close

Hitler

Mining the Munich Crisis for Meaning: Crises Past and Present

1. MunichAgreement

We are the editors of a new book, The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021). The contributors came together for a conference in 2018, the 80th anniversary of the signing of the highly controversial but pivotal Munich Agreement, a diplomatic event that was all-absorbing for people throughout Europe and beyond. The days, weeks, and months when the world was on the brink of another global conflict war was a time of acute crisis, uncertainty, anxiety, and private and public suspense and nervousness. In this blog post we reflect on the Munich Crisis in light of the current global crisis, hearing unmistakable resonances, drawing some parallels, as well as thinking about how the ‘People’s Crisis’ of 1938 differed in important ways from the all-consuming global pandemic today. 

Julie V. Gottlieb: The Munich Crisis and the repercussions of the international affairs on the home front and on private lives has been the focus of my research and my attention for many years now. It is therefore difficult not to hear (loud) resonances with crises in international affairs in the last few years and with heated debates about international intervention—Iraq, Syria, China etc… Other resonances can be heard with the current global people’s crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. With regards to the latter, we need to be cautious about the parallels we see and the lessons we think we can draw from crisis events of the past. There is no easy symmetry here. 

Richard Toye: I agree, but there is one significant thing the crises have in common. Both involve(d) the fear of mass death. It is a commonplace in the literature that people during the interwar years tended to exaggerate the likely impact of bombing, thinking it would literally bring about the end of civilisation, but the actual results during World War II turned out to be somewhat less dramatic. However, one can hardly blame people for being fearful – of gas, as well as of bombs. On the other hand, as far as I know, there were no ‘Munich deniers’ in 1938. Nobody suggested that war was a non-existent threat that had been worked up by the authorities for their own political purposes.

Daniel Hucker: A small minority of pacifists did argue that air raid precaution measures served only to normalise militarism whilst hoodwinking the people into believing that they could be protected against bombs and gas (are there echoes here in the anti-vaxxer’s arguments, who almost fear the solution more than the problem?), but nobody genuinely argued that the threat of war was imagined. I am struck, however, by the parallels between how far people are/were willing to go to mitigate the threat. In 1938, for the French and British at least, it was a question of sacrificing honour and prestige, with the ultimate price being paid by the Czechoslovakians. Today, we are all making sacrifices but, just as in 1938, some are making more substantial sacrifices than others.

Neville Chamberlain on his way home after the signing of the Munich Agreement. To his left the Reich’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and to his right the head of the Munich Police Karl von Eberstein, 30 September 1938. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

JG: As this pandemic wears on, it is less and less reminiscent of the Munich Crisis. Rather it evokes if anything from that heavily-mined period and the rose-tinted nostalgia for the People’s War, the ‘Phoney’ or more aptly the ‘Bore’ war. This was the long months of anticipation from September 1939 to May 1940 when Britain was at war but there was little action. 

RT: Yes, but looking at it another way, thousands of people have been dying every day–just as thousands died or were oppressed by the Nazis in Poland. This happens out of sight of most of us, which may be why it seems as though nothing is happening. A reasonably strong pro-peace movement emerged in the autumn of 1939, which is perhaps not unlike the calls today for Lockdown to be lifted.

JG: One of the main lessons I have drawn from the Munich Crisis, and from the way we have studied it in this book, is that to understand the national stories of the global pandemic these crises have to be understood as ‘people’s crises’. It seems all the more striking how little the earlier scholarship on appeasement has taken public opinion into account. So far the scholarship has not had much if any concern with the subjective experience of diplomatic events. Holed up in our home offices—alone or with people who in normal times we only see a couple of hours a day—there is ample opportunity to think and feel our way through how the global pandemic affects us individually. Certainly one unmistakable parallel is the ‘crisis fatigue’ that Mass-Observation diagnosed in 1938, and the widespread feeling that we are at a saturation point with news of the pandemic, fed up, desperate for news of something else. 

DH: Throughout the current pandemic the people have been at the forefront of politicians’ responses—we hear repeatedly of the need for clear and unambiguous messaging, for the public to do ‘their bit’ by following official guidelines, and how policy must be attentive to the public’s willingness to listen and adhere. In an era of rolling news, social media, and unprecedented global interconnectivity, this is unsurprising. But as our book shows, the Munich ‘moment’ was also framed as a global crisis, with ramifications that would be felt far and wide. Not only was the crisis experienced subjectively by individuals, but it was experienced collectively, as an event. This clearly had a profound impact, and several of the contributions in this book demonstrate only too clearly the importance of public opinion.

JG: We seem to be congratulating ourselves quite a bit here in Britain—and I expect elsewhere as well—on our appreciation and willingness to deal with the mental health consequences of the current global crisis. It is a helpful reminder that there was genuine concern and many schemes to deal with just the same mental health fallout of the crisis itself and of the impending war from the air. Our mission with this collaborative work was to think about the Munich Crisis as ripe for the study of emotions—private, collective, imagined, prescribed and proscribed. 

RT: Indeed, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in respect to Munich than with regards to the pandemic, as the 1938 crisis was relatively short-lived, people took particular note to record it, and everything was felt very intensely. How will historians reconstruct people’s feelings during Covid, when a lot of people are progressively, but imperceptibly, worn down a bit further every day, and perhaps feel less and less incentive to write down their emotions? True, the sociological research organisation Mass Observation sprang into action and recruited a lot of new observers in March/April 2020 to capture the experience of the pandemic. In the fullness of time we will learn how many of them stayed the course.

The Munich Conference on 29 September 1938 in the so-called Führerbau (Führer’s Building) on the Königsplatz. From left to right: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the interpreter Paul Otto Schmidt, and Neville Chamberlain. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

DH: The early stages of the Covid crisis were perhaps the most analogous to Munich—just as news of a new virus in China had played out in the background before March 2020, so the Sudeten crisis unfolded over the summer of 1938 in a way that didn’t affect people in a meaningful way until September. Then the reality dawned and a tangible ‘crisis’ set in—in 1938 air raid shelters were constructed and gas masks distributed; in 2020 we locked down, queued outside supermarkets, and fashioned face masks out of old clothes. We might acclimatise to a crisis, adapt to a ‘new’ normal, but new crises (today’s ‘variants’) are never far from the surface. 

JG: Another issue is the use of the word ‘crisis’. Can a crisis drag on and on, for months and even years, or does longevity make the word unhelpful, misleading, or even useless? Certainly in September 1938 everyone immediately referred to the moment as ‘The Crisis’, specifically the four days at the end of September at the climax of the drama when Chamberlain was summoned to a third meeting with Hitler, and the meeting of the Four Powers at Munich when they came to the agreement for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In the first lockdown, thinking about Covid-19 as a crisis event was plausible. As we in Britain find ourselves in the third lockdown, and a year and counting into the global pandemic, we may very well require a different word, a different paradigm, to make sense of our historical moment, and how it will be bookended by historians of the future. The study of comparative crisis therefore prompts a fruitful discussion about periodization.

Tickets are available via Eventbrite for the book’s launch event on 11 March 2021:

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her related publications include ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), “The Munich Crisis: Waiting for the End of the World” https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/munich-crisis-waiting-end-world, and “Surviving a “War of Nerves”: Lessons for the age of coronavirus from 1930s Britain” https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/surviving-war-nerves-lessons-age-coronavirus-1930s-britain

Prof. Daniel Hucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. His related publications include Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France (Ashgate, 2011) and Public Opinion and Twentieth-Century Diplomacy: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Prof. Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. His related publications include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020) and ‘“This famous island is the home of freedom”: Winston Churchill and the battle for “European civilization”’, History of European Ideas, 46 (2020).

Cover Image: Neville Chamberlain holding the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich, 30 September 1938. Source: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

read more

Delight, Dismay and Disbelief: Reactions to the Death of Hitler, 75 Years Ago

Hitler_salute_in_front_of_lamppost

It is 75 years since Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. His death continues to generate considerable public interest thanks to both continuing forensic discoveries about his biological remains, and the persistence of outlandish tales of his postwar survival. While no serious historian believes in the latter, it is worth considering how confused reporting of Hitler’s fate in spring 1945 created a climate ripe for the flourishing of such legends.

The first formal declaration of Hitler’s death came late on the evening of 1 May 1945 via a radio broadcast by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Sombre music and drum rolls gave way to the momentous announcement: ‘our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In the deepest sorrow and respect, the German people bow’. It was, proclaimed Dönitz, a ‘hero’s death’, Hitler falling in battle while fighting valiantly against the ‘Bolshevik storm’.

‘Hitler Dead’ screamed countless international headlines the next day. The bold, dramatic and matter-of-fact statement left little room for ambiguity. Hitler had met his end, National Socialism was vanquished and the Second World War was effectively over. The Daily Herald printed a caricature of a burning Nazi emblem under the slogan ‘WAStika’. The cover of Time magazine simply struck Hitler’s face out with a large red cross.

The media’s response to Hitler’s passing was predominantly one of intense relief. ‘The whole building cheered’, recalled Karl Lehmann, a member of the BBC Monitoring unit. Numerous editorials depicted it as a moment of universal liberation – ‘a terrible scourge and force of evil has been removed’, declared the Lancashire Daily Post.[1] The sense of catharsis continued into the VE Day celebrations a few days later when the burning of Hitler’s effigy typically formed the high point of the UK’s festivities.

In the midst of this jubilation, however, there was widespread uncertainty about the precise cause of death. Dönitz’s talk of Hitler ‘falling’ in battle filled the first wave of international news reports, but many of the accompanying editorials urged caution about accepting this at face value. There was suspicion that either the Nazis were exaggerating the circumstances of his demise to foster a ‘Hitler legend’, or that they were peddling an entirely false narrative to distract from his retreat from the scene. Questioned on the matter during a White House press conference, President Harry S. Truman insisted that he had it ‘on the best authority possible’ that Hitler was, indeed, dead – but conceded there were no details yet as to how he died.

The press were right to question the death-in-battle scenario invented in the Dönitz broadcast. Stationed in Flensburg, over 270 miles away from the death scene, the Admiral was reliant upon information fed to him by colleagues in Führerbunker, namely Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Head of the Party Chancellery Martin Bormann. The pair had already delayed sending definitive news of Hitler’s passing, prompting Dönitz to misdate the fatal moment to the afternoon of 1 May, rather than the 30 April. They also neglected to supply details of what, exactly, had occurred, leaving Dönitz to fill in the gaps for himself. As it transpired, he was not the only person speculating on Hitler’s fate.

United States made propaganda forgery of Nazi German stamp. Portrait of Hitler made into skull; instead of “German Reich” the stamp reads “Lost Reich”. Produced by Operation Cornflakes, U.S. Office of Strategic Services, circa 1942, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Futsches-Reich-Briefmarke-UK.jpg [accessed 29 April 2020]

The Western Allies, anxious to puncture martyrdom myths before they could take hold, swiftly countered Dönitz’s heroic imagery by reviving rumours of Hitler’s previously failing health. The Soviets, meanwhile, denounced reports of Hitler’s death as a ‘fascist trick’ to conceal his escape from Berlin. Even when reports of a Hitler suicide emerged from 3 May, debate continued as to whether the Nazi leader had shot himself or taken cyanide – poison being perceived by the Soviets as a particularly cowardly (and thus eminently appropriate) way out for Hitler.

What, though, did the general public make of all this? Within hours of the Dönitz broadcast, the New York Times and the social research organisation Mass Observation were gauging reactions across Manhattan and London respectively. At first, the news appeared anticlimactic; people who had longed for this moment felt disoriented, numb or empty now it was finally upon them. As the implications sunk in, Hitler’s death raised optimism that the war might finally be over, but dashed hopes that the public would see him brought to justice. ‘Too bad he’s dead’, mused one young New Yorker, ‘he should have been tortured’.[2]

The overwhelming reaction to news of Hitler’s demise, though, was one of disbelief. Some sceptics perceived the whole affair as a Nazi ruse, with Hitler just waiting to ‘pop out again when we aren’t looking’. Others foreshadowed modern-day accusations of ‘fake news’, directing their cynicism towards the contradictory explanations printed in the Allied press for Hitler’s demise. Mistrust of Nazi propaganda was also, understandably, common with one Londoner reflecting, ‘I don’t believe he died fighting. They just said that to make it seem more – you know – the way he’d have wanted people to think he died… I think personally he’s been out of the way for a long time now.’[3]

Ultimately, the competing versions of Hitler’s death ensured that the timing and cause of his demise became quite fluid within the public imagination. This, together with initial Soviet refusals to disclose the recovery of an identifiable corpse outside the bunker, created a vacuum in which all manner of rumours could take root. By contrast, the death of Benito Mussolini was commonly regarded with satisfaction because the deliberate display of his body rendered it an indisputable fact. It was only in 2000 that images of Hitler’s jaw (alongside a fragment of skull erroneously attributed to him) were publicly exhibited in Moscow, demonstrating how documenting the truth about his fate has proved a protracted process, and explaining why the Nazi leader has managed to remain so ‘alive’ in public discussion for all these years.

Caroline Sharples is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Roehampton.  Her research focuses on memories of National Socialism, representations of the Holocaust and perpetrator commemoration. She is currently writing a cultural history of the death of Adolf Hitler. You can find her on Twitter @carol1ne_louise.

Cover image: Adolf Hitler, prior to 1945.

[1] Lancashire Daily Post, ‘Hitler’s Exit’ (2 May 1945), p.2.

[2] New York Times, ‘City Takes Report of Death in Stride’ (2 May 1945), p.9.

[3] Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 49/1/1: ‘Hitler Indirects’, Hampstead, 2 May 1945.

read more