Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler; drawing by David Levine

In 1976, the late Jean Améry, who had fought in the Resistance against Hitler and suffered imprisonment in a concentration camp, wrote gloomily that time was on the side of his former enemies and that sooner or later a false historical objectivity would discover that the Pétains and Lavals of the 1930s had been excellent fellows after all, and that even Adolf Hitler should not be denied his place in the Pantheon.

Améry’s prediction has not yet been fulfilled, although the bull market in Hitler stock in recent times would have seemed to him a sign that it soon would be. The first “Hitler boom,” which was of relatively short duration, was just about five years ago, apparently touched off by Joachim Fest’s film Hitler, a Career, when posters showing the Führer’s face were displayed on street corners all over Germany, breaking a long unofficial taboo. A rash of articles in weekly magazines about the personal aspects of Hitler’s life broke out, some of them so glamorized that the historian Guido Knopp complained that Hitler was being sold to the German people “partly as the good uncle of Obersalzburg who petted Bavarian children and fed German sheep dogs, and partly as a gifted entertainer of history, unfortunately pursued by bad luck, a mixture of Savonarola, Cromwell and El Cid.”

Worried lest a continuation of this might have deleterious effects upon his countrymen’s attitude toward their own history, Knopp organized a conference of academic and private historians on the theme “Hitler Today: A German Trauma.” This meeting at Aschaffenburg aroused national attention. Its proceedings were subject to some distraction—including Werner Maser’s defense of the theory that Hitler had a son living in France, and a strident appearance by the British historian David Irving, who offered, not for the first time, to give a thousand dollars to anyone who could give him documentary proof that Hitler knew about, let alone ordered, the extermination of the Jews. But it produced thoughtful statements by Eberhard Jaeckel, J.P. Stern, and others concerning the responsibility of historians for protecting the public from the kinds of trivialization and commercialization that would obscure the real meaning of Hitlerism.

We are now in the middle of a similar boom, and one that, unlike the one in 1977 and 1978, has assumed a transatlantic scope. This was provoked by the revelation of the so-called Hitler diaries in April, and its result, according to The Wall Street Journal, has been that, “whether because of historical interest or morbid fascination, books about Hitler, paintings done by him, documents signed by him and memorabilia concerning him are stirring up popular and commercial interest as seldom before.” As in the earlier case, scholars and theologians and cultural critics have found all this alarming, and some of them have warned that it represents a kind of creeping rehabilitation.

It is possible that such concern is exaggerated. There is, after all, perfectly good reason for our fascination with Adolf Hitler, and it has little to do with revisionism, morbidity, or commercialism. It is our conscious or unconscious realization that we live the way we do now because of his ambitions and the ruthless, unconditional dedication with which he pursued them. Sebastian Haffner was not exaggerating when he wrote: “The world today, whether we like it or not, is the work of Hitler. Without Hitler, no division of Germany and Europe; without Hitler, no Americans and Russians in Berlin; without Hitler, no Israel; without Hitler, no decolonization, at least, none so sudden, no Asian, Arab and black African emancipation.” Without Hitler, he might have added, no cold wars and no nuclear arms race.

It is only natural, then, that we should continue to concern ourselves with the Hitler phenomenon and to wrestle with questions that we have asked ourselves a thousand times before. How was this ill-educated and shiftless son of an obscure Austrian civil servant transformed into the all-powerful leader of a great European nation? What combination of personal qualities and objective circumstances enabled him to dominate his age as no one had since Napoleon Bonaparte? What is the extent of our own culpability in advancing his career and encouraging his terrible fantasies?

Because of what Hitler did, these questions retain their urgency. This may account for the momentary clouding of judgment on the part of Hitler experts of proven competence when the magazine Stern produced the spurious diaries. Unconsciously, perhaps, they wanted them to be genuine, because if they were, no matter how trivial their contents, they might throw some light upon an action, a motive, an attitude that is still, after all these years of research, unexplained. There are many such mysteries. We do not even know, for instance, why Hitler declared war upon the United States, a decision that was made secretly and without consulting others, that flew in the face of all logic, and that made certain its author’s utter defeat.


That particular problem is not addressed by any of the four latest examples of the unflagging interest in Hitler. They concentrate rather on the genesis of his interest in politics, the background of his accession to power in 1933, the much controverted question of his health during the war years, and his personal responsibility for what in the Third Reich was called euphemistically the Final Solution of the Jewish problem.

The liveliest of these books, and the one that will probably have the greatest interest for the lay reader, is Sydney Jones’s account of Hitler’s years in Vienna from 1907 to 1913. It is almost as much a book about the city as one about the young man from the provinces whose artistic ambitions it rebuffed, for the author is fascinated by the fact that, while Hitler was hawking postcards and advertisements for shoe polish in the mean streets, people like Mahler and Freud, Schoenberg and Klimt, and Schnitzler and Karl Kraus were living their more fulfilling lives not very far away, and he keeps diverting his attention to them, although there is no evidence that Hitler had any idea of their existence.

Mr. Jones is given to much bootless speculation about such things as whether Hitler might have attended Mahler’s last performance of Fidelio (and, even worse, about Hitler’s sexual preferences, a profitless subject because of the insubstantiality of the evidence and its irrelevance to his political development), but he is nonetheless perceptive. In creating a sense of the atmosphere of the Austrian capital and contrasting its intellectual excitement and hectic vitality with Hitler’s drab and lonely existence, he helps us to understand how his first political ideas—his contempt for the Austrian empire, his pan-Germanism, his loathing of a working class that parroted Marxist slogans, and, above all, his belief that the Jews were the source of all evil—grew out of disappointments suffered and resentments accumulated in a city that must have seemed to him to be heartless, unappreciative of talent, and ultimately degenerate and corrupt. Mr. Jones is correct also in seeing that, although Hitler failed as an artist, he did not cease to be one (a thought that Thomas Mann elaborated in his essay “Brother Hitler”) and that the politics he practiced when he became a party leader was always an aestheticized politics that depended more on ritual and stagecraft than on argument and principle.

The fortunes of his party and its rise to power are the subject of The Nazi Machtergreifung, a collection of articles by, for the most part, younger historians teaching in British, Canadian, and American universities. Based upon new research in materials overlooked by, or unavailable to, earlier scholars and often basing its conclusions upon statistical analysis of local and regional electoral data, business records, membership lists, and the like, it performs the double service of destroying some too easily held notions about the reasons for Nazi success and providing a critical reappraisal of the attitudes of various social and professional groups in the last stages of the Weimar Republic.

Examples of the former function are Jill Stephenson’s authoritative criticism of the theory that German women were so fascinated by the Führer that they voted overwhelmingly for him, despite the antifeminist position of his party, and Michael Geyer’s rejection of the view that the officer corps was an aristocratic elite that was easily outmaneuvered in the age of mass politics. (It was on the contrary, he points out, remarkably young, bourgeois, and upwardly mobile, and its political attitude was determined, for wholly material reasons, largely by the prospect of rearmament under the Nazis.) The book’s second function is exemplified in excellent chapters on the churches (John S. Conway), the educated classes (Geoffrey J. Giles), and the industrial elite (Dick Geary).

The volume does not include a chapter on Adolf Hitler himself, and its editor does not apologize for the omission. Indeed, he says, “No scholar would today seriously contend that the efforts of one man can be said to have been the most important element in a situation as complex as the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s. Hitler’s personal contribution was conditioned and made successful by a range of factors outside his control.” This claim is, at the very least, incautious in a book studded with statements like “The central importance of Hitler [in foreign policy] is precisely what newer research on his program has restored,” “The importance of the Führer-cult as the fulcrum of Nazi propaganda appeal cannot be doubted,” and “The massive political irrationality of…belief in the Führer was far more responsible than the Nazi Party’s organization or its ideology for the remarkable cohesion of the Third Reich, and for the loyal, if deluded, service given by so many churchmen….” A Nazi Machtergreifung without Hitler is inconceivable. Among his contemporaries, he is the only one who reminds us of Burckhardt’s words, “Now and then history is pleased suddenly to embody itself in a person, whom the world thereupon obeys.”


Like all men, however, Hitler was mortal, and this is made abundantly clear by David Irving’s contribution to the wave of interest engendered by Stern magazine’s misadventure, the journals of Professor Theo Morell, which Mr. Irving discovered, after a long search, in the National Archives in Washington. Morell was a doctor with a fashionable practice in Berlin when he was introduced to Hitler by the Führer’s personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler was suffering from sharp pains in the upper abdomen which, he told Morell, he had first experienced at the time of his trial in 1924 and then recurrently, with serious attacks in 1929, when the party’s publishing ventures had severe financial problems, and before and during his reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936, when he sensed that his generals were far from enthusiastic about the adventure. Morell diagnosed his trouble as abnormal bacterial flora in the intestine, a problem on which he had done considerable research, and promised to make Hitler healthy within a year. He succeeded, by dosing his patient with coli capsules and large quantities of vitamins and heart and liver extract, and in gratitude Hitler attached him to his staff.

The diaries were begun when Hitler’s health collapsed in July 1941, a month after the inception of the Russian campaign, and continued until Morell’s dismissal in April 1945. They are largely concerned with the doctor’s frantic attempts to cope with Hitler’s gastric problems and with other ailments that affected him as the war progressed—dysentery in 1941, a minor heart condition that Morell discovered in the same year and treated with glucose and iodine injections, an attack of jaundice in September 1944, and occasional eye and throat problems—and they include startling glimpses of the Führer’s regimen. (In September 1944, there were more pastilles and pills on his breakfast tray than food.) Apart from this, however, they include little of general interest except frequent and bitter complaints about the backbiting of other doctors who wished to discredit Morell and his methods and some intriguing references to Ribbentrop, Goering, Ley, and other Nazi leaders, all of whom seemed as eager as Hitler himself to receive Morell’s pills and injections (this was also true of Mussolini and Marshal Antonescu) and who repaid him by giving him their own diagnoses of their leader’s ills.

In their interesting Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler,1 Dr. Leonard Heston and Renate Heston advanced the hypothesis that during the war years Hitler was suffering from amphetamine toxicity induced by Morell’s injections, particularly of a drug called Vitamultinforte, and suggested that this would account for his increasing tendency to take unwarranted risks and the impulsiveness, the grandiosity, and the lack of measure and perspective that marked his conduct of the war. They admitted that this could not be verified without a record of the periodicity of injections and, especially, an exact knowledge of the components of Vitamultin-forte, which was compounded in accordance with the doctor’s private prescription.

The diaries do not clarify this, although Morell’s description of the effects of his first injection of the mysterious drug are not inconsistent with those produced by amphetamines. This is hardly enough to make a link between Morell’s methods of treatment and Hitler’s deficiencies as a Feldherr, and there are, in any case, more plausible explanations for the failures of the Führer’s war leadership: false lessons that he drew from his experience in the First World War, for example, his inveterate distrust of professional advice, his persistent underestimation of the capacities of the enemy, and his belief that all problems could be solved by willpower.

More interesting and substantial is the book of the University of Surrey scholar Gerald Fleming, which should finally lay to rest David Irving’s provocative theory that Hitler neither ordered nor wished the destruction of the Jewish people. This theory was never, to be sure, plausible, given the number of occasions, in public utterance and private conversation, on which Hitler made his hatred of the Jews and his intentions concerning them clear, but it has not been without influence, and in an aside in his book on Hitler’s years in Vienna, Sydney Jones wonders whether Mr. Irving might not be right. In a meticulous examination of the entire network of authority that set the extermination policy in motion, Mr. Fleming shows that he isn’t.

After his experience with the euthanasia program, which he personally ordered in September 1939 and which took the lives of more than ninety thousand people who were mentally defective or described as hopelessly ill before a public outcry forced its termination in August 1941, Hitler concluded that his plans with respect to the Jews would have to be executed in places remote from the German center, under camouflage more effective than that used in the Gnadentod action (although with similar techniques), and in a manner that would, for political reasons that were obvious, obscure his own connection with them.

To implement the policy, therefore, he selected the SS, whose unconditional obedience could be counted upon, and the orders for specific actions henceforth came from its leader Heinrich Himmler or his lieutenants. Mr. Irving’s argument that Himmler, on his own authority, went further than Hitler ever intended is contradicted by the fact that the SS leader said just the opposite, not only in the form of frequent comments about the “heavy load” Hitler had imposed on his shoulders but in references, before military and SS audiences, to “Führer-commands” that he was merely obeying. Moreover, Mr. Fleming has documented several occasions on which Himmler was challenged by subordinates who wanted to know who would take ultimate responsibility for actions they were supposed to perform. He answered as he did when questioned by Obersturmbannführer Bradfisch before the slaughter of the Jews in Minsk in August 1941. Bradfisch testified: “Himmler answered me in a rather sharp tone that these orders came from Hitler as the supreme commander of the German state government and that they had the force of law.”

But it was not necessary even to be as explicit as that. In July 1941, when Hermann Goering commissioned Reinhard Heydrich “to carry out all necessary preparations…for a total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe,” Heydrich, who was Himmler’s subordinate and not subject to Goering’s commands, did not have to be told that the order really came from Hitler. Moreover, as the dreadful program evolved, spoken forms and usages were invented that intimated that orders for it had the highest possible backing without quite saying so. Such was the formula first employed by Himmler when he ordered the liquidation of the Riga ghetto in November 1941: “It is my order and also the Führer’s wish.” One of the many witnesses whom Mr. Fleming interrogated in the course of his researches told him that variations of the phrase “Es ist des Führers Wunsch” came to be recognized as bestowing supreme legitimacy upon orders passed through the ranks. “The ‘wish’ was always transmitted by a third person and was not handed on expressly as a command of the Führer, but even so it had the significance of a command.”

Mr. Fleming has not succeeded in producing the scrap of paper that David Irving demanded, but he has shown why it doesn’t exist and why, in the end, it wasn’t needed. He probably won’t get the thousand dollars, but anyone who takes the trouble to weigh his carefully collected evidence will probably conclude that he deserves it, not least of all for writing the kind of book that will make the realization of Jean Améry’s fears unlikely.

This Issue

July 21, 1983