Did Hitler Make History?
It’s a reminder of socialism’s lingering prestige that people still refer to the tyranny that ruled Germany as “fascism” and the tyranny that ruled Russia as “Stalinism” — as though one country had succumbed to a vast ideological system and the other simply to the evil of a single man. It would make much more sense to put it the other way around: Russia fell to “communism” and Germany was captured by “Hitlerism.”
This is hardly pedantic quibbling. Americans now face European war for the first time since 1945. And this war has been understood by the Clinton administration and sold to the American public as a reprise of World War II half a century ago: the same sort of evil dictator, the same sort of racialist genocide, the same sort of mass suffering.
It’s crucial, for this account of the war in Yugoslavia, that we believe Hitler’s rule in Germany was not a unique catastrophe but remains to this day a live option, a political temptation to which other countries might give in, just as China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and — for that matter — Yugoslavia independently succumbed to communism.
Indeed, Hitler’s uniqueness may become one of the great foreign policy questions of the next century, analogous to the bitter dispute that once roiled America’s universities and think tanks over whether the Soviet Union was merely continuing the (nasty but limited) policies of czarist Russia or whether it sought to realize the insatiable ambitions of Communist ideology.
From Slovakia to China, faltering Communist regimes have resorted to ultranationalism to stifle calls for liberty, to foster the appearance of national unity, and to justify encroachment upon their neighbors. It may be that these combinations of authoritarianism, nationalism, and aggression are fading shadows soon to be banished by the brightness of constitutional democracy.
But after the horrific events of our century, who’d want to predict it? If they are not fading — if Slobodan Milosevic represents the future — then we will likely find ourselves spending considerable time debating whether he and men like him are repeating “what was done in the name of Germany” (in the chilling phrase of the German defense minister Rudolf Scharping). And so, half a century later, we have acquired a new and compelling reason to understand what did happen in Germany — and the man who made it happen.
It’s at just this juncture that the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s massive biography of Hitler appears, the climax of four years of critically praised and commercially successful books about the Third Reich: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and Henry Turner’s Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power in 1996, John Lukacs’s The Hitler of History in 1997, Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler last year, and, this year, the English translation of Brigitte Hamann’s Hitler’s Vienna, the definitive work on Hitler’s youth and “lost” years.
Kershaw sums up the current state of Hitler scholarship with awe-inspiring comprehensiveness. He takes nothing for granted. One source for Hitler’s early years, for instance, is a memoir written in the 1950s by August Kubizek, a young man from Linz who briefly lodged with Hitler during Hitler’s Vienna period, 1908-1913. The two attended the opera together, which fact inspires footnote 110 to chapter two:
[Kubizek] mentions Hitler’s admiration for Mahler, “at that time the conductor” in the Opera. Whether Hitler experienced Mahler conducting during his first two stays in Vienna cannot be established, but he and Kubizek could not have seen Mahler together, since Mahler’s last performance, before leaving to take up his appointment at the New York Metropolitan Opera, was on 15 October 1907.
On the strength of his research, Kershaw authoritatively declares settled a series of problems that Hitler’s biographers have been gnawing at for years. The claim that Hitler’s paternal grandfather was Jewish: false. The story that Hitler fearfully hurled himself under the bodies of his comrades during the gun battle that crushed the November 1923 Munich putsch: false again. The rumors of extreme sexual abnormality: dismissed with scarcely a mention.
These are all probably sound conclusions, but the combination of minute detail and abrupt judgment makes Hitler an often blurry reading experience. Kershaw will summarize an entire library of research in a single sentence. That’s a great achievement, but it results in a book that is as much bibliography as biography, and one that all but the most serious reader will have trouble grappling with and absorbing.
Kershaw wants to be rid, once and for all, of the myth of Hitler as the demonic god: the Miltonic Hitler, the Hitler of superhuman evil. This is the Hitler who haunts most popular writing about the Nazis and appears even in some of the more serious accounts.
Kershaw’s Hitler is instead a distinctly mediocre man. Hitler always insisted that he’d arrived at his political views suddenly. He claimed to have discovered anti-Semitism in a single fatal encounter with a Jew in a Vienna street, staring at the man’s face and wondering “Is this a German?” He asserted that he had charged into a political career at the end of 1918 as he recovered from British gas and heard the terrible news of the German surrender. The Hitler of Mein Kampf is a character out of nineteenth-century Romanticism, always being clapped by grand volcanic moments of passion and prophetic insight.
Some writers believe we should take Hitler at his words: Lucy Dawidowicz, for instance, held that Hitler’s murderous hatred of the Jews did indeed take form in October-November 1918 and that his occasional tendency to avoid explicit references to Jews and to instead denounce “profiteers,” “exploiters,” and “international finance” was inspired by his sense of what he could get away with at the moment and what he could not. Others, like John Lukacs, date Hitler’s conversion to extreme anti-Semitism to his witnessing of the abortive 1919 Bolshevik coup in Bavaria, some of the leaders of which were Jews.
But Kershaw’s Hitler is not at all Romantic: He’s a completely derivative person who read few of the books he claimed to have read and thought little for himself. Kershaw disagrees with Brigitte Hamann’s argument that Hitler came to his anti-Semitism in Munich after the First World War. Rather, according to Kershaw, he absorbed it early from the gutter newspapers first of his hometown of Linz and then of Vienna.
Kershaw deals with Hamann’s evidence — the recollections of those who knew Hitler that he complained of the lack of statues to Heine in Germany, praised Jewish courage in the face of persecution, and liked the music of Offenbach — by pointing out that the mental atmosphere in pre-war Vienna was so poisonously anti-Semitic that the young Hitler could have spilled a lot of bile before anybody took any notice of it. Then, too, the dealer who sold the water-colors Hitler lived by was Jewish, and Hitler — always the opportunist — took care with his words around people who might repeat them to the man who provided him his livelihood.
What came late to Hitler were not his hatreds, but his ambitions to act on them. His interest in ultranationalist politics was stirred, Kershaw maintains, by the army instructors who hired him to give postwar political instruction to the shrunken German Army. Kershaw makes much of Hitler’s passivity during the Bolsheviks’ attempted coup in Bavaria and the military counter-coup in 1919, arguing that through all the tumult of that year, Hitler’s main aim was to avoid being demobilized and having to find a job. “Hitler,” he remarks, “did not come to politics, … politics came to him — in the Munich barracks.”
In every respect other than his capacity for evil, Kershaw’s Hitler is a limited man. This is no Napoleon, who committed great crimes but also great acts of statesmanship. Kershaw aptly quotes a remark of Plutarch’s: “When destiny raises a base character by acts of great importance, it reveals his lack of substance.” Hitler, Kershaw says, was an unperson, with no private identity beyond his public acts. Which means that his biographer must “focus not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power — the power of the Fuhrer.”
Kershaw’s Hitler is not even a great politician. The Munich putsch was idiotically organized, with no attempt to neutralize the army that made short work of it. Mein Kampf was boring and sold badly, especially the second volume released after Hitler’s notoriety from the putsch had faded. He hated administrative work and idled away his post-putsch days while his associates tried to rebuild the Nazi party, with little success.
Hitler owed his success to economic crisis: Without the inflation of 1923, he could never have made his putsch; once stability returned, his party’s share of the vote fell to 2.6 percent. Had the Great Depression been averted, he would have faded entirely away. Kershaw emphasizes how much Hitler’s career owed to the complicity of others: the army units that provided weapons to nationalist paramilitary forces in 1919-20, the crazed Russian emigres who helped finance him, the biased judiciary that repeatedly failed to punish Nazis. And finally, of course, the bone headed politicians and army officers who permitted Hitler to assume the chancellorship in 1933. Hitler’s first English-language biographer, Alan Bullock, saw this pattern as evidence of Hitler’s cunning. Kershaw sees it as a reminder of the larger social forces at work. His chapter on January 1933 is tellingly entitled: “Levered Into Power.”
Nor is Kershaw’s Hitler even very much of a dictator. Kershaw is much impressed by the school of modern history that sees the Third Reich as the opposite of a totalitarian regime: Hitler was simply too lazy and slovenly to run a government in the way that Stalin did. Hitler’s agriculture minister Walther Darre tried vainly for two full years to get an appointment to discuss Germany’s worsening farm problem. Kershaw bitingly describes the corruption and chaos of Hitler’s peace time regime, with the state treasury treated as Hitler’s personal; exchequer and businesses lavishing bribes on cronies to extract favors from the crumbling apparatus of government:
A flood of legislation emanating independently from each ministry had to be formulated by a cumbersome and grossly inefficient process whereby drafts were circulated and recirculated among ministers until some consensus was reached. Only at that stage would Hitler, if he approved after its contents were briefly summarized for him, sign the bill (usually scarcely bothering to read it) and turn it into law.
If Hitler felt pressed for time, “legislation that had taken months to prepare could simply be ignored or postponed, sometimes indefinitely.”
The collapse of legal institutions and the weakness of the central dictatorship turned Germany into a kind of demented feudal system. The most important chapter in Kershaw’s Hitler, “Working Towards the Fuhrer,” quotes to powerful effect a 1934 speech by an official in the Prussian agriculture ministry.
Everyone with opportunity to observe it knows that the Fuhrer can only with great difficulty order from above everything he intends to carry out sooner or later. On the contrary, until now everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuhrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals … have waited for commands and orders…. However, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuhrer, to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Fuhrer along his lines and towards his aim will...have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work.
But what was the spirit of the Fuhrer? Given the radicalism of Hitler’s own rhetoric and the barbarity of the men he chose as his closest associates, the disorder of the regime touched off what Kershaw calls a “Darwinian struggle,” with victory going to the cruelest, the most ruthless, and (of course) the most anti-Semitic. “Hitler’s personalized form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals.”
Kershaw’s dry style unwittingly denies the Hitler story much of its drama: Ron Rosenbaum, by comparison, describes the complicity of the German judiciary in Hitler’s crimes with a blood-boiling fury. Rosenbaum agrees that Hitler was essentially a petty criminal, not a demon god, but he makes that criminality vivid and contemptible in a way that Kershaw never quite manages.
Kershaw, however, has his reasons for writing dryly, and they are stated flatly at the beginning of the book, when he explains his refusal to dwell on the stories of Hitler’s twisted sexuality: “And even if the alleged repulsive perversions really were his private proclivities, how exactly they would help to explain the rapid descent of the complex and sophisticated German state into gross inhumanity after 1933 is not readily self-evident.”
As Kershaw sees it, Hitler is not the most important part of his own story. The real protagonist is the German state, and the important puzzle Kershaw wants to unravel is not why Hitler did what he did, but rather why the Germans did what they did.
This is probably not the best frame of mind in which to attempt a biography, and it may explain why Kershaw’s Hitler so often seems listless. Unlike Brigitte Hamann, who sleuths out the details of Hitler’s time in Vienna and brings the most malignant sections of that glittering, horrible city to life, Kershaw does not seem at all sure that the biographical approach will teach us anything worth knowing.
Perhaps it is for this reason that so many reviewers have described his book as “biography for the 1990s.” The phrase is meant as praise, of course, implying that the book is up-to-date. But unfortunately it also implies that the book reflects the 1990s academic aversion to the human personality in history. Kershaw singles out some leaders for special praise, but the most he will concede even to his heroes is that they have “symbolized the positive values of the century, have epitomized belief in humanity, hope for the future.”
Even Karl Marx conceded that human beings make their own history (though he added that they do not make it precisely as they will). Now we seem bent on out-Marxing Marx, and eliminating even Hitler — surely the one man without whom the twentieth century would have been different — in favor of the impersonal collection of people, institutions, and ideas we call “Germany.”
This is not a formula for moral responsibility. Even Daniel Goldhagen, a man given to rhetorical excesses (to put it mildly), returned in the best sections of Hitler’s Willing Executioners to the responsibility of the individuals who ran the killing machine for Hitler: It was not “the German state” that did these things, but individual people like Fritz Müller of Salzburg, who served in a particular place at a particular time and is even now collecting a pension from his government; and Karl Shulz of Königsberg, who served somewhere else and now lives in a little flat in the south of Spain; and half a million more like them.
So, too, the caustic brilliance of Henry Turner’s Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power is that it never for one moment forgives the villainy and incompetence of the politicians and soldiers who let Hitler take power — and it musters its outrage not in a utopian spirit but in a grimly realistic one. The most practical option in 1933 for stabilizing the country and heading off Nazi dictatorship was a military coup and an authoritarian regime run by officers of the old aristocracy — and Turner believes we can blame men who failed to seize their chance to ward off a catastrophe they had every reason to foresee.
Look again at Kershaw’s description of Hitler in power. To say that what really shaped Germany in the 1930s is the spontaneous action of individual Germans — “ordinary citizens denouncing neighbors to the Gestapo, … businessmen happy to exploit anti-Jewish legislation to rid themselves of competitors” — is to minimize the importance of the dictatorship under which that spontaneous action occurred.
Ordinary citizens often want to be rid of their neighbors, and businessmen often want to do down the competition, but it’s seldom that they can invoke the unconstrained power of the state to do it. The fact that Hitler was sleeping till noon, eating a leisurely lunch, going for a walk, signing a few papers, and then screening movies until the small hours of the morning does not remove him from responsibility — not just the moral responsibility, which Kershaw concedes, but the operational responsibility as well.
In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum wisely reminds us of Hitler’s comment when challenged back in the 1920s over the seeming chaos of the Nazi party: “Nothing happens except by my will.” Hitler chose to run his government this way, and these methods yielded for him the results he wanted. His government achieved considerable success in achieving his top priorities: cementing his power in place, murdering the Jews, waging war, and surrounding him with cheering crowds. If it was not so successful at managing the farm problem, that was by his decision and a result of his choices.
But if Kershaw’s Hitler is a Hitler for the 1990s in his insignificance, he is also a Hitler for the 1990s in another way. Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris is a book that, for all its deficiencies, makes particularly useful reading now in our new time of dictators and ethnic hatred. One can believe that Hitler’s personality is both more interesting and more important than Kershaw thinks, and still accept Kershaw’s contention that Hitler’s evil is not the whole of the story. In 1984, Milton Himmelfarb published in Commentary a justly famous essay on Hitler’s extreme personal capability entitled “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” That’s very true. But one can add, “No German Army, no Holocaust either.”
As decisive as Hitler was to Germany, had Germany been something other than the dominant technological, military, and economic power in Europe, he would have been far less significant to the fate of the world. Without Germany, Hitler is Idi Amin. What made Hitler dangerous to non-Germans — including the almost entirely non-German Jews who died at Auschwitz and Treblinka — was the meeting of the wrong man with the wrong country. That’s why it was obtuse of Vice President A1 Gore to call Slobodan Milosevic a “junior-league Hitler” (and not only because he meant “minor-league”). A minor-league Hitler simply isn’t a Hitler.
One of the saddest consequences of America’s increasing ignorance of history is its progressive identification of Nazism not only as the worst evil, but as the only evil. Much of the time, the use of Nazis as all-purpose bad guys is merely ridiculous — as when Steven Spielberg has Indiana Jones tangling with a Nazi expedition in Egypt in the 1930s, when Egypt was a British protectorate.
But at crucial moments it can be genuinely dangerous, and we are now, in April 1999, at one of those crucial moments. Suppose that some ordinance required us to refrain from invoking Hitler in any but the most extreme circumstances. What impact would it have, I wonder, if President Clinton were forced to say that the Serbs’ expulsion of the Kosovars is the worst human-rights offense in Europe since the Turks expelled two million Greeks from Anatolia in 1922? It’s true, of course — but doesn’t it seem to lack the same urgency? After all, Americans do not typically remember to reproach themselves for having stood idly by in 1922.
By comparing anything to Hitler, we have already decided its moral meaning: We are saying “this is the worst thing there could be.” But what Hitler ought to teach us — and the scholars who write about him ought to remind us — is that there are gradations even in wickedness. And those gradations matter.