Tim Mason and the burden of explaining Nazism
October 1978: the invitation was to a ‘Bierabend’ at St John Street, Oxford. I climbed the stairs, steps piled high with books, to a cluttered living room, where Tim Mason welcomed us. It was my first encounter with a historian whose career was dedicated to explaining the horrors of Nazi Germany. In the end, he was overwhelmed by the burden of this task.
St John Street, Oxford: a portal to Nazi Germany in Tim Mason's days as a resident
The talk that evening was about travels in Germany and the coming university term. Mason was punctilious in drawing out his undergraduate guests. Amongst the many books on the shelves was his own magisterial ‘Arbeiterklasse und Volksgemeinschaft’ a collection of documents on the Nazi regime’s policies towards the working class, published in German in 1975, dense with evidence of the workings of the Third Reich . This, and a stand-alone paperback edition of the introduction, also in German, were his only published books at that point.
The Bierabend was the introduction to two terms studying the Third Reich as a ‘Special Subject’, a central part of the Oxford University Modern History syllabus. The Third Reich was unique amongst the special subjects then available in extending later than 1939, the year considered at the time by the university authorities to be the terminal date of ‘Modern History’. Maybe Mason had persuaded the authorities that this particular special subject was important enough to justify venturing into the dangerous realm of contemporary history.
Our course was taught by Mason and by Tony Nicholls of St Anthony’s College. Around 10 students met Mason and Nicholls every Thursday afternoon, with one of us reading a paper on an aspect of the Third Reich. We were all supposed to have read the relevant background material, a daunting selection of state documents, memoirs and speeches, much of it in German.
By 1978, Mason had spent nearly twenty years immersed in the history of the Third Reich. A key formative period for him was a year of post-graduate research at the Freie Universitat Berlin in 1962. He grasped quickly from his research that the Nazi regime in the late 1930s was quite different from the efficient, monolithic face that it presented to the outside world. Instead, it existed in a state of organised chaos (a favourite Mason term), beset by internal power struggles and unable to achieve Hitler’s expansionary objectives other than through self-destructive forward pressure.
Mason set out some of these ideas in the first scholarly article that he published, ‘Some Origins of the Second World War’, in 1964 . With the brashness of youth, he lambasted the eminent historian A J P Taylor for interpreting the events leading up to the outbreak of World War II using ‘the obsolete formula of independent states pursuing intelligible national interests with varying degrees of diplomatic skill’. In Mason’s view, Taylor focused far too much on diplomatic documents, and failed to take account of Hitler’s expansionary ideology and what was happening on the ground in Germany in the years leading up to the outbreak of war.
Mason’s first article is a brilliant polemic, based on an impressive array of evidence, ranging from Viktor Klemperer’s analysis of how Nazi language ‘elevated fanaticism to the supreme public virtue’ to documents in the Reich Ministries of Labour and Economics which showed at factory level the impact of the Nazis’ rearmament drive. As in subsequent writing, Mason displayed in this article both an in-depth, perceptive knowledge of his source materials, and a gift for vivid and precise paraphrase, as when recounting how Hitler told his generals: ‘the Third Reich has either to set itself new tasks by expanding, or to cease from being totalitarian’. A footnote in the article states that ‘the writer is preparing a documentation on all the problems’ that were created by rearmament and economic growth. This emphasis on documentation came to fruition with the publication of ‘Arbeiterklasse and Volksgemeinschaft’ in 1975.
Within the immense field of research offered by the Third Reich, Mason focused in particular on labour policy. A second Past and Present article, ‘Labour in the Third Reich, 1933-39’, published in 1966, dealt with the measures taken by the Nazi regime to ‘preserve, exhort and exploit mutilated body of the German working classes’ after it had eliminated its political leadership in the SPD and KPD by murder, expulsion or intimidation. Mason’s PhD thesis was on ‘National Socialist Policies towards the German Working Classes 1925-1939’ and he was elected to a fellowship at St Peter’s College, Oxford.
Whilst Mason’s sympathies lay with the working classes, and whilst the regime’s policies toward them were central to his research, he did not subscribe fully to the traditional Marxist, class-based, analysis of history. A further article, ‘Primacy of Politics: Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany’, in 1968, described how, rather than driving Nazi policies (as a simplistic Marxist interpretation would assert) the economic interests of the ruling classes were peripheral to Nazi policy objectives. He describes how the Nazi party exploited a unique opportunity, the abdication of responsibility by conventional class-based parties, to seize power in 1933 . It was the failure of class-based parties to pursue logically the policies that Marxists would have ascribed to them that created the opening for Hitler. Mason’s analysis in this article is, as ever, subtle and perceptive: like the best history writing, it shows how things happened, persuasively and with a firm reliance on the facts.
As a teacher, Mason drew on his exhaustive knowledge of the Third Reich to highlight for students the many facts that might together help to form the overall picture. Like all good teachers, he let us, as students, reach the conclusions for ourselves. His highest praise was reserved for work which got inside the skin of the evidence – particularly difficult for us as English-speakers, when so much of the documentation on which we were working was in German.
I wasn’t to know that our group of students was to be one of the last Special Subject classes taught by Mason. In the early 1980s, he started a new life. He retired from his St Peter’s College fellowship at the young age of 40, and moved to Rome to be with his new partner, Simonetta. He was in any case unsympathetic to the new Thatcher government in the UK. His research interests expanded to include Italian fascism, but he continued to contribute to academic debate about Nazi Germany. This was a time when the volume of research on the subject increased enormously. For a pioneer like Mason, there was a huge amount of new material to integrate into the already extensive framework of his knowledge and understanding.
An article, ‘Whatever happened to Fascism?’, based on concluding remarks he made at a University of Pennsylvania Conference on ‘Reevaluating the Third Reich’ in 1988, shows Mason reflecting on one aspect of the developing historiography of Nazism: the disappearance of over-arching theories of fascism over the preceding 12 years. Mason had been close to the events of 1968 in Britain and Germany, a time when political activists of the left saw fascism as a real threat to be opposed. He notes how the change in political culture since 1968, the failure of the fascist paradigm to address newer research interests like feminism, and the absence of relevant research, had all led historians to move away from describing the Third Reich as an example of fascism. Whilst accepting that it was no longer correct (if it ever was) to describe the Third Reich as an example of a fascist regime, the article warns about considering historical events purely in their own terms, without any attempt to place them in a broader paradigm such as ‘the rise of fascism’.
Meanwhile, in spite of numerous articles, ‘Arbeiterklasse und Volksgemeinschaft’ and its introduction, ‘Social Policy in the Third Reich’, remained Mason’s only published books. He worked on an English translation of ‘Social Policy’, writing an epilogue in which, in a painfully self-critical way, he admits that he was mistaken in thinking that social policy – his particular area of research - could provide the cornerstone for a more comprehensive analysis of the Third Reich. Like many historians, he wanted to write a ‘big book’, in this case an all-inclusive political and social history of Nazism and the Third Reich. But he had concluded by the 1980s that a different starting point was needed. Other historians, using different sources, had published the fruits of their work in the meantime, and were suggesting ‘quite different avenues towards possible synthetic interpretations’.
Colleagues described Mason as quite irrationally self-critical, a reflection of the depression to which he was prone. The class of students to which I belonged never specifically witnessed this aspect of his character, but it would have been consistent with his modest, self-deprecating demeanour. The self-image was a travesty, for Mason achieved so much, even if he never wrote his ‘big book’. Jane Caplan, a colleague, later wrote: ‘Mason’s work on the history of Nazi Germany was pathbreaking, and his influence as a teacher and writer has had a profound effect on the shape and direction of research into National Socialism’.
It was not just that Mason was a pioneer, who provided an example that others followed. His breadth of vision matched the enormity – in both senses of the word, scale and horror – of his subject matter. Right from his first article, challenging A J P Taylor’s focus on diplomatic documents, he rejected the ‘scholastic fragmentation’ of history as a field of research. He drew on a wide body of knowledge about literature and culture in his writing. He inspired me in 1978-9 to travel up to London for a South Bank exhibition of Grosz’s paintings, with their grotesque portrayals of 1920s German characters. Most of all, Mason addressed openly the ‘big questions’, attacking those historians who ‘write as though they were contributing to a mosaic, for which there is no design’.
In his epilogue to ‘Social Policy’, Mason, in another bout of self-criticism, laments his failure to address what he had come to regard as two central questions: how the Nazi regime held itself and the German people together until the bitter end in 1945; and the fact that it enacted policies of genocide. So far as the latter question is concerned, he admits to being ‘emotionally paralysed’ when confronted with what the Nazis did and what their victims suffered, so he found himself literally unable to study the implementation of policies of genocide. Having belatedly – in his eyes – recognised the salience of these subjects, Mason then proceeds in his characteristically perceptive and epigrammatic style to sketch out the likely answers to the questions he has raised.
The epilogue was left unfinished, for Mason committed suicide in March 1990. Jane Caplan wonders whether an ‘ultimately intolerable accumulation’ of the burden of understanding and explaining the Third Reich exacerbated his depression . But Mason, of all people, had no need to feel he’d failed in his task. His work to shed light on the darkness of the Third Reich was authoritative, compelling and inspirational.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
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