From 'The Face Of The Third Reich' by Joachim C Fest (1999)

The tree on which the owl of Minerva sits has many branches. The portraits in this book have, from a strictly scholarly viewpoint, a rather profane origin. They are taken from a series of broadcasts on recent German history which I wrote for RIAS, the radio station in the American sector of Berlin. The broadcasts were in response to the need by many listeners for an investigation into the psychological background of the National Socialist regime and the National Socialist individual, a field hitherto largely neglected by historians.

As soon as I began work, I realized that to concentrate exclusively on the personal profiles of the leading figures of the Third Reich — the emotional make-up that had shaped their political careers, their motives, and so on — would be unnecessarily and indeed undesirably restrictive. Consequently, I have attempted to fill in each individual portrait with the appropriate background. This means, for example, that in dealing with Ribbentrop I have analysed a number of important features of National Socialist foreign policy; Bormann provided the cue for considering the government structure of Hitler's Reich as a whole; Himmler prompted a discussion of the essence and aims of the SS state; and Goebbels gave me the opportunity to study the maxims, assumptions and style of National Socialist propaganda. In this way, each portrait looks beyond individual characteristics to the significance of each man within an overall portrait of the Third Reich. Only the section on Hitler attempts at the same time to give an account of the events of the twenty-five years that form the common historical background— though even here the emphasis is on biography. Although this method of presentation inevitably gives the account an appearance of following a system, it is in no sense a rigidly systematic study of the National Socialist regime. Its aim is more modest. Just as portraits, following the rules of portraiture, confine themselves to the essential lines, and for the rest exercise the art of omission, so I have deliberately focused attention on what seem to me the most important facets of the idea and the reality of the Third Reich.

At the same time, I have taken care to include, as far as possible, all the essential features of this whole apparatus of power, so that the reader should be left with more than merely a composite picture made up of the chosen figures. So, in addition to individuals, I have also described the behaviour of certain groups, in so far as they were not adequately represented by any single figure: for example, the generals; the so-called intellectuals; and women, whose role was so essential to the rise of Hitler and hence of the whole National Socialist movement. Just as in certain areas it is individuals who constitute typical features of the 'face of the Third Reich', so in others social groups contribute to its total physiognomy.

At this point certain reservations must be made. The aim of this book is the description and analysis of psychological structures; the vulnerability to the totalitarian ideology, as demonstrated by the National Socialist example. Leading figures in the government apparatus of the Third Reich who might have had a claim to our interest within a comprehensive treatment of the problem but whose personalities cast no new light on that problem are not dealt with here. One example is Robert Ley, leader of the Labour Front. The significance of the 'socialist' element within the National Socialist ideology — the regime's success with unemployment — which is still noted with respect today — its social and economic policies, would have called for a special chapter in any comprehensive study. But Ley, as well as being feeble, eccentric and coarse, and in the final reckoning insignificant, was easily omitted because his personality differed very little from that of a number of others among Hitler's followers. Much the same applies to Julius Streicher, Fritz Sauckel and Wilhelm Frick, and — though for different reasons — to Hindenburg. Even today, an almost incomprehensible importance is still attached to Hindenburg, a classic example of the unpredictable way myths grow around very ordinary individuals of no lasting historical significance. He too, the 'grey-haired Field Marshal of the Great War', forms part of the face of the Third Reich, alongside the 'Unknown Soldier' of that same war.

Beyond these individuals and groups, I might have supplemented the group portrait with a study of the behaviour of the political parties, the civil service, the legal profession, the churches, and finally the industrialists. Yet it is precisely this last group that provides a perfect example of the grounds on which I omitted consideration of certain other individuals and groups. No doubt the support that Hitler received from this quarter was crucial, but what smoothed his path was not so much the millions that came into his funds (especially from heavy industry) as the lack of political sense and judgement on the part of millions of dissatisfied, embittered individuals, terrified of social levelling, who, under the pressures of the times, surrendered themselves ever more feverishly to the redeemer cult that was systematically developed around the person of the 'Fuhrer'. The failure of such groups as industry, the civil service and the political parties reflected the failure of the whole population. To single out the misguided behaviour of individual groups would, at least within the context of this book, simply encourage the existing tendency to put the blame on others, and further blunt awareness of the guilt unquestionably shared by the whole German nation for what happened in those years.

Finally, the use of the term 'Third Reich' in the title and throughout the text may be criticised, since it is not, strictly speaking, exact. The National Socialist regime, after the 'Proclamation of the Third Reich' in 1933, in pursuance of its explosive urge to expansion, came to be described as the 'Greater German Reich' and, at its peak, in its leaders' extravagant plans for world domination, as the 'Greater Germanic Reich'. The term 'Third Reich' was intended not merely to indicate a numerical sequence, but even more to express the hopes and longings appropriate to the idea of the millennium, the chiliastic undertone that echoed on in the later terms. Even though perverted in a curiously ambivalent way and subordinated to a monstrous and smothering demand for power, it was nonetheless always the 'Third Reich' which inspired the regime's drive for achievement and its crimes, as well as the misdirected enthusiasm of its supporters and, at times, of almost the whole nation.

It is the purpose of this book to contribute towards an explanation of modern man's vulnerability to totalitarianism. Recent history, which inspired this inquiry and determines its limits, also explains why it is restricted to a single nation. The impression may be gained from many passages that we are dealing with a collection of typically German failures to meet the demands of history and politics. But we have here perhaps merely one specific complex of causes. Elsewhere different preconditions might lead to the same or similar totalitarian phenomena. The question then arises whether the universal precondition for man's self-renunciation, which is not something fostered only by totalitarian regimes but is joyfully embraced by millions of people of their own free will, is not his lack of intellectual and moral direction, his personal weakness, his blind hunger for the apparent certainties of a universal philosophy. If this is so, then any particular nation's historical, social, and psychological structure will merely determine the greater or lesser force and the specific shape of the totalitarian urge. This raises the further question how — and whether — the totalitarian impulse can be withstood.

This question, however, lies outside the scope of this book. Indeed, it is one that must be answered not so much by books as by men themselves.