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 German in its connotations. The distinguished German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher said quite definitely that National Socialism was “completely attuned to the German situation”—by which he meant that it was unlike fascism as we find it in other countries and only possible in the peculiar political and social environment which took shape in Bismarck’s Germany and persisted into the Weimar Republic.

Hitler may have incorporated a particular German form of fascism—though personally I doubt it—but he certainly did not create it. Fascism in Germany was a phenomenon of post-war turmoil and unrest, and Hitler was not the only right-wing extremist in the early 1920s to be impressed by events in Italy. But what distinguished him from adventurers like Ehrhardt was the speed with which he abandoned the fascist model, once the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 showed him that there was no chance of seizing power by a march on Berlin parallel to Mussolini’s march on Rome. Paradoxically, it was not by emulating Mussolini, but when he broke away from the fascist model, with its putschist philosophy, and turned his movement—contrary to all his earlier professions—into a political party, that he began his climb to power. Not fascism, but the espousal of German grievances, was the key to his success.

Hitler’s biographers, it seems to me, have tried to prove too much. When they tell us that the “Hitler phenomenon” (whatever that may mean) was “the most important single phenomenon of its age,” that his “rise to power” was “the most crucial event of this century,” that he was not only “the central figure of German and European history” but that he shook “the world to its foundations,” we had better take their hyperboles with a grain of salt.

In reality, what is remarkable is the way history has passed him by. All the really important changes of the twentieth century—the rise of the United States, the conflict of interests between the US and the USSR which we call the cold war, the decline of the British empire, the emancipation of Asia and Africa—are things upon which Hitler had no effect, except perhaps to accelerate a historical process that was well under way before his comet rose in 1930. As Joachim Fest says, at the end of his large-scale biography, his life may seem “like the steady unfolding of tremendous energy…but when it was over there was little left for memory to hold.”


The curious thing—almost the paradoxical thing—is that the twentieth century has gone on its way almost as if he had not existed. Not quite, of course. There is the division of Germany (though he was not really responsible for that, for it was not a part of Allied plans during the war but was rather a consequence of the onsetting cold war after 1945) and—the one thing, the only thing, for which he was entirely responsible, a dreadful and evil thing—the destruction of European Jewry. The monuments to his memory, the only lasting monuments, now that Albert Speer’s architectural monstrosities have been swept away, are the concentration camps, tidied up into neat show places and open to curious or mourning visitors. Otherwise, so far as the world today is concerned, he might not have lived.

That Hitler had so little lasting impact is not really so surprising as it may seem. In a famous phrase in his notorious memoirs, Albert Speer claimed that Hitler’s dictatorship was “the first dictatorship of an industrial state in the age of modern technology.” Like so much else in Speer’s apologetics, this is anything but true. The truth about the Third Reich is that it was backward-looking, and I doubt whether we have much to learn from it that is applicable to industrial society in the 1970s. And the same is true of Hitler’s ideas, which represented only too faithfully the mentality of about 1911. Far from being the first representative of “the age of modern technology,” Hitler made it his central object to fight off the twentieth century—rather like King Canute ordering the waves to go back. That, in the end, is why history has by-passed him.

There has, of course, been a lot of argument about Hitler’s modernity and non-modernity. Ralf Dahrendorf in Germany, David Schoenbaum in the United States, and now J. P. Stern in England have written at length about Hitler’s “social revolution”—how he pitchforked Germany, with its antiquated, class-ridden social order, into the modern world. That, without doubt, is true, but it was an unintended, unsought for result, “disconnected” (as Stern puts it) “from anything that might be called a social purpose.” If you destroy a society, if you extirpate the aristocracy as Hitler extirpated the Prussian Junkers after the attempt on his life in July 1944, if you remove the Jewish patriciate in commerce, finance, law, the universities, something else will take its place, and of course it did. But the new mobility of German society, which is an undoubted fact, was far more a product of the dreadful months of collapse in 1945 and of the chaos of the first one or two postwar years. It was not, on the basis of any evidence we possess, what Hitler intended.

It is no doubt true, as Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham emphasize in their impressive new documentary history of Nazi Germany, that there was a “conflict between ideological theory and economic reality,” and in particular that the expansion of industrial output necessary to underpin an aggressive foreign policy fitted ill with the anti-industrial and anti-urban philosophy which Hitler professed. Nevertheless, if we wish to see what Hitler intended, had the outcome of the war been successful, it can best be glimpsed from his wartime table-talk, and from Himmler’s and Rosenberg’s wartime speeches and memoranda. It was a backward-looking vision of a society rather like the Nuremberg of Wagner’s Meistersinger, a society of small traders, craftsmen, and small-holders, in which “the un-Germanic conflict of classes” was to be replaced by a pseudo-medieval “symbiosis of the estates,” the whole based on a healthy peasantry, and ruled by “a violent, domineering, undismayed, cruel youth” (the words are Hitler’s) raised in institutions called Ordensburgen, after the fortresses built by the Teutonic knights in thirteenth-century Prussia to tame and enslave the Slav population.

All this is not “modern,” it is the very opposite of modern, and it does not, of course, stand alone. One of the central themes of Hitler’s so-called Second Book—the manuscript written apparently in 1928 and published only after the Second World War—is the rising power of the United States, the threat it carries of imposing what he liked to call a “mechanized” (as opposed to an organic) industrial society, and the need to act in time to prevent this transformation—to weld Europe together, naturally under German leadership, to “save” the old world and its values. There was nothing peculiar to Hitler in this, except the way he reduced it to the level of practical politics; it was the stock in trade of good liberal German middle-class intellectuals, from Thomas Mann and Freud to Karl Jaspers, and infected the whole German university world. But, once again, it shows the way Hitler pitted himself against the twentieth century and the trends of the twentieth century. Far from being a precursor, as Speer would have us believe, Hitler was, if anything, an atavistic throwback.


These are some of the ways in which our views of Hitler have changed in the last five or ten years. What has happened is that instead of taking Hitler out of history, building him up into a monstrous, all-encompassing figure, making him the symbol of all we least like in the world, historians have put him in his time and place. It is what is sometimes called a process of “de-demonization,” and on the whole—I say “on the whole,” because I have some reservations to which I shall come back—it is a salutary and necessary process. If you make Hitler bigger than life, you are going to get all your perspectives wrong and misread whatever lessons the history of the 1920s and 1930s has to teach.

What has happened—it could not be otherwise—is that the simplistic view which predominated in the early writing about Hitler—in Alan Bullock’s biography of 1952, for example, or in Trevor-Roper’s much cited article of 1960 on Hitler’s war aims—has given way to a more differentiated view. The younger generation of German historians—Martin Broszat, for example, or Hans Mommsen—have contributed much to this reassessment, and I shall refer to their findings in the course of this essay, and discuss some of the recent literature in the short bibliographical guide at the end. What they have shown us, in particular, is that the familiar picture of Hitler as a man whose basic beliefs (anti-Semitism, for example) were defined at an early age—usually (it is said) as a result of his experiences in Vienna before the First World War—who drew up his political program in 1925 and stuck to it unswervingly, who planned the war that broke out in 1939 and the “Final Solution,” the extermination of the Jews, which got under way in 1941, is simply not in accordance with the facts.

I had better add, straight away, to avoid misunderstanding, that I am not suggesting that Hitler’s actions were aimless, purposeless, that he was just interested (as has sometimes been suggested) in power for its own sake. That is very far from true. But it would be equally far from the truth to suppose that the aims he set out in Mein Kampf—to reverse the verdict of 1918, to win “living space” in the East, to destroy parliamentary democracy and replace it by a truly “German” or “Germanic” form of government, and in one way or another to “settle” what he called the “Jewish question”: aims, incidentally, which were in no way original, and which were shared to different degrees by Germans of all political persuasions—were a “blueprint” which he proceeded systematically to implement. As one of his recent biographers has written,1 Mein Kampf embodied “the day-dreams of a political thinker, not the action programme of a political leader”—not surprisingly, we may add, seeing that in 1925 Hitler was not a political leader in any recognizable way.

It would, of course, be surprising if our views of Hitler had not changed—and had not changed substantially—in the forty years since Rudolf Olden and Konrad Heiden published the first of a long series of biographies of the Führer. The reasons are obvious. One is the opening of the German archives since the war, which—not immediately, for a great deal of sifting was necessary—has gradually allowed us to see what really happened, as contrasted with what was officially put out by Hitler and his spokesmen. Another is the critical investigation of the old sources—notably of Hitler’s own statements in Mein Kampf and of the rambling recollections of his wartime table-talk—which most older (and not a few contemporary) biographers took at face value, but which prove on examination to be more myth than reality.

The result of these new studies is the collapse of many cherished beliefs. One—and not the least important—is the idea that Hitler came to power with the blueprint for a totalitarian state ready to hand, when in fact—as has been demonstrated at point after point—what you get is a series of hastily devised improvisations and emergency measures, crudely spatch-cocked together, but never—except on paper—forming a coherent system. With this goes the myth that, even before 1933, Hitler had built so perfect a machine of propaganda and terror that the Weimar authorities were simply incapable “of co-ordinating and directing the fight.” “What nation,” one writer asks rhetorically, “could have resisted the pressure?” The answer, of course, is that the governments of Brüning, Papen, and Schleicher were perfectly capable of checking the Nazis, if they had so wished. What was lacking was not the ability to bring the Nazis to heel, but the will.

And then the so-called “seizure of power.” It is a phrase that might perhaps be legitimately applied to August 1934, but not to January 1933. Hitler did not seize power on January 30, 1933; he was given it—enlisted by right-wing nationalists such as Papen, Hugenberg, and Schleicher to stab the Weimar republic in the back. “With every year,” Robert Payne assures us, “Hitler was reaching closer to power.”2 That is how it may look after the event. The facts were different. At the elections on November 6, 1932, the Nazis lost two million votes and thirty-four seats in the Reichstag. Economic conditions were improving and Hitler’s star was evidently on the wane. But at this very moment—perhaps for this very reason—he was rescued by right-wing intriguers, and given the power he had failed to win by his own efforts.

Recent research has also forced us to revise our views of Hitler’s early life and intellectual formation. Hitler’s biographers have given a great deal of attention to his youth and parentage, lapping up the colorful anecdotes of chance acquaintances like Kubizek, Hanisch, and Greiner, seeking to uncover the hidden, psychological sources of his actions and to build up a dramatic unity running through his life from early childhood to death. It is a method beloved of biographers, but confronted with the known facts the dramatic unity breaks down. The oddest example is provided by Werner Maser, the indefatigable compiler of trivial Hitleriana, who announced in 1971—after an exhaustive analysis of everything Hitler read, or was said to have read, or may have read, in his early days in Linz and Vienna—that “he [Hitler] was undoubtedly right when he said [in Mein Kampf] that by 1914 his intellectual standpoint was already firmly established,” and then in 1973, only two years later, wrote another book to show that “it was only after the First World War that Hitler’s views on domestic policy, the ‘Jewish question,’ boundary changes, population policy, and foreign affairs” gradually took shape.3

Like so many of Maser’s conclusions, this was hardly a new discovery. In much the best analysis we have of Hitler’s intellectual evolution, Eberhard Jäckel had already shown how utterly lacking in originality Hitler’s intellectual equipment was, down at least to 1925.4 As Maser correctly states, in his early career after 1919 “Hitler was much more concerned with propaganda and tactical problems than with theoretical questions.” His anti-Semitism, in particular, was entirely conventional, the empty claptrap of every right-wing rabble-rouser.

Nothing could be less true than the commonly accepted view that Hitler picked up powerful anti-Semitic ideas in Vienna before the First World War and that, from that time forward, they remained the dominant passion of his life and the central thread of his political philosophy. There is, in fact, no direct evidence that the young Hitler hated Jews, and a good deal of reason to think the contrary, just as there is no evidence either of the resentments and hatreds which are said to have formed and perverted his character.5 We still badly need a careful, dispassionate study of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but it seems, on present evidence, to be something he picked up—like most of his ideas—in the poisonous atmosphere of postwar Munich.

Hitler’s anti-Semitism in the 1920s was, as I said, entirely conventional—that is to say, what he preached was not the extermination of the Jews, but their expulsion from Germany. By what stages it evolved in the direction of the “Final Solution” is another question, which requires fuller investigation than is possible here. All I will say is that I cannot find any convincing evidence for the view that Hitler was already planning the destruction of European Jewry in 1925, when he wrote Mein Kampf. It is, of course, nonsense to suggest—as some Germans have done—that Hitler was ignorant of the decision, in 1941, to wipe out the Jews, though whether the idea of the “Final Solution” originated with him, or with Himmler and Heydrich, is less certain than is sometimes assumed. But it is equally wide of the mark (or so I would think) to suggest, as Trevor-Roper and Stern and others have done, that there was a deep-laid plan, going back to the middle Twenties, for a symbiosis of Lebensraum and anti-Semitism—for a policy, that is to say, of wiping out the Jews and clearing the East for German immigration—as the twin principles of a carefully integrated “program” that guided the whole of Hitler’s subsequent political activity.

The other pillar of Hitler’s policy—his “second major aim,” it is usually said—was “the conquest of living space” in the East. So much so that the word Lebensraum is often picked out as one of Hitler’s few original contributions, and linked specifically with National Socialism. But here again we have an idea which was the common stock in trade of all the right-wing parties (it was used, for example, in a manifesto of the right-wing Stahlhelm organization in 1928) and which he picked up, like his anti-Semitism, when he began his career as a hired political agitator in postwar Munich.6

Ludendorff, the World War I general who was the hero of the extreme right between 1919 and 1924, was already writing of Lebensraum in 1915 and 1916, in words almost identical with Hitler’s, and there is not much doubt that Ludendorff and the circle of cranks and fanatics gathered round him in Munich were the source of this and of Hitler’s other more outrageous ideas.7 Hitler was, after all, closely associated with Ludendorff, “a minor figure,” as Payne correctly states, “living in the shadow of Ludendorff.”8 Ludendorff, not Hitler, was the leading figure in the disastrous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—the only person with sufficient reputation to get any sort of a following—and though they quarrelled later, right up to 1925 Hitler treated him with exaggerated respect.9

What all this suggests is not only that there is no need, but that it is positively misleading, to probe into Hitler’s distant past—to the alleged influence of Nietzsche and Wagner, of Schoenerer and Lueger, and others during his youth in Austria—for an explanation of his politics. In reality, the ideas that governed him were put together piecemeal between 1918 and 1925, and what authentic evidence we have (letters, drafts, and notes for the early harangues he delivered as an agent of the military after 1919) shows that at that time he was still, to all intents and purposes, a political innocent mouthing without variant the platitudes of right-wing tub-thumpers. Down to, and beyond, 1933 there is not one original idea, still less—either in the turgid pages of Mein Kampf or elsewhere—a philosophy or ideology. As Erich Kahler has written, “National Socialism had no ideas or ideology of its own; it could not claim even the most primitive of intellectual foundations.”10 If we wish to understand Hitler’s success, we must look elsewhere.

The danger, of course, of chipping away at Hitler’s statue, removing a fragment here and a fragment there, is that in the end you are left with a blank piece of stone. It is surely the ultimate absurdity of Joachim Fest’s massive biography that, after 764 tightly packed pages, Hitler emerges as what Fest calls an “unperson”—in other words, a nothing. The Hitler who emerges from Colin Cross’s biography, on the other hand, is so innocuous that one wonders what all the fuss is about. For Cross, Hitler was “a warm, emotional man,” full of consideration and charm, who, in an “era of personal leadership,” simply “followed the trend,” and who stumbled into war in 1939 as “a result of miscalculation.”

If these are the results of a dozen years of historical revision, we may well be tempted to ask whether it was worth while. Nor, it seems to me, has the new cult of “psychohistory” contributed anything of substance. This is no occasion for a disquisition on “psychohistory” (which seems, incidentally, to be burning itself out like an exploded firecracker), so perhaps all I need to say is that I do not think that the extermination of six million Jews can be explained by the alleged fact (for which, anyhow, the evidence is slender beyond belief) that Hitler’s mother was killed by treatment by a Jewish doctor attempting to cure her cancer of the breast, or that the search for Lebensraum was the outcome of an “oral-aggressive fixation” which Hitler acquired with his mother’s milk.

This type of Freudian (or should I say pseudo-Freudian?) analysis may sound impressive, but it does not help to explain Hitler’s political success, and that is really what matters, at any rate for the historian. As Hans-Ulrich Wehler has said, the real problem for the historian is not Hitler’s psychological state, but the state of German society which enabled him to rise to power and to retain it until April 1945.11 Of course, it is possible to argue, as Rudolf Binion has argued, that the two are connected, that Hitler’s crisis of identity was paradigmatic of the identity crisis of Germans after 1918. This is a congenial theory, if only because it squares the circle, but it is easier to assert than to prove. As one of Binion’s critics observed, if it is really true that Hitler “articulated” Germany’s “irrational needs”—its “inner will” to “cope with the 1918 disaster”—how are we to explain the fact that he secured so little political support in the crucial period of ten years between 1919 and 1929?12

Nothing, of course, is easier than to trace, step by step, the course of external events which brought Hitler to power. Quite simply, by the end of 1932 he had made himself indispensable to the right-wing conservatives—the combination of generals, aristocrats, bankers, and industrialists who had been stabbing the Weimar republic in the back ever since 1930. But a mere recital of the course of events, though it may tell us how, does not tell us why. And though, quite clearly, the operative cause was the 1929 depression—which boosted the Nazis from a fringe party with only 500,000 votes and twelve seats in the Reichstag in 1928 to the second largest party with 6.5 million votes and 107 seats in 1930—there is still the question why it was Hitler and the Nazis who profited, and not the traditional nationalist right-wing parties. This, really, is the crucial question in any assessment of Hitler’s place in history.

The peculiar quality of J.P. Stern’s study of Hitler stems from his realization that a biographical approach, retailing the events of Hitler’s life and the stages of his political career, will never unlock the secret of his charismatic power. The famous laundry-blue eyes, the unruly forelock, the strained smile, the elaborate old-world courtesy about which his secretaries expatiate so lovingly, like the “childlike, frank expression” which Karl Alexander von Müller, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and (like me) a member of Oriel College, recalls so poignantly, may well be part of the reality; but, as Stern says, they “trivialize” and “obscure” rather than “illuminate” the true nature of the man. In any case, what matters, at this distance of time, is not so much “Hitler the man as rather the appeal he exercised,” and this can only be understood if we turn away from Hitler himself, and the detail of his career, and study his impact in “a society longing for transcendence,” his use of language, the religious expectations he aroused, and the anxieties and longings he assuaged. Though there are many points at which my interpretation of Hitler differs from Stern’s, his basic argument is valid. As Stern so well puts it, “If sociological interpretations lose sight of the man behind the trends, it is the common failing of biographies that they abstract a man from his world—a procedure that is particularly misleading in the case of one whose every public word and every public act expressed…the fears and aspirations of his contemporaries.”

The first thing to say, if our business is not Hitler’s personal story but his place in history, is that the answer is not to be found in the realm of ideas or ideology. The idea that Hitler had a distinctive “program” and that it was the peculiar attractiveness of the Nazi “program” that won him support has become a basic ingredient of the Hitler legend. So far as I can see, there is not a scrap of evidence to support it.13 So far as ideology is concerned, there is simply nothing to choose between Hitler and the other right-wing demagogues. All the components of their policy—anti-Semitism, re-armament, a strong state (that is, a dictatorial state) capable of suppressing internal tensions (that is, the working class), destruction of the 1919 peace settlement, defeat of France and Russia, German hegemony over Europe, and the acquisition of living space in the East—are the same. The difference lies on a different level, and may be reduced to the word credibility. What differentiated Hitler from Hugenberg and his like—the reason his vote grew while theirs decreased—was his greater credibility, the belief that he could deliver the goods and they could not.

Hitler’s success, in other words, was personal, it lay not in the realm of policy or ideas—which didn’t really matter much to starving, unemployed, anxiety-ridden people—but in the realm of personality. For one thing, Hitler was one of them. It is sufficient to compare him with the pompous, frockcoated, right-wing politicians to see what that meant. He based his appeal deliberately on his identification with his audience, with the common soldier, the ordinary footslogging infantryman at the front, das arme Frontschwein. And he spoke in terms they could understand. It was not the things he said—no different in essence from the claptrap of other right-wing agitators—but the way he said them that made an impression.

A lot has been written about Hitler’s oratorical power—I suspect with a good deal of exaggeration. But by comparison with the stilted, formal speeches of a Kahr or a Hugenberg, lacking in all spontaneity, heavy, clumsy, contrived, Hitler’s ability is undoubted. As one of his enemies observed in 1927—not one of the high points in Hitler’s career—“It’s the tone of impassioned conviction which brings him success.” And, we may add, his emphasis—surely bound to carry weight in the dreadful chaos of 1930, 1931, 1932, when no one seemed to know a way out—on the will. “If our will is so strong that no affliction can subdue it, then shall our will and our German state overcome every affliction and triumph over it.”

What is decisive is the Will!” It was because Hitler alone spoke in these terms that he made himself indispensable. There is, evidently, a psychological problem here, and that is the source of Hitler’s quite exceptional will power. Without it, he could hardly have survived the disastrous setback of 1923, the fiasco of the Beer Hall Putsch. But, so far as I know, it is a problem to which none of the psychohistorians, fascinated by the more intriguing possibilities of exploring Hitler’s sexuality, has bothered to apply himself.

So far as one can see, there is no sign of exceptional will power in the young Hitler, certainly not in his abysmal school career, and it is not particularly visible in the adventurer making his way in Munich in the early 1920s. It seems to have come as he set about reconstructing his shattered party after his release from prison in 1925, but it was the sight and smell of power after 1929 that affirmed it and at the same time affirmed his belief that his will, and his will alone, could rescue Germany from the desperate situation into which the slump had plunged it. His ability to communicate his sense of will, in a situation where all was crumbling, is ultimately the secret of his success, of the devoted following which he built up between 1934 and 1938, and which never really deserted him right down to 1945.

The other source of Hitler’s success, of his ability to win the support of Germans of all groups and categories, was his classlessness. He came to power—that is certain—as the tool of the right-wing reactionaries; almost as their henchman, but he never identified himself with them, and that was his strength. For where their appeal was narrowly sectional, and therefore never anchored in a wide popular following, Hitler could enlist, and did enlist, all those who had suffered from the social injustices which—though historians who like to dwell on the “richness” of Weimar culture seem to have forgotten them—persisted through the whole history of Weimar Germany.

Back in 1934 an American sociologist called Theodore Abel collected the life stories of some 680 old Nazis. They have now been analyzed in detail by P.H. Merkl, and one of the significant things to emerge is the depth of resentment felt by many of those who joined the Nazi party before 1933 at what one of them called “the inflated egos of the bourgeoisie toward its proletarian compatriots.” However much old-style nationalists ranted about the national cause and played upon nationalist sentiments, the one thing that is certain is that they never had any hope of winning the support of people like this. With Hitler it was different. If they were backward-looking, aiming to restore the pre-1914 authoritarianism, with all its privileges and social disparities, he was forward-looking, authoritarian also, but offering an authoritarianism in which the ordinary man could participate. In this sense Hitler represented the wave of the future, Papen, Seldte, Hugenberg, and the other alte Bonzen the receding wave of the past.

And—another basic difference—he knew how to act. For all his inherent laziness, his inherent Austrian Schlamperei, his lack of businesslike routine, and his predilection for wasting hours in idle talk, no one was quicker off the mark in an emergency. He showed this when, for example, he was threatened with the secession of Gregor Strasser in November 1932, when he was suddenly confronted by the Reichstag fire in February 1933, or when it came to liquidating Röhm and his SA associates in June 1934. As Hans Mommsen has pointed out,14 nothing could contrast more markedly with the hesitations, the scruples, the cautious compromises of his adversaries—particularly of the Social Democratic leadership, which let every opportunity slip—but also of his right-wing associates. That was why he was able to outmaneuver them and push them aside. There was certainly an element of the gangster in Hitler’s make-up, but it was as a man of action, when everyone else was fumbling, that he came to power. As he told Hindenburg in November 1932, when the right-wing politicians were trying to get the Reichstag to commit suicide by passing an Enabling Act, vesting the government with emergency powers, “Nobody but myself” can do it. He was right.

It is obvious that such a man, once in power, would not be content to act as the lackey of the interests that made him Chancellor. Moreover, as John Weiss says, he “could not do so” even if he had wished to. 15 For Nazism was not simply something foisted off on Germany by right-wing conservatives. As William Sheridan Allen has shown in his impressive book, Hitler did not succeed because a right-wing clique made him Chancellor, but because he had a following that “knew exactly what needed to be done…and…did it apparently without more than generalized directions from above.”16 It was the rank-and-file that actually made the revolution, and Hitler knew perfectly well that he had to take account of their wishes and interests. His tactical problem until August 1934 was how to reconcile this requirement with the need to keep in with the right-wing elements who had put him in power, but in the long run it was obvious that he could not (in John Weiss’s words) “remain in control” if he simply acted like the conservative reactionaries. Hence the dynamism which the movement generated after 1934. Hence also the transition from the “white revolution,” which began in 1930 when Brüning began ruling by presidential decree and lasted to the death of Hindenburg in August 1934, to the “brown revolution,” which began not on January 30, 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, but on August 19, 1934, when Hitler took Hindenburg’s place and became Führer and Chancellor and Supreme Head of the Reich.

The real Nazi revolution begins in August 1934, and it is then that we should be able to see what Hitler’s aims and policies were. What we see is disillusioning. As Noakes and Pridham correctly say, “The conventional view of the Third Reich as a monolithic totalitarian state, a view perpetuated by numerous popular accounts of the regime, has been shown to bear little resemblance to reality.” What we find instead is dynamism for its own sake, more terror, more control, more functionaries, more jobs, more titles—in the end, an incredibly inefficient “anarchy” of conflicting departments and jurisdictions which, as one historian has said, is almost a “caricature” of a totalitarian state. No one described the situation more caustically than the head of the Nazi Labor Front, Dr. Robert Ley, in a surprisingly frank address to his comrades in 1937. “The corporate system,” he said, “turned out to be an absolute chaos of ideas, a complete muddle.” The reason, of course, was that the machine, once set going, could not stand still, for fear that it would fall to pieces. It existed, it almost seems, for itself, serving no higher purpose or plan.

Almost, but not quite. If there is one thing that Nazism served, beginning with Goering’s Four Year Plan in 1936, it was preparation for war. War, successful war, you may say, was the only way out, the only way in the end of keeping the machine going. Or you may say (if you wish) that conquest and destruction and extermination, of Jews and Poles and Russians, were Hitler’s objectives from the very beginning, all the rest subordinate to this one aim. It is not necessary to deny either contention to say that the truth is a little more complex. The truth is that, if we examine Hitler’s thought, the central tenet, from which all else springs, is not anti-Semitism or a lust for conquest, both springing allegedly from dark psychological traumas, but a perfectly rational, coherent belief that humanity lives, is condemned to live, in a state of war, a Hobbesian view of human nature, deeply tinged with the imprint of Social Darwinism, that war and struggle are unavoidable conditions, basic postulates, which no statesman or politician can afford to ignore.17

Most of us will repudiate this philosophy, but we cannot say that it is illogical or untenable. When and by what stages Hitler acquired it is not clear—I suspect not before the middle Twenties—but once he had acquired it, it shaped his whole outlook. War was inevitable, it must be prepared for, nothing would be obtained without fighting, only those ready to fight would survive: it is a crude and repulsive but not an incomprehensible doctrine, and all we can say about Hitler, I think, is that he developed it more logically and applied it more tenaciously than others. It accounts for his hardness, his ruthlessness, and also—because he had no doubts or hesitations about it—for his single-mindedness. Like all his other ideas, it is derivative, but he developed it with a logical rigor which is all his own. It gave him his sense of purpose, of destiny, of marching with history.

Whether, as Werner Maser has suggested, this sense of purpose was undermined from about 1941 by deteriorating health, whether as a result it gave way to senseless destruction, is not easy to say; but it is not entirely impossible.18 I have already indicated that I do not believe that the extermination of European Jewry—the “Final Solution”—was part of Hitler’s original program, and it is surely not accidental that the plan first comes up in 1941. Thereafter, it seems—and here we may agree with J.P. Stern—that destruction (including, at the last, the destruction of Germany itself) became an object in itself; but it is harder to agree, as Stern would have us do, that “indiscriminate annihilation was his aim” from beginning to end, or that this was “the secret that bound his followers to him.”

What bound Hitler’s followers to him was something simpler and more direct—the belief that he was a revolutionary leader who would give them not destruction but consummation. For in the end, as Dahrendorf has made plain, Nazism was the German revolution—the revolution which had aborted so often in the past, in 1848 and 1918, and which aborted again in 1945—and Hitler was the personification of the revolution, the German Robespierre, if you like. No people, not even the German people, could remain bound hand and foot to the past, as the Germans had been bound since 1879 to an antiquated social system. The pity is that the German revolution, instead of being a liberating force, as the French revolution of 1789 had been, was entirely negative, a destruction of the old which put nothing viable in its place.

Fascism, Ernst Nolte once wrote, is “counterrevolution on the soil of revolution.” If he is speaking of National Socialism, it would be more true to reverse his dictum and say that National Socialism is revolution on the soil of counterrevolution. The counterrevolution occurred in 1930 and failed, and the attempt of the counterrevolutionaries to seize power again in 1944 failed even more dismally. The revolution began when Hitler shook off the leading-strings of the counterrevolutionaries in 1934, and immediately its limitations became apparent. For Hitler had nothing to offer but war. No new idea infused the German revolution as it had infused the French revolution, and the difference is seen in the fact that, though the French conquest of Europe ended as disastrously as the German conquest of Europe, the French revolution left an enduring legacy, and the German revolution left none.

If you want a monument (it is said) look around you; but you will look for a monument to Hitler in vain, unless you find it in Auschwitz and Belsen. That is the measure of the man—and the reason why he is not worth all the attention historians have paid to him. Nazism may have marked the end of a chapter, but the new world which sprang up after 1945 was based on foundations of which Hitler had no inkling, and which were the denial of everything he stood for.

This Issue

April 3, 1975