“It all reads like a movie scenario,” writes James P. O’Donnell at one point, as he recounts the lurid goings-on in Hitler’s underground bunker in Berlin in 1945—the wish, no doubt, being father to the thought. The same verdict, unfortunately, applies to far too much recent writing about Nazi Germany. In part, I suppose, we must attribute this to the success of “Holocaust,” and the prospect it holds out of another golden jackpot for another lucky author. But I suspect the trouble reaches further back—to Walter Langer and his progeny of psychohistorians.1 Once historians began prying into Hitler’s sex life and alleged sexual aberrations, anything was permissible, provided it was sordid, scurrilous, and scandalous enough.
On this score no one will find James P. O’Donnell’s book disappointing. It has, I am informed, “been getting a lot of attention.” Scandal and prurience apart, I cannot think why. Someone, I suppose, may be titillated by learning (if it is true) that Albert Speer was involved with the film star Leni Riefenstahl, or that Eva Braun’s sister, Gretl, “the nymphomaniac of the Obersalzberg,” may (or may not) have had an abortion performed by the notorious Dr. Morell. Even if true, this sort of gossip is hardly going to affect our judgment of the Nazi phenomenon or help us to understand its hold over the German people.
The question whether it is true does not appear to worry Mr. O’Donnell unduly. His “composite account,” as he calls it, is distilled from interviews with fifty or more garrulous, vindictive, vain, self-serving, quarrelsome old men, who contradict each other at almost every point. Even if they were honest—and some certainly were lying or embroidering, not least of all Albert Speer, who figures high on Mr. O’Donnell’s list of “major witnesses”—it would be a miracle, after thirty years, if their memories were reliable. But Mr. O’Donnell, so he tells us, is not concerned with “historical truth.” What he is looking for is “psychological truth.”
If I confess that I find this distinction somewhat baffling, I suppose I shall be accused of being simple-minded. It is a risk I shall have to take, and since I am committed (pedantically, no doubt) to what Mr. O’Donnell calls “the kind of documentation an academic historian insists on,” I cannot pretend that his book fills me with enthusiasm. In any case, once you have subtracted long, involved, and inherently improbable stories, such as the saga of the imaginary spy “whimsically called Mata O’Hara,” it tells you nothing of substance about the last days of Hitler that you cannot find, more persuasively, in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account, published as long ago as 1947. 2 Mr. O’Donnell, to his credit, describes Trevor-Roper’s book as “basically accurate.” I wish I could say as much of his.
The difference between Trevor-Roper’s book and Mr. O’Donnell’s is that the former had a serious practical purpose—namely, to scotch possible rumors that Hitler might still be alive—whereas the object of the latter, not to put too fine a point on it, is sensationalism pure and simple. It may perhaps be argued that Mr. O’Donnell’s book helps to deepen our knowledge of Nazism by showing that “the entourage around Germany’s demon king” was made up (as the blurb on the jacket puts it) of “psychopaths, quasi-criminals and looneys.” But even that is questionable. Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich lasted, it is true, a bare twelve years; but it is hard to think that it would have lasted even as long as that if he had been surrounded by nothing but jailbirds and lunatics.
Of course, it would be equally wrong to fall into the opposite error and think of them as supermen. Hannah Arendt, in particular, insisted on the sheer ordinariness of the Nazi bureaucracy, from Himmler down to Eichmann. This was, for her, one of the paradoxes of Nazism, and she spent much time and effort analyzing and explaining it.3 Airey Neave, the British officer who served the indictments on the defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1945, emphasizes the same point in his latest book.4 Perhaps the most startling—and in many ways most disturbing—fact about the perpetrators of the Holocaust is the discovery that they were “ordinary people”—doctors, teachers, lawyers, businessmen, like you and me. As for Hitler’s chief lieutenants, Airey Neave writes, “they were evil, second-rate and corrupt.” “I know,” he adds. “I saw them face to face.” It is a less melodramatic characterization than Mr. O’Donnell’s, but I suspect it is a good deal more accurate.
One of the defendants Major Neave (as he then was) did not see, because he was absent and has remained absent ever since, was Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery since 1941 and Hitler’s personal secretary since 1943. If he had, the result could only have been to confirm his verdict. Bormann was, in my view, one of the least corrupt of the Nazi upper echelon. But that he was second-rate, or even third-rate, is beyond all doubt; and nothing is more preposterous, in retrospect, than the myth that this mediocrity, of whom practically no one had heard in 1945, was cut out—if somehow the Nazis had wriggled out of defeat—to succeed Hitler as the future ruler of Germany.
The myth had a long run. It owed its currency in part to the other defendants at Nuremberg, who poured blame on the absent Bormann’s head, building him up in this way into a sort of éminence grise, in the vain hope of saving their own skins. It was kept going by the fact that he was the only leading figure whose fate could not be traced. This led to the story—grist to the mill of the Western gutter-press—that he had escaped and was waiting, in Argentina or elsewhere, to stage a comeback as (in James P. O’Donnell’s words) Hitler’s “emissary to the future.”
There was, needless to say, never a pennyworth of truth in this story, and the main contribution of Jochen von Lang’s new biography of the Führer’s secretary is to demolish it. His account of the part he played in proving, so far as anything can be proved at this distance of time, that Bormann perished in 1945, is convincing enough, and at least clears up a minor mystery. But beyond that I can find nothing of importance about Bormann in Herr von Lang’s 400-page-long book that Joachim Fest did not tell us in eleven pages in 1963.5 This is not surprising, because, as Fest observes, “there is not a single event in Bormann’s life that bears an individual stamp.” The story of the way he edged himself forward step by step from small beginnings as a Party hack in Thuringia might be that of a score of other middle-ranking Nazi officials. The only difference is that it carried him eventually into Hitler’s inner circle. But that was more luck than cunning, the accidental result of Hess’s flight to England, which unexpectedly left a niche for him to fill.
For Herr von Lang, Bormann was a man of inordinate ambition and “a remarkably talented manager who steered the Nazi engine…so successfully that during the war years he became the secret ruler of Germany.” That is the accepted stereotype, based on the charges leveled against Bormann by the other defendants at Nuremberg. But as their stories are tainted and suspect, I doubt if there is much truth in it.
To begin with, I cannot think of any evidence that Bormann “steered” anything, at least before 1943. It is true that he made some effort, as head of the Party Chancellery, to enforce discipline, particularly among the Nazi “old guard” and Gauleiters, for whom the Party was often little more than an instrument of self-aggrandizement and petty tyranny. This was very necessary, particularly as the Russians started to close in, but it hardly makes Bormann into “a remarkably talented manager.” In reality the distinctive thing about him was that he was the perfect subordinate, a servant with an extraordinary capacity for hard work which—in an entourage where hard work was the exception rather than the rule—was undoubtedly what recommended him to Hitler. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that he was motivated far more by devotion and conviction than by ambition and self-interest. As Hitler himself said, “I can absolutely rely on my orders being carried out by Bormann immediately and in spite of all obstacles.”
By no means all the characterizations of Bormann that have come down to us are derogatory. Probably the best and most convincing is that of the former Nazi Gauleiter in Thuringia, who describes him as Hitler’s “most hard-working, honest and selfless retainer.” The contrast with the conventional picture is obvious. It may not seem to matter much, but if we are seriously concerned with understanding the Nazi regime, it matters a great deal. The one thing Bormann never was, was “the man who manipulated Hitler.” I doubt if such a thought would ever have entered his mind. Whatever stature Bormann had was borrowed from Hitler, and without Hitler he was nothing, as he perfectly well understood. “When all is said and done,” he wrote at the end, “the Führer is the Führer: where should we be without him?”
These facts are important for anyone interested in the real history, rather than the melodramatic, scandal-mongering history of the Third Reich. Mr. O’Donnell’s racy picture of the last days in the bunker below the Reich Chancellery—“free-flowing liquor,” “wild parties,” generals chasing “half-naked Blitzmaedel”—may be good entertainment. But what is significant and astounding is the way, in reality, the routine went on. Secretaries typed memoranda nobody would read. Emissaries went out into the night with orders nobody would obey. Ritter von Greim flew in to take over command of an air force which was no longer operational. Bormann slaved away at his desk, as though the Third Reich were still a going concern. It is a macabre picture, no doubt; what makes it macabre is not the occasional outbreaks of hysteria and profligacy, but the strange orderliness and discipline, kept going by Hitler’s personal ascendancy, even when he had ceased to exist as a personality.
If Hitler was in command at the end, he was also in command at the beginning. Thirty or forty years ago it was common to take the opposite view and depict him, in his early years before 1933, as a puppet or figurehead, manipulated and financed by big business in its own interest. The legend was nurtured, pretty deliberately, by sensationalists, scandal mongers, and apologists of one sort or another, among them the Ruhr steel magnate Fritz Thyssen, whose book I Paid Hitler created quite a sensation when it appeared in 1941. But the legend has long been discredited, and it is to be hoped that the new book by James and Suzanne Pool will not give it new currency.
The truth about Who Financed Hitler is that it might more appropriately have been called Who Did Not Finance Hitler, except that the latter title would scarcely have had the makings of a best seller. There is, in fact, no great mystery about who financed Hitler, and the Pools, who have at least done their homework, know the answer perfectly well. The essential fact, pointed out by Peter Drucker as early as 1939, is that at least three quarters (probably more) of the funds that kept the Party going came from the weekly contributions, measured in pfennigs rather than in marks, of the rank-and-file. Or, as the Pools themselves put it, “Hitler’s hard core of fanatical followers kept the movement going by contributing generously from what little they had.”
What, in that case, is the value of the scandal and rumors the Pools have so assiduously collected? The answer, for all practical purposes, is none. They paraphrase, for example, at great length Hitler’s famous speech to the Industry Club in Düsseldorf on January 27, 1932. But what was the result? “There was,” they write, “no flow of money from industry.” This is perfectly true, but it scarcely helps to buttress a story of extensive “secret funding.”
One of their most important discoveries, the Pools claim, “is the importance of foreign financing in bringing Hitler to power.” Need it be said that there is to all intents and purposes no hard evidence for this assertion? Henry Ford gets a whole chapter to himself, replete with tittle-tattle and innuendo but remarkably short on fact. Even Queen Marie of Rumania and Grand Duke Cyril of Russia are dragged in—the Pools are great name-droppers—though there is “no definite proof” (which in the Pool vocabulary means not a shred of evidence) that the former ever handed over a single penny, while the latter notoriously spent most of his time begging and borrowing to keep up his “regal charade,” to say nothing of his numerous expensive mistresses.
I may, of course, as an Englishman be prejudiced, but it seems to me that the most obnoxious example of the Pools’ method is their treatment of Hitler’s alleged British financial backers. Name after name is reeled off—from Lord Sydenham and the Duke of Northumberland to King Edward VIII himself—without the least proof that any (except perhaps Sir Henri Deterding, the Dutch-born oil magnate who was at best an honorary Englishman, and who lived in Germany after 1936) ever contributed to Hitler’s secret funds. Their attempt to involve them by implication might, I suppose, be called slander or defamation in a court of law, and elsewhere muckraking or mud-slinging. It is explicable, but not excusable, only on the basis of a determination to achieve, at any cost, a succès de scandale. I hope I may be excused if I say that it seems to me contemptible.
The case of the German industrialists is obviously different—but not, perhaps, so very different. Fearful of revolution and labor unrest, they had financed right-wing parties and other reactionary organizations ever since 1919, and there is no doubt that, in the confusion of 1923, some of their money—though probably only a small proportion of it—brushed off on to the Nazis. Thereafter they were a good deal more circumspect. If one of the Pools’ witnesses is to be believed, even in “the crucial year of 1932” out of RM. 1,500,000 donated to political parties (except the Communists), the Nazis received RM. 50,000 (or approximately $12,000), which was less than went to the Social Democrats. It certainly wasn’t enough to make much difference to a party which by now was 90 million marks in debt and “in desperate shape financially.”
What all this suggests is that we had better forget the story that Hitler owed his success to the financial support of German industry. It is almost the opposite of the truth. Of course he had occasional backers, like Thyssen. But Thyssen was the exception, not the rule. Far more typical was Krupp, who only climbed on the Nazi bandwagon at the very last moment. The truth is that it was Hitler himself who kept the Party going through thick and thin, and it was only when he had proved his success and made himself indispensable, at the elections in July 1932, that the industrialists, who had shunned him, took him up.
Then, indeed, they came to his help, at the famous meeting at the house of the banker Schröder on January 4, 1933, when a syndicate was formed to underwrite the Party’s debts. Much has been made of this meeting, which allegedly kept the bankrupt Party from imminent dissolution. But even this is dubious. By January 1933 the die was cast, and at that stage it would have taken more than bankruptcy to keep Hitler under.
About all this, it is only fair to add, the Pools are cogent and reasonable enough. They point out, quite correctly, that there was no intention, even after the meeting with Schröder, “to give full support to Hitler,” and that “heavy industry…played no direct role in the fateful political events at the end of January 1933.” Something can, in short, be learned from the Pools’ book—though nothing, so far as I can see, which is not available elsewhere—but only by those who are able to discount its sensationalism and straining for effect. Unfortunately the sensationalism predominates. It falsifies the story of the rise of Hitler, just as James P. O’Donnell’s sensationalism falsifies his end, and in so doing it robs it of any real significance.
What I have been writing about, it will be obvious, is the commercialization of Nazism, which has become so prominent a feature of our time. If I say I find it distasteful, I shall no doubt betray my age and generation. But I think it can safely be said that it tells us more about ourselves than about Hitler and the Third Reich; and what it tells us is not always to our credit.
There is, first of all, the preoccupation with the seamier sides of Nazism, with the morbid, the sordid, and the scandalous. It is evidenced by the story of the class enrolled in one of those new and fashionable programs of “Holocaust studies” at one of our more reputable universities which, when asked by the teacher to specify the aspects it was particularly interested in, answered with one accord: “sex in the concentration camps.”
If true—and I am sorry to say I believe it is true—the story casts a bleak and unsavory light on the current obsession with the muddy backwaters of the Third Reich. Whatever else it springs from, it is certainly not the desire (in Ranke’s famous phrase) to find out how it really was. That would be altogether too dull and pedestrian. What it means in practice is that there is a ready market for anything remotely connected with the Holocaust, provided it is sensational and implausible enough.
This is demonstrated only too clearly by still another book, whose author claims to have discovered the “vital element” in the history of Nazism which historians have unaccountably “missed.” This, she informs us, was “occultism,” “the missing link in our understanding of the beasts who proclaimed themselves gods.”
It is, of course, well known (at least among those who know anything) that Hitler himself spoke out strongly in Mein Kampf (not, as the author states, after “he came to power”) against this pseudoscience, and that Bormann denounced and prohibited “astrology and similar hocus-pocus.” But this, we are assured, only proves how important it was, in much the same way as the Pools cite Lüdecke’s statement that he got no “financial assistance” from Henry Ford as proof that Ford must have financed Hitler. Astrology, we are told, accounted for Hess’s “mysterious flight to Scotland.” It was because occultists predicted a mild winter that Hitler did not provide his troops with warm clothing for the Russian campaign of 1941. It even explains why he committed suicide on April 30, 1945, “the ancient Feast of Beltane.” It was “a sacrificial tribute to the Powers of Darkness.”
All I can think to say about this sort of writing is that, if you believe it, you will believe anything. The frightening thought is that probably quite a few people will. It reflects only too truly their craving for quick, spectacular, all-embracing answers, and their impatience with the slow, laborious findings of history. Unfortunately, as Oscar Wilde once observed, the truth is never pure and never simple.
“Many people,” the author of Gods and Beasts informs us, are “not satisfied that the grotesque events of the Third Reich have been adequately dealt with by the historians.” Perhaps she is right. But historians have at least performed one essential service, and that is to provide a critical evaluation of the evidence. They have winnowed out a tremendous amount of myth and mystification, of half-truth and deliberate obfuscation. That, unfortunately, is something none of the writers here reviewed, with the single exception of Airey Neave, appears to care about. For them anything goes, if it is highly spiced and highly colored.
Historians, for example, long ago learned to discount the malicious and mendacious gossip of Putzi Hanfstaengl. The Pools not only quote him at length, but even went out of their way to interview him. James P. O’Donnell had no fewer than seventeen interviews with Speer—“a man,” says Airey Neave, “I could never trust”—though we know today, far better than we did in 1947 when Trevor-Roper drew heavily on his evidence, not to accept anything he says at face value. The patient sifting undertaken by historians may be a small step forward. But to ignore it is a large step backward.
Characteristic of these books, and of the type of writing they represent, is their blind faith in oral testimony. Jochen von Lang has a list of forty people he interviewed. Mr. O’Donnell’s book, as he himself states, is “an interview book.” The Pools, not satisfied with Putzi Hanfstaengl and the garrulous Frau Wagner, extended their net to business executives and “the highest princes.” The argument seems to be that forty liars are better than one, or at least that forty liars will cancel each other out. It is, needless to say, a fallacy.
But the calculations behind these “interview” books are in reality a good deal less abstruse than that. What they represent is an attempt to cash in, while the going is good, on the familiar techniques of television. It is a sure recipe for the sort of instant history television has popularized. But it is also a recipe for a lot of pseudohistory. If we picture the Nazi leaders as a gang of small-time gangsters out of a 1930s movie, we are not going to get much idea of what Nazi Germany was really like—if that is what we are trying to do. The same is true if we think of Hitler as a psychopath who should have been sent to the shrink at the earliest possible moment. Unfortunately there is more to Hitlerism than that.
The Germans are often accused of refusing to face up to the crude realities of the Hitler era. That is the implicit theme of David Lang’s new book. Mr. Lang had the idea of interviewing a group of Germans who had been conscripted, as adolescents, to serve as auxiliaries in anti-aircraft batteries at Aachen at the end of the war, and of discussing with them their reactions after more than thirty years. He discovered that they preferred, with only a couple of exceptions, to draw a veil over the Nazi years. Reality was either something they had never faced up to, or wanted desperately to forget.
This is, perhaps, not so novel a discovery as Mr. Lang implies. The more pertinent question is whether we are so very different. They take refuge from reality by blotting it out under a layer of fog. We take refuge from it by turning it into a vast, panoramic, technicolor melodrama on the model of The Last Days of Pompeii or Attila the Hun. The end results are more alike than we are apt to realize. When, for example, we picture Hitler as a “demon king,” are we not putting him in the same category as the priest who told Mr. Lang that he was “a godless misleader of his countrymen”? In either case, the effect is to exculpate the German people for having made the Third Reich possible. When we depict the Nazi leaders as a gang of “psychopaths, quasi-criminals and lunatics,” what right have we to complain if we are told that their “absolute control,” and the machinery of repression they set up, made it virtually impossible “for Germans to behave decently”?
What most impressed me in the end about Mr. Lang’s elegant and perceptive little book were the pictures he includes of the teenagers marching to war with (as one of them later put it) their “shoulders squared” and their hearts “beating for adventure.” There is not a shadow of doubt on any of their faces, although the end was imminent. No doubt, they were only youngsters, and we should not expect too much of them. But even today, as Mr. Lang shows, the predominant impression left on their minds is one of implicit trust in the Führer and unswerving devotion to the Fatherland.
“The Allies,” says one, “did not succeed in setting the German people against their leaders.” “In those days,” says another, “we gave everything for the nation, we lived for something greater than ourselves.” Here we have something akin to the selfless dedication of Bormann, and it goes far to explain not only why the Third Reich was possible, but also why the German people supported Hitler to the bitter end. These are questions any serious history of Nazi Germany has to answer, and my complaint against the current vogue of pseudohistory is that, by turning it into a peepshow for the morbid and the prurient, it diverts our attention away from them. It was not only the Nazi leadership, compromised beyond repair, that fought on. Few things in the last days of Hitler are more disconcerting than the spectacle of the teenagers of the Hitler Youth gambling away their lives in Berlin in a situation beyond all hope. If we do not take account of that, we shall have little idea of what Nazism was about.
The point is that they were not fanatics, or desperadoes, or psychopaths, or quasicriminals, but ordinary Germans. Daniel Lang expresses at one point the feeling I have often had, sitting in a German train or watching “the jostling pedestrians” in a German street, that the man (or woman) sitting next to me, or rubbing my shoulder, may have been a warden or wardress in a concentration camp. But the people he interviewed seem, practically without exception, to be decent, ordinary people, like you and me. And that is what raises the ultimate question. Nazism, we are often told, is dead. But what of the manifestations which nurtured it, and made it acceptable to “decent people,” in Germany and elsewhere?
This, in the end, is why we had better take Nazism seriously, and not as a peculiar German aberration from which we are exempt. If, the author of Gods and Beasts observes, we want to understand “how normal people could have committed the Nazi atrocities, we need only look at the normal people in American cults today.” Dare one add, and also at normal people outside them? Because this, the sheer banality of evil (in Hannah Arendt’s words), is the real lesson of the Nazi experience for us today, and if we brush it off in a plethora of highly colored melodrama, it may come home to roost sooner and more disastrously than we thought possible.
May 17, 1979
Walter Langer, The Mind of Adolf Hitler (Basic Books, 1972). ↩
H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (Macmillan, 1947). ↩
See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (revised edition, Penguin, 1977), and The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966). ↩
Airey Neave was killed by terrorists in London after this review was written. ↩
Joachim Fest, Das Gesicht des Dritten Reiches (Piper, Munich, 1963); English translation, The Face of the Third Reich (Pantheon, 1970). ↩