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Farewell to Hitler

Hitler: The Führer and the People June.)

by J. P. Stern
Fontana (London), 256 pp., 80 pence (to be published by the University of California Press in

Documents on Nazism, 1919-1945

introduced and edited by Jeremy Noakes, by Geoffrey Pridham
Viking, 704 pp., $20.00

Thirty years ago, at the beginning of 1945, Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was coming to an end. A few weeks later, on April 30—after destroying his dog Blondi (probably the only living creature for which he felt genuine affection) and marrying his mistress, Eva Braun—Hitler committed suicide. The world was well rid of him. And yet, thirty years later, Hitler continues to fascinate—and mystify.

Personally, I find it hard to share the fascination, given what Hitler’s latest biographer calls “the sheer unpleasantness and deeply unattractive character of the man.” The mystification is easier to understand. In part at least, it reflects the fact that the more we know about Hitler—the more facts about his life that are brought together, the more documents that are shifted—the more elusive, as a person, he seems to become. More fundamentally, it springs from the difficulty of understanding how so mediocre a person could exercise such power, how he could win the support (as he assuredly did) of the great majority of Germans (including many who had opposed or simply ignored him down to 1933), how he could dominate ten years of German and European history. As J. P. Stern writes: “The facts of the case—chief among them the metamorphosis of the Nobody of Vienna into the Leader of Greater Germany—are so extraordinary that where they are left to ‘tell their own story’ they make hardly any sense at all.”

That, in the end, is the real source of the mystification. You may say, if you wish, that it is the central problem of Hitler biography. And it is, of course, an interesting question. But it is also true that preoccupation with Hitler as a person can get us off on the wrong footing. The danger of a biographical approach is that it may lead us to believe—as many people seem to do—that if only we can amass enough knowledge of Hitler the man, of his personality and ideas, we shall somehow have found the clue to such things as the rise of National Socialism, the nature of fascism, or the “Final Solution.”

It may be true (as Stern puts it) that it was Hitler alone, “the figure at the center,” who “guaranteed the survival of the Nazi state,” that National Socialism is inconceivable without Hitler, that the only things that held together the incredible array of jealous, hostile, contradictory, and conflicting factions and institutions which we call Nazi Germany were the promises, cajolings, threats, appeals, self-assurance, realism, and fantasies of this one man. I think myself that this is the case. But it does not mean that we can explain National Socialism in terms of Hitler alone. And as for fascism, a far more comprehensive phenomenon, it is certainly a question whether National Socialism is simply fascism writ large, carried (if you like) to its logical extreme, or whether it was not in fact specifically German in its connotations. The distinguished German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher said quite definitely that National Socialism was “completely attuned to the German situation”—by which he meant that it was unlike fascism as we find it in other countries and only possible in the peculiar political and social environment which took shape in Bismarck’s Germany and persisted into the Weimar Republic.

Hitler may have incorporated a particular German form of fascism—though personally I doubt it—but he certainly did not create it. Fascism in Germany was a phenomenon of post-war turmoil and unrest, and Hitler was not the only right-wing extremist in the early 1920s to be impressed by events in Italy. But what distinguished him from adventurers like Ehrhardt was the speed with which he abandoned the fascist model, once the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 showed him that there was no chance of seizing power by a march on Berlin parallel to Mussolini’s march on Rome. Paradoxically, it was not by emulating Mussolini, but when he broke away from the fascist model, with its putschist philosophy, and turned his movement—contrary to all his earlier professions—into a political party, that he began his climb to power. Not fascism, but the espousal of German grievances, was the key to his success.

Hitler’s biographers, it seems to me, have tried to prove too much. When they tell us that the “Hitler phenomenon” (whatever that may mean) was “the most important single phenomenon of its age,” that his “rise to power” was “the most crucial event of this century,” that he was not only “the central figure of German and European history” but that he shook “the world to its foundations,” we had better take their hyperboles with a grain of salt.

In reality, what is remarkable is the way history has passed him by. All the really important changes of the twentieth century—the rise of the United States, the conflict of interests between the US and the USSR which we call the cold war, the decline of the British empire, the emancipation of Asia and Africa—are things upon which Hitler had no effect, except perhaps to accelerate a historical process that was well under way before his comet rose in 1930. As Joachim Fest says, at the end of his large-scale biography, his life may seem “like the steady unfolding of tremendous energy…but when it was over there was little left for memory to hold.”

The curious thing—almost the paradoxical thing—is that the twentieth century has gone on its way almost as if he had not existed. Not quite, of course. There is the division of Germany (though he was not really responsible for that, for it was not a part of Allied plans during the war but was rather a consequence of the onsetting cold war after 1945) and—the one thing, the only thing, for which he was entirely responsible, a dreadful and evil thing—the destruction of European Jewry. The monuments to his memory, the only lasting monuments, now that Albert Speer’s architectural monstrosities have been swept away, are the concentration camps, tidied up into neat show places and open to curious or mourning visitors. Otherwise, so far as the world today is concerned, he might not have lived.

That Hitler had so little lasting impact is not really so surprising as it may seem. In a famous phrase in his notorious memoirs, Albert Speer claimed that Hitler’s dictatorship was “the first dictatorship of an industrial state in the age of modern technology.” Like so much else in Speer’s apologetics, this is anything but true. The truth about the Third Reich is that it was backward-looking, and I doubt whether we have much to learn from it that is applicable to industrial society in the 1970s. And the same is true of Hitler’s ideas, which represented only too faithfully the mentality of about 1911. Far from being the first representative of “the age of modern technology,” Hitler made it his central object to fight off the twentieth century—rather like King Canute ordering the waves to go back. That, in the end, is why history has by-passed him.

There has, of course, been a lot of argument about Hitler’s modernity and non-modernity. Ralf Dahrendorf in Germany, David Schoenbaum in the United States, and now J. P. Stern in England have written at length about Hitler’s “social revolution”—how he pitchforked Germany, with its antiquated, class-ridden social order, into the modern world. That, without doubt, is true, but it was an unintended, unsought for result, “disconnected” (as Stern puts it) “from anything that might be called a social purpose.” If you destroy a society, if you extirpate the aristocracy as Hitler extirpated the Prussian Junkers after the attempt on his life in July 1944, if you remove the Jewish patriciate in commerce, finance, law, the universities, something else will take its place, and of course it did. But the new mobility of German society, which is an undoubted fact, was far more a product of the dreadful months of collapse in 1945 and of the chaos of the first one or two postwar years. It was not, on the basis of any evidence we possess, what Hitler intended.

It is no doubt true, as Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham emphasize in their impressive new documentary history of Nazi Germany, that there was a “conflict between ideological theory and economic reality,” and in particular that the expansion of industrial output necessary to underpin an aggressive foreign policy fitted ill with the anti-industrial and anti-urban philosophy which Hitler professed. Nevertheless, if we wish to see what Hitler intended, had the outcome of the war been successful, it can best be glimpsed from his wartime table-talk, and from Himmler’s and Rosenberg’s wartime speeches and memoranda. It was a backward-looking vision of a society rather like the Nuremberg of Wagner’s Meistersinger, a society of small traders, craftsmen, and small-holders, in which “the un-Germanic conflict of classes” was to be replaced by a pseudo-medieval “symbiosis of the estates,” the whole based on a healthy peasantry, and ruled by “a violent, domineering, undismayed, cruel youth” (the words are Hitler’s) raised in institutions called Ordensburgen, after the fortresses built by the Teutonic knights in thirteenth-century Prussia to tame and enslave the Slav population.

All this is not “modern,” it is the very opposite of modern, and it does not, of course, stand alone. One of the central themes of Hitler’s so-called Second Book—the manuscript written apparently in 1928 and published only after the Second World War—is the rising power of the United States, the threat it carries of imposing what he liked to call a “mechanized” (as opposed to an organic) industrial society, and the need to act in time to prevent this transformation—to weld Europe together, naturally under German leadership, to “save” the old world and its values. There was nothing peculiar to Hitler in this, except the way he reduced it to the level of practical politics; it was the stock in trade of good liberal German middle-class intellectuals, from Thomas Mann and Freud to Karl Jaspers, and infected the whole German university world. But, once again, it shows the way Hitler pitted himself against the twentieth century and the trends of the twentieth century. Far from being a precursor, as Speer would have us believe, Hitler was, if anything, an atavistic throwback.

These are some of the ways in which our views of Hitler have changed in the last five or ten years. What has happened is that instead of taking Hitler out of history, building him up into a monstrous, all-encompassing figure, making him the symbol of all we least like in the world, historians have put him in his time and place. It is what is sometimes called a process of “de-demonization,” and on the whole—I say “on the whole,” because I have some reservations to which I shall come back—it is a salutary and necessary process. If you make Hitler bigger than life, you are going to get all your perspectives wrong and misread whatever lessons the history of the 1920s and 1930s has to teach.

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