No fiction writer could dream up a character like Adolf Hitler and then credibly ask a reader to believe that this strange character could ever possibly become Chancellor of Germany.
Hitler was a nobody until he was thirty years old. A man without much formal education who had served as a corporal in the First World War. A man given to ranting on about his enthusiasms and who spun conspiracy theories at every turn. A weirdo.
It was historical circumstance – at least as much as individual character – that made the Hitler we know from history. Because when Hitler washed up in Munich in 1919 he found, for the first time in his life, a Cause. Having gained a sense of belonging in the trenches of the First World War, he now experienced the trauma of defeat and – almost as bad – the sight of Communist revolutionaries attempting to take over the government of Bavaria.
Almost immediately Hitler conceived a dream – that he would be instrumental in destroying the hated legacy of defeat. And he wasn’t alone in his desire to pursue this dream. ‘At the end of the First World War Germany is left a very aggrieved country,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw. ‘It seems as if it’s an undefeated nation, undefeated in the field. The claims are in Germany that they’ve been – by the radical right, not just by Hitler and so on, but by the radical right – there’s been a stab in the back, that the fighting front was stabbed in the back by unrest at home, so they hadn’t really been defeated. Then comes the Versailles Treaty and they have territory which is taken away from them and so on. So this is like a running sore throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.’
The core components of Hitler’s world view were formed early on and did not alter. He believed that Germany had been betrayed in the war – largely by Jews who had plotted behind the lines to ensure Germany’s defeat (this was nonsense, of course) but also by the terms of the Versailles treaty which imposed punitive reparations on Germany and by which the Germans had to give up significant amounts of territory. Hitler’s appeal in those early years after the First World War rested in part on his personality and his ability to make powerful speeches, but largely on the fact that he was saying things that a significant number of Germans also passionately believed.
Herman Goering, for example, joined the Nazi party in the early 1920s because Hitler’s views chimed exactly with his own. But still, large numbers of Germans disagreed with Hitler, and in 1928 - after a failed attempt at a Putsch in 1923, a period of imprisonment and several years of trying to hold the party together - the Nazis gained less than 3% in the general election. The Nazis looked to be a bunch of fanatics on the way to nowhere.
Yet less than five years later – on 30 January 1933, Hitler was Chancellor of Germany. And it was circumstance that primarily catapulted the Nazis to power. The depression in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to horrific economic and social suffering in Germany. As a result, many people turned against the fledgling German democracy and longed for a ‘strong man’. But still, it took a collection of influential people like Franz von Papen, the former Chancellor, to convince President Hindenburg to give Hitler a chance. Von Papen, in one of the most gigantic misjudgments in history, thought that Hitler could be controlled once in power.
Once in power, Hitler had one overwhelming economic priority – rearmament. Under his leadership Germany entered a period of sustained rearmament on a level never before seen in a country ostensibly still at peace.
‘The scale by 1936 is already extraordinary,’ says the economic historian, Professor Adam Tooze. ‘In the summer of 1936 the German army manages to gang up with Goering and force an armaments programme from the army that was essentially unsustainable, so the level of spending by 1939 posed the question, according to one armament's expert, of whether Germany would slow down the armaments programme, bring it to a halt, or go to war. In other words, we would have so much armament in the army that we would be faced with the question of whether or not to use it. You couldn’t maintain it in being. So from 1936 onwards they’re already moving towards a state of fundamental imbalance as a result of the scale and the speed of the army build up.’
Hitler had come to power as German Chancellor on a platform of ‘restoring the prestige of Germany’, so in that sense his emphasis on rearmament was understandable to German citizens. ‘What the Nazis seemed to be about,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, ‘but also other groups – nationalists who supported them – was actually attaining the territory back which they had lost through the Versailles Treaty, through restoring Germany’s boundaries, acquiring that land back again. And, hence, in the 1930s all sorts of people from the outside, including Neville Chamberlain and the government in this country and in France, they regarded Hitler as an extreme nationalist who wanted now to restore German pride and German territory, of course, and acquire back the land which had been lost at Versailles.’
But, as Kershaw says, Hitler always wanted ‘more’ than this. He had written in ‘Mein Kampf’ [my struggle] back in the early 1920s, that Germany should turn ‘East’ to the Soviet Union and try and make a new Empire there, and he stayed true to this aim – but in the 1930s he was careful never to express this desire explicitly in the open. Instead, Foreign Policy triumph seemed to follow Foreign Policy triumph, with the reoccupation of the Ruhr (1936), the Anschluss with Austria (1938), and the Munich conference and the occupation of the Sudetenland. And all of this was gained without war.
‘People loved Hitler,’ says the German historian, Professor Norbert Frei. ‘Most of the Germans loved Hitler at that stage, not because he intended to go to war but just because he achieved all these things without going to war. Not only in terms of economic achievements and overcoming the mass unemployment, but also when it came to the revision of the Versailles Treaty and all the things that were related to it. The Germans at that time were even talking about Hitler as 'General Bloodless', a military person who was able to achieve all these things without spilling blood.’
‘However,’ says Ian Kershaw, ‘that image was destroyed when the Germans entered Prague in March 1939 and now for the first time are acquiring land which had not been taken away from them at Versailles, it was not part of an earlier Germany and nation state. The majority of the people who had now been taken over were not ethnic Germans at all but they were Czechs. And so to this extent, now, the march into Prague was the instant where it became recognizable that Hitler was not interested just in a greater Germany of ethnic Germans, but his ambitions were imperialist ones which stretched who knows where?’
And in pursuit of Hitler’s imperialist ambitions, it was also clear that the Jewish population of Europe had a great deal to fear at the hands of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Not only had the Nazis persecuted German Jews since 1933 to the extent that half of all German Jews had fled the country before the outbreak of war, but in a speech in the Reichstag in January Hitler had made an extraordinary ‘prophecy’.
‘He makes this two hour speech,’ says Professor Christopher Browning, ‘in the middle of which he has two paragraphs devoted to the Jews. He decries the Western powers for not taking them off Germany’s hands, because of course there are emigration barriers against Jews getting into other countries. He also says that Germans are happy to let them go but other countries are not taking them by 1938. Then the second paragraph is the one that has the so called ‘prophecy’; that if the world Jewish conspiracy plunges Germany into another world war, it will not mean the destruction of Germany but the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe. The question then is whether this is to be read again through the hindsight of Auschwitz, or if it this to be understood by looking at what actually happens in the next two years. What does this speech trigger....
'In my opinion what Hitler is doing is sending the message, and he does this often through prophecies or exhortations, to all of his followers, he knowing in fact that the world war he is referring to he is going to precipitate, that from now on the Jewish question is a European-wide question, not just a German question, and just as they solved the Jewish question in Germany or tried to, by removal of the Jews altogether, now you’re going to have to get them all out of Europe, and the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe means that there will be no more Jews there.’
‘I think Hitler had a murderous personality,’ says Professor David Cesarani, ‘in the sense that he had no conception of the value of human life. It’s hard to say why not, but he could order individuals and groups to be slaughtered without any compunction at all, he simply did not feel any compassion for most human beings. In that sense I think that when he talked about murdering Jews, destroying the Jews, a part of him fantasised about their biological eradication and their murder…. [but] if all of the Jews had emigrated from Germany before 1939; if it had been possible to deport Jews from the German spheres of influence - the territories that they conquered - to Madagascar or Siberia, I think that probably would have sufficed for Hitler… I think that Hitler always wanted to break the power of the Jews and this could be achieved practically and also symbolically in various ways, like removing Jews from economic, political, social and cultural influence, by segregating them territorially, by forcing them onto a reservation for example, or finding some corner of the German sphere of influence where they could be relocated, and if they lived or died it didn’t really matter but their power would be broken.’
And on the Jewish question - as on the decision to wage war in the first place - the role of Hitler is key. According to Richard Evans, Regius professor of history at Cambridge University, ‘Hitler’s beliefs are absolutely paramount as a causal factor in the Second World War…We know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war absolutely from the outset; he’s telling people in private in 1932 and 1933, when he’s coming to power, that he’s going to have a general war.’
And perhaps even more extraordinary than that conclusion, is the fact that Hitler entered the Second World War in 1939 with little idea how he was going to win it. Indeed, in a quite fundamental way he was about to fight the ‘wrong’ war according to his own ideological beliefs, for in August 1939 he signed a non-Aggression pact with his ideological enemy, the Soviet Union, and knew he shortly risked war with the one European power who he had previously wanted to embrace – Great Britain.
Moreover, Hitler also knew that this was a war that Germany might lose. But still, says Professor Adam Tooze says, he precipitates the conflict because ‘he thinks the alternatives are worse. Because he’s fundamentally convinced, in my view, that the world Jewish conspiracy has taken on a whole new ominous character. This starts in the summer of 1938 with the Evian Conference in which America becomes involved in European affairs around the issue of the organised emigration of Eastern European Jews. And this is triggered, of course, by the incredible violence that the Germans unleash in Austria after the Anschluss. And this, in Hitler’s mind, shifts the focus of the world Jewish conspiracy, which in his view is Germany's ultimate enemy, from Moscow which has previously been aligned with Communism, to a very clear statement by early 1939 that the real centre of the world Jewish conspiracy is Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood. That, of course, fundamentally shifts your assessment of the strategic picture because behind Britain and France, as in World War One, ultimately stands the full force of the American armaments economy….And so with that in mind, the balance of force in Europe in 1939 looks extremely ominous because British rearmament is beginning with real intensity from the beginning of 1939. The Germans understand this, and so even though the situation is bad in the autumn of 1939 they quite rightly predict that it’ll become worse in 1940-42 and this is because they’ve come face to face, for the third time, with the limitations of their own economy. So after attempting in 1938 to achieve a huge spurt in armaments production in conjunction with the Munich crisis, they find themselves having to dial back in early 1939 precisely at the moment that international tension is really boiling to a head. And it’s in that conjuncture that Hitler, I think, decides on a leap into the future by means of an unleashing of a war.’