The Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler
Last October I spent an afternoon in Berlin talking to the last man left alive who knew Hitler well enough to say, “If Adolf Hitler had been capable of friendship, I suppose I should have been his best friend.” To the handful of people who were present this conversation with Albert Speer brought back so vividly what Hitler meant to our generation, the blight he laid on so many millions of lives, that at the end we were as emotionally exhausted as if we had been listening to Hitler himself re-enacting one of his speeches.
This experience kept coming back to mind when I read the first of the three books under review, written by a Cambridge historian of a younger generation for whom the Second World War is a part of history to be viewed with the same detachment as the First.
Norman Stone makes no pretense to have unearthed any new historical evidence. He is obviously well read in the secondary literature and well up in the continuing controversy over Germany’s economic recovery, rearmament, and foreign policy before the war, but he does not attempt to add to this. His purpose is different: to provide for the reader who comes to the subject with an open mind a contemporary answer, free of propaganda left over from the war, to the questions what sort of a man Hitler really was and why there should continue to be any fuss about him.
The result is a short, easily read book, unencumbered with footnotes or references (other than an excellent bibliography), and concentrating, in the words of the author’s preface, on “the facts of the ‘revised’ Hitler” as these emerge from the historical inquiry and debate which have gone on since the war.
For anyone who lived through the Hitler years this is a salutary exercise, but it is hardly as simple as replacing “propaganda” with “the facts.” When it comes to correcting the exaggerated estimates of German rearmament, or the relative size of the opposing forces in the West in 1940, this is a fair description. But how do you evaluate the state of mind and morale produced by such exaggeration, the fears and sense of doom so vividly recalled by my conversation with Speer? Even if these can now be shown to be illusory, they were real enough at the time, facts which Hitler for one never failed to take into account. (His understanding of these facts was one of his greatest assets.) The historian’s vision has to be stereoscopic, combining the perspective of the past with that of the present, not just substituting one for the other.
At times Mr. Stone recognizes this clearly enough—for example in writing about the Battle of Britain and Churchill’s “finest hour”—but at other times he shows little sympathy for the experience of a generation which he regards as bringing its troubles on itself because it could not see what is obvious, with hindsight, to him and everyone else today.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.