In assessing the dissolution of Hitler’s regime, the prominent German historian Hans Mommsen has claimed that from 1943 on, the Third Reich was in an accelerating process of internal dissolution, a situation that prompted the most radical members of the party, state, and military increasingly to assert control and assume new tasks. Further, Mommsen contends that in the last year of the war the Nazi Party embraced an “all-encompassing ideological mobilization,” returning to the revolutionary ambitions of the Kampfzeit, the period of struggle leading to power. As part of this marshaling of support, the key goal was to cultivate “a fanatical will to hold on” and to demonstrate that the Volksgemeinschaft (national community) “possessed a massed will to action.” To Mommsen, the breakdown of the state opened for ardent Nazis the possibility of a revival of notions of a revolutionary makeover of German society, which not only required the total mobilization of the people but also mass terror directed against any recalcitrant members of the national community.
As Mommsen noted, in Adolf Hitler’s last official proclamation, dated February 24, 1945, he stressed “our unshakeable will” to fight on, evoking a vision of protracted struggle on German soil, one in which the western Allies in particular would tire of fighting a desperate foe determined to defend every village and house to the last man. If defeat could not be averted, Hitler, Goebbels, and other top Nazis seemed intent on securing “the victory of the National Socialist idea” in the future. As part of this endeavor Goebbels struggled to create an effective Werwolf (Nazi guerrilla) movement, both to promote guerrilla war as well as guarantee the survival of Nazi ideology. Efforts to raise a people’s militia, the Volkssturm (“people’s storm”), and the establishment of training camps where Hitler Youth would be indoctrinated to fight on for Nazi ideology, even after Allied occupation, were also indicative of this attempt to arouse fanatic zeal among the people. “We know that the idea lives on,” Goebbels asserted, “even if all its bearers have fallen.”
Curt Riess, a journalist with the New York Times, noted that same February 1945 that this invocation of self-sacrifice, so reminiscent of Wagner, seemed to be succeeding “in making the Germans believe that even defeat and death can be—no, indeed are—something desirable and great.” This Todesverlangen (longing for death), Riess claimed, had always played a key role in German art, literature, and music, so “what Goebbels wants is nothing but to make the Germans feel that the world’s end has come with the German defeat and that their death, therefore, is a fate full of meaning.” Mommsen himself conceded that the extent to which this strenuous mobilization campaign took hold among the general populace was difficult to assess, although there is little doubt that the effort succeeded in prolonging the war. Despite the descending chaos, the energy and dynamism imparted by the party and its agents stabilized the Nazi system and enabled it to resist the desire of many citizens for an end to the war. Thus, in a cruel irony, the accelerating process of self-destruction actually served to create a certain coherence that aided the maintenance of the Nazi system and made it incapable of ending a lost war.
Whether intentional or not, Mommsen’s claims mirror the basic ideas of chaos and catastrophe theory. Originally developed to explain phenomena in the natural world, these notions have increasingly been applied to human society. According to these hypotheses, a system in a state of turbulence and disorder is unpredictable, but out of this seeming chaos can come patterns, coherence, and a temporarily stable yet dynamic structure. Since chaos can manifest itself in either form or function, an unstable system by definition is one in the process of going from being to becoming. Catastrophe can result from this chaos, especially when a system bifurcates, or branches. Yet even in this advanced state of disarray a pattern, a coherence, stable vigorous structures, and an explosion of energy can emerge. The energy flowing through the system thus produces a self-organizing, self-maintaining, dynamic structure on the edge of chaos where, ironically, systems perform at their greatest potential. Even as it disintegrates, then, a system can organize itself to a higher level of complexity and dynamism.
Finding the order in something is, of course, a necessity for historians, but order is subtle because it is context dependent. That is, the researcher must understand all the complexities of a system to gain a meaningful appreciation of it. Chaotic disorder can erupt in extreme agitation, the result of which is often randomness. Such a system would display aberrant, illogical behavior, but can also produce stability and coherence before an eventual explosion. The more complex a system is, the more numerous are the disturbances that threaten its stability, and therefore the greater the energy necessary to maintain its coherence. Complicating analysis, unstable or aperiodic systems (such as human civilizations) display complex behavior that makes predictions difficult, if not impossible. When such systems are stressed beyond certain limits, sudden outbursts of chaos take place, characterized by aberrant behavior. Human decision making, for example, has the unmistakable imprint of chaos on it. One factor that aids in decision making, though, is one’s belief system. In “deep chaos” an element that helps determine a course of action is the historical dimension, a memory of a past event that took place at a critical moment and that will affect decision making, such as Hitler’s determination at the end of World War II not to have another “November 1918.” Order, of course, suggests symmetry, that one part of the pattern is sufficient to reconstruct the whole. Disorder also contains symmetry, in the sense that all possible transitions or movements are equally possible. Thus, it is difficult to analyze a system in decomposition, since different parts of the complex behave differently, although there is a tendency to react to disturbances by returning to a stable cycle that was active when the disturbance occurred.
In the sense of a system in a state of disintegration that nonetheless continued to radiate an aura of control and seemed to have the situation in hand, chaos theory seems a good explanatory model for the Nazi regime at the end of World War II. As Herfried Münkler has emphasized, despite the continually invoked image of a Götterdämmerung, of a societal breakdown accompanied by catastrophic violence and disorder, the collapse of the Nazi system, coming at the end of a long and ruinous war, resembled more a slow process of deterioration than a sudden, shattering burst of light and fury. Indeed, despite the evidence of defeat all around, average Germans, both military and civilian, continued obstinately to play their assigned role. The years of extreme exertion had clearly exhausted most Germans, yet hope still flickered in some that one last effort to stabilize the military fronts might result in some sort of political solution or perhaps allow time for the appearance of powerful miracle weapons. In evident confirmation of Mommsen’s assertion, the energy imparted by a few managed to trump the lethargy of the many, and allowed the Nazi regime to remain a threat both to its citizens and to the enemy now on German soil. Indeed, the very uncertainty and chaotic nature of the situation at the local level aided those fanatics determined to resist, for, lacking any clear course of action, rank-and-file Germans tended to go along with directives from above.