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Timothy Mason

Timothy Mason

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Timothy Wright Mason was a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 Marxist historian of Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...


Life and work

He was born in Birkenhead
Birkenhead is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in Merseyside, England. It is on the Wirral Peninsula, along the west bank of the River Mersey, opposite the city of Liverpool...

, the child of school-teachers and was educated at Birkenhead School
Birkenhead School
Birkenhead School is an independent, selective, co-educational school located on the Wirral Peninsula in the northwest of England. It is a member of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.-Overview:The school is subdivided into...

 and Oxford University. He taught at Oxford from 1971–1984 and was twice married. He helped to found the left-wing journal History Workshop Journal. Mason specialized in the social history
Social history
Social history, often called the new social history, is a branch of History that includes history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life. In its "golden age" it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among scholars, and still is well represented in history departments...

 of the Third Reich, especially that of the working-class. Mason's most famous books were his 1975 work Arbeiterklasse und Volksgemeinschaft (The Working Class and the National Community), a study of working-class life under the Nazis and his 1977 book, Sozialpolitik im Dritten Reich (Social Policy in the Third Reich). Unusually for a British historian, most of his books were originally published in German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....


The role of historians

Mason saw his role as developing history that was flexible, humane and analytical. Mason wrote about the historians' role in 1986: "If historians do have a public responsibility, if hating is part of their method and warning part of their task, it is necessary that they should hate precisely". Mason's interest as a Marxist historian were in writing history that was not deterministic
Determinism is the general philosophical thesis that states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. There are many versions of this thesis. Each of them rests upon various alleged connections, and interdependencies of things and...

, and in revising the views about fascism. As part of his efforts to develop a broader picture of the Third Reich, Mason approached such topics as women in Nazi Germany, a critique of "intentionalist" views of the Third Reich, and theories of generic fascism as an analytical tool.

In Social Policy in the Third Reich, Mason unlike his counterparts in East Germany did not focus just on resistance movements within the German working class, but sought a comprehensive picture of working class life with how the working class viewed itself, and by the Nazi regime. Mason argued that the Nazi leadership was haunted by the memory of the November Revolution of 1918, and so the Nazi dictatorship was prepared to make no small material allowances in the form of social policy, a reluctance to impose material shortages, and a hesitation to bring in a total war economy.

Interpretations of fascism, “primacy of politics”

Besides his studies in working-class in Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 and Fascist Italy
Italian Fascism
Italian Fascism also known as Fascism with a capital "F" refers to the original fascist ideology in Italy. This ideology is associated with the National Fascist Party which under Benito Mussolini ruled the Kingdom of Italy from 1922 until 1943, the Republican Fascist Party which ruled the Italian...

, Mason was noted for his break with previous Marxist interpretations of fascism
Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood...

 that saw fascist regimes as the servant of capitalist interests. Mason argued instead for the “primacy of politics” by which he meant that although fascist regimes were still capitalist regimes in his opinion, they possessed “autonomy” in the political sphere and were not dictated to by capitalist interests. In a 1966 essay, Mason wrote "that both the domestic and foreign policy of the National Socialist government became, from 1936 onward, increasingly independent of the influence of the economic ruling classes, and even in some essential aspects ran contrary to their collective interests" and that "it became possible for the National Socialist state to assume a fully independent role, for the "primacy of politics" to assert itself" Mason used the following to support his thesis:
  • that after the 1936 economic crisis, German industrialists were increasingly excluded from the decision-making process
  • that after 1936, the German state came to play an increasingly dominant role in the German economy both through state-owned companies and by placing increasingly larger orders
  • that the expansion of armament-related production supported by a highly economically interventionist state led to those capitalist enterprises not related to armaments to go into decline
  • the decline in effectiveness in economic lobbying groups in the Third Reich
  • that though every major German industrialist called for a reduction of working class living standards from 1933 onwards, before 1942 the Nazi regime always ignored such calls, and sought instead to raise working class living standards

Mason's “primacy of politics” approach against the traditional Marxist "primacy of economics" approach involved him in the 1960s with a vigorous debate with the East German historians Eberhard Czichon, Dietrich Eichholtz and Kurt Gossweiler The latter two historians wrote if Mason was correct, then this would amount to "a complete refutation of Marxist social analysis".

The "Flight into war" theory

Mason's most notable arguments were that the German working-class was always opposed to the Nazi dictatorship; that in the over-heated German economy of the late 1930s, German workers could force employers to grant higher wages by leaving for another firm that would grant the desired wage increases; that this was a form of political resistance and this resistance forced Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 to go to war in 1939. Thus, the outbreak of the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 was caused by structural economic problems, a "flight into war" imposed by a domestic crisis. The key aspects of the crisis were according to Mason, a shaky economic recovery was threatened by a rearmament program that was overwhelming the economy and in which the Nazi regime's nationalist bluster limited its options. In this way, Mason articulated a Primat der Innenpolitik ("primacy of domestic politics") view of World War II’s origins through the concept of social imperialism. Mason's Primat der Innenpolitik thesis was in marked contrast to the Primat der Außenpolitik ("primacy of foreign politics) usually used to explain World War II. In Mason’s opinion, German foreign policy was driven by domestic political considerations, and the launch of World War II in 1939 was best understood as a “barbaric variant of social imperialism”.

Mason argued that “Nazi Germany was always bent at some time upon a major war of expansion.” However, Mason argued that the timing of a such a war was determined by domestic political pressures, especially as relating to a failing economy, and had nothing to do with what Hitler wanted. In Mason's view in the period between 1936–41, it was the state of the German economy, and not Hitler's 'will' or 'intentions' that was the most important determinate on German decision-making on foreign policy. Mason argued that the Nazi leaders were deeply haunted by the November Revolution of 1918, and was most unwilling to see any fall in working class living standards out of the fear that it might provoke another November Revolution. According to Mason, by 1939, the “overheating” of the German economy caused by rearmament, the failure of various rearmament plans produced by the shortages of skilled workers, industrial unrest caused by the breakdown of German social policies, and the sharp drop in living standards for the German working class forced Hitler into going to war at a time and place not of his choosing. Mason contended that when faced with the deep socio-economic crisis the Nazi leadership had decided to embark upon a ruthless 'smash and grab' foreign policy of seizing territory in Eastern Europe which could be pitilessly plundered to support living standards in Germany. Mason described German foreign policy as driven by an opportunistic 'next victim' syndrome after the Anschluss
The Anschluss , also known as the ', was the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938....

, in which the “promiscuity of aggressive intentions” was nurtured by every successful foreign policy move. In Mason’s opinion, the decision to sign the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union and to attack Poland and the running of the risk of a war with Britain and France were the abandonment by Hitler of his foreign policy programme outlined in Mein Kampf
Mein Kampf
Mein Kampf is a book written by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. It combines elements of autobiography with an exposition of Hitler's political ideology. Volume 1 of Mein Kampf was published in 1925 and Volume 2 in 1926...

 forced on him by his need to stop a collapsing German economy by seizing territory abroad to be plundered.

Mason's theory of a "Flight into war" being imposed on Hitler generated much controversy, and in the 1980s he conducted a series of debates with economic historian Richard Overy
Richard Overy
Richard Overy is a British historian who has published extensively on the history of World War II and the Third Reich. In 2007 as The Times editor of Complete History of the World he chose the 50 key dates of world history....

 over this matter. Overy maintained the decision to attack Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

 was not caused by structural economic problems, but rather was the result of Hitler wanting a localized war at that particular time in history. For Overy, a major problem with the Mason thesis was that it rested on the assumption that in a way unrecorded by the records, that information was passed on to Hitler about the Reichs economic problems. Overy argued that there was a major difference between economic pressures inducted by the problems of the Four Year Plan
Four year plan
The Four Year Plan was a series of economic reforms created by the Nazi Party. The main aim of the four year plan was to prepare Germany for war in four years...

, and economic motives to seize raw materials, industry and foreign reserve of neighboring states as a way of accelerating the Four Year Plan. Moreover, Overy asserted that the repressive capacity of the German state as a way of dealing with domestic unhappiness was somewhat downplayed by Mason. Finally, Overy argued that there is considerable evidence that the German state felt they could master the economic problems of rearmament; as one civil servant put it in January 1940 "we have already mastered so many difficulties in the past, that here too, if one or other raw material became extremely scarce, ways and means will always yet be found to get out of a fix."

Intentionist vs Functionalist historical schools

In a 1981 essay 'Intention and explanation: A current controversy about the interpretation of National Socialism' from the book The "Fuehrer State" : Myth and reality, Mason coined the terms Intentionist and Functionalist as terms for historical schools regarding Nazi Germany. Mason criticized Klaus Hildebrand
Klaus Hildebrand
Klaus Hildebrand is a German conservative historian whose area of expertise is 19th-20th century German political and military history.- Biography :...

 and Karl Dietrich Bracher
Karl Dietrich Bracher
Karl Dietrich Bracher is a German political scientist and historian of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. Born in Stuttgart, Bracher was awarded a Ph.D. in the Classics by the University of Tübingen in 1948 and subsequently studied at Harvard University from 1949 to 1950...

 for focusing too much on Hitler as an explanation for the Holocaust. Mason wrote that:
"In their recent essays Karl Dietrich Bracher and Klaus Hildebrand are largely concerned with the intentional actions of Hitler, which, they believe, followed with some degree of necessity from his political ideas. They formulate the question: why did the Third Reich launch a murderous war of genocide and destruction of human life on a hitherto unprecedented scale? They come in the end to the conclusion that the leaders of the Third Reich, above all Hitler, did this because they wanted to do it. This can be demonstrated by studying early manifestations of their Weltanschauung, which are wholly compatible with the worst atrocities which actually occurred in the years 1938-1945. The goal of the Third Reich was genocidal war, and, in the end, that is what National Socialism was all about. From this it seems to follow that the regime is "unique", "totalitarian", "revolutionary", "utopian", devoted to an utterly novel principle for the public order, scientific racism. The leaders, in particular Hitler, demonstrably wanted all this, and it is thus, as Hildebrand recently suggested, wrong to talk of National Socialism; we should talk of Hitlerism.

This approach does not lead its advocates to concentrate narrowly upon Nazi race and occupation policies, nor upon Hitler himself. They range widely in their writings, but the above point is their central point of reference. And having identified the problem in this way, intentionalist historians then appear to stand back from their subject and to mediate on the enormity of the regime's crimes, on the enormity of the destruction of human life. Ths entails trying to understand National Socialism, for an intentionalist historian must understand (in the German sense of verstehen). In this case understanding is possible only through an empathy born of hatred. This probably yields a less sure type of understanding than does an empathy born of respect or admiration, but given the historical personages concerned, there is no choice, but to take these risks. They then invite the readers to hate and abhor too. This is where the political and moral responsibility of the historian comes in: it is clearly implied that it is the historian's public duty to write in this way. Faced with genocidal war, historians should not emphasise decision-making procedures, administrative structures or the dynamics of organisational rivalries. These things were at best secondary. To make them a vital part of a general interpretation of National Socialism is to trivialize the subject, to write a morally incompetent history. What really matters is the distinctive murderous will of the Nazi leadership...

First, the intentionalist attack on the incorporation of functionalist types of explanation into our understanding of National Socialism proposes, implicitly but clearly, a retreat by the historical profession to the methods and stance of Burckhardt
Jacob Burckhardt
Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt was a historian of art and culture, and an influential figure in the historiography of each field. He is known as one of the major progenitors of cultural history, albeit in a form very different from how cultural history is conceived and studied in academia today...

. On the evidence above all of his "Reflections on World History" (a book which greatly impressed anxious conservatives when it was re-issued in the late 1930s) Burckhardt saw the historians' task as to investigate, to classify and to order, to hate and to love and to warn-but not, except on the smallest of scales, to explain. This approach had almost no explanatory power at all. The attempt at explanation in any and all of the various different traditions of rationalist historiography seems to be put on one side in intentionalist writing on National Socialism. The view that Hitler's ideas, intentions and actions were decisive, for example, is not presented in these works as an argument, but rather as something which is both premise and a conclusion. It can perhaps be said that historians have a public duty to attempt to explain, and that informed explanatory reasoning about the past (however indirect or surprising its routes may be) has its own moral purposes and power...

The second methodological point concerns the role of individualism in ethics and the social sciences. Following the arguments of Steven Lukes
Steven Lukes
Steven Michael Lukes is a political and social theorist. Currently he is a professor of politics and sociology at New York University...

, methodological individualism
Methodological individualism
Methodological individualism is the theory that social phenomena can only be accurately explained by showing how they result from the intentional states that motivate the individual actors. The idea has been used to criticize historicism, structural functionalism, and the roles of social class,...

 simply cannot work as a way of giving a coherent account of social, economic and political change. Marx, Weber, Durkheim and their successors buried this approach with a variety of different funeral rites and still it lives on, on borrowed time-a commodity with which historians are especially generous. Unless virtually the whole of modern social science constitutes an epochal blind ally, "Hitler" cannot be a full or adequate explanation, not even of himself. To dismiss methodological individualism is not, of course to abolish the category of individual moral responsibility in private or public life: explanation is one thing, responsibility something else...

Thus to argue that the dynamic of Nazi barbarism was primarily institutional and/or economic does not entail any denial that Hitler was a morally responsible political leader who made choices which were inspired by distinctive malevolent intentions-it is only to insist that his will cannot carry the main burden of explanation.".
Mason wrote as part of the explanation of National Socialism required a broader look at the period rather than focusing entirely upon Hitler. Mason wrote as part of the investigation of the broader picture, historians should examine the economic situation of Germany in the late 1930s. Mason wrote:
"In anticipating and accounting for the war of expansion in the late 1930s the explanatory power of pressures which in their origin were economic was apparent to many actors and observers. Thus the argument that the decisive dynamic towards expansion was economic does not in the first instance depend upon the imposition of alien analytical categories on a recalcitrant body of evidence, nor in the first instance upon the theoretical construction of connections between "the economy" and "politics". For the years 1938-39 a very wide variety of different types of sources materials discuss explicitly and at length the growing economic crisis in Germany, and many of the authors of these memoranda, books and articles could see the need to speculate then about the relationship between this crisis and the likelihood of war. The view that this was a major problem was common to many top military and political leaders in Germany, to top officials in Britain, to some German industrialists and civil servants, to German exiles and members of the conservative resistance, and to non-German bankers and academics. The nature of the relationship between economic crisis and war is not easy to specify precisely. I do not for the moment see a need to modify my own view that the timing, tactics and hence also the strategic confusion of Hitler's war of expansion were decisively influenced by the politico-economic need for plunder, a need which was enhanced by the very wars necessary to satisfy it. This appears to me to have been the basic logic of Hitler's foreign policy and strategy in the decisive period 1938-41; without a firm conception of it, the institutional dynamics of the regime and various specific intentions of Hitler remain less than comprehensible. This is, of course not to argue that Hitler was "forced to go to war" in the sense of not wanting to, but rather the wars which the Third Reich actually fought bore very little relation to the wars which he appears to have wanted to fight: and this was so, because of domestic pressures and constraints which were economic in origin and also expressed themselves in acute social and political tensions. Human agency is defined or located, not abolished or absolved by the effort to identify the unchosen conditions".

Criticism of Ernst Nolte concerning the Holocaust

Mason was a leading advocate of comparative studies in fascism and in the 1980s strongly criticized the German philosopher Ernst Nolte
Ernst Nolte
Ernst Nolte is a German historian and philosopher. Nolte’s major interest is the comparative studies of Fascism and Communism. He is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the Free University of Berlin, where he taught from 1973 to 1991. He was previously a Professor at the University of Marburg...

 for comparing the Holocaust
The Holocaust
The Holocaust , also known as the Shoah , was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi...

 to events that Mason regarded as totally unrelated to Nazi Germany such as the Armenian genocide and the Khmer Rouge genocides. By contrast, Mason argued that there was much to learn by comparing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in order to produce a theory of generic fascism. In Mason’s view, Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

 was only part of a wider fascist phenomenon. Mason wrote:
“If we can do without much of the original contents of the concept of ‘fascism’, we cannot do without comparison. “Historicization” may easily become a recipe for provincialism. And the moral absolutes of Habermas, however politically and didactically impeccable, also carry a shadow of provincialism, as long as they fail to recognize that fascism was a continental phenomenon, and that Nazism was a peculiar part of something much larger. Pol Pot, the rat torture and the fate of the Armenians are all extraneous to any serious discussion of Nazism; Mussolini’s Italy is not.”

Denouncing the Thatcher government, leaving Britain

In 1985, Mason decided the government of Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990...

 was the harbinger of fascism
Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood...

, advised trade union leaders to start making preparations to go underground, and moved to Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

. After battling severe depression for many years, he committed suicide in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

in 1990.


  • "Some Origins of the Second World War" pages 67–87 from Past and Present, Volume 29, 1964.
  • "Labour in the Third Reich" pages 187-191 from Past and Present, Volume 33, 1966.
  • "Nineteenth Century Cromwell" pages 187-191 from Past and Present, Volume 49, 1968.
  • "Primacy of Politics: Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany" from The Nature of Fascism edited by Stuart J. Woolf, 1968.
  • Arbeiterklasse und Volksgemeinschaft: Dokumente und Materialien zur deutschen Arbeiterpolitik, 1936–39, 1975.
  • "Innere Krise und Angriffskrieg, 1938-1939" pages 158-188 from Wirtschaft und Rüstung am Vorabend des Zweiten Weltkrieges edited by F. Forstermeier and H.E. Vokmannn, Düsseldorf, 1975.
  • Sozialpolitik im Dritten Reich: Arbeiterklasse und Volksgemeinschaft, 1977.
  • "Women in Germany, 1925-40: Family, Welfare, and Work" pages 74–113 from History Workshop Journal, Issue 1, 1976 and pages 5–32 from History Workshop Journal, Issue 2, 1976.
  • "National Socialism and the German Working Class, 1925-May 1933" pages 49–93 from New German Critique Volume 11, 1977.
  • "Worker's Opposition in Nazi Germany" pages 120-137 from History Workshop Journal, Issue II, 1981
  • "Injustice and Resistance: Barrington Moore and the Reaction of the German Workers to Nazism" from Ideas into Politics: Aspects of European History, 1880-1950 edited by R.J. Bullen, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann and A.B. Polonsky, 1984.
  • "Massenwiderstand ohne Organisation: Streiks im faschistischen Italien und NS-Deutschland" pages 1997-212 from Gewerkschafliche Monatshefte, Volume 32, 1984.
  • "Arbeiter ohne Gewerkschaften: Massenwiderstand im NS-Deutschland und im faschistischen Italien" pages 28–35 from Journal für Geschichte, 1985.
  • "History Workshop" pages 175-1986 from Passato e Presente, Volume 8, 1985.
  • "Il nazismo come professione" pages 18–19 from Rinascita, Volume 18, May 18, 1985.
  • "The Great Economic History Show" pages 129-154 from History Workshop Journal, Volume 21, 1986.
  • "Italy and Modernisation" pages 127-147 from History Workshop Journal, Volume 25, 1988.
  • "Gli scioperi di Torino del Marzo' 43" from L'Italia nella seconda guerra mondiale e nella resistenza, edited by Francesca Ferratini Tosi, Gatano Grasso, and Massimo Legnain, 1988.
  • "Debate: Germany, `Domestic Crisis and War in 1939': Comment 2" pages 205-221 from Past and Present, Volume 122, 1989 reprinted as “Debate: Germany, `domestic crisis’ and the War in 1939” from The Origins of The Second World War edited by Patrick Finney, Edward Arnold: London, United Kingdom, 1997, ISBN 0-34-067640-X..
  • "Whatever Happened to `Fascism'?" pages 89–98 from Radical History Review, Volume 49, 1991.
  • "The Domestic Dynamics of Nazi Conquests: A Response to Critics" from Reevaluating the Third Reich edited by Thomas Childers and Jane Caplan, 1993.
  • Nazism, Fascism, and the Working Class: Essays by Tim Mason, edited by Jane Caplan, 1995.

External links

About Mason
By Mason