This essay by Israeli historian Moshe Zimmerman about the German historian Hans Mommsen features a discussion of how what Mommsen called “cumulative radicalization” played a key role in Mommsen’s functionalist interpretation of Nazi Germany in general and the Holocaust in particular.
On Mommsen’s reading, Nazi Germany was not a genuine totalitarian state, but rather a more chaotic kind of entity. This was because Hitler was what Mommsen described as a “weak dictator.” Zimmerman quotes Mommsen on this point (note Zimmerman is translating Mommsen’s German into Hebrew, while the version of Zimmerman’s essay I’m quoting has been translated into English, so there could be some issues as to how exactly various key terms in the analysis should be understood):
Hitler’s status as one who knew how to deliberately exploit rivalry among different forces has been misinterpreted. However, on all questions in which a principled and firm stance was needed, he proved to be a weak dictator. Therefore, he also avoided being exposed as unprepared at cabinet meetings to deal with complaints from various quarters and forbade the presentation of any disagreements whatsoever.
In an article on Hitler’s status in the Nazi system of government, Mommsen elaborated on what he meant by a “weak dictator.” Without disputing that the Führer’s will was sacred and, as such, the strongest argument for anything done in the Third Reich, he emphasized a fundamental flaw in the practice and style of the method. Hitler himself, Mommsen states, represented “human mediocrity and professional incompetence” and avoided most tasks associated with sound governance. The fact that Hitler last convened his cabinet in February 1938, symbolizes the absence of method in his regime. The Führer hated bureaucrats and, accordingly, thwarted administrative reform; he abetted “Bonzocracy” (Boznen — profiteering members of the party) and allowed corruption to develop; he avoided decisions of principle and refrained from systematic study of matters of state and their treatment. He took only a sporadic interest in administrative affairs, left his satraps to contend with one another without taking an explicit stance, and intervened only when confronted with the need to express his preferences explicitly. The rule is this: Hitler facilitated a system of “orderly temporary chaos” (i.e., “organized disorder”) and the so-called Nazi policracy and its “neo-feudal” structure.
Those familiar with Ian Kershaw’s concept of “working towards the Fuhrer” will see the roots of that idea in Mommsen’s interpretation of how decisions were made in the Nazi regime, although Kershaw disagrees with Mommsen’s weak dictator thesis per se.
The functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust, of which Mommsen was one of the most prominent proponents, sees the Nazi genocide as a kind of piecemeal and improvised reaction from many different levels of the Nazi bureaucracy to the “Jewish problem,” rather than the unfolding of some carefully planned project that Hitler in particular had formulated in detail, and was merely waiting for an opportunity to launch.
For Mommsen then, the key dynamic in this process was cumulative radicalization: the structural rather than intentional process by which, in the essentially chaotic Nazi regime, radical ideology more or less organically begot radical measures by bureaucrats contending for power and Hitler’s favor, which in turn generated even more radical measures, which only in retrospect could appear to be part of some pre-ordained master plan, initiated from the top down:
“The road to Auschwitz,” Mommsen stated in his article on the status of the Führer, entailed many interim measures that appear only ex post as the fulfillment of a clear intent; instead, it was the outcome of various initiatives emanating from diverse interests of different wielders of power. Mommsen often quoted the title of Karl Schleunes’s book, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz, because it reinforced his approach toward the Nazis’ way of solving the “Jewish problem.” Mommsen never yielded in his view that “a formal order by Hitler for a ‘Final solution to the Jewish question’ had never been given”: Hitler’s speech on January 30, 1939, he said, was not a program but rather a propaganda measure relating to the Jews’ status as hostages — a perception to which Hitler stubbornly adhered.
The “territorial solution” that crested with the Madagascar scheme, Mommsen opines, indicates that no extermination plan was on the table until 1941. Even after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, its treatment of the “Jewish problem” was still characterized by differences among regions and among different potentates. What could be done in the occupied Soviet territories by means of the Einsatzgruppen could not be done in the Generalgouvernement. If so, Globocnik’s and Katzmann’s program of “murder by labor” marked a stepwise escalation in the sense of its real contribution to the cumulative radicalization (kumulativ Radikalisierung). This escalation was connected with an earlier leap forward (qualitative Stufe) — Hitler’s and Himmler’s decision on September 17, 1941, to start deporting the Jews of the Reich to the East, a decision that generated pressure on the Wartheland and led, among other things, to the decision to establish the Chełmno extermination camp.
Here, by the way, arose the only dispute between me and Hans Mommsen in the aftermath of the publication of the book that I had co-authored on the German Foreign Ministry’s involvement in the “Final Solution.” It seemed to him that I and the co-authors had returned to the “Führer’s order” and even moved up its date. I still find this dispute puzzling, because the conclusion of our investigation of the German Foreign Ministry only confirms Mommsen’s hypothesis with respect to both cumulative radicalization and the complicity of the respectable bourgeoisie — the Foreign Ministry diplomats in this case — in the Jewish context of the process. The instructions handed down in October 1941, still — so we argued in our book — preceded the full-scale “Final Solution.” Mommsen completely rejected Christian Gerlach’s attempt to date Hitler’s decision at roughly the time of his meeting with the Gauleiters on December 12, 1941. Mommsen did believe, however, that “the Holocaust was well under way before it became a systemic governmental program.” That is, the process that we call the “Holocaust” — the mass extermination of European Jewry by the Third Reich — had already moved on to the implementation phase before the date that he considers so important, July 17–18, 1942. This was when Himmler visited Auschwitz and issued an instruction there to “cleanse” the Generalgouvernement of Jews by the end of that year.
The “cumulative radicalization” of which Mommsen spoke is an appropriate way to describe the Jewish policy already in the pre-World War II Altreich and a fortiori in the rest of Europe once the war began. The vacillations and disarray that typified the application of the various solutions until the invasion of the Soviet Union, including the Madagascar Plan, attest to the absence of a program and to confusion and conflicts of interest among different institutions and in different areas in the Reich for more than two years after the war began. It is Mommsen who called attention to the contradiction that arose between what was to be done during the war and what should have been a “postwar” program under the conditions of uncertainty that prevailed before and after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Had a systematic program in- deed existed, it would have depended on the course of the war, which of course was unforeseeable and uncontrollable.
If so, the gist of things, according to Mommsen, was: “The Holocaust was not based upon a programme that had been developed over a long period. It was founded upon improvised measures that were rooted in earlier stages of planning and also escalated them.” Today even erstwhile non-intentionalists can accept this conclusion. Typically, Mommsen added that the stain of overt or covert antisemitism among the conservative elites compromised their ability to resist and made the radical and utterly unlawful outcome possible.
An unfortunate consequence of the otherwise quite appropriate insistence that Nazism in general and the Holocaust in particular were uniquely horrific historical events is that people are sometimes too hesitant to see parallels between what happened in Germany from 1933 through 1945 and what has happened or is happening in other times and places.
Thus while emphasizing that there are obviously all sorts of enormous differences between that place and American today, I would still suggest that it’s worth thinking about how “cumulative radicalization” is a more universal process, that has applicability to what is happening on the American right wing today.
Another parallel worth thinking about is how in some ways “weak” — to use Mommsen’s counter-intuitive word for describing Hitler — leader of a fanatical political cult can still dominate all aspects of that cult’s development, despite his fundamental laziness, inattention to detail, contempt for bureaucratic regularity, tolerance for and even active encouragement of the most venal corruption among members of the regime, etc.
That these sorts of parallels are by their nature very inexact does not mean they aren’t worth considering.
For example, I suggested seven years ago that the parallels between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were worth considering, in the context of the overall historical arc of the contemporary Republican party, despite the obviously enormous differences between the two men.
Trump is not Hitler, but he isn’t Reagan either. They don’t have a name (yet) for what he is.