Ian Kershaw: The Crises of 1938

[Ian Kershaw's Hitler is published by Allen Lane.]

Seventy years ago, Europe was plunged into the deepest crisis experienced since the end of the first world war, paving the way for the rapid descent into a new, even more terrible, world conflict. Few historical developments have been more extensively researched and reassessed than the critical events of 1938, and there have been fierce debates, in particular, about Hitler's aims. Did he have a clear ideological programme, a blueprint consistently followed? Or was he a brutal, unprincipled opportunist, with a gift for propaganda and lust for power, together with a sharp eye for exploiting the weakness of the western democracies? Could German aggression be attributed simply to Hitler's megalomania, or did it represent more deep-seated forces in society, particularly the strength of the military and of big business? Did Hitler, in other words, follow or break with traditional aims in German foreign policy?

Historians have wrestled with these questions over the years. But they have gradually arrived at some clear answers. We are currently enjoying a rush of major books about the Third Reich by British historians, and these books are noteworthy not least because they reflect the fact that there are now generally - if not universally - accepted conclusions about Hitler and the run-up to war.

An obvious starting point in the debate is the publication in 1961 of AJP Taylor's Origins of the Second World War, which set out to be controversial. For Taylor, Hitler was no more than an opportunist, operating without any plan or programme other than vague notions of expansion. Taylor's real villains were the appeasers in Britain and France whose political ineptitude opened the door. It was a maverick interpretation, which was heatedly contested. Hugh Trevor-Roper convincingly argued that Hitler was a man of ideas, however repulsive. Tim Mason, emphasising the economic pressures arising from German expansionism that made a drive to war inevitable, came close to claiming Taylor did not know what he was talking about. In Germany, Taylor's interpretation was scarcely taken seriously, but the antithesis of his approach was at its most forthright in a work that still forms the most fundamental assessment of prewar German foreign policy, Gerhard L Weinberg's masterly The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany, in which Hitler's goal of domination is absolutely central.

Recently, Adam Tooze's acclaimed study The Wages of Destruction (Penguin, 2006) has offered a novel approach - looking at Germany's long-term economic weakness in relation to the US as the key to German aggression. As a determinant of prewar foreign policy Tooze perhaps overemphasises Hitler's preoccupation with the threat from America. But he successfully adds increasing economic pressures on the Nazi regime to the ideological thrust that produced those pressures. And he is also one of the few historians to link the radicalisation of antisemitism to the growing proximity of war, as increased international tension underpinned notions of a "world Jewish conspiracy" behind US policy.

Jonathan Wright has produced the incisive Germany and the Origins of the Second World War (Palgrave, 2007), while German foreign policy is also explored, as part of the structure of the Nazi regime, in Richard J Evans's The Third Reich in Power (Penguin, 2005) and, with particular focus on Hitler's role, in my own biography of the German leader.

So what are the generally accepted conclusions? Hitler had no plainly defined programme. But to dismiss him as merely an opportunist would be wrong. He did have a limited but inflexible framework of ideas that gave consistent direction to his leadership. Its twin tracks, embedded in a sense of race as the key determinant in history, were "removal" of the Jews and expansion to the east to obtain land to secure Germany's future. Both imprecise, distant goals served, once Hitler had taken power in January 1933, as guidelines for action for every facet of the regime, without ever having to be spelt out in overt policy terms. Much was adapted to rapidly changing circumstances - but within the parameters embodied by Hitler's ideological "vision".

Before 1938 there was no incompatibility between Hitler's long-term goals and the interests of the military (and other sections of the power elite) in the build-up of German armed force, renewed national strength and standing, and the profits to be made from an expanding armaments industry. But, as would become ever more apparent from 1938 onwards, Hitler was not just following traditional lines of German policy. Taylor's characteristic throwaway line that "in international affairs there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was a German" (leaving aside the fact that he was actually Austrian) is misleading. Hitler could indeed build on expansionist traditions in the German power elite. But his increasingly unassailable leadership position and his racial obsessions distorted those traditions, then took policy into uncharted territory as the war progressed - producing ultimately the moral and physical ruination of his country.

If even in retrospect it hasn't been easy to arrive at a clear assessment of Hitler's aims, it is little wonder that contemporaries inside and outside Germany were unsure how to deal with him. The year 1938 marked the high-tide of the attempts of the western democracies to appease Hitler. "Munich" is still a byword for the ignominy that attaches to Chamberlain's attempts to buy off Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain's reputation cannot be rescued. But recognition of the grave errors of judgment of policy-making in the 1930s has come to be seen in the perspective of the realistic options open to the British government at the time...

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