Hitler Among the Germans
The Psychopathic God, Adolf Hitler
“It seems likely,” Robert Waite begins his book, “that more will be written about Adolf Hitler than about anyone else in history with the exception of Jesus Christ.” This is a depressing prospect indeed. Why Hitler should continue to arouse such interest is a subject worthy of a major essay, for which The New York Review might well offer a prize. At the bottom of his first page Professor Waite prints this quotation:
The more I learn about Adolf Hitler, the harder I find it to explain and accept what followed. Somehow the causes are inadequate to account for the size of the effects. It is offensive to our reason and to our experience to be asked to believe that the [youthful Hitler] was the stuff of which the Caesars and Bonapartes were made. Yet the record is there to prove us wrong. It is here, in the gap between the explanation and the event, that the fascination of Hitler’s career remains.
Although this comes from an introduction I wrote twenty years ago, I should not want to alter it today; but the passage of thirty years since Hitler’s death has naturally extended the spectrum of comment in a way which is well illustrated by three of the four books I have been reading.
At one end of the spectrum is David Irving, an Englishman, whose book was first published in Germany in 1975 (Hitler und seine Feldherren). Further printing, however, was stopped after two days as a result of a dispute between author and publishers, apparently over his view of Hitler’s responsibility for the “Final Solution.” The book begins rather abruptly at the outbreak of war in 1939, with no discussion of the events leading up to this, and then takes 800 pages to cover in detail the five and a half years separating this from Hitler’s defeat and suicide.
Mr. Irving’s strength is in the persistence with which he pursues new evidence. This is a virtue recognizable by any historian and since I am critical of the use Mr. Irving makes of the evidence I want to be fair and acknowledge the energy and resource he has shown as a researcher.
There is no danger that anyone will overlook these. Mr. Irving rarely misses an opportunity to reiterate his claim that this is “not another biography of Hitler drawing on the same tired, mutually-supporting material” that other historians have used, but one entirely based on firsthand research “eschewing published sources.”
It is a pity, in view of this claim, that he has not devoted more space to discussing the material he has used. At first sight the eighty pages of notes would appear to offer everything one wants, but it is often difficult without considerable research to distinguish between the claim to have unearthed new material which has never been seen before and the claim to have gone back to original sources already known and not relied on copying out quotations from other people’s books. It is no less important to distinguish new material which adds something important to what is already known from that which, while not used before, adds only a few unimportant details or merely provides confirmation, perhaps with minor variations, of something known before. This is another distinction which Mr. Irving frequently fails to make.
From a number of cases where I have made checks in following up the notes, my own conclusion is that the basis of Mr. Irving’s account remains evidence known to and used by other historians before him. He has certainly worked over this evidence again for himself and in doing so thrown up a number of omissions and suppressions; he has also, without doubt, added to it, but not all his geese have proved to be swans, and I suspect that quite a lot of the additional material which he has gathered does not add substantially to what was known before.
It would not be worth spending so much time on this question of sources if it were not for Mr. Irving’s further claim that his researches have “disclosed a picture of the man that nobody until now had suspected.” I do not believe, as I shall go on to argue, that this claim is justified. But in so far as he does strike out an original line of argument, it is important that the reader should not allow himself to be stunned by the barrage of references to hitherto unpublished or unexploited material and be led to conclude that Mr. Irving’s view follows necessarily, or even plausibly, from new evidence which he has brought to light.
The scope of Mr. Irving’s book is unusual. It is not a biography of Hitler, since it deals only with the last five and a half years of his life when he was already over fifty years old. On the other hand, it is not a history of the war, even seen from the German point of view. It deals in great detail with the war but “in each case,” Mr. Irving says, “this book views the situation as far as possible through Hitler’s eyes, from behind his desk.” Mr. Irving’s method is to scour every source in order to establish what was said by Hitler and others in his wartime conferences and conversations. This is the substance of the book and the scene throughout is the Führer’s headquarters. It is not easy reading, partly because the author introduces so little variation in the chronicle form as one conference follows another in the Führer’s headquarters. No attempt is made to analyze the content or function of these meetings or, except in a perfunctory way, to look at the organization of the German war economy and the production of armaments.
But there is a more serious criticism to be made of Mr. Irving’s method. He lays great stress on providing an accurate record of what was said on these occasions but inevitably the reader asks how far this can be accepted as reliable evidence of what actually happened even on the German side of the war. Thus, for example, a good deal of space is devoted to the argument between Hitler and his generals about who was to blame for the disastrous outcome of the Russian war. One can accept Mr. Irving’s argument that the generals are biased witnesses and have had it too much their own way; but is Hitler, whom he quotes at length to the effect that it was the generals’ fault and not his, any less biased or more reliable a witness? Is Mr. Irving still “viewing the situation through Hitler’s eyes” or is he playing the role of a historian offering his own independent valuation of what was said? I am not sure that Mr. Irving has ever faced this question of his own position; if he has his answer seems to me ambiguous.
His answer is not even ambiguous when he discusses Hitler’s opponents. Churchill and Roosevelt were warmongers in Hitler’s eyes and it would be hard to find a sentence in these 800 pages which suggested that Mr. Irving took a different view. In the case of Britain he quotes with approval the Duke of Windsor’s suspicion in July 1940 that the war was continued “purely so that certain British statesmen could save face,” and argues that it was the British refusal to make peace with Hitler then that condemned the Western world to so much unnecessary suffering and destruction, including the death of six million Jews. The premise for this is Mr. Irving’s “discovery”—which has been known for many years—that Hitler admired rather than hated the British and would have preferred to have them as allies rather than enemies.
Of course he would, since this would have given him a free hand in Europe. But why, Mr. Irving asks, were such “momentous alternatives” not considered by the British? To which the answer is that they were. The whole object of the policy of appeasement (to which Mr. Irving never once refers) was precisely to find such an alternative, and it broke down, not because the British thought Hitler hated or threatened them directly, but because they reluctantly concluded in the light of his record in the Thirties that it was impossible to make terms with him that he would keep, and that if he was allowed to go on and conquer the whole of Europe, Britain would lose its independence.
If the British had made a compromise peace after the fall of France, there is no reason at all to suppose that Europe would have been spared a continuation of the war—since Hitler would have gone on to attack Russia all the more readily—or that once he had come to rule all Europe Hitler would have left the Jews their lives or the British their independence. If Mr. Irving is going to discuss British policy he ought surely to take some account of what the British themselves thought and not simply see them through Hitler’s eyes.
One quotation in Mr. Irving’s book seems to me revealing. In talking with Hitler one day, a doctor asked him if he had ever read the life of the Kaiser by the Englishman J.D. Chamier. Hitler had and admitted that, though the author was English, the Kaiser had emerged well—perhaps better than he deserved. The doctor’s note of the conversation continues:
Hitler then said that a foreigner probably finds it easier to pass judgment on a statesman, provided that he is familiar with the country, its people, language and archives…. Hitler said that for some time now he has gone over to having all important discussions and military conferences recorded for posterity by shorthand writers. And perhaps one day after he’s dead and buried an objective Englishman will come and give him the same kind of objective treatment.
Was Mr. Irving thinking of himself when he copied down this quotation? At the very least, it points up the question which I believe he fails to answer, perhaps even to himself, whether he regards “viewing the situation through Hitler’s eyes” as the same thing as “objectivity.”
Mr. Irving claims that his researches have not only enabled him to place Hitler’s foreign policy in a different light but have disclosed “a picture of the man that nobody until now had suspected.” “My central conclusion,” he writes, “is that Hitler was a less than omnipotent Führer and that his grip on his immediate subordinates weakened as the war progressed.” If Mr. Irving means that Hitler was never interested in administration and after the outbreak of war left such matters to be fought over by Bormann, Himmler, and the other satraps, this has been one of the commonplaces of the history of the Third Reich for twenty-five years. If, however, Mr. Irving is talking about power rather than administration—and he goes on to say that “Hitler was probably the weakest leader Germany has known in this century”—then there is so great a volume of evidence against such a view that it is astonishing anyone can seriously suggest it.
I was so surprised by Mr. Irving’s conclusion, which seems to me to do less than justice to his own book, that I cast around for an explanation. In part, it seems to me to reflect his concentration on the war years and his omission of the 1930s, which must surely be counted as brilliant a decade of success as any political leader has ever enjoyed. But I believe the real explanation is to be found in Mr. Irving’s desire, as he puts it, to “de-demonize” Hitler, leading up to his coup de théâtre, Hitler and the “Final Solution.”
The connection between the two is obvious. The revisionist version of Hitler has hitherto stopped short at his foreign policy, which is represented as no different from anyone else’s, and the responsibility for the war, from which he is absolved. For what happened inside Germany, however, Hitler has hitherto remained responsible. But if he was ignorant of and did not approve the greatest of all crimes, the extermination of five to six million Jews, then a very different picture emerges; then Hitler can be seen and understood as a normal person in domestic as well as foreign affairs or, as Mr. Irving describes him, “an ordinary, walking, talking human being weighing some 155 pounds, with graying hair, largely false teeth, and chronic digestive ailments.” It is this final step in the normalization of Hitler which Mr. Irving now proposes.
He starts from the fact, long familiar to historians, that no order signed by Hitler for the extermination of the Jews has ever been found, and (a fact which always impresses Mr. Irving more) that what other researchers have failed to find he has not found either. He does not question the fact that the massacres took place and he admits that
if this book were simply a history of the rise and fall of Hitler’s Reich, it would be legitimate to conclude: “Hitler killed the Jews.” He after all created the atmosphere of hatred with his anti-Semitic speeches in the 1930s; he and Himmler created the S.S.; he built the concentration camps; his speeches, though never explicit, left the clear impression that “liquidate” was what he meant.
Nonetheless, Mr. Irving goes on to maintain that historians have refused to face up to the difference made by the absence of a written order—or of documentary evidence of what Hitler and Himmler may have said “unter vier Augen“—and have simply gone on repeating that he was personally responsible without taking the trouble to look at the evidence.
No one denies that the evidence is incomplete and equivocal. This is hardly surprising considering the monstrosity of the crimes being committed, the massacre of several million people. Elaborate precautions were taken to confine knowledge of the facts to as small a circle as possible, denials were issued which Mr. Irving himself characterizes as “the purest humbug,” and the ghastly reality was camouflaged by a series of euphemisms (such as the “Final Solution”) which were employed even between those who knew what was taking place. Thus as late as July 1944—and even Mr. Irving admits that by October 1943 Hitler knew what had taken place—he notes (p. 631) that Himmler still continued to speak to Hitler only of the “expulsion” (Aussiedlung) of the Jews.
The process was spread over two years or more and was halted from time to time for reasons of expediency. (This could very well be the explanation of Himmler’s telephone message of November 30, 1941 that Jews were not to be liquidated, of which Mr. Irving makes so much.) Mr. Irving agrees that Hitler was “unquestionably” the authority behind the “expulsion” of the Jews, their uprooting and “re-settlement” in the occupied areas of the East. But he asks us to believe that the man who claimed as his greatest discovery the identification of the Jew as the bacillus causing all decay in society, the man who from beginning to end of his career made the cleansing of Germany of its Jewish population a main plank of his program and spoke openly of his intentions, had no knowledge of or interest in what happened to the Jews when they got to the East. There are many people in Germany and Austria, Mr. Irving says, who have an interest in putting the blame on Hitler. He evidently believes that they knew what was happening, as did Goebbels and Hans Frank—to mention only two of the Nazi leaders about whose knowledge there is no doubt—but not Hitler. This is a lot to ask us to believe on the strength of not finding evidence which, given the nature of what was being done, it would be far more surprising to learn ever existed.
After getting Hitler to agree on August 18, 1941 to the requirement that Jews wear the Star of David and to the deportation of the 70,000 Berlin Jews to the East, Goebbels noted that Hitler had reminded him of his January 1939 Reichstag speech. He had said he was convinced that the prophecy he uttered then—that if the Jews provoked another world war it would end with their destruction (Vernichtung)—was “coming true these weeks and months with a dread certainty that is almost uncanny. In the east the Jews will have to square accounts.” This was a few weeks before the first massacres took place. In a speech of February 24, 1943 Hitler referred to the extermination (Ausrottung) of European Jewry and on June 19 insisted to Himmler on pushing through radically (radikal) the “evacuation” of the Jews.
In October of that year, Himmler told conferences of the S.S. Gruppenführers and the Gauleiters that by the end of the year the last Jews in occupied Europe would have been physically exterminated, and he accepted responsibility for what had been done. But Himmler was not the man to have acted without Hitler’s authority. In May 1944 he told an audience of generals that he had “uncompromisingly” solved “the Jewish problem.” “You can imagine how I felt executing this soldierly order issued to me, but I obediently complied and carried it out to the best of my convictions” (my italics).
Mr. Irving does his best to explain away evidence like this and such is the immediate attraction of any revisionist thesis, especially if it offers to cut the portent of Hitler down to size, that his book will attract attention for this attempt alone. But I am convinced that, once the fuss has died down, Mr. Irving’s thesis will not be accepted by the majority of historians who have worked on the period, and that the answer to the problems posed by Hitler will not prove to be that his power and his responsibility for what happened between 1933 and 1945 have been exaggerated.
It will be clear from what I have said that if I have devoted a lot of space to Mr. Irving’s book, it is not because I think it more important than the others to which I now pass.
Publishers should be warned that there are no definitive biographies of Hitler and that the present state of historical knowledge about him, and historians’ disagreement, are such that it is very unlikely there is going to be one. John Toland’s version is no more definitive than Joachim Fest’s was three years ago, although the publishers have made the same claim in both cases. Mr. Toland himself is modest in his claims. “My book,” he writes, “has no thesis, and any conclusions to be found in it were reached only during the writing, perhaps the most meaningful being that Hitler was far more complex and contradictory than I had imagined.” That will not set the Hudson or the Spree on fire. Nonetheless, if Mr. Toland does not add much to our knowledge of Hitler, he has provided a competent, well-constructed, and well-written account of the subject as it looks now, and he is able to produce a list of interviews which outruns even Mr. Irving’s.
I am doubtful whether, at this stage, after so many sensational discoveries and “revelations” in the last thirty years, we are going to find the answer to the riddle of Hitler in fresh evidence. This is a rash thing to say, since at any moment some “shattering” new revelation may be made and, after being cried up as such in the press and on television, may actually prove to tell us something we did not know before. This could happen tomorrow, but the fact that researchers as ingenious and pertinacious as Mr. Irving have failed to come up with such finds leads me to believe that new insights are more likely to come from a more successful penetration of Hitler’s personality and the Nazi world than from the discovery of new evidence.
For this reason I turned with particular interest to the opposite end of the spectrum where Professor Binion’s study offers a very different approach, that of the psychohistorian. It is a short book, no more than 135 pages of text, but within that compass the author not only presents an original interpretation but does so with a power of logical argument and a mastery of his material which fully justify the publisher’s description of the book as “bold and rigorous.”
Mr. Binion makes no apology for psychohistory: there is no other way, he says, to get at “the motives of bygone doings, whether individual or collective,” for the only efficient causes of such doings are psychological. Nor does he attempt to guard against criticism by backing a number of horses:
In psychohistory, as elsewhere, to multiply causes is no mark of sagacity…. Thus my concern with Hitler’s politics was to isolate the few decisive inner demands and constraints behind the vast recorded outcome. This rule of exclusion held equally for Hitler’s constituency, Germany at large.
Binion traces Hitler’s extraordinary appeal to the German people to the coincidence of two traumatic experiences, one personal, the other collective. The personal one was Hitler’s gas poisoning in 1918, with which he associated the painful terminal treatment of his mother’s breast cancer by a Jewish doctor eleven years earlier; the collective trauma was the unexpected and unacceptable defeat of Germany in World War I.
Binion defines a traumatic experience as one too painful to be assimilated. The neurosis to which it gives rise is an “exact, continual, unbearable remembering” which drives the person affected to seek relief by “reliving” the experience, in effect by contriving a new experience that is unconsciously taken to be the old one.
Traumatic reliving has an imperativeness about it that becomes veritably titanic in the face of outer resistance. All one’s instincts, interests, and ideas fall in with it. And all one’s inhibitions will fall before it: anyone suitably traumatized can massacre innocents, especially by remote control.
Professor Binion’s argument is that this traumatic mechanism operated not only with Hitler individually but with Germans collectively, and that it was from Hitler’s fusing of the two that there sprang his “incredible power of suggestion” over the German masses. He quotes Jung’s remark in October 1938:
He is the loud-speaker which magnifies the inaudible whispers of the German soul until they can be heard by the German’s conscious ear. He is the first man to tell every German what he has been thinking and feeling all along in his unconscious about German fate, especially since the defeat in the world war.
As Binion himself puts it, he appealed to “the pathology of nonacceptance of the 1918 defeat.” Hitler’s political mission was to undo and reverse that defeat.
From this he goes on to explore the way in which Hitler’s psychological needs found expression in the two major policies which led “to Auschwitz and Stalingrad respectively.” The first was to root out “the Jewish cancer” which had been responsible for that defeat as for his mother’s death. The second was to win back the Lebensraum, the “feeding ground” which Germany had gained in the East at Brest-Litovsk, then lost; and this conformed to the intense relationship with his mother who had relieved her own unhappiness by breast feeding and overmothering him in what Binion describes as “breast-and-mouth incest.”
Into Hitler’s anti-Semitism went, then, his traumatic thrust aligned on Germany’s; into his expansionism went Germany’s traumatic thrust steeped in his nursling’s libido.
So bald a summary does nothing like justice to the subtlety and skill of Mr. Binion’s argument, which he illustrates by a series of telling quotations from Hitler’s speeches and writings. Lacking the experience of a psychiatrist, I have no means of judging its validity, but what impresses me is the boldness with which he states his conclusions, making no concessions at all to those who may be skeptical about psychohistorical methods. In his preface he remarks that a collective mental process is hard to conceive of, “but that is not my fault. So is the individual mind as it is known from psychoanalysis,…with its unconscious perceptions and memory traces and built-in archaic fancies…. In the one case as in the other, causes are known only from their effects. Yet that is knowledge.” If in the end I remain in a state of suspended disbelief, it is not because of the unfamiliarity of the concepts and connections with which Mr. Binion works—these I can accept—but because I find it hard to believe that there can be a single explanation for so complex a phenomenon—although I acknowledge that it is precisely this which gives the book its intellectual force.
Robert Waite also employs psychohistorical methods, but does not stake so much on these or on a single throw as Binion. His preface, although it takes traditional historians (including myself) to task for our neglect of psychological factors, is disarming in its recognition of the reaction which “the facile use of psychological terminology” is likely to produce. “To label Hitler,” Professor Waite continues, “a ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ explains little…. Psychology should be seen as a supplement to other legitimate modes of historical inquiry, not as a substitute for them.”
Waite’s title The Psychopathic God is taken from the lines of Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:….
After so striking an opening fanfare, I found the first chapter disappointing. In it Waite assembles the evidence to provide a description of Hitler as a person: his lack of humor and rigidity, his obsession with time and death, with cleanliness and purity, his vegetarianism; the contradictory impulses which made him capable of both creation and destruction, of realism and fantasy, courage and cowardice. The description, however, remains a conventional one and it is only in the third of his five chapters, “The Child as Father to the Man,” that Professor Waite gets into his stride and gives us his version of the psychohistorian’s view of Hitler. He looks in turn at Hitler’s fear that he had a Jewish grandfather; at his relations with his father (whom he hated), and, more important, with his mother, with whom his ties were unusually close even if there was an element of ambivalence. From these he passes on to two features in the analysis on which he lays particular stress: the first is the fact (if it is a fact) that Hitler had only one testicle, the second a “primal scene trauma”—Hitler’s belief that as a child he had witnessed intercourse between his father and mother and the inhibiting effect of this on his own sex life.
Waite’s discussion of Hitler and sex recognizes the unsatisfactory and contradictory character of most of the testimony. I myself recall hearing Putzi Hanfstaengl maintain that Hitler had contracted syphilis, and then been cured, but left incapable of enjoying normal sexual relations, a thesis which he illustrated with incomparable vulgarity by the phrase (which he demonstrated on the piano) that “he could only play on the black notes, never on the white.” The medical evidence, however, appears to rule this out. Professor Waite also believes that Hitler was incapable of normal sexual relations, but for different reasons. For Hitler, he maintains, any woman with whom he was intimate was a mother-substitute; and his relations with them reflected the sadomasochism which he saw as characteristic of the relations between his parents. Specifically, Waite argues that he showed sadomasochistic tendencies with a coprophilic perversion.
If we object that most of this analysis is highly speculative, Waite’s reply is that “an historian dealing with an emotionally disturbed subject is obliged to use two quite different types of evidence.” One is the familiar kind of testimony which is often thought of as “solid,” objective, rational, or factual, but there is also another category of evidence, the sort of data with which the psychiatrist has to deal and which may prove equally valuable. While I do not believe that Professor Waite is necessarily right in the way he reads this evidence, I believe he does establish his case that “Hitler was a pathological personality whose career cannot be understood without a careful examination of his personal life.”
This was not, as Professor Waite reminds me, the view I expressed in an earlier review in this journal.* I have never doubted—who could?—the importance of the psychological dimension in Hitler’s case. What I have been skeptical about is whether there is a way in which to handle it satisfactorily. Waite’s psychohistorical analysis by itself would not convince me; what does is his combination of this with the discussion of political factors with which, as a traditional historian, I am much more at home. The original feature of his book is the attempt to bring the two together.
This second line of inquiry is pursued in two chapters, in the first of which Waite looks at Hitler’s mental world and gives the best account I have read, within the compass of sixty pages, of the genesis of his ideology. Rightly, in my view, Waite argues that Hitler, for all his tactical opportunism, took his own ideas seriously, meant what he said and practiced what he preached. It is necessary, therefore, to ask what Hitler read, what were his tastes in art, what were his key ideas—“Struggle, the Father of All Things,” Lebensraum, the concept of the Führer, racism and Volksgemeinschaft, the role of terror and propaganda—and who were the people who influenced him most—Wagner, for example, Dietrich Eckart, and so on.
Waite follows this by a further chapter, “The Past as Prologue: Hitler and History,” in which he looks at German history and picks out those elements which seem to him to help explain the extraordinary response of so many Germans to Hitler as leader. Much of the time the author uses a kind of shorthand to point to features that he has not the space to explore—for example, the authoritative character of German family life and education; the rejection of democracy by German intellectuals; the glorification of the state; anti-Semitism; the traumatic defeat of 1918. Within less than eighty pages there is not much more he can do, but he carries it off, partly because his shorthand references are authenticated by the kind of knowledge which comes only from long familiarity with a country’s history and culture, partly because he does not make the mistake of indicting the whole of German history or of suggesting that the Third Reich was its inevitable outcome.
Waite’s final chapter brings together the psychological, ideological, and historical strands in his book under the title “From Private Neurosis to Public Policy.” He prefaces it with Harold Lasswell’s remark from 1930: “In political leaders, private motives become projected and rationalized as public policy.” After looking at possible medical explanations of Hitler’s condition, such as Parkinson’s disease and the progressive coronary arteriosclerosis shown by wartime electrocardiograms, he comes down in favor of the “borderline personality” as the best description of Hitler’s behavior patterns. This is a term applied to those who, while mentally ill, can still function in some activities with great effectiveness. Their pathology differs from neurosis and is less severe than psychosis; they occupy a place on the borderline between the two. Waite then goes on to argue that the clinical experience which has been acquired of this type of personality can be used to illuminate not only Hitler’s personal life but his public attitudes and actions, including his extraordinary ability as an actor, his concentration on the Jews as scapegoats, his preparations for war, and his two self-destructive decisions (inaccurately described as “mistakes”): to invade Russia and to declare war on the United States.
Far from claiming to have produced a definitive study of Hitler (he ought to get a prize for this alone), Professor Waite deliberately leaves many questions unresolved. He does not offer, as Binion does, a simple, precise, and necessary connection between Hitler’s psychological characteristics and his political career. By comparison Waite’s conclusions may seem intellectually less rigorous and exciting, more diffuse and open; but this may seem an advantage to those who do not share Professor Binion’s superb confidence in the psychohistorical method he employs.
Waite’s study represents thinking in process, rather than a finished and polished product as Binion’s does, and this has the effect of prompting the reader to go on thinking for himself. Its great merit for me is that it does not discount the traditional historical approach in favor of the psychohistorical but sets out to combine the two and show that each requires the other to complement it. The result is a book that is not only continually interesting in itself but that may well point the way in which Hitler studies can most profitably develop in their next phase. For both reasons I would single it out from the books I have reviewed as the one most worth reading.
NYR, June 28, 1973.↩
NYR, June 28, 1973.↩