Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler; drawing by David Levine

The Hitler Wave still rolls. Living rooms and movie houses resound to the Badenweiler March, to the ill-recorded shrieks of that accent from Austria’s Appalachians. Month by month, new Chapters One address themselves to the subject of that impious, unknown somebody who rifled his way into the petticoats of Maria Anna Schicklgruber and dealt Hitler a father. The books are now clearly divided into at least two groups. One is Hitlerology which, while usually served up as “debunking the myths which surround the figure of,” in fact strongly reinforces the myth that would make Hitler the only proper focus of attention in the Third Reich.

The other part of the Hitler wave deals with more interesting material, the growing body of work which tries to reconstruct the continuities of German history, and which suggests that social and institutional changes were taking place in Germany between 1933 and 1945 that owed little to Hitler’s ideology or character but none the less engendered much of the landscape of the two German republics today. As Professor Barraclough has written here, “Whereas liberal historians were more interested in the roots of Nazism and how it came about…the younger generation is concerned with what Nazism was, with seeing how it actually operated after 1933…” (NYR, November 2, 1972).

Good luck to the American students who turn up asking for SA and police files in small German towns which had almost forgotten that they still kept them! But there is a caution to enter as well. The old roots-of-Nazism problem is being gradually abandoned by the best historians before it has been solved to anything like general agreement. Granted by most students: it is not enough to summarize all the fetid little racists who may or may not have influenced Hitler in Vienna and Munich. But it must also be granted that studies of voting and allegiance patterns, class by class, land by land, in the Weimar Republic are not going to answer the question of why Nazism happened either. Because, in this case, the question of how is not enough. Why becomes a new question when the quantity of unsolved hows passes a critical limit and suffers a change of quality. This process is still taking place in studies of Germany in the twentieth century.

Almost a year ago, Professor Alan Bullock wrote in these pages that “[Hitler’s] personal life was meager, banal, and boring, and (more important) throws little if any light on his place in history…. Once Hitler becomes absorbed in politics [the personal-psychological method] proves to lead nowhere.” This is a warning against all sorts of industrial diseases of Hitlerology, from the Great Undescended Ball Game to collating defeats on the Ostfront against the anti-flatulent injections Hitler received from Dr. Morell. But it should not be taken to mean that Hitler’s personality and its effects can be discarded as a serious subject for investigation.

…then suddenly the speech gathered momentum. I was caught. I was listening…. I felt alternately hot and cold. I didn’t know what was happening. It was as though guns were thundering…. I was beside myself. I was shouting “Hurrah!” Nobody seemed surprised. The man up there looked at me for one moment. His blue eyes met mine like a flame. This was a command. At that moment I was reborn.

This was Josef Goebbels, encountering Adolf Hitler for the first time in 1922 in the Zirkus Krone, at Munich. He was to be the hardest little skeptic of them all, the managing director of the national lie corporation. And yet his surrender to Hitler was girlish and total. “His picture is standing on my table. I simply could not bear it if I ever had to despair of this man.”

Sebastian Haffner, greatest of living German journalists, once became annoyed with sociological explanations for the rise of fascism in Germany, and expostulated: “This is Hamlet without the Prince.” There is a very great deal still to be said about why the Weimar superstructure was not convincing, how radicalism and anti-Semitism developed among the small-town middle class, what attitudes the organized working class took toward National Socialism: all is worth saying, but none of it disposes of Hitler’s own influence and magnetism. I would trade a good many books on Bohemian-German pioneers of anti-Semitism for a treatise on the manner in which this man imposed himself upon others, on “Hitler in the Age of Will.”

The cult of Will corresponds to the gap between medieval notions of functional qualification and the resignation of the individual, and modern assumptions of equal opportunity guaranteed by a state. More closely, the Age of Will was the time when past bourgeois revolutions were failing to satisfy the ambitions of new layers created by the industrial revolution, in which theories of self-improvement abounded, in which copies of books about how to write letters, talk respectably, and observe etiquette were sold by the million. The tradition of popular self-help literature begins in the early nineteenth century and reaches forward through Samuel Smiles to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published as recently as 1938.


Above all, this tradition is concerned with the technique of “bending others to your Will,” a learnable skill for “getting on.” In the early twentieth century especially, such doctrines flourished among young men who had benefited from universal education but were unable to surmount the ramparts of a class-structured and hierarchic society which coldly invited them to “know their place.” Hitler was one of these, terrified by a glimpse into his father’s office where hopeless clerks scribbled themselves toward retirement like monkeys crowded into a cage, just such a victim of education for disappointment. And Hitler, who set to developing his will power as others developed their muscles in front of mirrors, was the supreme product of the Age of Will. Lazy and erratic in so many things, he never neglected his study of the techniques of bringing the will to bear.

Much of this can be extracted from Joachim Fest’s biography. It is a huge, exhaustive, and exhausting book, but it is never dull and regularly interrupts the unloading of fact with intelligent and sometimes brilliant reflections. It is, basically, an old-fashioned piece of work: its armature is a personal biography of Hitler’s development, ideas, and reactions to events, around which the whole diplomatic, political, and social history of the period is then stuck like an outer shell, taking inevitably the form of the skeleton within. The argument that many of these elements of history do not meaningfully conform to Hitler’s own life and will is thus left without a real answer by Fest. However, he is clear of many faults or difficulties which obstructed his predecessors. He does not feel obliged to claim—as a German historian—that Nazism was the inevitable outcome of the weaknesses of Weimar, or, on the other hand, that the Third Reich was a terrible break in German continuity brought about by the madness of one individual and without an organic relationship to the past and the future.

Fest is insistent that Nazism had a strength that was authentic: in other words, not merely deriving from the terrorism and manipulation of a tiny minority operating in a bewildered and impressionable mass.

The success of fascism…was in large part due to its perceiving the essence of the crisis…. All the other parties affirmed the process of industrialization and emancipation, whereas the fascists, evidently sharing the universal anxiety, tried to deal with it by translating it into violent action and histrionics.

Communism and liberalism, Fest suggests, seemed to be part of the disease they offered to cure, to be proposing more lurid experiments in the dungeons just as the monsters of industrialization were turning on their Frankensteins and laying the world waste.

While admitting this strength, however, Fest produces an account of the 1932-1933 crisis which shows, as convincingly as any yet written, that Hitler did not have to emerge from it as chancellor. The decline of the Nazis, so glaringly apparent at the November elections for the Reichstag and subsequent local elections, the steady rise in communist support, and the apparent stabilization of the center parties would probably have marked the end of the phase of Nazi threat if Schleicher and Papen had not embarked on their fatal competition to “hire the man for our own show.”

This Nazi decline need not, of course, have been terminal: one can imagine a later political recovery in the right circumstances. But those circumstances would have been less probable. Any government based on this center bloc recovery, even with the Social Democrats, would have been drawn into accelerated, if illegal, rearmament, stimulating the economic recovery which was on its way to Germany in any case.

Almost all the “revisionist” perceptions brought to this period in recent years find a place in Fest’s book. Here we come across the phrase “institutional Darwinism” to describe Hitler’s method of government, with departments of state frustrating one another in a gruesome and highly inefficient struggle for the triumph of the fittest. Here is David Schoenbaum’s concept of “social revolution,” the paradox that Germany was transformed irrevocably into an urban, industrialized society by a party which proclaimed that it was turning back to the sacred soil of the Volk and rescuing eternal values from the asphalt alienation of the cities.

Fest also takes account of studies of working-class reservations about Nazism, with the miserable Nazi showing in works-council elections in 1935. The teaching of Fischer and Geiss, that German war aims in the first war were violently expansionist and show continuity with many Nazi goals, he accepts with—one senses—a faint reluctance. He also includes Dahrendorf’s idea, so shocking in its time, that Hitler played an indispensable part in driving Germans into public life and away from the antipolitical passivity of the authoritarian past—thus making future West Germany safe for middle-class parliamentary democracy.


To some extent, Fest has produced a new teleology, a myth of origin, for the Federal Republic. He sees Hitler as the unintentional midwife of future urban liberalism, a man “ossified” in nineteenth-century concepts of race and territory who made the last, vain attempt “to hold old Europe to the conditions that had made for her one-time greatness” (the translation, as that quotation shows, is not elegant). In effect, his rule should be seen as “the terrorist or Jacobin phase of a widespread social revolution that propelled Germany into the twentieth century…once and for all, he cut off the retreat back to the authoritarian state of the past.”

This is impressive, if derivative. But there is something unconvincing, an air of decoration rather than of structure, about some of these remarks. Fest is certainly no conservative, in German terms: his judgment on the last uprising of the old ruling class in the July 20 plot is very harsh (“none of their ideas and values have come down to the present day”). And yet there are blindnesses. He is contemptuous of Poland, regarding Chamberlain’s guarantee to fight for the “German city of Danzig” as an eccentric blunder. He ignores the German left almost totally

Finally, he makes an error which is inherent in the approach he has chosen: he claims that Hitler succeeded because of his normality rather than his demonism, because the “normality” of his age was just that desperate, boundless extremism under an exterior of cake-munching, hypochondriac dreariness which was to be found in Hitler and which he uncovered in others. “He was not so much the great contradiction of the age as its mirror image.” This is a bold thought, and tenable. But the nonbiographical parts of Fest’s book show that Hitler’s personal power over others was the reason that he came to the threshold of success, not the reason he succeeded. That last step was arranged by educated, experienced gentlemen over whom Hitler—regarded as a squalid upstart who would probably steal the Chancellery teaspoons—had no hypnotic power at all.

The Fest biography is most effective when discussing Hitler himself. The pattern of life is weirdly adolescent. Hours, days are spent loafing about, gobbling cream cakes and fiddling with sketches for an arch to make the Arc de Triomphe look like a mousehole. Then, suddenly, the leap into movement, hurling himself to ten rallies a night in the old Munich days or, as Führer, back and forth across the Reich by aircraft and supercharged Mercedes. Like T. E. Lawrence, this was a man who had to lie, in order to make his lies come true, and to whom a lottery ticket which didn’t win was the evidence of a swindle—or that Fate had rejected him forever. Fest asks if politics “ever meant more to him than the means he employed to practice it: rhetorical overpowering of his enemies, for example, or the histrionics of processions….”

This sort of speculation is not the bent of Werner Maser in Hitler: Legend, Myth and Reality. His book, in many ways a strange one, is the result of some very minute research which has become the springboard for other people’s imaginative leaps since its publication in Germany. Maser takes us, for instance, as far into Maria Anna’s petticoats as anybody can reasonably wish to go. An entire appendix is devoted to a list of the sinister muck which Dr. Morell used to inject into Hitler’s bloodstream. Another appendix covers “Daily routine and menu.”

All this detail is perhaps more grotesque and interesting than Maser realizes. His own approach to biographical research is solemn, as well as thorough, and there is a distinct impression that he shares some of Hitler’s hypochondria. Maser certainly connects Hitler’s health to the war news with great thoroughness: “By degrees Hitler’s health began to improve although, as 1941 drew to a close, the situation in Africa failed to develop along the lines he would have wished.” Maser also obliges by playing the Ball Game vigorously against the Russians, who enraged the Germans by claiming that the Führer’s charred corpse had only one testicle.

We get a reproduced electrocardiogram of Hitler’s heart, and a really detailed description of Hitler’s genitals in middle age (a powerful, if not set-winning, stroke in the Ball Game). To his credit, Maser defies the entire consensus of biographers by claiming that Hitler was “undeniably good” as an artist. To his discredit, he repeats the proven lie that Eugen Leviné, a leader of the Munich “Soviet” republic in 1919, kept milk from bourgeois babies to let them starve. Maser has evidently read Lorenz and Ardrey, and no prospective reader should miss his presentation of Hitler’s empurpled rages as animal intimidation display in a context of territorial overcrowding.

Professor Rich’s Hitler’s War Aims falls into two parts of unequal interest. His first section, an account of the Nazi governmental and police bureaucracy as it developed during the war and in occupied territories, is useful but hardly fresh, and the same could be said about the plain narrative of events in Nazi foreign policy which follows. One remark here, that Germany abandoned “fruitless pursuit of a colonial policy,” would be challenged by some British historians.

Much more interesting are two sections later in the book: Professor Rich’s pages on Hitler’s relationship with Franco, with the efforts to tempt Spain into closing the western Mediterranean to Britain, and then a long examination of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States. This apparently unhinged act “created a situation which virtually guaranteed Germany’s ultimate defeat,” but proceeded from an earlier promise to enter a war with the United States if Japan should become involved in one. Professor Rich argues that Hitler was well aware of America’s military strength, which contradicts the legend that the declaration was the result of sheer, contemptuous underestimation.

Hitler made extraordinary efforts, against the protests of his navy, to avoid any provocation to the United States. But as time went by in 1941, he became aware that this leniency was encouraging American assistance to his enemies rather than dissuading it, and a series of “unfriendly acts” convinced him that Roosevelt was seeking a pretext to enter the war. If it was thus inevitable that America would fight him, Hitler may have reasoned, there remained no reason to dishonor his pledge to Japan when and if it should be called upon.

Another book which is interesting to read although without pretensions to original research is Horst von Maltitz’s work on Nazi ideology and origins. He pulls together various interpretations of German history, offering an introduction to the whole subject, but he is at times credulous—he records the extravagant and certainly malicious tales about Hitler’s sexual perversions—and also trite (“anti-Semitism has been remarkably persistent for 2,000 years”). Less worthy is a curious picture book which consists of photographs by Hoffmann, Hitler’s court photographer, and short extracts from Hitler’s Table Talk. Hitler Close-Up claims that the pictures are all by Hoffmann, but how he contrived to take shots of Churchill and de Gaulle in wartime I would be more than interested to hear.

If there is to be a picture book, let it be Sieg Heil!, produced by Stefan Lorant, who escaped from the Nazis to give Britain the illustrated weekly Picture Post, and became the king of London photo-magazine journalists. This book brings back all the lurid flavor of the poor, dead Picture Post: its cover is an outrageous photomontage by John Heartfield, and its contents—pictures, captions, and layouts—have the same old Lorant touch. This is first-class, justified propaganda: the right illustrations for all the books written about Germany since 1933, and the best introduction to them.

This Issue

April 18, 1974