Theodor Habicht, the subject of this stimulating and well-written book, was a highly successful Nazi official. From a humble background, Habicht, born in 1898, worked his way up through the echelons of the Nazi party after his war service. How an average petty-bourgeois man like Habicht could become Nazi party leader in Wiesbaden, the man in charge of the failed 1934 SS putsch in Austria, Lord Mayor of Koblenz and Wittenberg, and Under Secretary of State in the German Foreign Ministry under Joachim von Ribbentrop, is one of the two principal contributions of this book. Throughout his career, Habicht’s main character trait, argues Römer, was a strong narcissism, with an extremely strong self-confidence and arrogance, the feeling of being a unique leader, and the idea that no job was impossible for this ordinary man with no more than a middle-school diploma. In this regard, says Römer, Habicht was a typical Nazi. The feeling of being superior to others, the constant need to give orders, the craving for admiration, and a strong sense of the self were strongly developed character traits for Habicht who, at the same time, suffered from an inferiority complex, owing to his humble origins. Rather than being ridiculed, narcissistic egocentrics like Habicht were highly respected in Nazi Germany and seen as strong leaders. This claim could perhaps have been corroborated with popular opinion reports. Some might object that the application of psychological theories and diagnoses to the history of Nazism is not original in the light of the often implausible and speculative work by the psycho-historians of the 1960s and 1970s. However, Römer dwells less on psychological theory than on the more recent history of emotions and a growing literature which argues that Nazism was not only a collectivist ideology and practice striving for a Volksgemeinschaft, but also a vehicle for people to reinforce their selves and live a highly individualistic life within the confines of the ‘people’s community’. Römer thereby follows insights developed systematically by the German historian Moritz Föllmer in his 2013 study. For Römer, the narcissism of Nazi leaders was central to the political development of the Third Reich: narcissistic leaders often hated one another and their power rivalries resulted in the mushrooming of rivalling institutions, which saw them carving out their own spheres of power, identified by the historian Peter Hüttenberger as a ‘polycracy’. This helped to facilitate radical decisions, above all the final solution, because of the ‘cumulative radicalisation’ of the regime, a term that goes back to Hans Mommsen. The amateurishness of Nazi leaders like Habicht therefore proved destructive, as their exercise of power was not—needless to say for a dictatorship—controlled by a system of checks and balances. This particular configuration of power makes the Third Reich seem different from other contemporaneous dictatorships, Römer argues plausibly. In Fascist Italy, Mussolini, after his consolidation of power, tried hard to prevent the hollowing out of the state’s authority by the Fascist party because of his need to rely on the army, monarchy and civil service, while in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s terror of the late 1930s destroyed any opportunity for surviving party officials to develop their own political initiatives. Apart from his contribution to the political history of the Third Reich’s leadership corps and its political structures, Römer makes a second point: using Habicht’s diaries from the Second World War, where Habicht served on the Eastern front after falling out with his fellow diplomats until his death in battle in 1944, Römer develops a micro-history of the lives of German soldiers on the Eastern front. The maintenance of a petty-bourgeois lifestyle on the Eastern front and their self-styling as paternalistic but strict protectors and colonial masters of the local population helped officers like Habicht cope with the horrors of the war on the Eastern front. Extracts from Habicht’s war diaries are usefully reprinted in an appendix. In a short conclusion, Römer makes some observations about the aftermath of the culture of narcissistic leadership. In West Germany, a country in desperate need of stability, the conservative belief that the masses had to be led by strong personalities would soon come to the fore again, an idea that became uncoupled from Nazi ideology, which did not always mean that former Nazis were barred from positions of authority. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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