Interview with Ian Kershaw

24 October 2002
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The most recent two-part biography by Ian Kershaw has rekindled the controversy on Hitler's historiography. In this interview, Thomas Roman clarifies some of the larger questions that Kershaw's biography evokes: Kershaw's own interest in German history, his scientific approach towards the topic and the conclusions on his own work.

Thomas Roman: My first question would be on your work itself. I believe you used to be a professor in medieval history. So how come you’ve gone on to specialize in contemporary history and the issue of Nazism?

Ian Kershaw: It was a long period of transition and did not happen overnight. The main thing was starting learning German in about 1970. I couldn’t do it at school or university. It was purely a hobby initially. But I did have a very good German teacher and she filled all the class with her enthusiasm for things that were German, not just history but politics, culture, arts, literature and so on. Then, as my German got better, I really did come to the realization that what I wanted to do was not to remain a medievalist outside but really to undertake some work on German history. In 1972, I had the opportunity to go to Germany on a scholarship from the Goethe institute. I went on an intensive course. In the middle of this course I did meet with an old Nazi in a café. In the middle of the conversation he just said: “oh you English, you missed a chance with us. You should have joined us in the war and together we would have destroyed Bolshevism. We could have ruled the world.” Partway, along the conversation, I do remember the words exact that he used. He said: “The Jew is a louse”. I was so shocked by these sentiments that it made me still more determined to see what was going on in a small place like this in the 1930’s. That was really a push again along the route.
Within the next two years then, about 1975, I was able very fortunately, with a good deal of luck I have to say, to move from my job as a medieval history lecturer to a new job as a lecturer in modern history. In the very same time, I got invited by Martin Broschat who was then the leading German historian of Nazism, to work with him and a team of people on a project at looking at the social history of Bavaria in the Nazi period. That was really the end of this process.

TR: I suppose studying Hitler was then in the logic of this interest. But how did you decide to focus on the Fuehrer himself?

IK: Not until the end of the 1980’s. By then I had been working on this matter for, say, fifteen years. It didn’t seem that logical at the time because when I began this work on Germany, I wasn’t interested in Hitler at all. I was interested in the history of the population and the attitudes, the public opinion and so on. From this interest in the basis of society, I moved to an interest in the types of political structures which were shaping these opinions. Then I had to do with the role of Hitler within these structures. Along the way, it was plain that there were big divisions of interpretation among German historians especially and the so-called structuralists and intentionalists. I’ve been on a big conference on the outskirts of London, in 1979, where these German historians have been basically on a battle. That again pushed me in the direction of an interest in the historiography and the particular role of Hitler.
In the mid-1980’s, the English publisher Longmann asked me to do this little book, which I agreed to do, called Hitler Profile of power. I said it wouldn’t be a biography but an analytical work about the nature of Hitler’s power. A year after that, in 1988, Penguin asked me to write this biography. Initially I declined and said that there were a couple of good biographies. On rereading these I changed my mind. By then I was already through the little Profile of power and the interest in the construction of Hitler himself. So it was then logical to go on a biography. And I was very glad that I did the little book because it sharpened up my own mind. I think it was an important prior step really.

TR: You said that there were at least two available biographies? Which ones are you referring to?

IK: The two I am thinking of are those by Alan Bullock, which was written about half a century ago, and by Joachim Fest, the only major German biography today, which was written in 1973. Both of these had enormous merits when they came out but, of course, over a period of time, the sources and mass of secondary literature on practically every aspect and quite particularly on the policy of genocide have become available. And the approaches have moved from those developed by Bullock and Fest. Those are the reasons that I decided on reflexion that I would do another biography.
My view was that a biography of Hitler was such a major enterprise that there was an only point in doing it if you could somehow improve upon what had come before. In other words, I don’t mean this to sound arrogant but my ambition was that, if I was going to do this at all, it had to be something, beyond where Bullock and Fest, in their very good books, had got to.

TR: What new archives did you use during this research?

IK: It is true that I did do a lot of archival work and I did find some different other materials. But I have to say that right at the beginning of this work, I knew whether the new biography would be regarded as good or not would not depend upon a new archival found. I was well aware from the beginning that I would find nothing sensational in the archives. So it was rather a mater of exploring this archival material and to find a new frame of interpretation.

Regarding the sources, the most important single find that I discovered was the finding of the complete Goebbels’ diaries in Moscow around 1990. That was so important because Goebbels was in very regular frequent contact with Hitler and his diaries are a running commentary on Hitler’s own thoughts and actions for so long. Beyond that, I found material that were on particular areas or aspects such as some correspondence of Hitler in the 1920’s, in Moscow, such as accounts on Hitler’s last days, now available in London but also in a small judicial archive near Berchtesgaden where I found post-war accounts by Hitler’s adjutant and his man servant. It didn’t depend on a single archival found however.

TR: As concerns the debate between structuralism and intentionalism, you say that your position is not Hitler-centred. However, reading the two parts of the biography, one may understand that at first Hitler is the result of a process and the gathering of opportunities, which is quite a structuralist approach. In the second volume, you insist that without him Nazism and the destruction of European Jews would not have happened.

IK: Yes. In numbers of interviews after the release of the first book, I did stress very much that I regarded Hitler as absolutely indispensable to these developments, that Hitler’s role at crucial moments was decisive and couldn’t be substituted by anybody else. So I just imagined some counterfactual points. Without Hitler would there have been a type of illegal police state? Without Hitler would there have been a Holocaust? The answer is almost certainly not because his role was critical.
But it is a true observation that in the first volume you can see Hitler as a product of society whereas in the second volume Hitler has eventually come to dictate that the society would be ineluctably condemned to destruction. I think that is an ineluctable process. After the first volume you see the creation of a highly personalised form of government, a modern state extraordinary personalized with this extremely charismatic authority. In the second volume you go on a process whereby this charismatic authority bonds Hitler to considerable sections of German people. This Führer cult has two major effects. One is that it greatly weakens opposition potential. The second is summed up by what I called “working toward the Führer”. People guess what he wants without him doing very much. They bring his own ideology into realisable objectives. And at the same time Hitler’s power becomes separate from any other structure, completely unleashed, unconstrained. So this process I would say goes up to its pinnacle in the summer of 1940 and the defeat of France and it carries on until the middle of the war. Then, at the end of 1942, the war is going to be lost. It is a matter of time. How do you get out of this war then? As the war goes rapidly wrong, Hitler’s position, along with his ideology, is to never capitulate and to go under. By this stage, you could only stop this process, as long as Hitler was the leader, by trying to kill him. And it was attempted in 1944.
So we have this curve that Hitler is determined by the society at the beginning but by the end he is determining the fate of the society. It does move inextricably from a macrostructural account to a more personalized account. However, I do not see this as a process where Hitler is in control of what’s happening, like a programmed development, but rather Hitler’s himself shaped by these forces.

TR: In terms of opposition, it is amazing to realize how weak forces such as the army, or the Churches were. How would you explain the passivity of the Churches?

IK: I think that in the case of the protestant Church, it was much divided before 1933. One section was very strongly pro-Nazi. Other part of that Church was opposed to the interference with Church doctrine but they were not wanting to be engaged in a political sense. They accepted the authority of the state. From the Lutheran approach, there was an already tendency to accept the authority of the leadership. So I think the divisions in the Protestant Church and this already propensity to accept the authority did not made them likely to play an important oppositional role.
In the case of the Catholic Church, the Unified Church, a very strong Church, with a very strong power over Church-goers, again, there is a traditional readiness to accept secular authority. Back in the pre-Nazi period, this Church was a little bit persecuted under Bismarck in the 1870’s and the Kulturkampf. Then the Catholics had always wanted to demonstrate they were as patriotic and as nationalist as anybody else. So as soon as Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he introduced the “enabling act”, on 23rd of March 1933. Up to that point, the Catholic Church had been very hesitant about Hitler. But in that speech he agreed then that the rights of the Church would be protected. The Catholic Church embraced it with opened arms. Then a large number of the Catholic population was now swinging over.
What happened there after all was that both Churches, the Catholic Church in its entirety and one wing of the Protestant Church, saw it as a great duty to protect Church doctrine, Church practices, Church activities, rituals and so on, and institutions like Church schools. They put a lot of energy and weren’t passive at all for this protection of Church matters. The price for that was they did not interfere into politics: matters connecting to the Jews for example.

TR: When would you localize the climax of Hitler’s power?

IK: Well, I have a chapter titled “zenith of power” which deals with the period after the fall of France in 1940. I think that is really the high point of Hitler’s power. He was acclaimed in Germany then. He has conquered the continent of Europe basically. So in 1940 we see Hitler at his absolute height. He is the unchallenged leader of Germany and the war lord who has reduced Europe to his subordination. At that point the opposition in Germany is weakened. These great victories of Hitler had an important impact because people within the opposition couldn’t get new recruits for it. Hitler’s own sense of his destiny was now immeasurable. And the army was so weakened in its relationships to Hitler.

TR: What about the army? From the beginning of the war, we see how stubborn Hitler can be. They have been many disagreements between him and the generals. How come they did not try to oppose more strongly whereas they felt they were going to fail?

IK: I think in this as in many other things I’ve tried to show this development as a long process. The major disagreements between Hitler and the generals came once the war had started to go wrong: in 1941 when there is a major problem about the Russian offensive; then from 1942 onwards increasingly bitter conflicts happen.
But right down to 1941 we have very little conflicts. Down to 1938, I’d say, there is no conflict. In 1938, the beginning of the year, we have the dismissal of the War minister Werner von Blomberg and, more importantly, the dismissal of the commander chief of the army, Freiherr von Fritsch. This dismissal of Fritsch was very popular. He was a lone star conservative whose ideas overlapped Hitler’s but he wasn’t a Hitler yes-man at all. When he was dismissed, it was a critical point in the relationship between the army and Hitler. Instead of actually seeing that as a complete chance of opposing the authority, the army let it go. The replacement for Fritsch was Brauchitsch who was a spineless individual, who was frightened by Hitler. He was no person to lead any type of front or revolt.
When you came then to the summer of 1938, for the first time you get a point of real conflict with the Sudetes crisis. Is there going to be a war against the western powers, England and France? Some generals thought they were going to lose. The army and the leadership were divided. But the majority were loyalists. And the chief of the general staff, Beck, ended up by resigning of all this. When he resigned he was isolated. He then came to opposition, fundamentally opposed to the regime. But nobody followed him.
The army stayed loyal. They lost chance then with the Munich agreement. So the army leadership was weak. By the summer of 1940, it was far more weakened by Hitler’s enormous triumphs. The Führer is the most popular leader in the world. Then how can you overthrow a leader in the middle of a war? You can’t do it.
On top of that there is another thing which is the codex of obedience to political authority within the military. Many of the generals exaggerated this sense of obedience because it is suitable to do so as apologetics after the War. But nonetheless there was a notion of this codex in the army, a notion of “we are professional soldiers. We don’t criticize orders from the leadership. We carry them out.” For example, a typical reflexion of this was field-marshal Manstein’s reaction when he was asked about joining in a coup. He said: “Prussian field-marshals don’t mutinate.”

TR: At the beginning of the second volume you say that the Hubris, the will of power, calls the Nemesis, the destruction. In that sense, destruction would be in the logical process of Nazism. Did Hitler’s suicide belong to this logic?

IK: I think suicide and self-destructiveness was very close to Hitler’s character. He threatened suicide on numerous occasions. He was always somebody who was almost like a “Prima Dona”. In the numerous crisis, in the twenties and in the thirties, it was always “all or nothing”. There was no middle ground in this complete opposition. If things or people did not come with him, he would make an end of everything in the second.
Of course it was always during hysteric moments but it did reveal some deep-seated type of self-destructive component at Hitler. That’s not to say that he planned his life to kill himself at the ending. Of course not. But in his political vision there was an invitation to self-destruction. In this complete black or white type of dualism, when you say, as Hitler would say, in Mein Kampf and afterwards: “Victory or destruction. There is no middle ground.” So, you have a triumph or you’re destroyed. And, of course, he thought of triumph, but when the triumph is no longer tenable, what was left then? Not a political solution, simply destruction. Therefore the Nemesis follows the Hubris, that is to say this arrogance of power. When, by a war, you bring all the western powers and the USSR against you, you are actually inviting the destruction to your country. And there is no get out then. You cannot negotiate a peace, which Hitler always refused to do.
Moreover, for Hitler and the Germans, the haunting defeat of 1918 forbade any repetition of that kind of downfall. There couldn’t be another capitulation. So I think this self-destructiveness was implicit in the person. But it was also implicit in the system that followed this person to the extend that he was committing himself to this colossal gamble, which well may not work. And if it does not work, what then?

TR: You picture Hitler as a lonely man, unable to show any affection and human feelings to close people such as Eva Braun, Speer or Goebbels. What can be said about the character and his privacy?

IK: I’m no psychologist but I think there is a sort of person that is noticed by psychologists as having a form of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a very wide-ranging term in psychology. This sort of person has a real difficulty in establishing human contact. But that same person can be highly affected in external relationships. The inner absence of feelings works itself through on in really quite enormous successfulness and attractiveness to people outside. It’s a consequence of the lack of inner self-esteem, I think. You get your esteem from the applause that you find. And at the same time there is no personal contact there. It is simply an external attribute that comes to you, which helps you to get this inner self-esteem but doesn’t help to build any human contact.
The brutalization of the character comes directly after the lack of self-esteem that gains its compensation by an exaggerated form of projection outwards.

TR: Having dealt with Hitler, would you say that he is a paradigm of a totalitarian leader? On the contrary, do you think his personality made him an exception? Does he belong to history now or would you think that this type of power may very well happen again?

IK: Among the major calamities we would foresee in Europe, I can’t imagine that this sort of power could occur. Overseas, elsewhere in the world, we still have to do with powerful dictators who might have a strong regional impact. Let’s think about Mr Milosevic or, more importantly, in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein. But these people have a regional impact more than a historical importance such as Hitler’s.
I can’t see anything like that happen again in Europe. I would still put a question mark upon the future of former Soviet Union where there are elements that we don’t know how they will develop. There is some potential there for real trouble. But let’s hope that it’s contained like it seems to be now. I think that the international structures, the European Union for instance, provide some sort of barrier against those mavericks or against some country going the wrong way in the centre of Europe. Global capitalism is another one. Countries can’t just decide to flip out now in the way Germany did. So it is part of history.
As regards totalitarianism, I would say that I’m not very fond of the term. I can see it useful as a comparative tool in analysis. You can always find elements of similarity between dictatorships. But many other points are different. I use the comparison to find the particular in a phenomenon which was singular in essence. Obviously there were analogies and parallels at the time between the fate of Russia and the fate of Germany. But I think that the key element here is the singularity.

TR:What about the relationships with other countries? One may get surprised to realize how little France weighed in Hitler’s mind for instance whereas it did play a major role in collaborating Europe. Would you say that Laval himself worked towards the Fuehrer or did this collaboration belong to a more specifically national history?

IK: In many of the countries which were allied with Germany, not just in France, you see not just willing collaboration in a general sense but particularly in the so-called “Jewish question” and a lot of readiness to undertake measures without any German insistence or orders. I think the French case was like that and I would seek the first answer in the conditions within France rather than in the German conditions. Of course then, in the particular relationship with German, there was a tendency to want to retain favour and support.

TR: What about Italy? The first anti-Semitic measures were taken in 1938, 16 years after the beginning of the regime. How do you explain that? By diplomacy or ideological matters?

IK: I think that in the case of the Italians, they have no real anti-Semitic tradition to play with instead of France for example. Demark is another country where the Nazi anti-Jewish laws really come against opposition.
But by 1938, it was plain that, Mussolini having started the partnership, Italy was falling more and more under German influence. The 1937 visit to Berlin by Mussolini was a bit of a shake for him. I think it was in this way that, for diplomatic reasons, anti-Jewish laws were imported into Italy without massive support within the population for these laws. It is not to say that there was no anti-Semitism in Italy. Of course there was but not in any massive an automatically ready-made sense. When you come to the deportation of Jews from Italy, once more, you have a completely different response from many other countries. Although they were deported it was under great German pressure to do that and there was a readiness to help the Jews

TR: Before the war, Hitler still believes in an alliance with Great Britain. What were his feelings to England? Can we talk about admiration?

IK: Hitler admired power. He admired the Catholic Church because of its power. He admired Britain because it controlled the empire. He thought this empire was exactly what Germany had missed and was leading to be: a big imperial power. He looked at India and he saw a handful of British citizen, rulers who controlled this mass of millions of Indians. When he was in Russia in 1941, he constantly pointed the fact that Russia would be for Germany what India was to Britain. So it wasn’t any type of emotional admiration for Britain. It was an admiration of power structures.
What he wanted from the 1920’s onwards, on the reflection of what had gone wrong in the first war, was this alliance with Britain. He thought that a basis for Germany future would be this alliance with Britain and the destruction of Russia for the acquisition of living space. Britain wouldn’t accept this deal. When Ribbentrop went to London in 1936, he failed because his quite undiplomatical arrogant behaviour alienated any possibility of negotiation.
So by 1939, you have this bizarre thing where Hitler’s foreign policy strategy based upon alliance with Britain and attack on Russia was the opposite! Thereafter, with the inevitable fight over Dantzig, he found himself in a war after miscalculation. He actually didn’t want a war against Britain and France. After the fall of France, he presumed that Britain would give in, which would have certainly happened without Churchill.
What Hitler wanted then was not an invasion of Britain, not a conquest in a military sense, but a deal with the government. Russia was his first target.

TR: So there weren’t any plan concerning Britain? After the beginning of the invasion of Russia, you describe the plans and utopias Hitler had in mind for the rebuilding of it. Didn’t he have analogue visions for the western countries? What about the project of making Oxford the cultural capital of Nazi Europe, which would explain why the town wasn’t bombed?

IK: Every town in England has stories like this! No, he didn’t have such projects. What has to be remembered is that England was bombed. Hitler actually wanted to destroy every British cultural centre as a pay back for the allied bombings on Germany.

TR: What is today Hitler’s representation in Germany? How do German people behave toward this particular period of their history? Do they consider this as a plain break in their national history? Are there still feelings of responsibility? Can we talk about a trauma within the German society?

IK: I think there is a wide sense of being traumatized still by Hitler. In any case the country is still living with this legacy, with the moral trauma of Hitler, which still drastically affects that country today. You see that for example with the question of neo-Nazism. Probably Neo-Nazism is far less a significant problem in real terms in Germany regarding the structures of Democracy than the Le Pen Movement is in France. But look at the attention they are getting to this! This is a direct reflexion of the trauma of Hitler.
I think it is also a matter of generation. There are wide sections of the German population who are traumatized in a different way. That is to say every time they turn around the Holocaust or something about the Jews or the Nazi period, they don’t want to hear about it, because they are a new generation and consider they have nothing to do with that.
So I think that there is not a uniform approach to this. But there still is an extraordinary sense of national responsibility for what went on. It is not a matter of guiltiness any more, given that most of the present Germans did not lived during the period, but there is a very wide sense of responsibility on a more moral and historical scale. Moreover, if you look to Austria for instance, you realize how little was done in terms of trying to come to terms with this past. Then you have to say that what the Germans have done is quite admirable.

TR: Would you explain nowadays resurgence of the extreme Right in Austria as the consequence of this? Is this linked to former imperial Austria and the Nazi period? If you realize how powerful and extended the Austrian empire was at the beginning of the XXth century and how diminished it had become through this century, you may understand those extremist leaps, wouldn’t you?

IK: I think I would see it in a different way. I don’t sense in Austria, though I don’t know it as well as I know Germany, a nostalgia for long past glory. Of course they are nostalgic about it in some way. But that’s not very different from England and the Victorian period.

I think it’s different. In a way, it’s not Nazism that scales present extreme Right in Austria. I think what Haider is incarnating now, albeit his historical and rhetorical references, is a genuine Austrian nationalism, exalting the Austrian image of the mountains and its folklore. It does not belong to former history.
It is a modern nationalism. The entry in the European Union has created some antipathy toward it. Another thing is that Austrian politicians seem to be pretty sterile or corrupt. Haider is considered as bringing some fresh air here.
These constitute the background of present Austrian nationalism. It is not directly linked to the past.

TR: What is your main conclusion on this work?

IK: My conclusions are historical conclusions. The main is probably on the trauma. I don’t need to emphasize the extent of the legacy of Hitler on the rest of the XXth century. Hitler has probably influenced this century as much or maybe more than anyone. I suppose that in one way this work shows how vital these decades were, which Hitler dominated, to the shaping of the XXth century as a whole. The Cold War, new wars in Europe and the question of genocide belong to Hitler’s legacy.
The most important lesson of all would be to say that the democratic structures are not things to be taken for granted but have to be really guarded in an active way. What we had in the twenties, which made all possible, was the weakness of those democratic structures and the fact that they were not supported by the basis of society and, more importantly, by the elites. Although we have now consolidated democratic structures we can’t take them for granted anyway. The respect of liberal values, of pluralism and the minorities must prevent any other catastrophe.

Published 24 October 2002

Original in English
Translation by Thomas Roman
First published in

© Thomas Roman, eurozine


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