In April 1945, a world of avengers was closing in rapidly on Berlin. Trapped in the bunker complex, Hitler’s dwindling band of followers faced mounting despair, until the news broke that Franklin Roosevelt had died. The glorious word of relief ran through the surviving Nazi leadership: “The Empress Elizabeth is dead!” However baffling that reference might be to a modern audience, its meaning was obvious at the time. Although Germany was in deep crisis, the situation was no worse than that facing Prussia’s Frederick the Great in 1762, when the sudden death of the Russian empress had begun the collapse of the enemy alliance.
This story comes to mind whenever I contemplate the vast contemporary interest in World War II and All Things Hitler, an obsession that is obvious to anyone who watches television documentaries or peruses the history sections of chain bookstores. For many, “the war” has come to be almost synonymous with history itself. In itself, that fascination is harmless: Nobody doubts that the 1939-45 war did contribute mightily to shaping our modern world. But without a functional knowledge of European history, we have no hope of understanding the worldview of the participants, and we are going to misjudge their actions profoundly. Ideally, I’d like to insist on teaching any future courses on that war in a two-semester sequence, with the first part ranging from (say) 1618 to 1939. The further we remove ourselves from a knowledge of Western and specifically European civilization, the more the Hitler era appears as a simplistic morality tale, almost as an invasion of otherworldly evil into a peaceful Christian continent.
Without an historical grounding, the Nazi era seems like a startling departure from long-tranquil centuries of European civilization. If that remark seems excessive, then look at any of the available documentaries and see how they contextualize their stories. In this view, Europe in 1933 had well-known borders that presumably dated back to remote antiquity, until Hitler suddenly roused his followers to steal portions of neighboring states. In the process, the Nazis act with unprecedented cynicism, betraying allies and shifting allegiances, while plundering and dismembering conquered nations. Who had ever done such things before?
European historians greet such a question with a wry smile. Europe’s borders have always been in flux, and from the 16th century onward, the customary assumption was that powerful sovereigns waged wars to take rich territories from weaker neighbors. Unlucky states ceased to exist altogether or shrunk to a tiny remnant of a once-great empire. When it suited the interests of powerful neighbors, altogether new nations appeared capriciously on the map, as Belgium did in 1830. The map of Europe that greeted Hitler was about as archaic as the roster of American states in the same era: In large part, it stemmed from the revolutionary years of 1919-20.
Any European in the 1940’s with even a nodding acquaintance with history would have read Hitler’s actions through his knowledge of Napoleon. The French emperor was the maker and breaker of nations, tyrant and liberator, the plunderer of art treasures, the ruler who sought to draw all of Europe’s stolen glories to a new European capital. As any schoolboy knew, Napoleon lived in an age when alliances changed easily, when two or more sovereigns got together to reshuffle the military alliances that had dominated the continent for the previous few years. Of course Russia, Prussia, and Sweden changed sides at the drop of a crown. What grown-up expected anything different? Whatever the rhetoric, wars and alliances followed the harsh rules of realpolitik.
This principle was tempered only by the lasting hatred that separated some nations, above all France and Prussia. In 1806, Napoleon occupied Berlin, inflicting an historic insult. Germans gloried in their revenge in 1871 when they paraded through an occupied Paris, and sought to repeat the feat in 1914. In 1940, a breathless journalist asked a German general exactly how long this lightning campaign had taken: “26 years,” he replied.
The virtue of historical context is in allowing us to distinguish between the standard operating procedures of European statecraft and the nightmarish innovations of the Hitler-Stalin era. Viewed historically, the Russo-German occupation of Poland in 1939 might not have been exceptional: The lunatic slaughter of six million Poles (Jewish and Christian) emphatically was. Again, the emphasis on genocide and radical ethnic cleansing was not entirely new with Hitler, but its historical roots were much shallower. I would trace the new ideas to antisemitic czarist officials like Konstantin Pobedonostsev, and to the post-1917 Bolshevik regime. To say that does not excuse the German horrors, but again it provides an essential context. Was Hitler evil? Of course, absolutely. But he did not spring from nowhere.