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Revisiting Nazism

Hitler: A Biography by Peter Longerich, Oxford University Press, US $39.95, Pp 1324, October 2019, ISBN 978-0190056735

Adolph Hitler and his ideology were defeated three quarters of a century ago but we are still discussing the consequences of his rise to power in Germany. The reason is Nazism changed everything and it is still impacting our lives. As opposed to many earlier historians, Peter Longerich in Hitler argues that Hitler played a major role in the rise of the Nazi ideology and was not a just a product of the Nazism. Peter Longerich says that Hitler’s political skills to control the state structure played the central role in the rise of the Nazism. He says that any sober appraisal of Hitler at the end of the First World War reveals someone who had failed repeatedly and would certainly not have assumed a public role, had it not been for the specific circumstances prevailing in Bavaria in the immediate post-war period. The start of his political career in Munich in 1919 was not therefore marked by his resolve to save the fatherland. His entry into politics was rather organized by external forces with a particular agenda. This is evident from the fact that the first decades of Hitler’s life gave no hint of what was to follow. Up to the end of the First World War was simply insignificant.

What is remarkable is that Hitler was not content with the role he had been given. Peter Longerich says that, in the summer of 1921, he took over the leadership of the party with dictatorial powers, used exceptional skill to secure for himself further resources, both material and non-material, from the conservative establishment, and thorough cooperation with the Reichswehr in particular gained access to the latter’s weapons arsenals. At the same time, throughout the various phases of Bavarian post-war politics he constantly alternated between conditional cooperation with those close to the government and radical opposition, always keeping his party’s independence in view and exploiting the extremely tense relations between Bavaria and the Reich government. In this way, within a few years, he established the NSDAP in Munich and Bavaria as a serious political force.

Peter Longerich says that, from the end of 1922, he was growing increasingly in the eyes of his followers as well as his own into the role of a leader of the whole of the political extreme Right. The army, the state apparatus, political organizations, the right-wing press, and increasingly, sections of the affluent commercial middle class gave him continued support. In the autumn of 1923, however, as the entire political Right in Bavaria mobilized for a coup, he was in danger of being instrumentalized by the government and the forces around it. This situation was incompatible with his self-perception as Fuhrer. Peter Longerich argues that Hitler feared that his adherents would consider him a failure if he did not follow up his voluble predictions of a coup d’état with real actions, and this was in essence the reason why in November 1923 he staged his own putsch. Viewed as Hitler’s attempt to free himself through violent action from his dependence on conservative forces and to assume political leadership himself, the putsch was, however, doomed to fail in the context of the power relations in post-war Bavaria. The forces that had set Hitler up now turned against him when he exceeded his role as an agitator or ‘drummer.’

In order to succeed in his mission, Hitler needed to control the Church. Peter Longerich says that Hitler made every effort to control the churches. As far as Catholic Church was concerned, he eliminated political Catholicism. Although he gave an assurance in 1933 that German Catholicism would be preserved, he did not keep his promise. As early as 1934, he failed in his project of neutralizing German Protestantism by turning it into a Reich Church with the aid of the German Christians. From then on, he wavered between two policies. He instigated campaigns against the Churches on several occasions (1935, 1936, and 1937) with the aim of bringing about a consistent separation of church and state and marginalizing the Churches. At the same time, he took a number of initiatives in the interests of internal unity and rearmament, to establish a modus vivendi with them. When he ceased his attacks on the churches in the summer of 1937, the second course of action in the end prevailed. Among his entourage, however, he made his fundamentally anti-Christian attitude only too evident, continually emphasizing that the ultimate ‘day of reckoning’ for the churches was yet to come. By contrast, his policies with regard to all those – Jews, the ‘racially inferior’, ‘asocials’ – who could not belong to the homogenous ‘national community’ he wanted to create, were significantly more consistent.

Hitler is a necessary book for anyone trying to understand the most dangerous man of the twentieth century. It gives fresh perspectives and new insights into Hitler’s life and the rise of Nazism. Peter Longerich’s scholarly credentials are unmatched when it comes to the biography of Hitler. He has written an authentic and impressive book, covering the unexplored aspects of Hitler’s life and world history. It is one of those books that change the way you think. Peter Longerich has put in hard work in its research. Translation by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe is impressive.

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