06-29-2009 12:08 PM
Ian Kershaw is probably the world's foremost historian on Hitler and Nazism, and in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, recently published in paperback, one finds a concise history of the major historiographical debates surrounding Hitler, the German people and when/how/to what degree the Final Solution was planned and implemented. In addition to explaining the critical shortcomings to more sensational or politicized historiographical interpretations, the book gives the reader a good grounding in credible recent scholarship and an appreciation for the consensus among the better modern texts out there.
From the review
Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution:
This book is the culmination of more than three decades of meticulous historiographic research on Nazi Germany by one of the period’s most distinguished historians. The volume brings together the most important and influential aspects of Ian Kershaw’s research on the Holocaust for the first time. The writings are arranged in three sections—Hitler and the Final Solution, popular opinion and the Jews in Nazi Germany, and the Final Solution in historiography—and Kershaw provides an introduction and a closing section on the uniqueness of Nazism.
Kershaw was a founding historian of the social history of the Third Reich, and he has throughout his career conducted pioneering research on the societal causes and consequences of Nazi policy. His work has brought much to light concerning the ways in which the attitudes of the German populace shaped and did not shape Nazi policy. This volume presents a comprehensive, multifaceted picture both of the destructive dynamic of the Nazi leadership and of the attitudes and behavior of ordinary Germans as the persecution of the Jews spiraled into total genocide.
Also, since this book is a collection of essays divided by theme, I thought this time it would be more appropriate to try to tackle the book via a schedule.
For the 10th — Part I (p. 1-118)
For the 15th — Part II (p. 119-236)
For the 20th — Part III (p. 237-342)
For the 25th — Part IV (p. 343-380)
07-13-2009 01:50 AM - edited 07-13-2009 01:52 AM
Hi, gang. I hope no one else had as hectic a weekend as the one I wound up with.
There are dozens of places to begin with Kershaw, but I figure I'll try to take it chronologically. Kershaw himself essentially does this in (what to me seems like) a great intro. The Functionalism debate has always had some really sharp bones of contention, so you can see how he'd be opening himself up for further criticism by being too forthcoming. Yet he comes off very open and modest, willing to account for his own errors in interpretation over the years.
One that struck me particularly was the differing interpretations between Kulka and Kershaw, over the Germans' "passivity" or "indifference." (p. 10-1) To me, this seems like a distinction without a difference, but having not reached the relevant chapters, perhaps it's best not to explore that now. Still, if someone has a response, please chime in.
I think the first chapter highlights one of the things I've always personally enjoyed about Kershaw, which is a determination toward synthesis without any compulsion to it. His theme of "Working Towards Hitler" might have, in other hands, come off like a desperate ratiocination between interpretations, but I think Kershaw's explanation is simple enough to appease both sides and maybe Occam as well. One particularly illuminating passage, for me came from Kershaw's discussion of Hitler's hands-off style creating a decision vacuum and an absence of accountability:
This non-bureaucratic style was itself more than just a personal foible or eccentricity. It was an inescapable product of the deification of the leadership position itself and consequent need to sustain prestige to match the created image. [Hitler's] instinctive Darwinism made him unwilling and unable to take sides in a dispute till the winner emerged. But the need to protect his infallible image also made him largely incapable of doing so. (p. 38)
I think one of the concepts lay-readers or young students struggle with is the concept of Nazi German's totalitarianism being so fundamentally disorganized, and Kershaw here not only offers a psychological but a political reason for its being so while folding it into the overall concept of "Working Towards Hitler" as a model for responsibility for the Final Solution. Hitler naturally fed off disorganization because it obscured his indecision, allowing him to swoop in flawlessly for the fait accompli as befit his own myth. But at the same time, this temporary absence of authority leaves only the myth or the general concept of the Authority's wishes. This goes some way to explaining how Hitler can be still 100% morally responsible for the Final Solution while factually (in many cases) not really having much to do with decisions or implementation, whose actual concrete causes are subordinates and average functionaries working with their impressions of what is wanted.
I could go on, but I think I've thrown enough out there about the intro and chapter one for now. I'll add more about chapters 2-4, but I'd like to hear any reactions out there.
07-14-2009 01:52 PM
I enjoyed Kershaw's introduction for the same reasons as you. It was an insightful summary of the changing interpretations of Hitler - including the author's and those of other historians. For the first few decades of the Cold War, it was expedient for the U.S. to rehabilitate the image of the Germans as a bulwark against the "Communist menace" in Europe (one source of the contentious nature of histories about the Hitler era). How else could the U.S. support West Germany if the German people had, in fact, supported or actively participated in the Holocaust? One way was to demonize Hitler while absolving the German people. Hitler was an aberration! A monster! The German military was not to blame as they were just following orders! The German people did not know about the death camps! They wouldn't have tolerated such atrocities if they had known! They were the nation that had contributed to western civilization such luminaries as Bach and Beethoven (it was wise to omit Wagner as Hitler had favored his works)! This whitewashing of German culpability was convenient for the former western allies in the new political alignments of the Cold War. Previous enemies became post war friends (just consider the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49). Fortunately, this need to create "good Germans" gave way to more balanced scholarship in the 1970s-80s, although there are still some notable exceptions. In the introduction Kershaw mentions that Bullock and Fest wrote excellent biographies of Hitler, but points out that their works did not extend to the issue of Hitler's role in the Holocaust (I believe that subsequent books by Fest have done so). However, it is obvious from Kershaw's introductory comments that the topic of Hitler and the Holocaust remains contentious.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the re-unification of Germany, and the opening of Eastern Bloc archives, historians have access to new research material on Hitler, the Germans and the Holocaust. In the first few chapters Kershaw cites extensively from previously unavailable communications between the German commanders of the conquered Polish territory and the government in Berlin. He postulates that the German officials "working towards Hitler" were the impetus for the changes in the German plans for European Jews - an "improvised genocide" in Kershaw's words. The first few chapters and their documentation support this premise.
Just one additional thought about the first chapters. It may be obvious to others, but I had never put two historical events together as Kershaw does. In his rise to power, Hitler promised the German people to "get rid of the Jews." His early and perhaps intentionally vague plan was to move the Jews from Germany and the conquered nations of western Europe to camps in Poland. Then when the Soviet Union was quickly defeated, the Jews of Europe would be relocated to camps in Russia. No mention of a "final solution" as it came to be, although the forced relocation to work camps in the Soviet Union would effectively have been a death sentence. But the wheels fell off the plan when the Russians held out against German conquest. But as the war in the Soveiet Union dragged on, the forced relocation of Jews from western Europe to Poland continued. The German commanders in Poland could not deal with the large numbers to be interned. What had previously been small scale executions of Jews before the invasion of Russia were no longer a viable solution. A logistical issue led to (but not exclusively) the monstrous exterminations of the final solution. The request for a new solution was initiated by the Germans commanders in Poland believing it was consistent with Hitler's plans. There is a tragic irony which I had not previously considered: the longer the war in the Soviet Union played out, the more ruthless and lethal the German solution became.
07-29-2009 02:41 PM
I just finished the Kershaw book and am glad it was selected for July. I hoped other members would read or comment on it, as I looked forward to hearing what they found most interesting. I marked several passages hoping to discuss them, but as it is the end of the month I will make just a couple of general comments.
Kershaw's writing is excellent, his research is exceptional, and he presents a balanced and nuanced study. While discussing the historiography of the Holocaust, he analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation, and convincingly builds his own. While his chapters are organized by topic, the chronology that runs through them presents a clear picture of the social changes in Germany that facilitated the rise of the Nazis and permitted them to carry out their horrendous final solution: "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference." (page 186)
The opening of Soviet archives has offered a wealth of new resources. This historical topic has not been exhausted. But Kershaw has definitely raised the bar. It will be interesting to see what directions the research on Hitler, the Germans and the Holocaust will take in the future.
I look forward to the book selecting for August. Monty - what will it be?
07-31-2009 01:51 AM
I just finished the Kershaw book and am glad it was selected for July. I hoped other members would read or comment on it, as I looked forward to hearing what they found most interesting.
Definitely with you on this. Although the nice thing about these threads is that they stay open, so someone may bounce in eventually. The trouble then is making sure we still remember what we're talking about.
I marked several passages hoping to discuss them, but as it is the end of the month I will make just a couple of general comments.
Don't worry about the timeline. For instance, in Current Events, June's book Unfriendly Fire probably had its best discussion in July, as those who hadn't the time to read it during June were able to filter in and engage the discussion. Although there's an ideal timeline for talking about something, it's by no means static, especially since the beginning of every month sees a 7-14 day lag where sometimes people can't get their hands on the book anyway.
Kershaw's writing is excellent, his research is exceptional, and he presents a balanced and nuanced study.
Also agreed, as I said in PM (private message) with you. I like the density of Kershaw's ideas but the lack of prolixity in presenting it. Thus I found myself looking at my page count and thinking, "I have only 20 pages to go!" but taking 35 minutes to go through them, not because the prose was laborious but because I felt I had to slow down to absorb the amount of thought he'd put into it. There's verbal density and idea density. Kershaw definitely has the latter. I suppose the academic journal format in which these chapters were written informs that density. Still, better a 300-page book of compounded and compelling ideas than 450 pages of torturous prose without anything like a 1:1 ratio of thinking.
This historical topic has not been exhausted.
Do you think so? I feel like we're at such a point of diminishing returns that, barring the extraordinary discovery of an unexpected diary, we've really neared the terminus of what can be found. I think that some social histories can be deepened in terms of data, but we've hit really the ultimate in broad interpretive swathes. We've gone past the dominant and omnipotent Hitler theory, and (rightly!!!) blown past the exculpatory apologist theory to an effective synthesis that Kershaw finds in "working toward the Fürher." I don't want to seem merely to parrot Kershaw, but I feel as if tugging on that synthesis and finding how elastic it is will be the dominant theme of historiography on this topic from here on out. Not whether it's valid but to what extent.
Now, as to your earlier post:
In the introduction Kershaw mentions that Bullock and Fest wrote excellent biographies of Hitler, but points out that their works did not extend to the issue of Hitler's role in the Holocaust (I believe that subsequent books by Fest have done so). However, it is obvious from Kershaw's introductory comments that the topic of Hitler and the Holocaust remains contentious.
It's been over ten years since I last read Bullock and Fest, and in both cases I was looking more for Hitler's early life, so it's been even longer since I read them as a whole. Do you think either author has much purchase interpretively or scholastically from here on out? I know Bullock in particular earns Kershaw's doubts for his reliance on documents Kershaw now considers wholly unreliable. Then, in Fest's case, he attempted something more like a psychological profile, but his almost total elision of Hitler's involvement in the Final Solution would seem to be a damning blind spot in any psychological-architecture analysis. How does one account for that absence? Do we just experience a sea change and move Kershaw to the fore and begin again with his biography as the Ur-text and commentaries on IT as the debate from now on?
This is always a concept that interests me, because there legitimately is a point at which some historical texts become so superannuated or superseded as to lose their "necessity," for lack of a better word. For example, to return to my blog post of last week, really, there's no reason to read AJP Taylor's Origins of the Second World War anymore as a purely historical document unless you're unfamiliar with the topic and plan to read more or just breezing through for the delight of the prose. But if you were to look for a One-Stop Shop of a book on the issue, his would be inadvisable. It behooves us to use it as a jumping off point to more scholarship, relying on it for the delight in bringing us to the subject but doubting it as a sole arbiter of the topic. Are Fest and Bullock consigned to the same fate? Are they useful at all anymore? Or can they only be approached as parts one or two in a continuum of study, so long as they are no longer the destination?
It may be obvious to others, but I had never put two historical events together as Kershaw does. ... There is a tragic irony which I had not previously considered: the longer the war in the Soviet Union played out, the more ruthless and lethal the German solution became.
No, you're not alone in this. I read these passages and accompanied them with a few head-smacking DUH expressions, stunned that this made so much sense and had yet never occurred to me. It's interesting, though, in that the bureaucratic exigencies of dealing with this crisis in an ad hoc manner probably does more than anything to give a semblance of procedural credence to the "following orders" defense. When you consider that some of the Gauleiters desired to keep the Jews as labor to profit off the discrepancy between pay given for housing them and pay required to be remitted to them (as Kershaw puts it, the Jews were to be paid in pfennigs, but the Reich gave the Gauleiters marks for their labor, resulting in another institutionalized fraud-theft of the soi-disant Nazi Machine), then consider their obligations to clear living spaces for resettling Germans, then consider their inability to deport or shift populations, the banalities of their following orders achieves something slightly more complex and challenging. Hemmed in by two or three diverging demands on the resources of one area, they turned to the most horrific solution because there was nothing else. I don't mean to say this as apology: there is no apology for exterminating any people. But I think this goes some way to deepening the following-orders defense and how so many could think it reasonable. In the light of earlier historiography — that they were given a pure, explicit order to kill, period — it's a banal, trite, almost insulting idea that following procedure is an excuse. When you add secondary and tertiary complexity in an atmosphere in which there isn't necessarily an ambiguous "order," you can go some way to seeing how an ugly solution would be the only escape route presented to these people. Again, this excuses it in NO WAY; I just mean to say that Kershaw's presentation of the far greater ambiguity and complexity of demands on these people would enable a mind predisposed to disgust or indifference to the death of others to think that this was necessary. It doesn't humanize the inhuman; it just rescues the horrible from being cartoonishly evil. Evil it was, but now it has a procedural context, an impact context, a governmental context, something that involves documents and a progression of culpability and embracing of the same.
On another note, I really want to talk about the role of the clergy in Bavaria as well as the lack of inroads made via The Party toward peasant anti-semitism, and also the whole concept of institutionalizing indifference. But first I want to ask you if you have a good grasp on the clergy and denominational differences in Bavaria. I read that closely, but as I said to you in PM, I was both on a fast (which made me nod off a lot) and also had lent my book to a friend for about a week and had to read that section in two parts, days apart. I feel really shaky in my command of that. That said, I do feel pretty strong in my appreciation for the conceptual "othering" of the Jews within Germany, as well as the commercial ties that prevented wholesale adoption of the dismissal of the Jews. But, again, I'd rather throw this to you first, for comment.
I look forward to the book selecting for August. Monty - what will it be?
Ahhh, sorry. It is the one I mentioned to you in PM. We had some trouble getting it to me quickly, so I'm just going to toss out a veeerrrrrry general idea of what to try to read in it and when. That'll be a different thread. Coming within minutes.
08-05-2009 04:37 PM
Thanks Monty. And it's good to know I don't have to read each month's selection with an eye on the calendar. Kershaw's book was so detailed it took longer to read than I expected. One reason is because each chapter was originally written as an essay, and the same topic appears in more than one chapter. Consequently, I had to keep flipping back to earlier chapters to pick up the thread. Your question about the clergy is a good example. Kershaw mentions them in virtually every chapter . . . but I will save that question for later.
I mentioned that although Kershaw had raised the bar on Hitler and the holocaust scholarship, I do not think the topic has been exhausted. Having read your response, I do believe we are actually in agreement on this point. Kershaw states that even if no new sources are found to refute his synthesis, the debate will continue with a focus on Polish and Russian sources rather than German. He believes that the bitter controversies (David Irving came to my mind) will "lose their heat" with the passing of the World War II generation of historians, and will become a "more normal" discussion of academic interpretations. Nevertheless, I think the academic furor that greeted Daniel Goldhagen's 1996 publication of "Hitler's Willing Executioners" shows how easily even a reputable historian can stir the waters.
In response to another of your questions, I'm not sure what the status will (or should be) of earlier Hitler studies, such as those by Bullock and Fest. Personally, I think the biographies will retain their value as part of the historiography of the topic. As a political historian Bullock wrote his bio of Hitler from a different perspective than Kershaw, who is essentially a social historian. Fest wrote a psychological study of Hitler, and while that approach has lost favor in academic circles, his Hitler bio remains interesting, if for no other reason than because it was written by a German historian.
In one of your recent B&N history blogs you discussed the British historian AJP Taylor. Thank you for paying a better tribute to him than I could. But while he has long been a favorite of mine (a category to which Kershaw has recently been added), I would like to mention the great Scots-born historian, Gordon Craig, as another excellent writer on the subjects of World War II, the Germans, and Hitler. Taylor and Craig should never be consigned to the dusty and forgotten shelves of a university's undergrad library, nor recommended only to those readers searching for a quick-fix on the subjects. Taylor's scholarship is sound, if not definitive, but it's his wit and language that make his books memorable and indispensable. Craig should not be neglected because he believed that history had been taken over by the "social scientists" when it should be written by searching to "interconnect" history and literature. Reading Craig's books is like reading good literature dressed up like a history lesson. While usually reserved to students taking history courses (Craig taught at Stanford), I believe his books are must-reading for anyone who enjoys German or World War II history.
Kershaw's "Hitler, The Germans and the Holocaust" is excellent. But to truly understand how far the scholarship on this subject has travelled and by what roads, we should not forget the histories that have, in some measure (good or bad), influenced today's historians.