A Minute with Peter Fritzsche, expert on German history

Peter Fritzsche, Professor of History at Illinois, was interviewed by the News Bureau of University of Illinois Public Affairs, published on August 26, 2014. This is a re-posting of the original interview. To see the original article, please read http://illinois.edu/lb/article/72/86892.


Sept. 1 marks 75 years since Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II, and historians still debate what caused the German people to follow the Nazis into conquest and the Holocaust. Peter Fritzsche, a historian of modern Germany, has written several books based in part on the letters and diaries of average Germans, from before and through Nazi rule and the war. Perhaps the most valuable collection of letters came from four generations of a single German family, separated by politics and the German-Dutch border. Those letters were recently published in the book “Between Two Homelands,” for which Fritzsche did translation and wrote the preface. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

We’ve recently passed the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and a common refrain is that the end of that war and its treaty demands led directly to the Nazis and World War II. Was the connection that simple?

Peter FritzscheThere is a connection, especially since Germans – Nazis and non-Nazis – genuinely believed that Germany was fighting for its freedom, even for its very existence – astonishing as that may sound to us today.

But Hitler was very clear: World War II was not about former German territory assigned to Poland or about the national self-determination of Germans living outside Germany. The war was about creating a new racial order in which there were German superiors and Slav inferiors and in which Jews had no place. It was about creating an exploitative empire in which might determined right. The Nazis were not traditional German nationalists but radical revolutionaries in terms of foreign policy and morality.

To what extent do you believe Germans were seduced by Hitler and the Nazis? Or did they make more of a conscious choice?

Germans after World War I were highly politicized. That is why we think of the Weimar Republic as a time of political turbulence and unrest. The active descriptions of politics before 1933, the year Hitler came to power, undermine notions of seduction or brainwashing in the years after. It is not possible to explain the demise of all sorts of political institutions before Hitler in one way, and to explain the power of the Nazis after that in another way.

Germans constantly deliberated questions of race, authority and loyalty. Only a minority became full-fledged Nazis, but most accepted the basic premises of the regime, including the isolation of German Jews. While most Germans had at least a vague idea of the Holocaust, they almost certainly did not endorse mass murder, which is not to say they were not complicit in the persecution of their neighbors along the way to the “final solution.”

You call the collection of letters in the “Homelands” book “an indispensible source for understanding the Nazis.” What are the key insights you find there?

Historians have access to lots of propaganda tracts and to the most extreme statements made by leading Nazis, but we don’t have many transcripts of more-ordinary Germans explaining their choices. In this case, family members lived both in Holland and Germany and were divided politically between enthusiastic pro-Nazism and skeptical anti-Nazism, a situation that forced correspondents to explain themselves, to argue matters out.

The letters also reveal the holes or seams in Nazi appeal. The son, for example, broke with friends over his loyalty to the Nazis, but also fell in love with a woman with a Jewish grandparent, something that complicated his assumptions.

What the letters and diaries reveal is the qualified, not always easy, but nonetheless unmistakable desire to be part of the National Socialist movement. We see people as actors, not as victims; we see them deliberating, rather than being seduced. This collection offers extraordinary insights into why Germans became Nazis, and how a Nazi mother in Germany came to disagree with her beloved anti-Nazi daughter in Holland.

In the end, the letters indicate just how self-absorbed Germans were by their sense of having been victimized, which means that the question of World War I remains relevant to World War II, even if the Nazi leaders themselves wanted something far more than a victory in a rerun of World War I.

Can we ever fully explain the Nazi phenomenon? And what should we learn from it?

What makes the problem of explaining the Nazis so vexing is the inadequacy of interpretations that rely on factors such as downward mobility, national humiliation or economic privation. The same goes for those factors the Nazis and their supporters cited, such as the solidarity of the national community, the centrality of race, and the requirement to revise universal moral practices in order to insure the survival of Germany.

Scholars constantly shuttle back and forth between explanations that work from the outside in and those that work from the inside out; they analyze political, social, and economic variables, but they also listen to how the Nazis made sense of themselves. In this way, there is no final resolution.

What we can learn is the following: we need to be careful how we interpret human behavior. If it is extreme, is it because people are seduced or brainwashed? Or is it more complicated? Are people naturally decent, except in difficult situations? We wonder why we were not more astonished in the 1930s, as the Nazis came to power.

Are there other issues today that we neglect but which our grandchildren will think more problematic – perhaps the fact that illegal immigrants test our empathy, that our prison population does not attract our attention? These are not issues that compare in any way to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but they are issues that may be examples of our blindness today. We should be alert precisely because German letters from this period justify and gloss over such persecution. In the end, we should stand with the poet Emily Dickenson, who urged us not to lose our sense of alarm, of dismay, of shock.


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