Admittedly the title is not one to leap off of the shelves at Waterstones and it’s more of a thought piece and academic text than coffee table fare as it looks at the development of racial policy in Nazi Germany after the National Socialists took power 1933. Clearly it’s something for niche historians and students of the Holocaust and the period generally.
The book itself originates from my own academic study on Nazi Germany and Hitler’s social revolution in the mid-1990s when I was at the University of Keele. Much of the thought, consideration and views in this book are developments from those I read and wrote then. These have been compiled into one (more or less) coherent form and revised and updated to give more of a 21st Century perspective.
The key question during my studies over 20 years ago was whether or not Germany had it’s own special path, or Sonderweg, that made the Holocaust an inevitability. Or were there other modernising forces at work which could have caused an event like the Holocaust in other European nations? I was looking primarily at the dichotomy between the intentionalist perspective – that the Final Solution was the end result of a deliberate decision, a single minded purpose – and the more functionalist view that racial policy and the Holocaust emerged from the interplay of competing social and political forces in Nazi Germany more than from any top down decision.
While writing the book over the last six months, there is nothing to have changed my view on that. In fact, much that has happened in the UK and Europe in the intervening years that has confirmed it.
The first chapter, contends that Germany’s uneven development after 1871 had left some social groups feeling increasingly disenfranchised, a sense that was compounded after the defeat of the Great War and the economic crises in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Germany became a nation that was industrially modern yet still governed by and composed of the same feudal groups and sub-cultures that had dominated it before unification. The artisans under threat from mass production; shopkeepers undercut by larger department stores; the aristocracy witnessing their privileges and positions gradually undermined; Christians watching the attack on their faith in the “forced liberalism” of post-1871; and peasants feeling the rigours of the free market – all provided fertile ground for the growth of a disillusionment with modernity and the modernising process.
– The Sleep of Reason, p14
It struck me that this view could equally be applied to many of the European nations at the start of this century, in particular the UK. We are country that has faced significant industrial and technological change in the last forty years with the decline of our industrial base and the emergence of new sectors in services, finance and technology.
The effects of this have been long and manifold – unemployment that has fed social decay; a lack of support and provision in public services, culminating in the vicious stripping back of public provision since 2010; the transformation of large industrial areas into spoilage and brown field sites; the social impact of immigration, which has been necessary to feed the low-wage, low-skill economy that’s filled the gap create by the economic “rationalisation” of the 1980s (and by an education system that’s failed to keep up with the times).
Despite some progress after the mid-1990s – I’m thinking in particular of the coal field regeneration programme and the New Deal and the significant money poured into public services after 1997 – the political class has failed to navigate a path into the modern world for the British economy and people in exactly the same way that Weimar Germany failed to do the same.
In education, in welfare, in health provision, in social care for the elderly, in understanding the social impact of immigration – we’re being let down by successive generations of politicians who seem more interested in power for it’s own sake and the sake of their own supporters than for the good of the country.
Of course, Britain and Europe in 2018 is not Nazi Germany in 1933 and an event like the Holocaust seems unthinkable even in today’s fevered political climate.
But I think you can point to some of the more surprising and less predicted events of the last few years, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US, and draw a line between those outcomes and all of the facets of the modern world highlighted previously.
While there is no singular demagogic figure on either Left or Right (in the UK), the danger is more extreme elements on both sides of the political spectrum are gaining a legitimacy among a previously disenfranchised people.
And it’s these people who have just begun to discover the power and potential of the ballot box.
THE SLEEP OF REASON is available in print and on Kindle via Amazon.