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Book Review 303: In the Nazi Era

December 9, 2013 - Harry Eagar
IN THE NAZI ERA, by Sir Lewis Namier. 204 pages, Macmillan

When Lewis Namier was collecting his third and last volume of journalism about his own times in 1952, he warned that judgments made so soon after events were likely to be revised later. So have his been, but they shouldn’t have. He was right the first time.

Wikipedia says primly that Namier has been “criticized” as a Germanophobe. So he was, but to what sort of mentality is that worthy of criticism? Only those who, unlike Namier, have fallen for the German lie.

The first part of “In the Nazi Era” collects reviews of memoirs of surviving Germans who were concerned to put light between themselves and Hitlerism. Of the ones he treats, the most successful in doing so -- by current historical opinion -- was Weizsacker. Namier saw through that.

Speaking of former German poohbahs generally and Weizsacker specifically, Namier observes, “German apologias, when read critically, offer surprising admissions.” Few historians were ever more pernickety than Namier, but the current flock seem often not to have read even carefully, much less critically.

I speak here of popular historians, of the Max Hastings variety, who are having more impact on current public opinion about Hitlerism than more academic students. These popularizers write offhandedly about the “German resistance” to Hitler. Namier was right to say it never existed.

At least, not a conservative resistance. There had been a left opposition, of socialists and communists, but they were obliterated (except those communists who fled to Russia) and had no impact after Hitler became chancellor.

Namier is concerned to show that there never was a right opposition to Hitlerism. (He does not mention it, but there was right disdain for Hitler personally, as an upstart foreigner with a hick accent. Had they had the courage to act, the conservatives would have ditched Hitler but kept his policies.) “The ‘good Germans‘ visibly change into Hitler profiteers,” Namier writes in one of his characteristically mordant summaries.

All this remains important for two reasons. First, Namier was right. Second, there is a movement among American rightwingers to redraft Hitler as a leftist. Really. Nobody at the time thought of Hitler as a leftist, because he wasn’t, but there is obviously motive enough to rewrite history to try to clean up the unsavory past that American rightwingers have inherited.

There is no real reason for the worry; American rightwingers have enough to apologize for without being tagged with the crimes of Germans, but public opinion counts and Hitler remains a touchstone. There is “Godwin’s Law” to consider.

In the second part of the book, Namier continues his attack on the men of Munich. He was an active anti-appeaser at the time, so unlike his German subjects he cannot be accused of changing his garments.

Revisionists have been hard at work here, too, and not only the popularizers. It is now usual to find that Chamberlain was stymied by Britain’s helpless military condition.

It was low enough. The Royal Army (like the US Army in 1938) could hardly field a full division. But as Namier understood and the modern historians have not, neither side was materially or morally prepared for war in 1938. The German generals, Namier says, were terrified of their weakness.

The moral queasiness was beyond remedy. It was nice of Chamberlain to wish never to see Europe’s young men slaughtered again, but unrealistic. But the material situation was not so bad as recent scholars have thought.

France, a failed state, would presumably not have fought in ’38, as it failed to defend itself in 1940. But on a purely military assessment, it is not so obvious that the western powers gained anything by putting off the start of total war by 12 months.

England could not have done anything on the continent, but the Royal Navy was not appreciably stronger in ’39 than ’38. In ’38, the Maginot Line would have had value. It is not often recognized that when the Germans used massed armor to punch through the French defenses, it was to a great extent Czech armor, which was not available to them in ’38.

Last, although Italy had not yet suffered humiliation in Albania in ’38, there seems little reason to think that Mussolini, reluctant to start a fight until he saw Hitler scooping up territory, would have entered the war in a 1938-39 conflict in which Hitler probably wouldn’t have been raking in chips. Had the Mediterranean not been a theater of war, the condition of Britain would have been far happier. And France’s, too.

Namier scolds the men of Munich for not being realists. Modern writers have tended to find that they were realistic. Again, Namier has the better of that question.


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