Our book today is a tonic the poor patient might not even agree he needs! After the sybaritic pleasures of a seaside vacation – a blessed time of bike-rides and home-made breakfasts and wine and idle robin-watching, say – nothing will quite bring a reader back to down to Earth faster than Karl Dietrich Bracher’s searching 1969 epic, Die deutsche Diktatur: Entstehung, Struktur, Folgen des Nationalsozialismus, which was translated into English in 1970 by Jean Steinberg as The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Consequences of National Socialism. The book is one of the earliest and most magisterial accounts of the rise, flourishing, and fall of Hitler and National Socialism, one that attempts the finest degree of historical dispassion on one of the most passion-riddled subjects in the almanac. Bracher’s book came out ten years after William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and filled something of the same hunger of a new generation to learn as much as possible about this dark enormous thing that happened in the days of their fathers and uncles.
Shirer’s book, despite its depth of research, is carved almost entirely out of passion – a passionate hatred for the Nazis and all the damage they did to the world. Bracher (a German, unlike Shirer) bases his book on the same grounding of deep research and then moves in the opposite direction, reaching for a clinical, detached tone. This bothered me mightily when I first read the book, not only because I was a passionate fan of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (how many poor hapless suburban commuter-readers did I press it on, when they wandered into my bookshop for a recommendation? How many – if any – ever bothered to read it?) but because I thought a clinical, detached tone shouldn’t be used in connection with this particular subject, that some horrors were meant to stay horrifying. It was frustrating to read passage after passage of Bracher’s crystal-clear language (to my great relief, Steinberg faithfully captures that clarity – and the strong whiff of pedantry that accompanies it):
… modern dictatorship differs from absolutism insofar as it calls for the extinction of the individual. It forces him into mass organizations and commits him to a political creed which becomes a ‘political religion’, a binding religious surrogate. This exaltation of the political rests on the absoluteness of a political myth: in the case of Fascism, the myth is of an imperial past; in the case of Communism, of a socialist-utopian future; and in the case of National Socialism, of racial superiority. Yet, despite the validity of this analysis, it is nonetheless inconclusive.
Even though I knew it could harm his undertaking, I wanted the author to rage – but this book resolutely doesn’t do that, and every time I’ve read it since, I’ve slowly fallen under the calming spell of Bracher’s inquiry and simply delighted in watching his superb mind at work. He devotes a great deal of space to the precise mechanisms by which the National Socialists came to power in the first place – how they built coalitions, how they wooed support, their blunders which would be comical if there weren’t such horrors waiting on the other side of them. Bracher clearly wants to know how these brutal buffoons could ever have achieved supreme power over a people as smart and sophisticated as the Germans of the early 20th Century, and he points out with bitter exactitude how close it came to not happening at all:
Mishaps and errors, consequence and accident, became an almost inextricable mass of causes of the National Socialist seizure of power. It is not a ‘necessary’ development; even at the very end, there still remained a freedom of choice, but one which the political and intellectual elite relinquished, partly in tired resignation, partly frivolously, and partly maliciously.
Underpinning all this analysis is the most extensive bibliography of German-language sources then amassed for a popular publication, all of it marshalled with an intellectual authority of impregnable strength. Reading it again, fresh from vacation, I realized that such timing may in fact be perfect: it’s instructive to remember just how much of Germany – and the Western world – was enjoying home-made breakfasts and morning bird-song (and all such simple peace-time pleasures) while the knotted wrongs of Bracher’s subject were laying plans and gathering strength, often in plain view.
The dispassionate stance still bothers me – I think it’s easy to make the case that the whole barrage of later histories that use such dispassion to contextualize the Nazis right into a kind of moral equivalence (David Irving being the most famous example, although as more recent works have shown, the trend continues) got their start in works like The German Dictatorship. But such twisted progeny can’t impugn Bracher’s motives, and they can’t really dull the persuasive power of his book.