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The Nazi Boom

The Bunker: The History of the Reich Chancellery Group

by James P. O’Donnell
Houghton Mifflin, 399 pp., $13.95

On Trial at Nuremberg

by Airey Neave
Little, Brown, 348 pp., $12.95

The Secretary: Martin Bormann, The Man Who Manipulated Hitler

by Jochen von Lang, with the assistance of Claus Sibyll, translated by Christa Armstrong, by Peter White
Random House, 430 pp., $15.95

Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1919-1933

by James Pool, by Suzanne Pool
Dial Press, 535 pp., $10.95

Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult

by Dusty Sklar
Crowell, 180 pp., $9.95

A Backward Look: Germans Remember

by Daniel Lang
McGraw-Hill, 112 pp., $8.95

I

It all reads like a movie scenario,” writes James P. O’Donnell at one point, as he recounts the lurid goings-on in Hitler’s underground bunker in Berlin in 1945—the wish, no doubt, being father to the thought. The same verdict, unfortunately, applies to far too much recent writing about Nazi Germany. In part, I suppose, we must attribute this to the success of “Holocaust,” and the prospect it holds out of another golden jackpot for another lucky author. But I suspect the trouble reaches further back—to Walter Langer and his progeny of psychohistorians.1 Once historians began prying into Hitler’s sex life and alleged sexual aberrations, anything was permissible, provided it was sordid, scurrilous, and scandalous enough.

On this score no one will find James P. O’Donnell’s book disappointing. It has, I am informed, “been getting a lot of attention.” Scandal and prurience apart, I cannot think why. Someone, I suppose, may be titillated by learning (if it is true) that Albert Speer was involved with the film star Leni Riefenstahl, or that Eva Braun’s sister, Gretl, “the nymphomaniac of the Obersalzberg,” may (or may not) have had an abortion performed by the notorious Dr. Morell. Even if true, this sort of gossip is hardly going to affect our judgment of the Nazi phenomenon or help us to understand its hold over the German people.

The question whether it is true does not appear to worry Mr. O’Donnell unduly. His “composite account,” as he calls it, is distilled from interviews with fifty or more garrulous, vindictive, vain, self-serving, quarrelsome old men, who contradict each other at almost every point. Even if they were honest—and some certainly were lying or embroidering, not least of all Albert Speer, who figures high on Mr. O’Donnell’s list of “major witnesses”—it would be a miracle, after thirty years, if their memories were reliable. But Mr. O’Donnell, so he tells us, is not concerned with “historical truth.” What he is looking for is “psychological truth.”

If I confess that I find this distinction somewhat baffling, I suppose I shall be accused of being simple-minded. It is a risk I shall have to take, and since I am committed (pedantically, no doubt) to what Mr. O’Donnell calls “the kind of documentation an academic historian insists on,” I cannot pretend that his book fills me with enthusiasm. In any case, once you have subtracted long, involved, and inherently improbable stories, such as the saga of the imaginary spy “whimsically called Mata O’Hara,” it tells you nothing of substance about the last days of Hitler that you cannot find, more persuasively, in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account, published as long ago as 1947. 2 Mr. O’Donnell, to his credit, describes Trevor-Roper’s book as “basically accurate.” I wish I could say as much of his.

The difference between Trevor-Roper’s book and Mr. O’Donnell’s is that the former had a serious practical purpose—namely, to scotch possible rumors that Hitler might still be alive—whereas the object of the latter, not to put too fine a point on it, is sensationalism pure and simple. It may perhaps be argued that Mr. O’Donnell’s book helps to deepen our knowledge of Nazism by showing that “the entourage around Germany’s demon king” was made up (as the blurb on the jacket puts it) of “psychopaths, quasi-criminals and looneys.” But even that is questionable. Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich lasted, it is true, a bare twelve years; but it is hard to think that it would have lasted even as long as that if he had been surrounded by nothing but jailbirds and lunatics.

Of course, it would be equally wrong to fall into the opposite error and think of them as supermen. Hannah Arendt, in particular, insisted on the sheer ordinariness of the Nazi bureaucracy, from Himmler down to Eichmann. This was, for her, one of the paradoxes of Nazism, and she spent much time and effort analyzing and explaining it.3 Airey Neave, the British officer who served the indictments on the defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1945, emphasizes the same point in his latest book.4 Perhaps the most startling—and in many ways most disturbing—fact about the perpetrators of the Holocaust is the discovery that they were “ordinary people”—doctors, teachers, lawyers, businessmen, like you and me. As for Hitler’s chief lieutenants, Airey Neave writes, “they were evil, second-rate and corrupt.” “I know,” he adds. “I saw them face to face.” It is a less melodramatic characterization than Mr. O’Donnell’s, but I suspect it is a good deal more accurate.

One of the defendants Major Neave (as he then was) did not see, because he was absent and has remained absent ever since, was Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery since 1941 and Hitler’s personal secretary since 1943. If he had, the result could only have been to confirm his verdict. Bormann was, in my view, one of the least corrupt of the Nazi upper echelon. But that he was second-rate, or even third-rate, is beyond all doubt; and nothing is more preposterous, in retrospect, than the myth that this mediocrity, of whom practically no one had heard in 1945, was cut out—if somehow the Nazis had wriggled out of defeat—to succeed Hitler as the future ruler of Germany.

The myth had a long run. It owed its currency in part to the other defendants at Nuremberg, who poured blame on the absent Bormann’s head, building him up in this way into a sort of éminence grise, in the vain hope of saving their own skins. It was kept going by the fact that he was the only leading figure whose fate could not be traced. This led to the story—grist to the mill of the Western gutter-press—that he had escaped and was waiting, in Argentina or elsewhere, to stage a comeback as (in James P. O’Donnell’s words) Hitler’s “emissary to the future.”

There was, needless to say, never a pennyworth of truth in this story, and the main contribution of Jochen von Lang’s new biography of the Führer’s secretary is to demolish it. His account of the part he played in proving, so far as anything can be proved at this distance of time, that Bormann perished in 1945, is convincing enough, and at least clears up a minor mystery. But beyond that I can find nothing of importance about Bormann in Herr von Lang’s 400-page-long book that Joachim Fest did not tell us in eleven pages in 1963.5 This is not surprising, because, as Fest observes, “there is not a single event in Bormann’s life that bears an individual stamp.” The story of the way he edged himself forward step by step from small beginnings as a Party hack in Thuringia might be that of a score of other middle-ranking Nazi officials. The only difference is that it carried him eventually into Hitler’s inner circle. But that was more luck than cunning, the accidental result of Hess’s flight to England, which unexpectedly left a niche for him to fill.

For Herr von Lang, Bormann was a man of inordinate ambition and “a remarkably talented manager who steered the Nazi engine…so successfully that during the war years he became the secret ruler of Germany.” That is the accepted stereotype, based on the charges leveled against Bormann by the other defendants at Nuremberg. But as their stories are tainted and suspect, I doubt if there is much truth in it.

To begin with, I cannot think of any evidence that Bormann “steered” anything, at least before 1943. It is true that he made some effort, as head of the Party Chancellery, to enforce discipline, particularly among the Nazi “old guard” and Gauleiters, for whom the Party was often little more than an instrument of self-aggrandizement and petty tyranny. This was very necessary, particularly as the Russians started to close in, but it hardly makes Bormann into “a remarkably talented manager.” In reality the distinctive thing about him was that he was the perfect subordinate, a servant with an extraordinary capacity for hard work which—in an entourage where hard work was the exception rather than the rule—was undoubtedly what recommended him to Hitler. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that he was motivated far more by devotion and conviction than by ambition and self-interest. As Hitler himself said, “I can absolutely rely on my orders being carried out by Bormann immediately and in spite of all obstacles.”

By no means all the characterizations of Bormann that have come down to us are derogatory. Probably the best and most convincing is that of the former Nazi Gauleiter in Thuringia, who describes him as Hitler’s “most hard-working, honest and selfless retainer.” The contrast with the conventional picture is obvious. It may not seem to matter much, but if we are seriously concerned with understanding the Nazi regime, it matters a great deal. The one thing Bormann never was, was “the man who manipulated Hitler.” I doubt if such a thought would ever have entered his mind. Whatever stature Bormann had was borrowed from Hitler, and without Hitler he was nothing, as he perfectly well understood. “When all is said and done,” he wrote at the end, “the Führer is the Führer: where should we be without him?”

These facts are important for anyone interested in the real history, rather than the melodramatic, scandal-mongering history of the Third Reich. Mr. O’Donnell’s racy picture of the last days in the bunker below the Reich Chancellery—“free-flowing liquor,” “wild parties,” generals chasing “half-naked Blitzmaedel”—may be good entertainment. But what is significant and astounding is the way, in reality, the routine went on. Secretaries typed memoranda nobody would read. Emissaries went out into the night with orders nobody would obey. Ritter von Greim flew in to take over command of an air force which was no longer operational. Bormann slaved away at his desk, as though the Third Reich were still a going concern. It is a macabre picture, no doubt; what makes it macabre is not the occasional outbreaks of hysteria and profligacy, but the strange orderliness and discipline, kept going by Hitler’s personal ascendancy, even when he had ceased to exist as a personality.

If Hitler was in command at the end, he was also in command at the beginning. Thirty or forty years ago it was common to take the opposite view and depict him, in his early years before 1933, as a puppet or figurehead, manipulated and financed by big business in its own interest. The legend was nurtured, pretty deliberately, by sensationalists, scandal mongers, and apologists of one sort or another, among them the Ruhr steel magnate Fritz Thyssen, whose book I Paid Hitler created quite a sensation when it appeared in 1941. But the legend has long been discredited, and it is to be hoped that the new book by James and Suzanne Pool will not give it new currency.

  1. 1

    Walter Langer, The Mind of Adolf Hitler (Basic Books, 1972).

  2. 2

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (Macmillan, 1947).

  3. 3

    See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (revised edition, Penguin, 1977), and The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966).

  4. 4

    Airey Neave was killed by terrorists in London after this review was written.

  5. 5

    Joachim Fest, Das Gesicht des Dritten Reiches (Piper, Munich, 1963); English translation, The Face of the Third Reich (Pantheon, 1970).

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