The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler
Hitler: The Last Ten Days
The War Hitler Won: The Fall of Poland, September, 1939
Robert Payne’s is one of several studies of Hitler that have recently appeared or been announced. This fact, together with the launching of a new film about Hitler’s end and all the ballyhoo that accompanies such an event, has led the press first to discover a “sudden revival” of interest in Hitler and then to ask why this should be so. I doubt if there is such a revival, outside newspaper and publishers’ offices, but if there is, then (like the insatiable demand for books about the Second World War) it is a matter on which a social psychologist would give a better opinion than a historian.
The question to put to the historian is, obviously, how much does any of these books add to what is already known about Hitler. Apart from the story of a visit by Hitler to Liverpool before 1914—hitherto unknown to me, and the source for which I should want to know a lot more about before accepting it—the answer, in the case of Robert Payne’s book, is: Nothing. I do not myself attach too much importance to this as a criticism. Mr. Payne makes no claims to original research. He has set out to provide a Plain Man’s Guide to Adolf Hitler, and he is obviously familiar with the material already published.
Of course new evidence will turn up, and some of it may even be important. But the real test of a biography of Hitler will always lie in something else, the ability to make convincing the career of a man who at first sight appears to be the most implausible candidate there has ever been for a historical career superficially comparable with Napoleon’s, and arguably without a parallel in the evil and suffering he let loose on the world without any form of compensatory benefit.
Mr. Payne starts well, and the first hundred and fifty pages are as good an account as I have read of the early years of Hitler’s life down to the time when he came out of prison after the failure of his Munich putsch. From that point onward, however, the book becomes less and less satisfactory and deteriorates into a series of disjointed episodes which fail to make a coherent picture. This is disappointing, and it is worth asking what has gone wrong.
Mr. Payne set out with the determination to hold on to Hitler the man without getting lost in the tangle of German and European politics. This is understandable, but in practice the “rounded portrait” which Payne speaks of is beyond anyone’s capacity to draw, for Hitler was not a rounded man: his personal life was meager, banal, and boring, and (more important) throws little if any light on his place in history. In the early part of Hitler’s career there is of course little to write about other than his personal life, and Payne’s approach works well enough. But once Hitler becomes absorbed …