THIS is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day Adolf Hitler decided to halt his participation in the world war he started by killing himself. Nine days later, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the United Nations. There had not been such a downfall of a leader and of a country of such size and power in modern history. This still remains true. In Hitler’s case, Soviet tanks were about 100 yards from the bunker when he exited the stage. This was a Wagnerian finale writ large in the scale of human life and suffering. But why did the war in Europe have to end this way?
By August 1943, it was not possible for Nazi Germany to win the war. There had been a string of disasters for the Third Reich since the beginning of the year. The 6th Army had been destroyed at Stalingrad, U-boats halted by rising casualties at sea, Hamburg, Germany’s second city, had been devastated with the intensity of a nuclear strike by Bomber Command, Italy had dropped out of the war, and the summer offensive on the Eastern Front had been stalled and flung back at Kursk. Worse was to come, and by October 1944, Germany had lost the war. Between these two dates, Nazi Germany should have surrendered before the war in Europe entered its most lethal period.
It has been argued that the reason Nazi Germany fought to the bitter end was the call for unconditional surrender that was made at the Casablanca conference in January 1943. While critics say that this position prolonged the war as it encouraged Axis powers to fight to the bitter end, they all fail to suggest a valid counterfactual where the United Nations would follow a joint policy of surrender on terms.
From the viewpoint of the USA, the unconditional surrender policy was consistent. The Northern forces in the American Civil War fought on the basis of demanding the unconditional surrender of the Southern Confederates. In 1918, American Secretary of State Robert Lansing demanded Imperial Germany establish an irreversible parliamentary democracy before recommending armistice negotiations to Britain and France, saying to newly-installed Chancellor Max von Baden: ‘If [the allies] must deal with the military masters and the monarchical autocrats of Germany now, or if it is likely to have to deal with them later in regard to the international obligations of the German Empire, it must demand not peace negotiations but surrender. Nothing can be gained by leaving this essential thing unsaid.’
This was the unique problem of governance in Nazi Germany. Every other major power on either side in World War II had a codified method of changing policy. If a policy shift is large, it is usually necessary to change governments. Britain, France, Japan and Italy all changed governments to alter their war policy. In Britain, this was to form a national coalition based on a policy of victory through ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’. In France, Italy and Japan the government changed to follow a policy of surrender. All of these were done in accordance with law, custom and practice. It is theoretically possible that had Moscow fallen in 1941, Stalin would have been deposed by his politburo according to the rules.
Germany had no such way to change governments. The country was ruled by decree based on a leadership principle. However there was a de facto way to change policy in Nazi Germany. It was based on the physical extermination of policy-makers. In 1934 Adolf Hitler’s hold on the reins of power was not completely secure. He was still beholden to forces inside and outside the Nazi Party, such as Ernst Röhm’s paramilitaries the SA and the German Army. Röhm had policy disagreements with Hitler regarding the direction of the German economy, and also wanted to usurp the Army’s role in the Third Reich to the chagrin of the generals. In late June of that year, Hitler initiated the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, where Himmler’s SS murdered Röhm, some of his allies and other prominent figures including Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor. The extra-judicial killings of up to 1,000 people were made the subject of retrospective legislation stating ‘The measures taken on 30 June and 1 and 2 July 1934 to counteract attempt at treason and high treason shall be considered as national emergency defence.’ Thus murder was made part of the official political process in Nazi Germany.
Hitler understood that only his physical destruction could change government, as he himself had used assassination as policy. This explains the very erratic and apparently spontaneous schedule he used when travelling away from his bunkers. He could not afford to be predictable lest this predictability be used to kill him. This does reduce the Stauffenburg assassination plot of July 20 1944 from the heroic effort popularly portrayed to what had become the norm in German politics.
Away from all of the perverse glamour and pomp of the Third Reich, this was a spectacularly bad way to run a country. But it did have antecedents. The Weimar Republic’s constitution contained an article that permitted erstwhile wartime dictator President Hindenburg to issue decrees to overrule democratic government, which he used several dozen times. While Germany did not have the best conditions, emerging as it did as a defeated nation burdened with guilt for starting the Great War, the poor wording of its first genuinely democratic constitution did not help prevent opponents of the fledgling republic from undermining it. Nazism was not alone in demonstrating German failure of self-governance.
But the Weimar Republic had very weak foundations on which to build good governance. The Kaiserreich of Wilhelm II was also deficient. The Reichstag returned a majority of members of the SPD, a Marxist but not Leninist socialist party. However the executive was composed of Kaiser-appointed cronies, as was the upper house of this bicameral chamber. There was no democratic check, in fact quite the reverse: the Kaiser could unilaterally dissolve the Reichstag if it displeased him. Although Imperial Germany was pioneering in welfare provision, proper representation was lacking. The country degenerated into a militarised state with the Kaiser relishing the official title of Supreme War Lord. Part of the reason Germany went to war in 1914 was to head off increasing popular agitation by delivering military victory to calm the masses and validate authoritarianism. While Germany had had universal male suffrage since 1871, it is reasonable to state that Britain, which did not at the time, had better representation of the people by 1914, and had had a much freer society for decades, if not centuries.
Poor governance had been a feature of Germany for decades before Hitler assumed power. Poor governance was exactly how Hitler assumed power. So poor governance doomed Europe to between eight and eighteen months more bloodshed than if Germany had been run half-decently, even by analogues of the Kaiser’s militarists. While it is easy to blame the Nazis and especially Hitler not only for starting the Second World War but delaying its conclusion beyond all that was reasonable, the fact is that the regime that fell in the ruins of Berlin was the culmination of the inability of millions of people to govern themselves properly for a period of time well before the Nazis assumed power. While this is an inconvenient truth that the successor regime the Federal Republic barely acknowledges, nothing can be gained by leaving this essential thing unsaid.