Last October I spent an afternoon in Berlin talking to the last man left alive who knew Hitler well enough to say, “If Adolf Hitler had been capable of friendship, I suppose I should have been his best friend.” To the handful of people who were present this conversation with Albert Speer brought back so vividly what Hitler meant to our generation, the blight he laid on so many millions of lives, that at the end we were as emotionally exhausted as if we had been listening to Hitler himself re-enacting one of his speeches.
This experience kept coming back to mind when I read the first of the three books under review, written by a Cambridge historian of a younger generation for whom the Second World War is a part of history to be viewed with the same detachment as the First.
Norman Stone makes no pretense to have unearthed any new historical evidence. He is obviously well read in the secondary literature and well up in the continuing controversy over Germany’s economic recovery, rearmament, and foreign policy before the war, but he does not attempt to add to this. His purpose is different: to provide for the reader who comes to the subject with an open mind a contemporary answer, free of propaganda left over from the war, to the questions what sort of a man Hitler really was and why there should continue to be any fuss about him.
The result is a short, easily read book, unencumbered with footnotes or references (other than an excellent bibliography), and concentrating, in the words of the author’s preface, on “the facts of the ‘revised’ Hitler” as these emerge from the historical inquiry and debate which have gone on since the war.
For anyone who lived through the Hitler years this is a salutary exercise, but it is hardly as simple as replacing “propaganda” with “the facts.” When it comes to correcting the exaggerated estimates of German rearmament, or the relative size of the opposing forces in the West in 1940, this is a fair description. But how do you evaluate the state of mind and morale produced by such exaggeration, the fears and sense of doom so vividly recalled by my conversation with Speer? Even if these can now be shown to be illusory, they were real enough at the time, facts which Hitler for one never failed to take into account. (His understanding of these facts was one of his greatest assets.) The historian’s vision has to be stereoscopic, combining the perspective of the past with that of the present, not just substituting one for the other.
At times Mr. Stone recognizes this clearly enough—for example in writing about the Battle of Britain and Churchill’s “finest hour”—but at other times he shows little sympathy for the experience of a generation which he regards as bringing its troubles on itself because it could not see what is obvious, with hindsight, to him and everyone else today.
The best part of the book is that which deals with the last four years of Hitler’s career, from the attack on Russia to the final defeat. Mr. Stone does not think much of the British war effort: most of it, he says, went into “fighting Italians in North Africa or killing half a million German women and children by aerial bombing.” As for the American contribution to the defeat of Hitler, this is barely mentioned: if one were to judge by the recognition given here, Roosevelt might as well have concentrated on the Pacific War. It was the Russians who defeated Germany, and Mr. Stone, whose earlier book dealt with the Eastern Front in World War I, writes about the same front in World War II with an authority which carries conviction. This has the advantage of focusing attention on the last phase of Hitler’s career which is often written off, at least after Stalingrad, without taking adequate account of his success in prolonging the war against all odds and of the terrible price which was paid for this.
For a revisionist historian, Mr. Stone makes surprisingly few changes in the picture he gives of Hitler himself. He goes out of his way—rightly, as I believe—to bring out the central importance of Hitler’s role in the Third Reich and the mistake of underestimating either his political or his military gifts. But Mr. Stone is more of a historian than a biographer and, by comparison with his account of the events in which Hitler took part, that which he offers of the principal actor adds nothing to our understanding of him.
If I ended up disappointed with Mr. Stone’s book, this largely springs from his refusal to halt the flow of his narrative and open up a discussion by asking a few questions. The strength of The Meaning of Hitler by the German historian and journalist Sebastian Haffner is that he does exactly the opposite: he takes the narrative for granted and spends all his time arguing about what it means. There are dangers in this: for example, Haffner shows nothing like Stone’s familiarity with the new evidence that has been produced about German rearmament, and his account of the war after the Russians halted the German advance in December 1941 will not stand up to a comparison with that of Stone, whose professional competence as a historian shows to advantage.
Sebastian Haffner’s book is also a short one, bold in its ideas—a few of them exaggerated or pushed too far—but never dropping the level of intellectual tension. This is partly because of Haffner’s gift for expressing ideas, even in translation, with a directness and vigor which give the impression that he is actually there in the room arguing with you. He has condensed a lifetime’s experience and thinking about Hitler and Germany to the point where he is able to put what he has to say without circumlocution or qualification. It is a controversial book from the first page to the last, but anyone who starts it is likely to find himself, as I did, so engrossed, even when disagreeing, that he will finish it at a sitting.
Many of Haffner’s most interesting ideas are thrown off as asides. For example, that Hitler was the child of the revolution he repudiated—the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1918—as much as Napoleon was of his; that he was not a fascist but a populist, closer to Stalin than to Mussolini; that at Nuremberg the charges were put in the wrong order with all the emphasis on “crimes against peace,” i.e., war as such, and “war crimes,” i.e., violations of the conventions of war. Instead, Haffner argues, the emphasis should have been on “Hitler’s real crime, the production-line mass extermination” not only of Jews but of Poles, Russians, gypsies, and invalids, something quite separate from the loss of life in war, deliberate mass murder on a scale without parallel in history.
Haffner’s main argument runs something like this. Few men have transformed the world so fundamentally as Hitler: without him there would have been no partition of Germany and Europe; no Americans or Russians in Berlin; no State of Israel; nothing like so rapid a decolonialization of Asia and Africa, or so quick a reduction of European pre-eminence. But all this was exactly the opposite of what Hitler hoped to achieve. How are we to account for this?
Haffner points out that twice Hitler came very close to his goal of establishing German rule over Europe: in the autumn of 1938 when Britain and France conceded him a position of hegemony in Eastern Europe, and again in the summer of 1940 when his victory over France and the occupation of Central and Eastern Europe put the whole continent this side of Russia at his disposal. On the second occasion, certainly, he had a unique chance to carry out the unification of Europe under the aegis of its strongest power, Germany.
Memories were still alive of how Bismarck’s Prussia had united the defeated German states in 1866—and had itself subsequently been gradually absorbed into the Germany this unified. Was it not conceivable that a victorious Germany would be similarly absorbed in a unified Europe and in the process gradually lose its repulsive features?… Such reflections were widespread in 1940 in nearly all countries of Europe, especially in France, even though nobody wants to remember them today.
But Hitler’s flair for understanding the weakness of disintegrating structures such as the Weimar Republic or the European state system of the 1930s was not matched by the creative ability or even the interest to replace them with something positive. Unlike Bismarck, who, the moment he had attained what was attainable, renounced the use of war and consolidated German power, Hitler could think only of extending it. He did not even consider the alternative of giving Europe a “New Order,” which would have established German hegemony permanently. Instead he committed the double and gratuitous blunder first of attacking the Soviet Union and then of resolving Roosevelt’s dilemma by declaring war on the US.
When Speer remarked in the course of our conversation last October that, if Hitler had put him in charge of war production a year earlier, Germany would have won the war, I reacted by slapping the table and asking him, “And what good would that have done you? What would you have done with your victory? You had won already in 1940 and what did Hitler do with that?” He looked at me in silence for a moment and then said, with a gesture of resignation: “Yes, you are right. All Hitler would ever have thought of was another war.”
Haffner can find no convincing reason—no one ever has—why Hitler should have declared war on the US. What is clear is that this decision, taken within less than a week of the breakdown of the German drive toward Moscow and the Soviet winter offensive of December 1941, effectively ended any chance of a German victory.
Then why—and how—did Hitler prolong the war for another three years? Haffner’s answer is that, from the beginning of 1942, Hitler increasingly lost interest in the first of the two objectives he had always had in mind, securing Germany’s domination over Europe, and became increasingly absorbed in the second, the extermination of the Jews, to which he added in the final months the destruction of Germany as well. That Hitler conceived both these purposes and deliberately set measures afoot to carry them out in 1942-1945, I believe to be true; but I find Haffner’s argument that these became his sole reason for continuing the war (“In December 1941 Hitler the politician finally abdicated in favor of Hitler the mass murderer”) too simplified and schematic an explanation, an “either/or” for which I see no need. For is it not arguable that in Hitler’s mind the Final Solution and eventually the orders for the destruction of Germany were not an alternative to winning the war but a logical extension of that radicalization of war and of German society which, as Norman Stone shows, was the great feature of the years after the winter of 1941-1942, and which enabled Hitler to draw a supreme effort out of the German people after the rest of the world believed the war was lost?
There will always be controversy over a number of points in Hitler’s career; but the last three years are likely to remain the most difficult of all to understand, not only because of the appalling cost in life and destruction which they inflicted on Europe but because of Hitler’s ability to retain and even strengthen his hold on power when he had become almost a complete recluse and no longer made any effort to exercise the charismatic leadership of the 1930s.
The last of these three books—and the only one which provides fresh evidence about Hitler—may throw new light on Hitler’s performance in these years. All Hitler’s biographers have lamented the lack of medical evidence about him. For the first time, Leonard Heston, Professor of Psychiatry at Minnesota University, and his German-born wife Renate, a trained psychiatric nurse, have put together a record of Hitler’s medical history, drawing on recently declassified material from the National Archives in Washington and several years’ search for and questioning of those who had known or had the opportunity to observe Hitler. Despite—or perhaps because of—Professor Heston’s qualifications in psychiatry, he is skeptical about attempts by psycho-historians and others to provide a psychological explanation and says flatly that, while Hitler has been called virtually every name in the psychiatric glossary, “none is supportable.”
Hitler’s medical history, which the Hestons have painstakingly reconstructed, is not at all remarkable. He suffered from gastro-intestinal pain, which they diagnose as owing to gall-stones, and in his later years from a neurological deterioration, the first sign of which was a tremor in his left arm which eventually extended to his left leg. Hitler, however, was highly sensitive to any suggestion that he was not in good health, believing this would affect his public image, and took elaborate precautions to conceal both his ailments and their treatment. After 1936 this was in the hands of the notorious Dr. Morell, about whom the Hestons have much that is interesting to tell and who saw his job as depending upon his ability to keep any other doctor away from Hitler and to conceal what he did to treat him.
An almost complete list of the drugs he administered to Hitler runs to twenty-eight different preparations. Even so, Professor Heston believes that the most important of all was not included, namely, amphetamine. He argues, from circumstantial not direct evidence, that this was the drug which Morell administered to Hitler in daily, and very soon more frequent, injections from 1941-1942 on, as well as orally in specially manufactured Vitamultin tablets. Professor Heston goes on to claim that the symptoms of Hitler’s deteriorating physical and psychological condition in the last three years of the war can be more readily explained by his increasing dependence on amphetamines as a stimulant and the toxicity which this produced than in any other way.
Proof is lacking and, in view of the lengths both patient and doctor went to in cloaking Morell’s treatment in secrecy, this is not surprising. Professor Heston builds up an impressive case which the doctors to whom it has been shown admit to be possible, and which has persuaded Albert Speer that it is the most plausible explanation of the changes in Hitler that he and others in the inner circle noted in the years 1942-1945.
But how much does it explain? Speer, who introduces the Hestons’s book, ends his remarks with the question whether Morell’s treatment significantly changed Hitler’s aims and the course of events. His own answer—much more clearly than Professor Heston’s—is “No.” Speer continues:
My own view would rather be that exercising unrestricted power in the long run is bound to have intolerable effects upon the ruler. Power itself was the main drug underlying his activity…. He had become addicted to power, fame, untrammelled dominion, and only when those indispensable stimulants began to fail would he have attempted to replace them by the effects of amphetamines…. So bound up was Hitler with the nihilistic element within himself that ultimately he had to destroy himself—with or without amphetamines.
Far from settling the matter, the Hestons’ book is more likely to add fuel to the controversy about Hitler; it is at least something that our knowledge of Hitler’s health has been placed on a firmer footing—if only to provide a basis for better-informed speculation in the future. But it is an arresting thought that, thirty-five years after he committed suicide, we should be spending time arguing about the physical habits of an Austrian drop-out because he achieved destruction on a scale which—so far—no one has equaled.
July 17, 1980