The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book reviews

German history from a new perspective

  • Geschichte Der Deutschen, by Prof. Hellmut Diwald. 766 pages 16½ × 24 cm with 837 illustrations (mostly in margins) and 25 maps. Copyright 1978 by Verlag Ullstein GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Vienna: Propylaen Verlag. Price approximately $28.

Reviewed by Charles E. Weber

Professor Hellmut Diwald's Geschichte der Deutschen (History of the Germans) represents a milestone in the area of illustrated general histories of the German nation published during the postwar period (1945 ff.).

A combination of three notable features makes this work innovative as far as the writing of history in the German Federal Republic is concerned: Its high quality black-and-white illustrations and maps, which quite effectively reinforce the value of the text, its rather remarkable retrogressive approach, which takes us back to the early tenth century, and above all its text, which is relatively free of the masochistic approach that Germans have had a tendency to take to their own history since 1945. Nevertheless, the book does not deny the problematic aspects of German history, including debilitating conflicts which Germans have had among themselves.

Innovative as the book might be (as far as publications produced in the German Federal Republic are concerned) it has an antecedent. On first examination of the book I was struck by some similarities it has to another book, published in 1944, when the Propylaen Verlag was located in Berlin. This book, Hans Hagemeyer's Gestalt und Wandel des Reiches (Form and Development of the Reich), was the last great pictorial history of Germany published before the overwhelming British, American and Soviet forces finally succeeded in crushing the military resistance of a Germany to which they accorded not even the minimum of mercy and whose desperate resistance was stimulated by the criminally irresponsible Morgenthau Plan initialed by Roosevelt in 1944. On closer examination I noted that a number of illustrations in Diwald's book were apparently prepared from the very same photographs used for Hagemeyer's book. Even some of the division titles are similar: Die Salier, Die Sachsen (p.733; Die Zeit der Salier und Sachsen in Hagemeyer); Das Staufenreich (p.703; Die Zeit der Staufer in Hagemeyer); etc.

I shall not dwell on the earlier phases of German history covered by Diwald, that is, from the early tenth century to the time of the approach of World War I. Suffice it to say that these phases of German history are treated in a stimulating, perceptive manner with an important reinforcement by the quality of illustrations for which the Propylaen Verlag has long been justly famous. Rather, I would prefer to concentrate on the more recent phases of German history including the two world wars and their aftermaths and the development of the three republics (Federal, “German Democratic” and Austrian) from what remained of the territory of the Reich. Not only does Diwald devote well over one-third of his space to the period after 1900 or so, but this treatment has encountered loud protests from some quarters. According to a story which appeared in the National-Zeitung of 16 February 1979, the Berlin Jewish community was so badly disturbed by the publication of the book that it elicited from Axel Springer (with whom the Propylaen Verlag is associated) an apology and a promise to bring out a strongly modified and “improved” version of the work. In passing, we might note that Diwald devotes a rather small amount of space to the history of the Jews in German lands.

Even while concentrating our attention on the period after about 1900 (namely the section entitled Das Zeitalter der grossen Kriege, pp.21-288), it would scarcely be possible to do justice here to Diwald's massive treatment of this period. In our brief space we can merely give a sampling of Diwald's treatment of some important points.

To emphasize the watershed nature of the year 1945, Diwald commences his account with a description of Yalta, with its remote location and almost tropical climate, where three old men brought about a diabolically irresponsible division of the world in February 1945. The naive, illusion filled approach of the mortally sick Roosevelt to Stalin is described (pp. 21 ff.). The cynical inconsistency of Churchill, on the other hand, is exemplified by his famous remark of 30 July 1952, that (in view of the postwar Soviet policies) the wrong swine had been slaughtered, a mistake made in the course of a war which Britain had declared against Germany on 3 September 1939 and which had cost some 50,000,000 lives (p.116).

As to the spirit which currently prevails in the Federal Republic, Diwald characterizes its citizens as cautious, rather indifferent to intellectual and cultural matters and comparable to persons about to receive or already receiving a pension (pp. 122-123).

As to the doubtful legal basis of the sentences imposed by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal on 1 October 1946, Senator Taft of Ohio is quoted at length. Pope Pius XII is also quoted as expressing his reservations in 1953 about the validity of the trials. Diwald, in fact, devotes much attention to the faulty legal basis of these trials. In subsequent trials of alleged war criminals the Americans, according to official statements, executed more persons than Britain, France and the Soviet Union put together (pages 126-136).

With regard to the German invasion of Poland that began on 1 September 1939, Diwald points out that the Polish recalcitrance toward compromises proposed by Germany on German-Polish sources of tensions was strengthened by a British guarantee of support for the Poles given in the first half of March 1939 (p. 140). When Britain demanded that German forces be withdrawn from Poland within two hours under the threat of a declaration of war against Germany, Hitler was dumbfounded at the prospect of a war with Britain (p.145). In April of 1940 German forces were scarcely able to beat to the punch the British forces that had already been assembled for the invasion of Norway (pp. 147-148). Even after the outbreak of the war, Hitler repeatedly tried to come to terms with Britain but aid given by Roosevelt to Britain long before December 1941, prevented a compromise that would have lead to the ending of the tragic war between fraternal nations (p. 158).

Notwithstanding the hostility of National Socialism toward Jews, Diwald states flatly (p. 164) that not a single “extermination camp” ever existed in Germany. He also mentions the highly significant fact that on 28 December 1942, Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler gave the order that the number of deaths in the concentration camps was to be reduced at any price after a devastating typhus epidemic had broken out in Birkenau (p. 165). Diwald's assertion would seem to be in keeping with a statement published in the Westdeutsche Zeitung of 7 February 1979, by an Israeli citizen and former inmate of Auschwitz to the effect that she had never heard of gas chambers there until after her liberation.

Diwald notes the blame which Hitler directed against the Jews for the catastrophic plight of Germany in his will dated 29 April 1945, and mentions the well-known scapegoat theory (p.163). In my view, however, this theory is much too simplistic. After 1918 a great deal of hostility toward Jews was to be found not only in Germany but also Austria, Hungary, the Baltic republics, Poland and Rumania. Many middle-class Europeans perceived Communism and its almost boundless brutality as being a responsibility of the Jews who dominated the Soviet state, especially in its earlier years. Moreover, the highly disproportionate role of Jews in commercial, financial and monetary matters made them vulnerable to widespread blame in those lands where hyperinflations destroyed the assets of the middle classes and caused great embitterment in them. In fact, it is probably no coincidence that the most virulent hostility toward Jews in Europe was to be found precisely in those countries which had the worst hyperinflations, notably Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Free City of Danzig, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Let us not forget that after 22 June 1941, advancing German armed forces were welcomed as liberators from the bitterly hated Communist government, especially in the Baltic states and the Ukraine, areas which had suffered in extreme measure from the brutality of the Communist leaders. In no event should the widespread European hostility toward Jews during the 1920s and 1930s be thought of as an exclusively German phenomenon, nor one based primarily on ecclesiastical traditions, Catholic or Lutheran. It was an essentially secular phenomenon.

There are some striking omissions in Diwald's treatment of World War II and its blood-soaked aftermaths. I find no reference whatsoever to the Morgenthau Plan, the diabolical scheme that was doubtless responsible for much useless spilling of blood and wasting of economic assets, both American and German. Although there is no mention of Operation Keelhaul as such, many details of the British betrayals of prisoners-of-war who had surrendered to them are given. The Serbs and Croations, for example, were handed over to Tito, who murdered unbelievably large numbers of them. The British were also responsible for shooting huge numbers of anti-Communist Cosacks who preferred death to being handed over to the Red Army (pp. 123-124). Three German armies left in the Bohemian and Moravian area at the end of the war with about 1.2 million soldiers were put into Soviet camps, where most of them died. Diwald also fails to mention the rather sizable numbers of men recruited in the Low Countries and Scandanavia who fought alongside the German forces in Russia. We tend to forget that almost all of Europe had joined in the crusade against Communism by 1942, a crusade that would doubtless have succeeded without American intervention.

In addition to the Soviet occupation of part of Finland, all of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the eastern part of Rumania by the summer of 1940 (p. 154), Hitler's fear of a coalition of the United States with the Soviet Union, based on information about secret talks between the two powers, was one of the decisive factors which lead Hitler to give the order to invade Russia on 22 June 1941 (p. 157).

With regard to the prewar development of National Socialism, Diwald points out (p. 227) that movements similar to it were to be found in Turkey (under Kemal Ataturk); Italy (under Mussolini), Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland. He could also have pointed out, however, that a number of parallels between National Socialism and Roosevelt's New Deal can be observed, especially with regard to monetary, economic and even artistic policies. Just compare the painting typical of the WPA projects with that which was encouraged by the National Socialists, both of which had a strong tendency to socialist realism.

Diwald devotes little attention to one of the most distinctive and significant aspects of National Socialism, namely the effort to use scientific medical information to improve the genetic quality of the German population. The best exposition of this effort of which I know is found in the book by Professor Otmar von Verschuer, M.D. (1896-1969), Leitfaden der Rassenhygiene (Principles of Eugenics), the second edition of which was published by the Georg Thieme Verlag in Leipzig in 1944. Professor von Verschuer, by the way, was a recognized authority in this area even before 1933.

Article 231 of the Versailles “Treaty” had forced Germany to admit responsibility for starting the First World War. Diwald (p. 248) points out that the Nuremberg trials of 1945-1946 were simply a variant procedure used against Germany to attain the same result. No doubt one of the causes of World War I was the outdistancing of Britain by Germany in the fields of industry and commerce (outlined by Diwald on pp. 268-270).

I could find only one factual error made by Diwald, namely the erroneous caption below the illustration on page 211, which mentions the “rapid decline of the German Rentenmark.” The Rentenmark, however, was actually the unit which replaced the old Mark, which had become virtually worthless by the end of 1923.

Diwald's terminology in itself is noteworthy. He occasionally uses the word bolschewistisch, hardly a fashionable word today. In referring to what is officially called the “German Democratic Republic” Diwald frequently uses the term Mitteldeutschland, thus asserting that the lost territories east of the Oder-Neisse Line are also part of the German realm and historical tradition.

Although Diwald includes no footnotes or bibliography (a frustrating feature), this reviewer cannot escape the impression that the writings of Revisionistic historians in the English-speaking countries might well have encouraged him to have dared a rather fresh approach to German history with a nationalistic emphasis, an approach which would scarcely have been possible as little as five years ago in the Federal Republic, the universities of which are largely permeated with Marxist influences. Examples of such Revisionistic writings are those by Austin J. App (A Straight Look at the Third Reich et al.), John Beaty (The Iron Curtain Over America), Arthur R. Butz (The Hoax of the Twentieth Century), Benjamin Colby ('Twas a Famous Victory) and A. J. P. Taylor (The Origins of the Second World War).

Since 1945 the atmosphere in the occupation zones of Germany and subsequently in the Federal Republic (see Diwald's introduction, pp.15-16) has been such that historical writings that did not condemn German historical developments prior to 1945 and use history as a means of self effacement were not likely to be published. Indeed, it would seem that history in an unbalanced or even falsified form has frequently been used as an insidious weapon in a continued and unrelenting war against the German nation, useful as it might have been in pacifying the Germans to the extent of making them willing to bear the almost Carthaginian conditions imposed on them by the victors. In view of the most recent television series, versions of German history have even been used as a means of psychological demoralization and political manipulation against the majority ethnic components in other countries whose populations are primarily Caucasian. In view of these circumstances, Diwald's work is a significant contribution to German historical writing of the past three decades. It deserves a translation into English as soon as feasible because it could remove the blindfolds from the eyes of many people who would be willing to make impartial assessments of history.

About the author

Professor Charles E. Weber teaches in the Faculty of Letters, at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bibliographic information
Reviewer: Charles E. Weber
Title: German history from a new perspective)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Spring 1980
Issue: Volume 1 number 1
Location: Page 81
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: "Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA."
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.