In 1952, reviewing the first edition of Alan Bullock’s biography of Hitler, the historian Lewis Namier began on a note of revulsion: “Must we talk of Hitler?” But he knew that we have no real choice in the matter: “We must, however distasteful the subject.” And nearly fifty years later, the answer remains the same.
Among recent books on the subject, Ron Rosenbaum’s stands somewhat apart. First, it is the work of a journalist, at a time when Hitler studies have become pretty much the preserve of academics. Secondly, it is concerned not so much with the story of Hitler himself, not in the first instance at least, as with “the story of the stories”—with Hitler’s interpreters, and what they have made of him. How did he come to be the thing he was? How much cold calculation went into his career, how much fanaticism? How far was his “greatness” the product of external circumstances? How can we account for his sheer evil? Looking for the answers that have been proposed to such questions, Rosenbaum has conducted a one-man trek across extensive tracts of scholarship and speculation. In the course of it, along with his forays into the archives, he has interviewed numerous specialists—historians, philosophers, theologians, miscellaneous pundits. He describes his meetings with them, expounds their views, and (since he is no mere passive recorder) debates the issues with himself.
The results of his investigation are uneven. He is a lively writer, but his liveliness sometimes propels him into specious analogies or journalese. (An unhappy instance is his description of the bank vault where Hugh Trevor-Roper fell under the spell of the forged Hitler diaries, when he was invited to examine them, as “Trevor-Roper’s own bunker.”) He also has a way of presenting himself as though he were engaged in an adventure story, a comic-book quest for the buried clue which will explain everything; and though there may well be a touch of deliberate parody at such moments, it doesn’t make them seem any less out of key with the matter in hand.
Above all, on the debit side, his choice of both themes and interviewees is lopsided. He devotes too much time to the wilder excesses of psychohistory, and to the many claims, none of them supported by evidence, that Hitler’s anti-Semitism had its source in his ill-fated dealings with this or that individual Jew (some say a prostitute, some say the family doctor) or in an urge to dissociate himself as drastically as possible from his supposed Jewish ancestry. Conversely, the book largely ignores a number of major aspects of Hitler’s career—his performance as a military commander, for instance—and it doesn’t include a sufficiently wide sampling of mainstream historians. The most obvious gap is that there aren’t any Germans among the writers and scholars Rosenbaum sought out: his enquiry would certainly have been better balanced and more illuminating for the presence of someone like Joachim Fest.
Yet the weaknesses of Explaining Hitler are easily outweighed by its virtues. It is both thoughtful and deeply felt, and in some ways its personal, freewheeling qualities enable Rosenbaum to get closer to the demonic element in Hitler than he would have done if he had been a professional historian. Not that the best historians don’t allow for that element. There is something particularly impressive, in this respect, in Rosenbaum’s account of how Alan Bullock gradually came to revise his initial view of Hitler as essentially another politician, a cynical manipulator: the most common-sensical of Hitler’s biographers ends up invoking Nietzsche (“Men believe in the truth of all that is seen to be strongly believed…”). And in the massive new biography which seems set to replace Bullock, Ian Kershaw constantly keeps in sight the impact of Hitler the man himself, with his corrosive personal qualities, as opposed to Hitler the supposed creature of impersonal forces, the mere epiphenomenon of political and economic history.* Yet neither Kershaw nor Bullock quite conveys—as Rosenbaum intermittently does—the sense of the uncanny which Hitler’s personality gives off, the limitlessly bad vibes. Their professional discipline won’t allow them to: they are too levelheaded.
There is a freshness in Rosenbaum’s approach, too, which can lend pungency to what might otherwise have seemed routine perceptions. Hitler may have been described times beyond number as a criminal, for instance, but the word takes on new resonance as you read Rosenbaum’s account of the campaign waged against him in the 1920s by a Munich paper, the Münchener Post (a campaign for which the Nazis exacted savage revenge once they came to power). To sample the Post‘s exposés—and it was on to Hitler from the very outset of his political career—is to realize how un-Wagnerian and nontitanic he and his associates seemed to their early opponents, how mired they were in the dirtiest forms of criminality: murder, for a start, along with what Rosenbaum calls their “signature crimes” of counterfeiting and blackmail. Indeed, immersion in the files of the Post tempts Rosenbaum to conclude (rather in the manner of Brecht’s Arturo Ui) that Hitler was a gangster first and an ideologue second, that he simply dressed up his criminal instincts in ideological garb. I don’t think that this represents his settled opinion—it is inconsistent with things he says elsewhere in the book—but it is a forceful reminder of one aspect of Nazism which should never be played down.
A little gangster, a beer-hall agitator, and before that, in his Vienna years, a flophouse dropout… Yet this was the man who rose to be master of Germany, and to plunge the world into war. Even in a century of convulsions, his story surely remains the most extraordinary. However familiar it is, there are still times when it can seem like something which could never really have happened—a bad dream.
It was in Hitler’s interest, of course, and a key part of his appeal, to depict himself as a man of destiny. (Mein Kampf is heavy with invocations of Fate.) Historians, on the other hand, are hardly likely to buy into such a notion. His career was only made possible, they insist, first by World War I and then by the Great Depression. He could never have come to power without the support of his friends, the mistakes of his enemies, and the maneuverings of those who thought they could make use of him. And all of this is unarguable, up to a point. The actor needed an audience, and financial backers. The opportunist would have got nowhere if there hadn’t been opportunities for him to seize.
Yet one can easily make too little of Hitler’s personal qualities as well as too much. In assessing the difference he made, one is forced to play the game of alternative history; but in this particular case the alternatives deserve more serious consideration than in most. Suppose Hitler had been killed during the failed 1923 Munich putsch, for example (as he very nearly was). It is quite possible that a nationalistic and militarist government would still have come to power in Germany ten years later, but it is far from certain that it would have been positively Nazi in character.
Nowhere were Hitler’s political skills and his self-belief more in evidence than in his success in stamping his authority on the radical right in the lean years after 1923, and preventing it from fragmenting. Could anyone else have done the job? Gregor Strasser, perhaps, or one of the minor völkisch leaders who flit through the pages of Hitler’s biographies? We shall never know, but it doesn’t seem very likely. And supposing he had met his end sometime during the 1930s. Can we really feel sure that everything would have gone on in the same way under his successor, or even that his satraps would have been able to agree on a successor? Commentators nowadays often describe him as a “weak” dictator; they marvel at his indolence once he was in power, and at the number of decisions he left to others. But this is to take altogether too rational a view of an irrational situation. However much time he frittered away by normal standards, he performed two essential services for his regime twenty-four hours a day: he provided it with an emotional focus, and he held it together.
Rosenbaum is too sensible to suppose that explaining Hitler is the same thing as explaining Nazism, and it is entirely legitimate for him to confine himself to his chosen territory. Within that territory, he concentrates, understandably, on the most intimate and deep-rooted aspects of Hitler’s personality, on his inner life rather than his day-to-day actions. Three themes preoccupy him in particular—the attempt to make sense of Hitler psychologically, the attempt to make sense of him morally, and the attempt to trace the course of his ideas as they developed and hardened.
Rosenbaum’s dealings with psychobiography are quite often amusing (he is a connoisseur of oddities) but not especially profitable, partly because psychobiography hasn’t proved very profitable itself. It can in fact be rather more rewarding than he suggests: he finds space, if only to demolish them, for the absurd theories of Alice Miller and Erich Fromm, (respectively demonizing Hitler’s father and Hitler’s mother), but fails to mention the psychoanalytically slanted pages devoted to Hitler in Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, which must surely be the best of their kind. And I can’t help thinking he is a little too pat in his dismissal of what he calls “the Party of Perversion”—those commentators who have claimed that Hitler entertained and possibly acted out abnormal bedroom fantasies, “golden showers” and the like. You don’t have to be a psychobiographer to feel that there was something murky about his sexuality. Still, even if the School of Perversion could be shown to be right beyond the shadow of a doubt, what would it prove? Lots of men have indulged without undue fuss in the practices which get attributed to Hitler in hushed tones; very few of them (as far as one knows) have shown any inclination to behave like Hitler in other respects. And by the same token, would we have to conclude that he was somehow more “normal” if he had been happily married—like Himmler, for example?
In the end, the gulf between his personal hang-ups and the amount of misery he brought into the world is simply too vast to bridge. Yet if you step back to consider Nazism as a whole, there is a certain symbolic rightness in all the speculations about sexual neurosis. Nazi atrocities were characterized to an unprecedented degree by sadism (as opposed to simple brutality or even blood lust). Sustained, institutionalized torture was as much a Nazi goal as murder; not for nothing have Nazi uniforms and emblems been incorporated into the world of pornography, and it is tempting to feel that in spirit, at least, that is where the Führer himself belongs.
Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (Norton, to be published in January 1999).↩
Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (Norton, to be published in January 1999).↩