Mobilising Hate: why the German people bought into the Holocaust

Rabble-rouser: Hitler and other Nazi leaders at a rally in Germany, circa 1934 - Universal History Archive
Rabble-rouser: Hitler and other Nazi leaders at a rally in Germany, circa 1934 - Universal History Archive

On November 8 1942, on the eve of the 19th anniversary of the failed Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler gave an infamous speech to his most fanatical ­followers in the Löwenbräukeller, in Munich. Having rounded on the Allied leaders – the braggart ­Winston Churchill and the “half-Jew” Franklin D Roosevelt – he explained that both were mere ­puppets of the real enemy: “the international Jew”. He had warned the Jews that the consequence of starting a global conflict would be their destruction, but they had laughed in his face. “They are not laughing now,” said Hitler, to thunderous applause. “And those who are, won’t be for long.”

Martin Davidson begins with Hitler’s 1942 speech for two reasons: it took place at the very moment that the industrial slaughter of Europe’s Jews was at its height, with more than three million men, women and children gassed and shot that year; and Hitler’s willingness to speak so openly to ordinary Germans about what was happening – he used the term “extermination” three times in one sentence – was because he knew he had convinced enough of them that his malevolence towards the Jews was more than justified: they had humiliated Germany at the end of the First World War and were now getting their comeuppance.

Davidson is the grandson of lifelong Nazi Bruno Langbehn – the subject of his previous book – and an experienced documentary-maker. Two films he recently made for German television on the latter stages of the Third Reich were the starting point for this book-length investigation into how the Holocaust was “conceived, shaped, pursued and perpetrated by fully conscious men and women, with political aspirations that would ­settle for nothing less”. These people didn’t just hate, “they mobilised hate”, hence the book’s title.

The usual key moments are there: the humiliation of defeat in the First World War and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles (both of which Hitler blamed on the Jews); Hitler’s imprisonment after the Beer Hall Putsch (when he wrote Mein Kampf); and the economic meltdown of the late 1920s, which turned ordinary Germans against the Weimar Republic, Kristallnacht and so on. 

But Davidson adds important details, such as Hitler’s fascination with biopolitics (the study of the strength and value of a nation’s ethnic identity) and geopolitics (how to translate that national strength into power and hegemony). “Only in the Jews,” Davidson writes, “did the bio- and the geo- combine; making them more dangerous than (mere) enemies of racial hygiene, who could be dealt with by strict eugenic policing. And far more ­dangerous than any single rival European power, who could be dealt with by ruthless realpolitik.”

'An iron will to exterminate the enemy mercilessly and totally': SS soldier inspects Jewish workers, Poland, 1943
'An iron will to exterminate the enemy mercilessly and totally': SS soldier inspects Jewish workers, Poland, 1943

At times, Davidson’s assessment of major events is simplistic and inaccurate. Polish defences in 1939 were, he writes, “overwhelmed and pulverised”, as if little resistance had been offered. In fact, the first cracks in Hitler’s war machine – poor planning, overconfidence, dodgy equipment and logistical issues – were exposed by the Poles’ doughty resistance, as Roger Moorhouse’s excellent First to Fight reveals. It is also untrue that nearly half a million French and British troops escaped from Dunkirk; the actual figure was closer to 340,000.

Davidson is on surer ground dealing with his central subject, the Final Solution, noting that the Nazis’ death squads in Eastern Europe and Russia would never have been so effective without the support of the army and local volunteers – who later denied culpability. One general told his men: “Every military action must be guided in planning and execution by an iron will to exterminate the enemy mercilessly and totally.”

The grim and winding road that took the Jewish Question to the Final Solution, from shooting in pits to gassing in death camps, via the T4 euthanasia sanatoriums, is expertly told. We have been here before, of course, and Davidson’s sources are mostly published works – making his book more of an interesting synthesis than a groundbreaking study. He delivers, nevertheless, a highly readable thesis of how ordinary people were turned into monsters by the malevolent propaganda of Hitler and his henchmen.

Neo-Fascism: a member of the far-right Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon, 2021 - DANIEL STEINLE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Neo-Fascism: a member of the far-right Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon, 2021 - DANIEL STEINLE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Could it happen again? Davidson is in no doubt. “No principle is so under attack, or so the object of fear and contempt, than the liberal commandment that prohibits dividing humanity into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and militarising the gap in-between.” 
He cites as warnings the election of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, and makes a spurious link between Nazis in the 1930s – lining the streets “showering adulation on the passing motorcade, racked by resentment, rocked by economic insecurity, and only too ready to racialise their grievances and cheer those offering desperate remedies” – and the “max reflex” or “aggrieved self-pity” that “became visible once again in 2016 and even 2020 across the US, the UK and, more recently, across Russia too”.

To juxtapose the Nazis with Trump supporters, Brexiteers and pro-war Russians is a historical nonsense, and a sour note on which to end a very good book.

Mobilising Hate is published by Little, Brown at £22. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books