Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The curious death of Ideology...

Reviewing two books on modern German history this week, a trend emerged that had only dimly occurred to me before: the curious downgrading of ideology as a factor in explaining the actions of the Third Reich’s soldiers and civilians. 

For many a long year after World War Two, we assumed that Nazi soldiers and civilians were motivated – at least in part – by the strictures and demands of National Socialism.  From the drunk killers of the Einsatzgruppen, to the SS men of Birkenau, to the enthused cheerleaders on the Home Front, all – we thought – were moved by ideology to do what they did.  That seemed to make sense; it seemed the neatest and most straight-forward way, perhaps, to answer the nagging question of “How could it all have happened?” This was the reason that Mein Kampf was long treated as a highly-contagious political bacillus (rather than the tedious, turgid tome that it is), lest this supposedly hideously persuasive ideology might infect a second generation of Germans and others and convince them to commit bestial acts.

Yet, to a generation of modern historians, this simple answer seems increasingly unsatisfactory and consequently ideology as a motivator has begun to be systematically downgraded.  One of the first to adopt this line was Christopher Browning in his seminal 1992 book Ordinary Men, which argued, most persuasively, that it was not primarily ideology that motivated the gunmen of the Einsatzgruppen to carry out their hideous acts; rather it was more mundane factors such as peer-pressure and a sense of solidarity with their fellow soldiers.  

Others followed suit, of course.  My own most recent book Berlin at War from 2010 takes the position that Berlin’s civilians were not primarily motivated by ideology, and that, instead, they were moved by a reflexive patriotism and a loyalty based on ‘performance’.  They supported the regime because the regime had put bread on the table and because it took pains to take care of them when they were bombed out or otherwise endangered.  For those doubting this idea, you need only take a peek at the vast flak-towers and assorted wartime bunkers in Berlin - and contrast them with Britain’s pathetic civilian air-raid provision - to see the point.

The two books that I have read and reviewed this week come to similar conclusions, albeit addressing different sectors to the Nazi war effort.  Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer have analysed transcripts of eavesdropped POWs’ conversations in their excellent book Soldaten, which convincingly suggests that – although participation in and knowledge of atrocities was surprisingly widespread – few of those involved appeared to have been motivated by ideological concerns.  Indeed, the authors even suggest that one of the paradoxical achievements of Nazism had been the “de-politicisation” of the army. 

Meanwhile, Rolf-Dieter Müller’s The Unknown Eastern Front (IB Tauris, 2012) argues that even Hitler’s European allies – from French SS-men to Central Asian Hiwis – were also not motivated primarily by ideology; with strategic concerns, a desire for adventure, and the need for adequate rations amongst the myriad motivating factors that persuaded those many hundreds of thousands to don German uniform and take up arms on Hitler’s side. 

This is all rather interesting.  For one thing, it suggests that there is a limit to the power of the state, even a totalitarian one with all its persuasive talents in propaganda.  The state can ensure a good degree of compliance, anticipatory obedience even - or at the very least apathy.  However, real ideological conviction – perhaps by its very nature – is only for the few.   People, of any era any in any political climate, are not generally motivated by ideas.

But, more importantly, this is a timely corrective to what had been a rather simplistic argument – typified by Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners – that ideology was paramount.  This new approach is more realistic in suggesting a similar degree of complexity in the issue of motivation as that which can be seen in society as a whole.  After all, it seems crazy to suggest that western troops in Afghanistan today are motivated to fight by a belief in capitalism, and liberal democracy, any more than their predecessors in World War Two were.  They fight because they are ordered to, because it’s their job; they fight for the platoon, for the battalion, for the unit, for their mates – but surely not primarily for David Cameron or Winston Churchill, (though the latter would certainly have had his champions).  Similarly on the ‘home front’, we in the UK did not – and do not – support our troops primarily out of ideological concerns, we support them because they are “ours”: our sons, our brothers and our husbands.  

It seems sensible, therefore, to at least start from the assumption that German soldiers and civilians during World War Two were little different; motivated primarily by similar, everyday, human concerns rather than ideology – even though they were undoubtedly living in more overtly ‘ideological’ times.   As Sönke Neitzel puts it: “They talked about the division that they belonged to, their unit, their duty, the next battle, or their weapons.  Almost nobody asked what it meant to be fighting in the Don steppe, far away from Germany.  They didn’t ask what it meant if Germans were killing thousands and thousands of civilians.”

This is not, of course, to consign ideology entirely to the rubbish-heap of history.  In the Third Reich, there were many who were undoubtedly ideologically-driven.  The regime's leadership certainly 'believed' in its ideological mission with a fervent and often utterly irrational passion.  Ditto those many members of the SS and Party leadership, who clearly believed in what they were doing.  It should also be said that ideology - though it might not have been an overt, active motivator for the general population - was nonetheless part of the intellectual climate, and so passively at least, must have had an effect in creating the circumstances in which critical questions were not asked, and one's gaze was averted.  Even if soldiers and civilians did not mention ideology, therefore, it was certainly a player in creating their perception of the world and their frame of reference.

Nonetheless, this is a most interesting point.  And it backs up a point that I made in my recent book Berlin at War Very few of the first-hand accounts that I read, and of the interviews that I conducted, made any mention of ideology.  They were loyal, yes, but predominantly unmoved by ideology.  Self-censorship? perhaps.  But it could just be that ideology simply wasn't that important to them.  Maybe, in this regard, They were really not that different from Us – regardless of how uncomfortable that might make us feel - motivated mainly by reflexive patriotism, a natural desire to win the war, and a concern for 'their boys'.   Acceptance of that simple premise – far from exonerating ‘the Germans’ – actually makes the subject of their motivations and drivers much more complex and interesting.  It forces us all, in fact, to ask more searching, more pertinent questions.  And that, surely, has to be welcomed.  

© Roger Moorhouse 2012 


Keir said...

Certainly agree with your argument about role of ideology, but feel compelled to comment after having listened to Evans's Third Reich at War whilst cycling home from work just now.
He mentions how Hitler's fuehrerbunker, field HQ and underground HQ at Ohrdruf "had consumed more concrete and used up more labour than the entire public programme of civil defence bunker construction for the whole of Germany in the years 1943 and 1944 put together." Being familiar with the bunkers here in Munich, and having taken my students to a couple in Berlin, I would be concerned to have the unenlightened think that these shoddily-made death traps indicate a care and regard for the population lacking in Britain, which never endured anything approximate to that in German by the last three years of the war. I'd have taken the Underground over one of Munich's bunkertowers without any thought.

historian at large said...

Thanks for that. I think there are two points here. Firstly, the order for the bunker-building programme to be started was given late in 1940, long before the bombing reached the intensity that it did from '43 on. Regardless of how shoddily they were made, I think this shows a serious and genuine intention on the part of the Nazi regime to protect its people. The Nazis were terrified of 'losing' the Home Front, as happened in WW1, so were very concerned to ensure that the civilian population was taken care of. And the fact that the Fuhrer's own bunkers consumed proportionally more concrete should not surprise us or detract from that observation.
Secondly, the comparison with London stands and is instructive - Londoners could choose from either a piece of tin sheeting in the garden (an Anderson) or a metal cage for under the stairs (a Morrison) - issued free to the poor, but otherwise had to be paid for. Meanwhile, Churchill had a custom-built bunker beneath Whitehall... Little wonder that people huddled in the Underground...