- The Fall of 1941:A Meditation on History
He, like Macbeth, had it all now. And, again like Macbeth, he had played most foully for it. From the as yet pristine beaches of Normandy to the forbidding gates of Moscow, from the freezing cliffs of the North Cape to the burning sands of North Africa, the German Empire in the fall of 1941 was a marvel to behold. While in sheer acreage accumulated it might have been outmatched by Genghis Kahn's territory or the reaches of the Spanish and British Empires, in terms of the number of foreign peoples brought into subjection and the speed of accomplishment, Hitler's feat was unparalleled in human history. This empire was carved out in a mere three years—1,000 days! Even Napoleon, whom Churchill considered to be one of that rare breed of individuals who are, to borrow a term from American football parlance, "triple threats"—successful as generals, politicians, and diplomats—needed a full dozen years to do nearly as much.
Truly that would be a phenomenal achievement for anyone, but especially so for someone who was not, like Alexander the Great or Charlemagne or Genghis Khan, born into royalty; or like Julius Caesar, a prominent patrician; or like Napoleon, a scion of a minor aristocratic family. Hitler was a nobody, a poorly educated social misfit who, not having the grace to be born in the country he would lead, for a while was a homeless bum. The monologist Jean Shepherd long ago pointed out that William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich topped the best-seller list in 1960 because Americans loved the story of an underdog who hit the big time.
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To those who endured the period, the agony seemed endless, but from the vantage point of decades later, the few years of the Third Reich have come to seem like a flash in the pan and the deeds of its leader the stuff of a brief nightmare. For this colossal structure collapsed as quickly as it arose. After another 1,000 days, the empire imploded, the homeland was overrun by hordes of presumed inferior peoples coming from all directions, its cities were in rubble, its people were starving, and the erstwhile supreme leader of the Master Race committed suicide.
Why did such an inordinately talented and successful individual come to grief? Having reached this far in destroying rivals, overruling his generals, and outwitting foreign opponents, why did Hitler, that master of three-dimensional chess, not go all the way to world supremacy (or at least to a condominium with Japan) and usher in the proclaimed 1,000-year utopian Nazi world order?
The easy answer is that randomness determined the outcome. If random events had gone some other way, Hitler might have won, or been drawn into a stalemate, or been killed in a childhood soccer game. For skeptics, the attractiveness of the randomness argument is that it shuts down all further discussion. It leaves life meaningless. Any other interpretation, by contrast, requires a search for patterns, for origins and termini, for theories of history, for what anti-intellectuals like Jonathan Swift regard as so much blather. Yet finding—or, all too [End Page 35] often, inventing—design is in the human DNA.
One design that comes to mind is a direct rebuff to the celebrators of chance: God is in charge. Hitler lost because divine justice finally intervened. That explanation does not account for the tens of millions of innocent bystanders killed or for the peaceful death in old age of the equally murderous Stalin and Mao. Another response is to excise God but retain a moral order. Based on the Hegelian vision of history as the coming to fulfillment of a higher force—a Spirit that is not necessarily the God of the Abrahamic religions—such a view is articulated, for instance, in A.C. Bradley's venerable reading of Shakespearean tragedy, according to which at play's end villains...