MARY FULBROOK: I think that’s a very, very hard one to answer because it seems to me what we get there is a shift, which is not necessarily a decision that there will be total extermination. It seems to me that there are a couple of key shifts here, one is the notion that instead of going to shoot, or kill Jews by other means, where we find them, we’re going to bring Jews to places where we can murder them more efficiently. So rather than the murderers going to the people, it’s the people being brought to the murderers, and that’s one of the key shifts that takes place. The second is the notion of how can we do it more efficiently? I mean, you can date that any way you like, you can talk about the summer of ’41 in which the Einsatzgruppen vary the ways in which they’re killing. You can talk about September 1941 and the use of Zyklon B gas in Auschwitz for the first time and the experiment with that. You can talk about it in the spring of ’42 when they’re still improvising, still trying out different techniques of gassing in Auschwitz 1, in Birkenau, and the farmhouse and so on. You can look at all these processes, whether you can say there is a single moment at which there was a decision taken, that it’s going to be everyone rather than just groups as you find them, I think is a very difficult thing to say.

LAURENCE REES: What do you think?

MARY FULBROOK: I actually have a slightly open mind about this, because I think that all along there’s been murderous intent and murderous practice and as I said, there are literally thousands of civilians being killed for being Jewish from 1939 onwards. I think that there are certain key moments when decisions are taken. If you look at the late ’41, early ’42 period those key moments taking place at that point when they’re trying to put things into effect. So on the one hand I would sort of say there were distinct different moments of debate, for example, if you look at the Auschwitz area, the SS work process, you see the first major selections in Eastern Upper Silesia in May 1942 and then again in August 1942 where there’s still a bit of a debate about whether they are more useful for our work effort or whether we should gas them straightaway because they’re Jewish vermin and so on. So there’s still that kind of debate going on.

On the other hand, if you look at the truly fascinating report on drains and drainage and the sewage system for Auschwitz in September 1942, you get Bracht, who’s the Gauleiter of the area saying I am aware of the Fuehrer Befehl [order]. He uses the word Befehl, so he has the sense that there has been a Befehl at some time for the special treatment of the Jews. So I think despite the immense amount of very painstaking work done we’re still a bit in the dark about how we conceptualise this shift. There is a shift but it’s very difficult to identify. Is it in terms of a specific moment or is it a cumulative process with lots of separate decisions cumulatively building up to the visible taking of people to be gassed?

LAURENCE REES: Other historians point to a moment of a Hitler Befehl in either October or December, but you don’t see it that way?

MARY FULBROOK: I find it very difficult to say there is a moment because I think there are many, many such moments. I mean, there is clearly a moment in September 1939, as I said, which says Jews in the synagogue in Będzin are to be set alight and burnt. That’s no different from some of the things that are happening in the summer of ’41 with the Einsatzgruppen when Jews are to be shot in their houses and their houses are to be set fire to; this is already some kind of an order to kill Jewish civilians. I think one of the key switches in late ’41 is this notion that we will bring Jews to places rather than killing them in the places where we find them, that’s the difference between the Einsatzgruppen in the early summer of 1941 in the Soviet Union and the experiments taking place with better means of killing in Auschwitz from September ’41 onwards.

There may be moments when it’s escalated, like September or October, the ban on emigration of German Jews, the wearing of the yellow star, deportation to the ghettos, the first killings in Chelmno with the exhaust fumes in the back of the wagons in December ’41. These killings are going on and they’re escalating in scale, in ambition, they’re becoming more enhanced in the kind of techniques of disguising murder, and doing it more efficiently, so that from the point of view of the killers it’s not as painful. It’s difficult to shoot a naked woman with a child standing in front of you - reminds you of your mother.  Unless you’re plastered with Vodka you’re not going to be able to shoot. So that there’s a shift in efficiency and in scale and in technique during that autumn of ’41, but I think it’s foolish to say there’s one specific moment which is the switch from not doing it to doing it, because it’s been going on so much all along, and its just shifting in character, in ambition and scale.

LAURENCE REES: Some people might try and say that because Hitler is spending most of his time engaged in trying to win the war, the question of Jewish policy is left to a large extent to others.

MARY FULBROOK: I think Hitler is central to all of this, I think there’s no doubt about Hitler’s own views being central to this.

LAURENCE REES: But why is there no doubt about that if we can’t point to a moment when he makes a decision?

MARY FULBROOK: Because he is the legitimation that is always used. I mean, the Fuehrer is the legitimatory figurehead for all of this, and whenever we look at any particular instance it is always what the Fuehrer wishes which is the legitimatory fig-leaf around the whole thing. Even when people have some doubts about the wisdom of what they’re doing, he is the legitimatory figurehead here and Himmler is putting it into effect in particular ways.  I think without Himmler things would have been different too, but Himmler, Heydrich and so on are putting things into effect, but it is seen as the Fuehrer Befehl and that is what’s appealed to in the lower level documents.