The 1914–18 war was often known in Britain as 'the Kaiser's War' and, with far more justice, its continuation in 1939–45 deserves to be known as Hitler's War. Its long-term causes may be traced back at least as far as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and both Germany's defeat in 1918 and post-war economic collapse helped set its preconditions. It came about because a political party built around blind obedience to a psychopath took control of one of the world's most powerful states, and it was to take an alliance of most other world powers to defeat him. The World at War interviews explored the character of only one man – Hitler. Many reasons have been advanced for his meteoric rise, but the ugly fact remains that a party whose uniformed followers chanted, 'Blood must flow, let's smash it up, that goddamned Jewish republic', made sound progress through the democratic process. The Nazis received eighteen per cent of the popular vote in the Reichstag elections of September 1930 and thirty-seven per cent in July 1932. Perhaps even more significant was that in the Presidential election of 1932, with the slogan 'Hitler over Germany' emphasised by his much publicised use of air transport, Hitler received thirty per cent of the votes in the first round and thirty-six per cent in the run-off against the incumbent, the elderly war hero and nationalist icon Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler was appointed Chancellor on 30 January 1933 and a month later a fire set by a Dutch Communist in the Reichstag building was used to justify an emergency decree banning the German Communist Party and suspending many civil liberties. Surfing a wave of anti-Communist hysteria the Nazi Party won forty-four per cent of the vote in the national elections of March 1933 and the first act of the new Reichstag was to pass the Enabling Act that reduced its functions to simply rubber-stamping the initiatives of the Chancellor. President Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934 and instead of holding new elections Hitler was invested with the powers of Head of State and Supreme Commander of the armed forces, who swore an oath of loyalty to him. This constitutional coup was approved in a plebiscite by eighty-five per cent of the electorate.
Founding member of the SS in 1931
Hitler's conception regarded Christianity as a sort of sickness in the natural Germanic nature. He considered it his duty to renew and improve the Germanic race as far as possible where it was still to be found, despite the terribly unfortunate mingling with other influences, but also to renew and improve religion and lead them back, step by step, to a new sort of recognition of God and new forms of worship that broke away from the supranational Christian emasculation, which was opposed to inner Germanic interests. Since there was no example for this, no textbook from which one could learn, paths were followed, some of which were fine and good, and others that were regarded as very controversial and even ridiculous.
Hitler's Chief Architect and later Armaments Minister
When I was a young man and was joining the Party I missed everything, which was really seriously searching the possibilities of other parties or the programme of this Party. I was just convinced by Hitler's attitude in a speech he made, and in such a comparatively small decision as just joining a Party was already the step to everything which happened afterwards to me. I lost those twenty years of my life when I was quite superficially joining this Party in 1931.
Englishwoman married to an anti-Nazi German lawyer
I came to Germany in 1932 and that was a period of time I think you can say that the Weimar Republic was dying. They had changed the government – they changed the government in Germany practically every three months – and the government was already ruling by emergency decree. I think the atmosphere of Germany was one of great poverty, there's no doubt about it, it was very distinguishable when one even came from England, which wasn't in a very good way either. There were six and a half million unemployed, every weekend there were political marches taking place between the Nazis on one side, the Communists on the other. Every political party had its military wing, which of course was quite different to England, and they marched around and practically every weekend there were deaths through shootings and so forth. I think the ordinary burgher was absolutely tired of this situation and was on the lookout for someone who could come along to clean up the place. The emergency laws of course were there. They had [to be], they were on the statute book simply because no government – there were forty-eight political parties altogether I believe – and no government had been able to govern, to get a majority in parliament. That's why those emergency laws were there, and they were on the statute book ready to be used by anybody who wanted to.
Daily Telegraph correspondent in Berlin
I think that the great bulk of Germans did feel that Versailles had been a wicked thing and that they had been hardly done by. It had been drummed into them by Nationalist professors in the universities and Nationalist teachers in schools.*1
DR ROBERT KEMPNER
Chief Legal Adviser to the Prussian police until dismissed in 1933
I happened to know that these so-called self-defence units, mostly posted near the Polish borders, worked unofficially under the German Ministry of Defence. It was illegal, but illegal things are often done even by democratic governments. At that time a number of these self-defence people were quitting their jobs; they just didn't like what they saw was going on because it was not just self-defence, it was the nucleus of a kind of radical right-wing movement. Now if these fellows left or tried to leave the secret organisations they were tried by their own superiors, sentenced to death and murdered without any real legal procedure. These murder cases of course came to the knowledge of the police and to the knowledge of the Prussian legal authorities. As Legal Counsellor of the Ministry of the Interior I had to think how could I cause the prosecution of murders if these murderers are the members of an official organisation of the legal German Reich, even if they work undercover. In Prussia at the time there was a democratic coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Catholic Party and also another democratic party. The government and my minister, my department chief, decided that we should go ahead with the prosecution. Their defence, of course, was that they did it as officials of a legal organisation of the German Reich. There were big murderers and smaller ones, and one who participated in these murders was a person, Martin Bormann; another was a certain Rudolf Höss, who later became the infamous commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. All these men including Höss and especially Bormann were sentenced for murder or accessory.*2
Law student compelled to join the SS
My family was a bit critical towards National Socialism at least certainly my father was. My father was an engine driver and a very calm and silent, modest man without any sort of ambition. He said, 'I'm an official, I serve the state and I do my duty and who tells me what I have to do,' and all this 'carry-on' as he put it, he didn't understand it at all. My mother had a more sanguine nature and she let herself get carried away a bit with all the flags and speeches and the singing and marching columns, and she believed, and hoped that the great turning point had now come with Hitler. This scepticism I spoke of was not a definite opposition to National Socialism, it was in fact true that National Socialism had a programme which one could agree with and support.
Member of the Berlin Jewish Council set up by the Nazis
When Hitler came I regarded him as just one of the many political idiots which were springing up all over the place as far back as I could remember in recent times and I did not take him seriously. With time, however, I gradually changed my mind – but very gradually. At the beginning I did not believe such mad ideas could find any echo in Germany.
Pre-war Social Democrat who joined the SS
I think it was shortly after the 30th of January 1933 there was still great opposition to Nazism particularly among the workers, and I think they were ready at that time to fight and to go on strike, but they weren't called to do that. The reason is that there was a big gap between the two parties. The Communists just had their period of strong anti-social-democratic propaganda with their formula of 'Social Fascism', and the Social Democrats were very suspicious about the Communists. They never knew if the Communists wouldn't try to carry on every measure against Nazism to bring about the Communist revolution. So they couldn't come together.
After the change in 1933 the SA [Sturm Abteilung – the 'Brownshirts'] and SS leaders appeared on the sports field and then we got a new sports instructor and then we heard that this instructor was a former officer in civilian clothes. Then these sports and exercises got more and more like pre-military physical practice, then we had formation exercises as well. And they said, by the bye, it would be quite nice if you could wear a brown shirt, then a brown tie and then boots and so on. And so gradually a uniform grew up, a bit makeshift, but it already looked somewhat military and then we often had to march routes and parade ourselves and then one day there was an inspection. After the inspection they said, on the basis of height, that lot over to the right and those over to the left, and then we heard, in the future those will belong to the SS and others to the SA. And so I came to the SS.
I was a child in 1933, you must remember that. My principal impression was that there was something rotten, that is to say there was very little work. The factories had little work, they were working short time and my father often spoke of hard times when we were having our meals, of the difficulties there were in getting work. I remember very clearly the Labour Exchange was at the bottom of our street and the workers, that is the unemployed – there wasn't any work – would go to the Exchange and get their unemployment pay. That was a sad, grey, unhappy – you could almost call it an army – that used to go there every day.
Well, really, it was the only party that promised to get us out of the hole and the idea was principally that it would only be possible if we developed as a nation a team spirit and solidarity, pulling all on the same rope instead of quarrelling about petty differences of opinion, foreign politics, social politics and so on and so forth. That was the first point and that seemed pretty logical. And they promised to do away with unemployment and to reorganise and build up agricultural life again and they thought they could do that in the course of about five to six years, and as this was much better than anything else that was brought forward and as there was such a hopelessness I thought it was a real chance to follow them and their advice.
What did he promise? Work and bread for the millions of unemployed and hungry masses. Nowadays in our prosperous society work and bread doesn't mean anything any more, but then it was a basic need of life, and this promise sounded like a promise of paradise. Many parties promised work and bread but National Socialism, with its leader Adolf Hitler, said, 'We shall prove that we can do it,' and he did actually manage to do it, which nobody had thought possible. And in a relatively short time too. And all these people who had just really been vegetating without any future were now visibly shown there is some point to your life and you have a duty – you can feed and support your family again by working and not charity. And your children will have a trade. They were of course delighted. Now there were many who had reservations because of the military tone. They muttered, 'Hitler, it'll mean war,' but he behaved like a pacifist and it sounded so convincing that one really couldn't argue with it. He said, 'I have been a front-line soldier; for five long years, I was a courier alone on the battlefield, I was wounded, blinded and I saw so many of my comrades fall in the fighting. I know what war means and we Frontsoldaten have only one desire: to stop any continuation of war.*3 But Germany has disarmed now and the others promised to disarm so that at last we can have peace in the world.' Then the older generation, they welcomed the somewhat military attitudes and said, 'The youth is unruly, they lack military training, it was so much better before when they had a military training, it was so much better and they learned to be a man.'
Member of the League of German Maidens
People were enthusiastic and accepted the events because they had got work and food again. Even we children were able to meet and be friends in Hitler Youth when we previously had not been able to understand each other, been against one another because our parents held different political views. In the Hitler Youth we sang together, went for long walks, made things, for the kindergarteners and old people, for Christmas. All the negative aspects had vanished and we became a real community.
I was sometimes shocked but in the same way I was enthused about the possibilities he saw in the field of new buildings and it was a mania in any case and, as I see nowadays, it was an expression of the whole system of his schemes. But in the time when I was working for him I thought those buildings are just matching the political era which was coming with Hitler, with his successes in which were still to be due.
Showmanship was very important to the Nazis. I think that Hitler quite consciously wanted to keep the German people, or the mass of them, in a state of constant intoxication. The annual event at Nuremberg was of particular importance but there would be constant other occasions for demonstrations following various successes Hitler had achieved. I remember Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels issued an announcement that 'spontaneous demonstrations will take place throughout Germany at noon tomorrow'.
In the Great Hall at Breslau I had to go behind the big curtain with the eagle on it that was hung before the organ, and before that curtain was the rostrum. Hitler of course was late, he was always late, that was part of his technique in a big assembly, he wrote about it even in his book Mein Kampf, so he was late and people were waiting and military bands were playing. Then he turned up and for the first ten minutes he wasn't a good speaker, he just began warming up and finding the words. But then he turned out to be a terribly good speaker, you know he just worked his public and the whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted nearly after every phrase by the big applause and women began screaming. It was like a mass religious ceremony and my feelings were rather queer in that moment. Hitler wasn't very far from me, about ten metres I think, and for a while I thought, well, that would be an occasion to shoot him. I'm in the dark and I would have the time and if I had a machine gun or something like that but of course I had none and of course if I did I should have lost my life afterwards, that was quite clear. Well, I listened to his speech and felt that more and more excited atmosphere in the hall and for some seconds again and again I had a feeling what a pity that I can't share the belief of all these thousands of people, that I am alone, that I am contrary to all of that. It was very funny – I thought, well, he's talking all the nonsense I know, the nonsense he always talked, but still I felt it must be wonderful to jump into that pot, yes, and be a member of all who are believers, who were very happy at that moment.
SS LIEUTENANT RICHARD SCHULZE-KOSSENS
Personal Adjutant to Hitler
He was often talking about all the problems, religion, art and music, and about his plans for the future. He talked about these things but we could discuss them too. He could hold a speech that meat is not very healthy because he was vegetarian, but you could listen to him and say, 'Ah, my Führer, I like very much this meat, I like it more than vegetable or fruit.' You could say this.
Hitler was, I would say, in some ways fundamentally an aggressive type. He was always towards aggression; when there was some offensive means, he tried to employ them. He could never grasp the meaning of a proper defence, and so it was always the same with him, that you shall see it doesn't work to defend, it's better we'll start some strong retaliation.
DR FAUST SHKAVRAVSKI
Soviet pathologist who performed the autopsy on Hitler's body in 1945
One of his testicles definitely was missing. Although this was a find that had no relevance at all to the essence of the examination, this is a very rare occurrence. Usually we find the testicle in the inguinal canal or in a duct but it was not there either. The testicle could have been in the abdominal cavity but we did not find it there so we drew the conclusion that he did not have one. There is such a Philistine attitude that the absence of a testicle is regarded as a vice, as a disgrace. None of Hitler's people would have admitted to his being in such a position.
The key thing was the Enabling Law, which passed with a majority of two-thirds – which it had to be under the German Constitution – towards the end of 1933. Only the Socialist Party had the courage to vote against it – the Catholic Centre Party voted with Hitler, otherwise he would not have got his two-thirds majority. But the Enabling Law made it possible for the civil service and other elements, respectable elements in the state, to think that Hitler's dictatorship was basically legal and constitutional. Even his elimination of other parties, including his allies the Nationalists, could be argued to be legal under the Enabling Law, so that was a very important event in Hitler's career.
Reichspresident Hindenburg died and the Reichpresident was elected by the people. Now the Party had put up Hitler as the only candidate and this went against my whole legal conviction. Because in this case, the highest offices of state, that of the Reichspresident and the Reichschancellor, would be put into one person's hands. According to the principle of the division of power in which I as a student of law had been brought up, these offices must be filled by different people. It went so radically against my conviction that I could not vote for Hitler, but I could not say this openly because I don't know what would have happened to me, but something pretty terrible. I didn't want to commit suicide so I said to myself, if I don't vote then you don't need to act against your convictions, but on the other hand nobody will notice so it won't turn out too badly. So I didn't vote. In less than a fortnight the Party in Frankfurt wrote to me, 'Please inform us where you exercised your duty to vote.'
I did not recognise the danger from one day to the next but all the same, on the day of the Nuremberg Race Laws, that was 15th September 1935 as far as I can remember, then I said it was getting very serious. And I fully realised the danger when I was taken off to the concentration camp after the Kristallnacht.*4 Then of course I saw that it was a great danger but I was still convinced that the words of the late Reichspresident Hindenburg were valid, that Front Soldiers would be protected, and I was a Front Soldier.
The anti-Semitic programme and the attitude of the Party itself was only too obvious, and it was in fact one of the points in the programme which was generally found repellent and against which, to a greater or lesser extent, one put up some opposition. But, one said, there hasn't been a party which came to power and then carried out their programme one hundred per cent. In other words, lots of otherwise iron principles get filed down and smoothed out and everything isn't eaten as hot as it's cooked. The National Socialists were also very clever and understood how to play down their earlier slogans. I can remember that in Simplicissimus – that was one of their great satirical magazines, like Punch in England – they published a cartoon with a caption 'Heads will roll!' and there was a long train and lots of fat, well-fed Jews were looking out of it. And they were travelling towards Switzerland, they were rolling off to Switzerland very happily. Those who were making them roll were the National Socialists but not with the guillotine, they were making sure that they went somewhere else with their money. And then, of course, nobody had anything against that if it was all going on so peaceably.
Sister-in-law of German Resistance martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer I remember that the husband of my sister Lena, when he went in the morning after the day of the Kristallnacht, he went by train to his office downtown and he saw that the synagogue was burning and he murmured, 'That is an insult for cultured people, an insult to culture.' Well, right away a gentleman in front of him turned and showed his Party badge and took out his papers. He was a man of the Gestapo and my brother-in-law had to show his papers, to give his address and he was ordered to come to the Party office next morning at nine o'clock. When my brother-in-law came home in the evening he told my sister what had happened and she said, 'Couldn't you keep your mouth? What will happen now? They will take you in a concentration camp.' I don't know how he talked himself out of it but his punishment was that he had to arrange and to distribute the ration cards for the area each beginning of each month for years, until the end of the war.
I was in Berlin at that time and saw some pretty revolting sights – the destruction of Jewish shops, Jews being arrested and led away, the police standing by while the gangs destroyed the shops and even groups of well-dressed women cheering. Maybe those women had a hangover next morning, as they were intoxicated all right when this was taking place. I found it, you know, really utterly revolting. In fact to a German journalist who saw me on that day and asked me what I was doing there, I remember I just said very coldly, 'I'm studying German culture.'
J B PRIESTLEY
English author and broadcaster
There was this period before the war when I think a great many ordinary people in England thought all of this was very unreal. You know – burning books and baiting Jews and so on – that this was some eccentricity that would pass away.
Standing in the line for vegetables or something like that I told my neighbours standing next to me that now they start to kill Jews in the concentration camps and they even make soap out of them. And they said, 'Frau Bonhoeffer, if you don't stop telling such horror stories you will end up in a concentration camp too and nobody of us can help you. It's not true what you're telling, you shouldn't believe these things, you have them from the foreign broadcasts and they tell those things to make enemies for us.' Going home I told that to my husband and he was not at all applauding to me and the very contrary he said, 'My dear, sorry to say but you are absolutely idiotic what you are doing. Please understand the dictatorship is like a snake. If you put a foot on its tail, as you do, it will bite you. You have to strike the head and you can't do that, neither you nor I can do that. The only and single way is to convince the military who have the arms to do it, to convince them that they have to act, that they have to make a coup d'état'.
I did not leave because in my life I have seldom gone out of my way to avoid danger, because I was deeply rooted in Germany – I had grown up in the sphere of German culture and found no obstacles, I had friendships with all and did not believe that there was any threat to me personally for my body and life. And I thought, I shall get through this – I did not run away from it.
It shouldn't be forgotten that to be in the middle of a powerful group, a very powerful man admired by people, is so tempting that it's very difficult to get away. Thinking back to my time when I was at the height of planning those huge buildings, of course it was a chance to be one of the well known, even in the history of arts, and this was a chance no young man would willingly destroy. And afterwards when I was a minister, the sweetness of power also was tasting very good to me. Certainly all power corrupts and certainly in Hitler's circle the power was [of an] extraordinary scale, so the corruption was much larger than [it] is normally.
SS LIEUTENANT SCHULZE-KOSSENS
Very often when we were sitting in the so-called table talks he told us we will hear some music, but he liked very much serious or classic music and sometimes opera. He was an Austrian but he didn't like dancing music or the popular music we like as young people. One day I was sitting in my little office when I was Adjutant on duty, I was sitting in my room and was just writing something and hearing on the radio popular music and the door was opened and someone entered the room. I thought it was a servant of Hitler or somebody else and I was writing and tapping with my foot to the rhythm and suddenly I hear his voice behind me say, 'What terrible music, Adjutant.' And he laughed about me and so I closed the music and we talked together.
Hitler was warlord in many directions. What for others would have been discussions for weeks and weeks, for him was a decision of just a fraction of a minute. I tried to counteract this by bringing Hitler a lot of experts, sometimes we were ten or fifteen experts because I knew from my time as an architect he is respecting the opinion of experts, and for a while we succeeded quite well. He listened to them and his decisions were more or less reasonable concerning the technical parts. But of course there was a change too, one can't ever say that a man is always the same person and Hitler changed a lot from 1942 to 1943.
ADMIRAL KARL DÖNITZ
Commander U-boat arm, later C-in-C Kriegsmarine
Hitler was a soldier of the Army and his thoughts were influenced by continental experience and continental thinking. It was difficult for him to see the chances of sea power and see the ways in which a sea power could go and clear the way.
MAJOR GENERAL WALTHER WARLIMONT
Deputy Chief of Wehrmacht Operations
Hitler's leadership was always distrusted by me until nothing was left any more of the belief in Hitler as a soldier, or as a man. As to his character I have made very bad experiences already in the first days, weeks and months of the war. The first was when he, at the end of August 1939, was informed that Mussolini would go to war at the same time as Germany and he almost broke down and postponed the beginning of war against Poland for a few days. The second time was on the 3rd of September 1939 when the Western Powers declared war on Germany. Hitler didn't want to take back troops but he thought of halting on the lines that had been reached up to that time. And worst of all his manner when the British landed at the north of Norway when I just came to Reichschancellery and saw him sunk in a chair and entirely despairing about the future of this country. So his character did not come up to the demands of military leadership.
Of course thinking back Hitler is still to me a human being, he's not an object for historians which don't see blood and life with him and his humanity was one of my main objects in spite of everything he did, the crimes he committed and the consequences he brought about for our world. But it's necessary to know that he was a human being, that he could be charming, that he could treat those around him nicely and so on, because if there is one day somebody else showing up who is dangerous for the world and you have this picture of Hitler who is just a lifeless monster, then everybody would say, well, this new man is not Hitler, he is charming with children, he has good manners.
Hitler's great strength was instinct and insight. Although he had never been outside Germany except in the trenches in France in the First World War, and later a visit to Italy, he seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the weakness of the French and British governments of that time. He knew much better than his generals or his civil servants that in spite of all appearance of strength they were weak. And he had patience, he had cunning, he had coolness. In spite of all the ranting, behind the ranting was a cool, calculating brain. I think Hitler at his best or worst, however you prefer to look at it, was one of the great men of history in his thoroughly evil way.
LIEUTENANT OTTO-ERNST REMER
Nazi and Army officer
I believe that the revolution of 1933 was really a genuine revolution. The truth was that it meant the continuation of the French Revolution, except that the French Revolution led to unrestrained liberalism and class differences. To overcome those was Adolf Hitler's aim, that is why he said, 'Common interest before self interest'. The 'I' became a genuine 'we'. I believe that the true causes of the last war were that Hitler has said, 'Work is capital' and 'Gold is nothing to me, gold is dirt.' A world, however, which clings to gold cannot tolerate such a state of affairs and must oppose such a revolutionary element, just as the world took sides against the French Revolution, against Napoleon. Napoleon, just as Hitler, won everywhere in the world, but the world in the end proves stronger than the revolutionary, and it follows that after such revolutions wars are always lost. I am nevertheless of the opinion that the good of this National Socialist Revolution will eventually come in the following centuries, just as the ideas of the French Revolution survived.
Dr Theodor Morell tried to bridge those gaps of overwork by stimulation, stimulating medical drugs and vitamins and sugar and so on and so on. And he used them in an odd scale and he used things which were obviously not already tried out in sufficient way, in hospitals or so, and the other doctors were quite afraid of this system. I think it affected Hitler but it wasn't the main cause, because the main cause was the life Hitler was leading. A man with such a load and such responsibility he needs sometimes he rests, he can't go on for ever and ever, and for every day and night. A few of the former followers of Hitler would like to say that for many things which happened in the last period of the war were to a mistreatment by Morell. I am not of this opinion – I think Hitler stayed generally what he always was.*5