The fortieth anniversary of Hitler’s so-called “seizure of power” was greeted by the appearance of a spate of popular biographies, of which the more important were Colin Cross’s Adolf Hitler (Berkley, 1973), Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler (Praeger, 1973), and Joachim C. Fest’s Hitler (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). Fest’s book was discussed at length by Neal Ascherson in The New York Review on April 18, 1974. In spite of Ascherson’s reservations, it seems to have been accepted as the definitive “life”—in my view, with little justification. Fest’s Hitler may be a journalistic tour de force, but it does not match Alan Bullock’s classic biography and adds nothing substantial to knowledge. All in all, if the sudden spate of new writing proved anything, it was that biography is no answer to so complex a problem as the Nazi revolution.
J. P. Stern’s Hitler: The Führer and the People (University of California Press, to be published in June, 1975) is a very different proposition. Not that Stern ignores or underestimates Hitler the man; but he realizes that the key to understanding lies not in the detail of his personal history, but in the interchange between him and the German people. Hence he is concerned with the ritual and symbolism which Hitler developed, and with his role as “the representative individual.” George L. Mosse pursues similar methods in The Nationalization of the Masses (Fertig, 1975; 252 pp., $14.00), but whereas Mosse follows in detail one particular manifestation—public festivals, national monuments, the aesthetics of politics—Stern seeks to comprehend the whole spectrum of forces in German society upon which, as he sees it, Hitler drew.
Stern’s book is, on all counts, a significant achievement—not so much, perhaps, for its conclusions, which are disputable, as because it opens a road out of the impasse into which biography (both “straight” biography and the currently fashionable psychological variety) had stumbled. The opposite danger, of course, is to ignore Hitler’s personality and to treat him as in some way the logical outcome of German history. This, it hardly needs saying, is not Stern’s position, but it is certainly not far from that of Erich Kahler. Kahler’s posthumous The Germans (edited by Robert and Rita Kimber, Princeton, 1974) is a curiously old-fashioned book, which sets out to explain the German present by the German past. “In Prussia and from Prussia,” Kahler would have us believe, “the Germans learned the selfless devotion to power that the Nazi state would ask of them.” It seems a simplistic explanation of a complex phenomenon.
What we need to know in reality is not the existence of long-standing trends in German history, which may (or may not) have predisposed Germans to throw in their lot with Hitler, but rather the specific motivations of those who joined the Nazi party and helped Hitler to victory. These were examined by Professor Theodore Abel of Columbia …