Was Hitler A Riddle? is the first comparative study of how British, French, and American diplomats serving in Germany assessed Hitler and the Nazi movement. These assessments provided the governments in London, Paris, and Washington with ample information about the ruthlessness of the authorities in Germany and of their determination to conquer vast stretches of Europe. Had the British, French, and American leaders acted on this information and taken measures to rein in Hitler, the history of the twentieth century would have been far less bloody: the second world war might well have been avoided, the Soviet Union would not have expanded into central and eastern Europe, and the world would have been spared the Cold War.
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About the Author
Abraham Ascher is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. He is the author of numerous works, including, most recently, A Community under Siege: The Jews of Breslau under Nazism (Stanford, 2007).
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WAS HITLER A RIDDLE?Western Democracies and National Socialism
By Abraham Ascher
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Board of trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe British Diplomats
When Sir Horace Rumbold arrived in Berlin in August 1928 to begin his tenure as British ambassador, he had every reason to expect a calm and uneventful period of service. True, during its first few years, the Weimar Republic, established in 1919 shortly after Germany's defeat in World War I, experienced almost constant political instability, in large measure the consequence of deep disappointment in the unexpected military defeat, the imposition by the victorious Allies of huge reparations as well as territorial losses in the eastern and western parts of the country, and finally, the economic stagnation followed by hyperinflation. In addition, the Allies had placed stringent restrictions on the size of the country's military, which prevented Germany from regaining its pre-1914 status as a major world power. Several of the most prominent institutions—the army, the civil service, the judiciary, and the educational system—remained in the hands of individuals who despised the new political order. That right-wingers were implacable foes of the "Weimar System," as they called it, became evident in 1920 when some of them attempted to overthrow the constitutional order; for a few days it seemed as though they might succeed. Further evidence of the country's political instability is that during the first nine years of the republic's existence no fewer than nine chancellors (prime ministers) held that office. But by 1928, stability and prosperity seemed to be within reach. Germany's economy had rebounded; the sage foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, appeared to be on the way to securing significant concessions, financial and territorial, from the Western powers; and the political discourse was much less passionate than it had been in some time. There was reason to be optimistic about the country's future.
In many respects, Rumbold was well prepared for the post in Berlin. Born in 1869 in St. Petersburg to an upper-class family—his father was also a diplomat, as were his ancestors for over three hundred years—Horace had received a first-rate education at Eton, and during his thirty-nine years in the diplomatic corps he mastered seven foreign languages, including German, and had some familiarity with German society and politics, having served at the consulate in Munich in 1909 and at the embassy in Berlin in 1913 and 1914. Rumbold was essentially a political conservative and shared many of the prejudices of the German elite, but he was not a zealot. In Great Britain, he maintained good relations with a number of Labourites and frequently engaged in friendly conversations with people he disagreed with. But, like his father, Horace did not take kindly to people different from those in his social circle. In 1904, he wrote his father that he did not want to meet a friend of his stepbrother because "I hate Jews." On his arrival in Berlin, he was "quite happy" except for one drawback. "The only fly in the ointment," he wrote a friend, "is the number of Jews in the place. One cannot get away from them," a comment that illustrates the depth of his prejudice. Although Berlin counted more Jews than any other German city, they still made up only 4 percent of the population. Rumbold also did not like blacks, and once told the conductor of a train he was taking that he would not "share a compartment with a black gentleman." He tipped the conductor "handsomely" to secure a "compartment to myself." During his two years of service in Madrid (1907–8) he developed a dislike for Spaniards, who, he believed, were "vain, full of pride, untruthful, dirty and inclined to idleness." He also disparaged Persians, Japanese, and the French. Rumbold simply did not like anyone who was not British as he defined the word.
Rumbold's attitude toward Germany and its citizens was mixed, although his negative impressions far outweighed the positive ones. He respected the Germans for their strength of character and resilience, but also considered them to be a belligerent and fickle people solely responsible for the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. In fact, he was convinced that Germans had a natural propensity for brutality, a trait he believed to be alien to Englishmen. Nevertheless, in the early 1930s he did not oppose German expansion in the east to redress grievances generated by what were widely regarded as the harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. All in all, the British government could not have chosen a better person for the post of ambassador in Berlin. He was not viscerally hostile to Germany, and in view of his age, the assignment to Germany was likely to be his last, which would make it easier for him to voice his views candidly, without fear of retribution by senior officials in the Foreign Office who might not appreciate his strong opinions. Certainly some of his most notable dispatches after January 30, 1933, did not mince words.
For the first two years of his stay in Berlin, Rumbold largely ignored Hitler and the Nazi movement. His predecessors had paid some attention to the political upstart as early as 1920, soon after he made his appearance on the political scene, but with few exceptions, their assessments were not strikingly profound. They recognized that Hitler was a central figure in the National Socialist movement and thought of him as a "bulwark against Communism," which had come to power in Russia and was much feared in British political circles. There was one exception to these mundane comments, a perceptive dispatch by the British consul in Munich, Robert T. Smallbones, a name that will appear again in this study. In a short, incisive dispatch of September 28, 1920, Smallbones noted that the leaders of the National Socialist Party, Adolf Hitler and Anton Drexler, were effective organizers committed to three central ideas: anti-Semitism, the use of force in furthering political goals, and the merging of socialism and nationalism. Smallbones surmised that the new party was funded by a circle of industrialists close to Hugo Stinnes, a wealthy entrepreneur with pronounced right-wing views. Astutely, Smallbones predicted that the industrialists would not have to fear Hitler's talk of socialism because the central idea of his movement was nationalism.
Toward the end of 1922, other British diplomats in Germany had collected many details about Hitler, but these did not add up to a coherent evaluation of his potential as a leader. After November 1922, they often referred to him as the "Bavarian Mussolini," an incorrect designation that did not reveal much about the man. None of these assessments was based on personal contact; apparently, throughout the 1920s no British diplomat stationed in Berlin or Munich had made any effort to speak to Hitler. In truth, there was no reason at that time to devote much time or thought to him; he was not expected to rise to the heights of political power.
Only in 1930, when Hitler had demonstrated his ability to gain mass support for his program—in a national election his vote jumped from 2.6 percent to 18.3 percent of the total, and his party secured 107 out of 577 Reichstag representatives—did Rumbold pay serious attention to Nazism, but he showed little understanding of Germany's dire political condition following the catastrophic depression that had hit the country in 1929, or of the nature of Nazism. In 1931, he was certain that the country would not "fail to master its difficulties." After the presidential election of April 1932, in which Hitler received 36.3 percent of the vote, Rumbold reported to Sir John Simon, the British secretary of foreign affairs, that some people believed Hitler had "exhausted his reserves" and would not "go any higher," a judgment the ambassador did not contest. Early in August 1932, when Franz von Papen was trying to cobble together a majority to form a government, Rumbold viewed the Nazis as a political party that could be expected to act pragmatically, and he went so far as to refer to Hitler as a "visionary, but quite a decent sort of man." Papen's aim was to "draw the teeth of the [Nazi] movement by saddling the National Socialists with a certain amount of responsibility." The Nazis would then have to "come into the open and no longer shelter themselves behind a nebulous programme." Rumbold thought that Hitler and his supporters were in a tight spot and would have to make some hard decisions. "It would appear that they have shot their bolt and have exhausted the reservoir from which they drew many of their adherents, and yet have failed to obtain an absolute majority in the Reichstag. Their storm troops will soon begin to ask themselves what their marchings and their 'Alarmbereitschaft' (being on the alert) are leading to. In other words, the time is fast approaching when Hitler will be expected to deliver the goods. He cannot indefinitely play the role of a revivalist preacher and yet even if he consents to the inclusion of one or two members of his party in the Government he will be unable to fulfil his promises to the electorate." In December 1932, a month before Hitler's appointment as chancellor, Rumbold spoke of Nazism as similar to other political movements and described Hitler's camp as one of the "three great parties of the Left."
Rumbold clung to his view of the Nazis' poor chances of gaining power until the very moment that Hitler received the call to assume the office of chancellor. On January 16, 1933, the ambassador informed Secretary Simon that the Nazis were in serious financial straits and implied that this would hinder their political work. Erwin Planck, who served in the important post of secretary of state under the last two chancellors before Hitler, had told Rumbold that the Nazis were so desperate that several of them had appeared at a recent funeral and "had not scrupled to rattle their money-boxes in the immediate neighbourhood of the grave, thereby disgusting all the persons present."
Yet there is evidence to suggest that by this time Rumbold had some inkling that many of the Nazi leaders were unscrupulous and dangerous. In June 1932, he had referred to Joseph Goebbels, one of the more repulsive leaders of the Nazi movement, in the following words: "He may be classed as a vulgar, unscrupulous and irresponsible demagogue and his success is in direct relation to the ignorance and lack of critical faculty of his audience." At the same time, in his missives to the foreign secretary, Rumbold stressed the Nazi penchant for violence, although he also noted that the Communists were responsible for even more violence. But he emphasized that the attacks against Jews in various parts of Prussia outside Berlin were the work of Hitler's followers. In East Prussia, a stronghold of the Nazis, they had perpetrated some of the "most disgraceful outrages." "The windows of shops owned by Jews were smashed and their contents looted." The Nazis also firebombed the offices of the "democratic newspapers." During the first ten days of August 1932, shootings, stabbings, and arson by means of "high explosives" had occurred "in almost every part of Germany."
By this time, some officials in London had begun to view developments in Germany with alarm. On November 26, 1931, the Foreign Office submitted a "Report to Cabinet" that now reads like a prophecy in calling attention to the enormous impact on world history of a Nazi ascent to power. The section on Germany, if not the whole document, was almost certainly drafted by Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office, who had a special interest in that country, which he believed was intrinsically drawn to militarism. He became the most vigorous spokesman among foreign policy professionals for a firm stand to keep Nazi Germany in check. The first sentence of the German section warned, "People in this country seem to be unaware of the extent to which the future of 'civilisation' depends on what happens in Germany in the course of the next six months and of the grave doubt as to whether the upshot will be peace or war, recovery or collapse."
One of the more interesting reports on conditions in Germany in the immediate pre-Nazi period was drafted by Malcolm Grahame Christie, who had a second career as a diplomat after a successful stint in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, during which he attained the rank of group-captain. After his discharge, he became an intelligence officer in the Foreign Office and served as air attaché in Berlin from 1927 until 1930. For reasons of health, he retired in 1930 but continued to visit Germany and other central European countries to gather information for reports he then submitted to the Foreign Office. He was fluent in German and had cultivated valuable contacts in industry, finance, diplomacy, and the Nazi Party itself. After 1934, he wrote reports for Vansittart.
In his report of May 20, 1932, which Christie called his "impressions," he clearly grasped the mood in Germany that had enabled the sudden growth of the Nazi Party, although he also showed a lack of understanding of the inner workings of the movement. He noted that Hitler had succeeded in gaining the support of a "heterogeneous swarm of malcontents" who were disgruntled and had been demoralized by the misfortunes that had befallen Germany. The people were "rudderless," and "in a bewildered fashion" they seek "to find scapegoats" for their "troubles and leadership" to guide them out of their predicament. Many people had concluded that "Adolf Hitler will satisfy and fulfil both these cravings." Christie warned that the German people were deluding themselves, for Hitler was neither a statesman nor an idealist. "I can only see a rather vain and vacillating demagogue, one whose original healthy ideals have become befogged in the intoxication of super-ability to sway the masses: where many detect a prima donna I can easily discover a soubrette." The Nazi leader was a "vastly ambitious opportunist" who knew how to organize a mass movement. He was also skilled at finding helpless scapegoats, the Jews and the Marxists, and at rousing the passions of the masses against them, as well as against the injustices of the peace treaty. If Hitler succeeded in attaining power, Christie predicted, he would never become a "great statesman"; in fact, Christie did not think that he would remain in power for very long because—and here he grossly misjudged Hitler's views and role in the movement—the Nazi leader was "for all intents and purposes a Constitutional Monarch within the Party," which was controlled by a "small camarilla." Christie also thought that Hitler would adopt a "wait and see" strategy rather than initiate a putsch to secure power. But he warned that the "growing impoverishment of the masses" and their "gullibility" could sway many to vote for Hitler and thus bring him to power. Still, he was confident that since Hitler would not evolve into a "strong statesman" he would soon be "swept aside." Christie was uncertain about who would succeed him. He did not think that the Communists would take over. More likely, the masses would "rally round a 'volkstümlich'" ("national" or "popular") person such as Dr. Otto Strasser, also a Nazi, who was more radical on economic and social issues but more restrained on racial matters.
Of course, in 1932 no one could predict Germany's political future. Even a man as perspicacious and rational as Horace Rumbold was so baffled that he considered it important to report on certain occult prognostications. On February 17, 1932, he sent a "confidential" message to Secretary Simon that contained the following information: "Incidentally, I know for a fact that Hitler recently consulted a fortune-teller and was informed that he had no future."
Conditions were so fluid and precarious that very many people were unable to make reasoned decisions about their country's future. The "golden years of the republic," which began in 1924 and were marked by economic recovery and relative political stability, ended with the devastating depression of 1929. Early in 1933, close to 7.5 million people, about one-third of the workforce, were unemployed. In addition, the country was now "full of private armies" and political violence was a regular occurrence, mostly involving street fights between Nazis and Communists. During the last two weeks of June 1932, seventeen people lost their lives in politically motivated clashes, and in July the number rose to eighty-six. Hundreds of citizens were wounded. The government did little to stem the violence, and to many Germans it seemed that the country was undergoing a breakdown of authority and that it faced a slide into anarchy.
There were other signs of the republic's fragility. In the elections to the Reichstag on July 31, 1932, the National Socialists became the largest party in the legislature, having captured 230 out of 608 seats and 37.2 percent of the vote. The Nationalists were supported by 6.1 percent, which meant that 43.3 percent now favored right-wing parties hostile to the republic. The moderate and liberal parties were almost wiped out, and the Social Democrats, the one major party still committed to democracy, received only 21.6 percent of the vote. The Communists, who rejected "bourgeois democracy," gained 14.3 percent of the vote, which indicated that only about 43 percent of the electorate supported the constitutional order established in 1919. In a new election in November 1932 the Nazis declined to 33.1 percent, but the Nationalists' support rose to 8.3 percent, which gave the right wing a total of 41.4 percent, still not a majority.
Their strength, however, was sufficient to persuade the aged President Paul von Hindenburg—then eighty-five-years old and no longer fully in control of his faculties—to succumb to the endless intrigues of his advisers in favor of Hitler's appointment as chancellor. Hindenburg was not enamored of Hitler, whom he considered to be an uncultivated upstart, a "Bohemian corporal" who could not resist delivering long monologues. But the reigning assumption in the Presidential Palace was that in a coalition government consisting of nine conservatives and three National Socialists, the former would be able to rein in the latter. Better to tame the Nazis by bringing them into the political system than to let them cause national havoc as an opposition movement without any responsibility for their actions.
Excerpted from WAS HITLER A RIDDLE? by Abraham Ascher Copyright © 2012 by Board of trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The British Diplomats 15
2 The French Diplomats 92
3 The American Diplomats 145