Man of the People?

The Hitler of History

by John Lukacs
Knopf, 279 pp., $26.00

We are now approaching the end of another century, an event that always arouses the liveliest excitement among inhabitants of the Western world, to whom it seems important as a way station in their passage through time, a significant pause convenient for assessing the past and projecting the future, an occasion above all for compiling lists. It was a sign of the fin de siècle mood when time magazine announced in August that it intended in the months ahead to celebrate the one hundred persons of our era who have had the greatest impact on the world and the way we’ll live in the future, an exercise that will culminate at the end of 1999 with the naming of the Person of the Century. The editors invited their readers to make nominations and put forward what appeared to be a tentative list of their own: Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Lenin, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Marlon Brando, Einstein, Picasso, Mother Teresa, and Jackie Robinson.

The most striking thing about this scrappy catalog is that it excludes the person best qualified to meet the announced criteria, namely, Adolf Hitler. In a century of violence, he was its embodiment from the day he pulled Germany out of the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations in October 1933 until his death in the ruins of Berlin twelve years later. The greatest war in history is incomprehensible without an understanding of his role in unleashing it, and he was responsible for all of the dreadful consequences that flowed from it. In a brilliant essay twenty years ago, Sebastian Haffner wrote,

Today’s world, whether we like it or not, is the work of Hitler. Without Hitler there would have been no partition of Germany and Europe;…without Hitler, there would be no Israel; without Hitler there would be no de-colonization, at least not such a rapid one; there would be no Asian, Arab, or Black African emancipation, and no diminution of European preeminence.

All of this is reflected in the extraordinary interest shown, not only by historians but by ordinary citizens, in his life and career. The number of books, articles, films, and television programs devoted to them is greater than in the case of any of the other national leaders of the century, and fifty years after his death there is little sign that this preoccupation is waning. Indeed, the words of a German historian, Gerhard Schreiber, in the 1980s, “We are not finished with Hitler,” are truer today than when they were written.

John Lukacs quotes Schreiber’s words on the first page of his new book on Hitler, and they might very well serve as its motto. Lukacs is no stranger to the Hitler period. In 1976 he wrote a highly original study of the first phase of World War II, and in 1991 he followed this up with a dramatic account of what he called the duel …

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Letters

The Hitler of History’ February 19, 1998