Farewell to Hitler

Hitler: The Führer and the People June.)

by J. P. Stern
Fontana (London), 256 pp., 80 pence (to be published by the University of California Press in

Documents on Nazism, 1919-1945

introduced and edited by Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham
Viking, 704 pp., $20.00

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler; drawing by David Levine

Thirty years ago, at the beginning of 1945, Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was coming to an end. A few weeks later, on April 30—after destroying his dog Blondi (probably the only living creature for which he felt genuine affection) and marrying his mistress, Eva Braun—Hitler committed suicide. The world was well rid of him. And yet, thirty years later, Hitler continues to fascinate—and mystify.

Personally, I find it hard to share the fascination, given what Hitler’s latest biographer calls “the sheer unpleasantness and deeply unattractive character of the man.” The mystification is easier to understand. In part at least, it reflects the fact that the more we know about Hitler—the more facts about his life that are brought together, the more documents that are shifted—the more elusive, as a person, he seems to become. More fundamentally, it springs from the difficulty of understanding how so mediocre a person could exercise such power, how he could win the support (as he assuredly did) of the great majority of Germans (including many who had opposed or simply ignored him down to 1933), how he could dominate ten years of German and European history. As J. P. Stern writes: “The facts of the case—chief among them the metamorphosis of the Nobody of Vienna into the Leader of Greater Germany—are so extraordinary that where they are left to ‘tell their own story’ they make hardly any sense at all.”

That, in the end, is the real source of the mystification. You may say, if you wish, that it is the central problem of Hitler biography. And it is, of course, an interesting question. But it is also true that preoccupation with Hitler as a person can get us off on the wrong footing. The danger of a biographical approach is that it may lead us to believe—as many people seem to do—that if only we can amass enough knowledge of Hitler the man, of his personality and ideas, we shall somehow have found the clue to such things as the rise of National Socialism, the nature of fascism, or the “Final Solution.”

It may be true (as Stern puts it) that it was Hitler alone, “the figure at the center,” who “guaranteed the survival of the Nazi state,” that National Socialism is inconceivable without Hitler, that the only things that held together the incredible array of jealous, hostile, contradictory, and conflicting factions and institutions which we call Nazi Germany were the promises, cajolings, threats, appeals, self-assurance, realism, and fantasies of this one man. I think myself that this is the case. But it does not mean that we can explain National Socialism in terms of Hitler alone. And as for fascism, a far more comprehensive phenomenon, it is certainly a question whether National Socialism is simply fascism writ large, carried (if you like) to its logical extreme, or whether it was not in fact specifically…

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