Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: The Rise of the Nazis

Conan Fischer. The Rise of the Nazis. New York and Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. 211 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7190-6067-0.
Reviewed by Gisela Miller-Kipp (Department of Education, Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Duesseldorf)
Published on H-German (August, 2003)
A Discussion of the Rise of the Nazis to Power

The debate over the miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," briskly conducted of late in this venue, strongly testified to the demand for exact and valid information on Nazis and Nazism, in addition to a discussion of films as sources and media of history. In terms of intellectual demand, books seem to be a better choice, while it is the role of films--or rather of pictures--to generate a biographical and emotional understanding of history. The Rise of the Nazis serves both interests. 

Conan Fischer covers the decline of the Weimar Republic and beginning of the Third Reich, while bringing vivid insight into the political clashes, social splits, and ideological turmoil that took place in Germany from the mid-1920s to 1933. He does not, however, deliver a history of how the Nazis came to power. Rather, he inspects the case on the basis of selected data and studies already provided by earlier historiography. Fischer presents documents that offer supporting information and encourage a more detailed study. Thus, within the limits of its theme and 211 pages, the book gives a well-focused and informative discussion of "the rise of the Nazis," and serves as an introductory reader to historical controversies surrounding the subject. 

Apparently, educators used the first edition of Fischer's book as a general history, which it was not. In the second edition the author broadens his focus, to provide: "contextual information at certain points where the previous edition, perhaps, demanded a little too much prior knowledge," and "to be as accessible as possible to the new or general-interested reader" (p. 2). I have my doubts. The problem is not that of being more or less "general," which Fischer still is, but of a failure to mark clearly his own interpretation of historical events. The novice reader is sometimes left alone to evaluate the differing views under conditions when further context might have been helpful. My overall impression is that the second edition progresses from implicit judgment and supposition to an open reading of the questions discussed. Additionally, it is more exact and less general, which is more than fair to any reader. To give but one example, instead of using the term "the right," which appeared in the first edition, the text rephrases the term as "the conservative and radical right" (p. 24). 

The second edition takes in a small part of the research and discussion completed in the field since the publication of the first edition. Consequently, the list of "works cited" is slightly enlarged, and includes works published before 1995. The same is true for the "selected bibliography," which gives literature and comments on chosen titles on various aspects of Nazism. Both enumerations are rather selective, comprising special publications from Fischer's own field of study (Stormtroopers and the Nazis' attempt to gain power within working-class politics), yet omitting titles usually considered standard, at least in Germany.[1] No evidence is provided as to the criteria for selection in this list, and there is no discrimination between primary and secondary literature. Titles from the secondary literature date from 1961 to 2000; this choice was may have resulted from the need to cut through the kilometers of books on the rise of the Nazis. Even so, Fischer's selection seems appropriate and serves its purpose adequately. 

The appendix contains sixty-one documents of various character and varying historical weight or importance, including newspaper-clippings, literature, propaganda texts, speeches, statistics and historical records. They center on party policies and propaganda. Most documents deal with Hitler, such as: quotations from Mein Kampf, materials on the SA, including its organization and political in-fighting, and materials on the NSDAP, including its finances. With few exceptions, the selection of records is drawn from one regional archive in Germany. Several documents can be fully understood only in the light of events after January 30, 1933; in these cases, a relevant commentary would have been helpful as an aid to readers. Finally, the book presents a well composed index. 

Chapter One gives a historical outline of the rise and fall of Weimar. Weimar's heritage is now traced back as far as 1871, an addition to the first edition, in order to sketch the power politics of the new German Empire leading into World War I as well as to examine the "defeat" of Versailles as the fatal heritage of the new republic. From this standpoint, Fischer describes the "fall" of Weimar as the failed compromise between old imperial and new republican power, between unsatisfied and persisting imperial interests and the oncoming push for democracy, both with revolutionary potential. He sorts these divergences into political camps as represented by political parties and depicts them as pre-occupied with fighting one another in personal opposition as well as in the streets. The main focus here is on the Social Democrats, who are blamed for under-estimating the "old right" (p. 34), and the National Socialists. The condition of their respective influence is measured by poll results, where the society is seen as equally divided or politically polarized. Fischer follows the main-stream of political history. Small attention is paid to economy or socio-economics, and none is paid to the cultural character, emotional climate and collective mentality of the society. These contexts have been discussed at length in German history under the headings of "Republik ohne Republikaner" ("republic without republicans"), an approach that has moved the question of the fall of Weimar democracy into the realm of socio-cultural history. 

Chapter Two turns to "the ideological basis of Nazism," as it "continues to attract intense scrutiny from historians, political and social scientists" (p. 36). Even if that is the case, ideology per se does not answer the questions of why and how the Nazis came to power. When it is attached, however, to political interests and power politics, ideology contributes considerably to providing such an answer. This somewhat dated approach represents the state of the art. Fischer discusses several historiographic attempts to deal with national socialist ideology (or "Nazism," in this sense) and concentrates on its voelkisch dimension. It is in this dimension that the ideology in question succeeded in attracting wide sections of the Weimar (re)public, and winning applause and votes for the Nazis. The voelkisch message supported the national pride and imperial aspirations, which were reversed by Versailles. Dealing at length with this aspect, Fischer pays scant attention to other important elements of Nazism, like racism, and to different approaches towards Nazism, such as ascribing it to Hitler or to the Germans in general (a polemical line stretching from William Shirer to Daniel Goldhagen). 

Nazism was a compound and diverse ideology, framed to serve Nazi aspiration's for power. 

According to Fischer, Nazi ideology intended "not to bring Hitler to power" (p. 54), rather, it backed up "National Socialist policy and propaganda," and these are Fischer's next items. In Chapter Three, he sketches and discusses National Socialist policy and propaganda on the basis of the famous "Twenty-Five-Points," the program drafted by the NSDAP in 1923 (which is provided in the appendix), along with antecedent party guidelines from the infant DAP. The framework for the discussion rests on whether the party-program was a "catch-all" or aimed at establishing a working-class center and/or working-class image among the Weimar electorate. As we now know, it functioned in both ways. 

Chapter Four provides a closer look into "the organisation of the Nazi movement" (p. 76). Here, Fischer reveals his expertise in the field. He delivers a detailed study of the formation of the NSDAP in its rise to power, from the early twentieth century until Hitler's appointment as chancellor. He deals first with the struggles of the NSDAP amidst the minor parties on the right of the Weimar State, including membership statistics; next with the formation of the several bodies of the party, particularly the SA, and their competitive push for power; and last with the personnel of the party's National Directorate and its respective political rivalry (namely Hitler vs. Strasser). This chapter is an effective description of the formation of political power. Still, I want to point out two shortcomings in it. First, in his musings as to "who paid Hitler" (p. 91), Fischer omits some of the big spenders, like the Freundeskreis der Deutschen Industrie; there is no sufficient evidence, then, "that the National Socialists in essence funded themselves from the grass roots" (p. 175). Secondly, while pointing to the clash between the Deutscher Frauen Orden and the Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft, Fischer fails to consider Jill Stephenson's comprehensive study, The Nazi Organisation of Women (1981). There, he would have found figures on "the membership of the Women's Groups," about which he claims little is known (p. 178).

A more substantial criticism of the chapter, however, can be attributed to Fischer's failure to place the Nazi movement's organization into historical perspective, thus possibly still leaving the "general-interested reader" at a loss. There is also no contextualization to provide insight into the political logic of the party development and structure of the NSDAP. For instance, Fischer could have given the entire array of party branches and bodies, not leaving out, as he does, the two important bodies stemming from the SA: the Hitler-Youth and the Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrerkorps. The branching of the NSDAP reveals the political function of its organization, which was to move into all major sections of society through powerful and well-devised offers to numerous social groupings, and thus direct them all into the NSDAP. 

The following two chapters examine "the formation of the Nazi constituency" amongst "the middle class" (Chapter Five) and the "working class" (Chapter Six). Fischer dispels an almost-legendary reading of the rise of the Nazis, fostered by the first generation of critical historians, who blamed the "working class" for switching over to Hitler and the NSDAP. Discussing further historiographic approaches to the question as well as inspecting polls and membership data, Fischer now places the blame on both parties, bringing the middle classes more strongly into view. 

Perceiving "classes" heuristically as a social body, Fischer brings the case down to two simple questions: to whom was Nazi party policy and propaganda directed? And, who was attracted by it? Although not immediately apparent at the time, it was clearly visible from 1928 onward that party policy was to mitigate the aggressive working-class appeal of the NSDAP, to subdue the working-class ranks, and to direct itself toward the middle classes. The common ground of Nazi party policy was a voelkisch program, or the propaganda of a national community. This was a program that appealed to all and transgressed class interests. Subtly it harped on the old imperial dream, becoming bourgeois in its talk of the Volksgemeinschaft. Through these means, "middle- and working-class Germans cooperated to overthrow" the Weimar Republic, along with "the constitution and the system of values" it represented (p. 113). 

Fischer concludes with discussions of general options already put forward for understanding the Nazis' rise to power, such as describing it within the pattern of social and political modernization or within the historical frame of fascism. The author prefers to relate the Nazi rise to power to the twentieth-century move in Europe towards integration and reconciliation, away from social clashes, ideological fights, and political confrontation. Fischer sees sufficient "hope that National Socialism was indeed a particular response to events at a particular time in a particular place" (p. 142).
Historicizing "the rise of the Nazis," however, does not provide any clues as to the rise of Nazi "glory" and terror after the seizure of power. To understand that chapter of German history is an ongoing quest and part of the political legacy of the country. 

[1]. Examples include Bracher, Funke and Jakobsen, eds., Die Weimarer Republik (1987); Broszat, Duebber and Hofer, eds., Der Weg in die Diktatur (1985), and Jasper, ed. Von Weimar zu Hitler 1930-1933 (1968).
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