An Apologia for Adolf Hitler1

It was Inevitable that sooner or later some historian should produce a serious apologia for Hitler. This has now arrived, but not from Germany, where the aftermath of the Third Reich is still too painful for such a performance to be acceptable from any personage of academic standing. From the British historian, Mr. A. J. P. Taylor, however, we have in his newly published book, The Origins of the Second World War, an interpretation which frankly aims at challenging what he calls “the almost universal agreement among historians” that Hitler “planned the Second World War” and that “his will alone caused it.” Mr. Taylor points out that there has always been controversy about the origins of the war of 1914; study of the documentary evidence which became so abundant after its close produced a picture of pre-war international politics substantially different from that of Allied wartime “innocentism,” and there was wide scope for differences of opinion about the responsibilities of the statesmen principally concerned. For the war of 1939, on the other hand, the captured minutes of Hitler’s secret conferences produced at the Nuremberg Trial, and particularly the so-called Hossbach Memorandum of November 1937, appeared to prove on the part of Hitler a definite plan for obtaining supremacy in Europe through a series of acts of military aggression. His responsibility for bringing on a European war in 1939 was therefore considered to be beyond question, and if blame was also cast on the leaders of the Western democracies, it was not for provoking Hitler, but for appeasing him and for failing to stop his career of treaty violation and conquest while it could still have been done without a mortal struggle.

Mr. Taylor, however, questions the conception of Hitler and his policy which is implied in this view. According to him, Hitler’s foreign policy “was that of his predecessors” in the German government; he, too, “wanted to free Germany from the restrictions of the peace treaty; to restore a great German army; and then to make Germany the greatest power in Europe from her natural weight.” Further, Mr. Taylor denies that Hitler had any preconceived plan or blueprint of conquest on the general argument that “statesmen are too absorbed by events to follow a preconceived plan—the systems attributed to Hitler are really those of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Elizabeth Wiskemann, and Alan Bullock.” Finally, Mr. Taylor claims that Hitler always wanted to avoid war, although he was ready to threaten it in order to get his way, and that he did not really want territorial expansion, but only a zone of friendly satellite states in Eastern Europe. His orders to the German army after Munich to be ready to take over Bohemia and Moravia were “measures of precaution, not plans for aggression”; he “doubted whether the [Munich] settlement would work” and “believed, without sinister intention, that independent Czechoslovakia could not survive.” There was not “anything sinister or premeditated in the protectorate over Bohemia.” In 1939 the state of German armaments “gives the decisive proof that Hitler was not contemplating general war and probably not intending war at all. . . . The war of 1939, far from being premeditated, was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders.”

This onslaught on accepted beliefs, coming as it did from a writer with a high reputation as a diplomatic historian, was received by the critics in Britain with a remarkable degree of respect and approval. In particular, the Times Literary Supplement, generally regarded as the most important London organ of book reviewing, gave it unqualified praise and spoke of its “impeccable logic.” It has naturally been translated into German and is providing an armory of propaganda for those Germans who regard Hitler’s Reich as the deeply wronged victim of the Second World War. It has not, however, gone entirely unchallenged; the (anonymous) review in the Times Literary Supplement drew several letters of protest from persons well qualified to speak on modern German history, and a full-scale attack on the book was delivered by H. R. Trevor-Roper, the Professor of Modern History in Mr. Taylor’s own university. This led to an appearance of the two historians together on the television screen, a medium in which Mr. Taylor has long been established as a star; his performance on this occasion, though technically accomplished, does not appear to have carried conviction with the majority of viewers. Most Englishmen in fact still believe that they were right in opposing Hitler in 1939, and it will take more than Mr. Taylor’s “impeccable logic” to persuade them to the contrary, at any rate as long as there is someone else in the picture to point out the inconsistencies and fallacies in his argument.

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The book indeed is not one to be dismissed simply with broad generalizations; it can only be refuted by an examination of the evidence to which Mr. Taylor himself appeals. He claims to be an impartial historian whose conclusions have been forced upon him by a study of the documents. “I am concerned to understand what happened,” he writes, “not to vindicate or condemn.” The critic who observes the manner in which Mr. Taylor selects the material which suits his argument may doubt whether he indeed approaches his theme without bias—especially if he compares Mr. Taylor’s conclusions on Hitler with his postwar attitude toward the policies of another totalitarian regime—but it would be going too far afield to inquire into the preconceptions of his peculiar outlook; the primary question is simply whether the picture of Hitler which he presents is one that should be accepted as historically true.

In search of the historical Hitler we have to turn first of all to the pages of Mein Kampf. It is true that it was written in 1924—25, and that conditions in Europe had changed by 1933, and even more by 1939. But what Hitler has to say about his ultimate objectives, particularly in Chapter XIV of the second volume, can be compared with Hitler’s subsequent actions as ruler of Germany as well as with his statements of policy in the secret directives given to his generals. The most significant passages of this chapter have often been quoted, but it seems worthwhile to quote them again since Mr. Taylor chooses to ignore them. After denouncing the foreign policy of Germany before 1914 because “instead of a sound policy of territorial expansion in Europe” it “embarked on a policy of colonial and trade expansion,” Hitler expounds his doctrine of Lebensraum. There can only be a “healthy proportion” between a people and its territory if “the support of the people is guaranteed by the resources of its own soil and subsoil.” It must, in other words, be virtually autarchic and immune to blockade, and it must have room for a maximum increase of population without losing any by emigration or becoming dependent on imported food. To be a Great Power, with the potentiality of being the strongest of all, Germany must acquire new territory on a grand scale. England, declares Hitler, should not be regarded as a nation which is powerful in spite of the smallness of its territory, “for the English motherland is in reality the great metropolis of the British Empire which owns almost a fourth of the earth’s surface. Next to this we must consider the United States as one of the foremost among the colossal states, also Russia and China.” In pursuit of a similar territorial magnitude “we National Socialists have purposely drawn a line through the course followed by pre-war Germany in foreign policy. We put an end to the perpetual Germanic march toward the South and West of Europe and turn our eyes toward the lands of the East. We finally put a stop to the colonial and trade policy of pre-war times and pass over to the territorial policy of the future. When we speak of new territory in Europe today, we must principally think of Russia and the border states subject to her.”

Whatever may be thought of this objective on moral grounds, it is at any rate quite clearly formulated, and it was an aim which Hitler came near to attaining when his armies reached the Neva and the Volga. To say that it was nothing but a continuation of the foreign policy of previous German governments is quite untrue. There had for a long time been elements in Germany which had nursed such ideas, but they had certainly not been motives of official German policy before 1914; the vast gains of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty had been the outcome of Russia’s wartime collapse in 1917, not of any pre-war scheme for the conquest of Russia. Under the Weimar Republic we cannot assign such projects of territorial expansion to a Rathenau, a Stresemann, or a Bruening. In fact, Hitler complains that his aims for the future of Germany were rejected, not only by liberals and pacifists, who were prepared to submit to the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, but also by the nationalists, whose purposes were confined to recovering for the Reich the frontiers of 1914. What Hitler proposes is a territory on which 250 million Germans can be self-supporting in a hundred years time. He is quite clear that this territory can only be taken from other nations, and declares plainly that “our people will not obtain territory, and therewith the means of existence, as a favor from any other people but will have to win it by the power of a triumphant sword.”

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Twelve years after writing this as the leader of a small political party which had failed ignominiously in an attempt at a coup d’état in Bavaria, Hitler held forth on the same theme to the heads of the German armed forces who listened to him as their Fuehrer, and declared: “The history of all times has proved that space expansion can only be effected by breaking resistance and taking risks. Even setbacks are unavoidable; neither formerly nor today has space been found without an owner. The question for Germany is where the greatest possible conquest could be made at the lowest cost.”

Mr. Taylor dismisses the minutes of these secret conferences as convincing evidence of Hitler’s intentions on the ground that Hitler would not wish to reveal his inmost thoughts to his generals, whom he distrusted. This point may be conceded, but its implication is just the opposite of what Mr. Taylor requires for his case. He suggests that Hitler simply ranted and talked big in front of his generals, going far beyond what he really intended to do. But Hitler’s relations with the heads of armed forces and the circumstances of his speeches make it likely that he told them, not more, but less than he had it in his mind to do in the long run. He was not talking to beer-hall cronies who would be impressed by empty fantasies of empire-building, but to professional military men who, on the one hand, would have the duty of carrying out whatever he required of them for the execution of his policies, but on the other hand were openly alarmed lest Germany’s strength should be overstrained by projects too vast for her undertaking. Tactically it was in Hitler’s interest to instruct them at each stage in what he wanted of them without alarming them too much by premature revelation of the total design. Above all, it was not expedient in November 1937 to set before the generals the conquest of Russia as an ultimate objective of policy, for the principle of good relations with Russia in Germany’s weakened condition after 1918 had become an article of faith with the Reichswehr and had the authority of Bismarckian tradition behind it. So there is nothing about attacking Russia in the Hossbach Memorandum; the immediate program of aggression is limited to Austria and Czechoslovakia. Only after the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact do we find Hitler declaring to his commanders at Obersalzberg on August 22, 1939: “My pact with Poland [of 1934] was only meant to gain time. And with Russia will happen just what I have done in Poland. After Stalin’s death—we shall crush the Soviet Union.” But this was not really anything new; it was already there in Mein Kampf. The curious qualification “after Stalin’s death” was perhaps due to a feeling that some regard should be paid at least in words to the man with whom he had just concluded a treaty of mutual non-aggression.

With regard to Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Hossbach Memorandum shows Hitler as saying after a discussion of the conditions for successful attacks on both countries: “The annexation of the two states to Germany, militarily and politically, would constitute a considerable relief, owing to shorter and better frontiers, the freeing of fighting personnel for other purposes, and the possibility of constituting new armies up to a strength of twelve divisions.” In this policy statement, made three months before the Anschluss and ten before Munich, it should be noticed that both countries are to be fully annexed and there is no question of taking merely the Sudetenland without the rest of Bohemia and Moravia. Mr. Taylor, nevertheless, treats the incorporation of Austria in the Reich as an afterthought to an invasion which Hitler had not previously intended. It is no doubt true, as Mr. Taylor claims, that the timing of the move against Austria was determined by Schuschnigg’s coup of a snap plebiscite on Austrian independence, which would have been a serious political setback for Hitler if he had permitted it to take place, but this does not mean that the absorption of Austria at an appropriate time had not already been planned by Hitler, as the Hossbach Memorandum shows that it was.

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The hossbach memorandum also provides the key to an understanding of the Munich crisis. The paradox of that episode is that Germany and all the world saw in it a great triumph for Hitler because he got the Sudetenland, whereas Hitler was in a fury because he had been deprived of his entry into Prague. In order to neutralize Britain, where Chamberlain was known to be in favor of a cession of the Sudetenland to Germany on ethnic grounds, Hitler picked his quarrel with Czechoslovakia on the Sudeten question, but this was to be the pretext for a war against Czechoslovakia in which Hitler believed that Britain and France would stand aside and the whole of Bohemia would be overrun. But Chamberlain persuaded the French to join with him in putting pressure on the Czechs to cede the Sudetenland, and their submission deprived Hitler of his pretext; when he put up his terms at Godesberg, he found the British attitude becoming tougher, and finally there was the mobilization of the British fleet. Hitler called off the war and accepted the Munich agreement which gave him the Sudetenland, but not the predominantly Czech areas of Bohemia. Immediately afterward he ordered the German army to get ready for the occupation of the Czech lands and he carried out the take-over in March of 1939. Thus the conquests projected in the Hossbach Memorandum were completed. But Mr. Taylor will not allow that Hitler had ever intended to go to Prague or that he had good strategic and economic reasons for doing so. “He did it without design,” writes Mr. Taylor, ignoring the plain words of the Hossbach Memorandum; “it brought him slight advantage. He acted only when events had already destroyed the settlement of Munich.” Mr. Taylor holds that the disturbances in Slovakia early in March took Hitler by surprise, but there is substantial evidence that these troubles, although arising out of a genuine Slovak nationalism, were fomented from Berlin.

When five months later the crisis between Germany and Poland came to a head, Mr. Taylor accepts the German thesis that it was about Danzig. Indeed he heads the last chapter of his book “War for Danzig,” and the title is not meant to be ironical. Danzig was chosen as the issue because the German ethnic character of its population made it possible to invoke the principle of nationality. But to his generals on May 23 Hitler declared: “The Pole is no ‘supplementary enemy.’ Poland will always be on the side of our adversaries. . . . Danzig is not the subject of the dispute at all. It is a question of expanding our living space in the East. . . . Poland sees danger in a German victory in the West and will attempt to rob us of that victory. There is therefore no question of sparing Poland and we are left with the decision: to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity. . . . We cannot expect a repetition of the Czech affair. There will be war.”

That should be clear enough, especially as these were not words spoken in casual conversation, but an address to the heads of the armed forces charged with the military preparations for the attack, which as a matter of history actually took place on the date assigned for it. The intention is not, however, clear enough for Mr. Taylor, who, as we have seen, considers that “the war of 1939, far from being premeditated, was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders.” But it is hard to see where the blunders came in, given the fact of the British and French guarantees to Poland. Both Britain and France were pledged to come to the aid of Poland if she were attacked; Germany deliberately attacked Poland, and Britain and France went to war—though with minimum effort—in accordance with their pledges. Everybody acted with their eyes open and there was no misunderstanding. It is regarded by some people as a blunder that Britain should have given a guarantee to Poland at all without prior agreement with Russia and thereafter should have pursued negotiations for an alliance with Russia in such a dilatory fashion. But the guarantee was originally given without any idea of making it conditional on Russian backing, and failure to get a Russian alliance was not in the eyes of the British government any reason for going back on the guarantee. Hitler hoped, as the record of his speech of May 23 shows, that his coup de théâtre of a pact with Stalin—which he knew he could make whenever he wanted it on the basis of a partition of Poland and the Baltic States with Russia—might deter Britain and France from intervening, but the same speech shows that he did not count on it and was determined to go through with his attack even if they did intervene. In other words, he conditionally willed a European war of which he had formal and solemn warning, and he can no more be said to have tried to avoid war than a bandit who shoots a bank cashier can be held innocent of murder because he hoped that his victim might hand over the cash without resisting.

Mr. Taylor evidently thinks the Poles ought to have capitulated; “sober statesmen,” he says, “would have surrendered at discretion when they contemplated the dangers threatening Poland and the inadequacy of her means.” In support of his disapproval he is able to quote Nevile Henderson as saying, “I have held from the beginning that the Poles were utterly foolish and unwise” and the American Ambassador’s report to Washington that Chamber-lain was “more worried about getting the Poles to be reasonable than the Germans.” But Britain was pledged to assist Poland “if any action were taken which clearly threatened their independence and which the Polish government accordingly felt obliged to resist with their national forces”; there was no condition that the Poles must be “reasonable” by making unilateral concessions to German demands. The criticism must, therefore, refer back to the original British guarantee, and it is indeed for this that Mr. Taylor reserves his most biting denunciation. He makes great play with the record that when the Polish foreign minister was informed of the proposed British guarantee, he accepted it “between two flicks of ash off his cigarette.” “Two flicks,” writes Mr. Taylor, “and British grenadiers would die for Danzig. Two flicks; and the illusory great Poland, created in 1919, signed her death-warrant.” But let us suppose that there had been no offer of guarantee, that Britain in March 1939 had decided to let events in Eastern Europe take their course. In all probability Poland would then have capitulated to Germany and accepted the proposals for an offensive alliance against Russia which we know from the published Polish documents had been repeatedly offered to her. It can be argued that Poland would thus have been better off; at any rate, her ultimate fate as an ally of Germany could hardly have been worse than it was to be as an ally of Britain. But what of Britain and France? We may let Hitler speak for himself, even though it was only to his generals; in his speech of August 22, he said: “I thought I would turn first against the West and only afterward against the East. But the sequence cannot be fixed. . . . I wanted to establish an acceptable relationship with Poland in order to fight first against the West, but this plan, which was agreeable to me, could not be executed. It became clear to me that Poland would attack us in case of conflict with the West.”

Hitler’s claim is that, having made his non-aggression pact with Poland in 1934, he had hoped for a pro-German trend of Polish policy which would have enabled him to count on Polish neutrality in a German war with Britain and France, but since Poland had accepted a British guarantee and revived her alliance with France, the destruction of Poland must have priority. “Even if war should break out in the West, the destruction of Poland must be the primary objective; quick decision because of the season.” But why had Hitler been thinking about war in the West even if Poland had become a German satellite and there had been no British guarantee of her independence? The answer is given in the Hossbach Memorandum: “German policy must reckon with its two hateful enemies, England and France, to whom a strong German colossus in the center of Europe would be intolerable.” Hitler indeed reckoned, and as the event showed, rightly, that however long it might take for Britain and France to make up their minds to oppose the expansion of Germany, they would ultimately do so. He knew their desire for peace and was ready to exploit it to the full in the early stages of his policy, but unless they were definitely willing to renounce all concern with the affairs of Eastern Europe and even to join him in a war against Russia, he could not count on their benevolent neutrality for the final and decisive phase of his design. They might strike at him or impose an armed mediation at the moment when his armies were committed deep in the interior of Russia; when the prospect of a Germany extending from the Rhine to the Volga was revealed before their eyes, they would deem it too dangerous to be tolerated. Logically, therefore, they must be attacked and crushed before the conquest of Russia could be undertaken. In his speech to his generals of May 23, Hitler speculated on the chances of a surprise attack on the British fleet, but added that it would only be possible if Germany were not involved in war with Britain on account of Poland, i.e. if Germany were able to choose the moment to strike in time of peace without declaration of war. The valid inference is that if Britain had failed to go to war on behalf of Poland, she would have been subjected to a “Pearl Harbor” attack shortly afterward, and it is highly unlikely that she would have survived it.

But Mr. Taylor will have none of this. Hitler only wanted “a free hand to destroy conditions in the East which enlightened Western opinion had also pronounced intolerable” and he “had no ambitions directed against Great Britain and France.” What a pity indeed that we did not let this admirable German statesman have his way! We should not then have this tiresome post-war situation which now confronts us. But many of us would no longer be here to be confronted with anything; in company probably with Mr. Taylor himself we should long ago have perished in Buchenwald or Dachau.

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1 A review of The Origins of the Second World War, by A. J. P. Taylor (Atheneum, 296 pp., $4.50).

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