Oleg Plenkov: “Nazi anti-Semitism is a mystery”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 12: the ideology of Nazism

Realnoe Vremya continues a cycle of interviews with Russian scientists dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. This time our interlocutor is famous historian, Germanist, researcher of the era of the Third Reich Oleg Plenkov who told us where and why the ideology of Nazism appeared.

“The appearance of Nazism was accidental

Mr Plenkov, opinion journalist Sergey Kara-Murza wrote that German Nazism is a logical outcome of the development of precisely the western thought. He said in particular — I am not citing him literally — that Fascism took the liberal idea of competition, including political, to the logical conclusion. Do you agree with this opinion?

No, I think that Nazism is an artificial invention. It is impossible to link Bolshevism with Russian culture and Russian tradition as well as Nazism can’t be linked with German culture and German tradition. The appearance of Nazism was accidental, and the First World War was the reason here to a great extent. And it is also artificial to talk about some deep logic of the western thought. Can you tell me why the western thought didn’t lead to Nazism, Fascism and other monstrosities somewhere in England or the USA? It is inexplicable. This is why the mentioned opinion journalist’s thought is senseless.

Hadn’t there been such occurrences as Nazism in world history?

Almost no. Totalitarianism in such forms as Nazism, Fascism, Bolshevism, Islamism is a novelty that the 20th century added to political history. There hadn’t been anything similar in a number of characteristics, as there hadn’t been political parties, there hadn’t been a mass public opinion, there hadn’t been powerful and propagandist mass media. Of course, there had been Persian, Turkish tyrannies, there had been the era of Ivan the Terrible, but there hadn’t been such an occurrence in terms of scale and ideological intensity.

Do you say that the ideological foundation of Nazism and, first of all, anti-Semitism lays somewhere in the outcome of the First World War? Is it in the payment of reparations to the Entente and impoverishment of the German population?

Everything is much more complicated, and the dialectic isn’t simple here. Hitler, Lenin and Mussolini understood that for ideological mobilisation of society, first of all, an image of the enemy was needed. In case of Bolshevism, it was a class enemy — the bourgeoisie, Italian fascists’ enemies were those who were against the union of the nation, and in case of German Nazis, everything boiled down to anti-Semitism.

Their idea was that the same Bolshevik system was a consequence of the idea of world Jewish supremacy and allegedly the world Jewry invented both reparations and the 1918 November revolution in Germany, which, as it is known, the left forces staged, while Jews in left parties had a large representation — they were very restricted both in Russia (the Pale of Settlement) and Europe, this is why they adhered to the left movements. But the Nazis put the artificial Jewish theme to the centre of their ideological doctrine for some reason and made Jews some universal evil.

Hitler, Lenin and Mussolini understood that for ideological mobilisation of society, first of all, an image of the enemy was needed. In case of Bolshevism, it was a class enemy

“Before 1936-1937, the biggest state anti-Semitism was in Poland”

It is quite strange.

It is very strange. The world Jewry wasn’t against Germany, and even when it came to the involvement of the USA in the First World War, a lot of Jewish communities were against this intention. In addition, Jews were well integrated into German society, for instance, they had a lot of incredible achievements for Germany in the same arts. Famous American historian of Jewish origin George Moss wrote in his book that if he had been asked in the early 20th century which nation would think about the destruction of European Jews, he would have replied that it would probably be the French, Polish or Russians. Nobody imagined a hundred years ago that the Germans could do it. Because the same Jewish emancipation (Editor’s Note: the cancellation of restrictions in rights) began precisely in Prussia in the early 21st century. And Hitler’s choice of “enemy” was completely strange, moreover, the Nazis won nothing from the anti-Semitism politics in later. This is why Nazi anti-Semitism is a mystery.

By the way, there is such a theory, which some Western historians support, that Hitler hadn’t been an anti-Semite before the First World War but became one under the influence of Russian Germans — Alfred Rosenberg and Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter who were witnesses of the Russian revolution and saw what Bolshevik Jews did in our country. Consequently, Rosenberg and Scheubner-Richter communicated their negative impressions and emotions of the revolution to Hitler, and the latter turned into an obvious anti-Semite in 1918-1920 and made anti-Semitism the centre of Nazi indoctrination.

Does it mean that both German society of those years and in the 30s itself wasn’t anti-Semite and the accusations against him in this respect are unfounded?

German society had some racist groups, but they were considered political outsiders, while the theory of racism was developed by the English — same writer Houston Chamberlain, Darwin, Francis Galton. Precisely Galton made his “contribution” to the theory of eugenics and other rubbish. And Hitler skilfully united all this hodgepodge into his ideology — he was a well-read person, and as he was a manipulator too, he could persuade people of the correctness and both his views and inventions, including about Jews.

Though Hitler didn't cover most of Germans with these ideas (despite the propaganda, after he came into power, he raised the Jewish topic in public only 2-3 times), nevertheless, cumulative radicalisation of anti-Semitism spread across the country. Jews began to be removed from public administration and then from medical and judiciary systems, science, then the Star [of David] started to be worn, expulsion from Germany began. And when the war began, concentration camps with tens and hundreds of thousands of people who died there appeared. Death became a common thing during the war, and small and weak groups, that’s to say, Jews in Germany, were the first to suffer.

Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler's Willing Executioners has recently seen the light where the author accused almost all the German nation of the Holocaust, but it is stupid — until 1936 — the biggest state anti-Semitism was in Poland in 1937, while strong anti-Semitism didn’t German society even under Hitler. In addition, we shouldn’t forget that the Nazis created the Holocaust with the help of Ukrainians, Polish, Hungarians, Croatians too.

Despite the propaganda, after he came into power, he raised the Jewish topic in public only 2-3 times, nevertheless, cumulative radicalisation of anti-Semitism spread across the country

Yes, Germans are now aimed to overcome and revise their Hitler past, the Holocaust, but it is an exaggeration to shift all the blame for Nazism on themselves. For instance, I was born in 1953, in the year when Stalin died, but what do I have to do with Stalinism and what should I regret? Germans repeated their guilt for Nazism constantly and say that it is the central event in German history as if there hadn’t been any other thing. It is strange, but it is true that in our country people don’t pay attention to overcome the past linked with the Soviet totalitarian system, they began to often say that Stalin was a moderniser.

“Germans had to choose — to shout ‘Heil, Hitler!’ or ‘Heil, Moscau!’

Can we conclude that German society simply didn’t see explicit Nazism but saw what it liked to see, that’s to say, social guarantees of the Hitler regime, National Socialism as he would call himself?

Here everything is simple: the war accounts for half of 12 years of Hitler’s supremacy. And here we can remember that when Western Germans were asked in the 60s which period in the history of Germany they considered prosperous, more than 60% of the surveyed people said it was from 1933 to 1939. It is astonishing. I think that National Socialism can be considered a precedent for those times — Hitler’s German state completely aimed to create favourable living conditions for its citizens, thus the survey’s results. And then the war began, and everything collapsed. And if Hitler had died in 1938, he would have been considered him as a successful politician of the 20th century. But, unfortunately for many, he didn’t die then.

Was it real Socialism?

Of course. Policies on workers, women, children in Germany in the 30s was at the highest level, while unemployment disappeared almost immediately after Hitler came to power. Unlike the USA where even with Roosevelt’s New Deal it disappeared only with the country’s involvement to the Second World War having called up young unemployed men to the army in 1941-1942. Hitler paid a lot of attention to the social factor.

Can we say that the crisis in 1929 helped Hitler create his Socialism and Nazism?

We can indeed. The rise of Nazism ran parallel to a deeper crisis. Hitler’s party’s victory in the election to Reichstag in September 1930 is the biggest political miracle when after the previous nine seats the Nazis got 130 and became the second party in the country. There hadn’t been such a thing, Hitler’s party was provincial, while he himself was a local politician.

Why did it happen? Because unemployment in Germany grew at a devastating pace, while by 1931 the number of the unemployed reached over 5 million, that’s to say, almost one in two families was on the edge of starvation. The disease was serious, and treatment required rough medication, and either Communists — like it will be like in Russia — or Nazis offered such medication. Germans had to choose — to shout “Heil, Hitler!” or “Heil, Moscau!” because the communist party of Germany was under Stalin’s total control, while Stalin was aimed at global revolutionisation at that moment.

Hitler’s party’s victory in the election to Reichstag in September 1930 is the biggest political miracle when after previous nine seats the Nazis got 130 and became the second party in the country

Why didn’t the Germans follow the Communists?

Of course, it was a very organised party, but German Communists lacked creativity and dynamics to conquer the masses. Everything was based on dogmas and strange, not German ideas. While the Nazis acted openly and dynamically — the same Nazi storm troopers fought with the Communist Rotfront in the street and won a victory. Also, people in Germany was already aware of the Red Terror and the collapse of the bourgeoisie in our country, the terrors of the civil war, while for the middle class of Germany it was an awful bogey Hitler took advantage of.

And, by the way, there is such a theory of German historian Ernst Nolte. In his book The European Civil War, he writes that the socialist revolution in Russia was the main reason why the Nazis came to power. Though Germans deny it, it is partially true.

To be continued

By Sergey Kochnev