We are now approaching the end of another century, an event that always arouses the liveliest excitement among inhabitants of the Western world, to whom it seems important as a way station in their passage through time, a significant pause convenient for assessing the past and projecting the future, an occasion above all for compiling lists. It was a sign of the fin de siècle mood when time magazine announced in August that it intended in the months ahead to celebrate the one hundred persons of our era who have had the greatest impact on the world and the way we’ll live in the future, an exercise that will culminate at the end of 1999 with the naming of the Person of the Century. The editors invited their readers to make nominations and put forward what appeared to be a tentative list of their own: Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Lenin, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Marlon Brando, Einstein, Picasso, Mother Teresa, and Jackie Robinson.
The most striking thing about this scrappy catalog is that it excludes the person best qualified to meet the announced criteria, namely, Adolf Hitler. In a century of violence, he was its embodiment from the day he pulled Germany out of the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations in October 1933 until his death in the ruins of Berlin twelve years later. The greatest war in history is incomprehensible without an understanding of his role in unleashing it, and he was responsible for all of the dreadful consequences that flowed from it. In a brilliant essay twenty years ago, Sebastian Haffner wrote,
Today’s world, whether we like it or not, is the work of Hitler. Without Hitler there would have been no partition of Germany and Europe;…without Hitler, there would be no Israel; without Hitler there would be no de-colonization, at least not such a rapid one; there would be no Asian, Arab, or Black African emancipation, and no diminution of European preeminence.1
All of this is reflected in the extraordinary interest shown, not only by historians but by ordinary citizens, in his life and career. The number of books, articles, films, and television programs devoted to them is greater than in the case of any of the other national leaders of the century, and fifty years after his death there is little sign that this preoccupation is waning. Indeed, the words of a German historian, Gerhard Schreiber, in the 1980s, “We are not finished with Hitler,”2 are truer today than when they were written.
John Lukacs quotes Schreiber’s words on the first page of his new book on Hitler, and they might very well serve as its motto. Lukacs is no stranger to the Hitler period. In 1976 he wrote a highly original study of the first phase of World War II, and in 1991 he followed this up with a dramatic account of what he called the duel between Hitler and Winston Churchill in the spring of 1940.3 This time, however, his theme is neither military nor biographical but historiographical, and his book is a history of the evolution of our knowledge of Hitler as it can be discerned in the work of his biographers. This involves a consideration of questions about Hitler’s career that are still unresolved and, in a wider sense, an assessment of what can be said, fifty years after his death, about his place in the history of his own country and in the twentieth century.
The first substantial study of Hitler was that of Konrad Heiden, which appeared in Zürich in 1936. As its date indicates, it could have nothing to say about the greater part of the Hitler dictatorship, but, as Lukacs points out, it was filled with detailed and accurate information about his early life and rise to power. Precisely because it came so early, it was free of the tendency to regard Hitler as insane or, alternatively, as an embodiment of evil, which colored much of the popular writing about Hitler in the years that followed. Heiden was also a ruthless critic of the legends and anecdotes that Hitler’s name inspired. Lukacs says of him that his “main thesis is as valid now as it was more than sixty years ago: Hitler was underestimated, dangerously so, by his opponents as well as by his temporary allies.”
After that, more than fifteen years passed before a considerable study or biography of Hitler appeared, with the exception of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s little book The Last Days of Hitler in 1947, which dealt with the Führer’s death in the bunker. But the year 1952 marked a real turning point, with the appearance of Alan Bullock’s substantial English biography (the first to make use of the captured German documents produced at Nuremberg), the first serious German biography by Walter Görlitz and Herbert A. Quint, and, at the same time, the establishment in Munich, at the instigation of Hans Rothfels and Theodor Eschenburg, of the Institute for Contemporary History, which was to stimulate scholarship on the recent past and spread its findings through its journal, the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte. After that books about Hitler began to proliferate.
Lukacs’s discussion of such historical work is admirably critical and much fuller than one would think possible within the scope of a short book. This is possible because of his use of long footnotes, sometimes covering as much as a third or more of the page, in which he quotes liberally from the books he is discussing, and compares them with other works. (The footnotes are among the most interesting and amusing aspects of this book, although at times, like the notes in Frank Sullivan’s famous New Yorker article “A Garland of Ibids,” they become argumentative and quarrel with the quotations or reject them out of hand, and at other times verge on the ruminative and give short lectures on the nature of history or other subjects that come to the author’s mind.) Among the works he discusses, Lukacs has his favorites—he thinks that Joachim Fest’s biography of 1973 is still the best, and among shorter studies he admires those of Percy Schramm, Ernst Deuerlein, and the Austrian historian Friedrich Heer—and he is constantly on the watch for “relativizers” and “rehabilitators.” With respect to both tendencies, he says that, after fifty years of scholarship, we have come to realize that Hitler was a much more complicated and diverse person than he appeared in the rather one-dimensional portrait of the Führer as an inveterate opportunist drawn by Alan Bullock in 1952, and that the powers of his intelligence were considerable. This has led apologists to place excessive emphasis upon the sensitive, the artistic, the surprisingly human side of his personality at the expense of its other aspects, such as his secrecy and his capacity for brutality.
One-sided, too, is their portrait of the happiness and the prosperity that Hitler brought to the majority of the German people in the 1930s—without mentioning, let alone emphasizing, the darker elements in that overall picture. Then, among extreme apologists as well as among cautious rehabilitators, there is the tendency to exonerate Hitler—at least partially—from the responsibility of having started World War II. This is done by emphasizing the warlike purposes of his enemies, and their rigid unwillingness to compromise, particularly the Poles and the British. In addition, there has been an increasing tendency to absolve Hitler, at least partly, of his most fateful step in the war, his decision to attack Russia in 1941, by arguing—on the basis of very questionable documentation—that Stalin was about to attack Germany in 1941.
The rehabilitators, among whom Lukacs includes the prolific David Irving, do all of these things in order to build a case for their more outrageous denials of Hitler’s moral culpability for such atrocities as the attempted extermination of the Jewish people.
Our view of the past can never be a permanent one. Revision is part of the historical process, made inevitable by the passage of time and the changed perspective that comes with it and by the accumulation of new knowledge. It can also be galvanized by chance events. The hullabaloo in America over the visit of President Reagan to Bitburg in 1985, when he was invited to visit a cemetery in which the bodies of members of the Waffen-SS were interred, was enough to encourage a mood of mortification and resentment in Germany as well as a protracted debate over the Nazi past that had important consequences. This debate took the form of the Historikerstreit (or Historical Controversy) of 1986-1987, which was touched off by what appeared to be attempts by two major scholars, Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, to rehabilitate Hitler and his regime. In response, the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas made a slashing attack on what he called the neoconservatism of the historical profession. Before it was over, the dispute had involved virtually every major historian in Germany4 and had revealed that the historians and a large part of the academic community in general were bitterly divided, with the supporters of Nolte and Hillgruber accusing their opponents of character assassination, attempts to stifle the expression of unpopular views, and denigration of the nation’s past. Among their principal arguments was the claim that Germany was unfairly singled out for blame when the Soviet system had been equally brutal and oppressive, if not more so.
In consequence, a spirit of resistance became more palpable against what some scholars called a monolithic view of Germany’s recent history that was imposed by Germany’s former enemies, and this soon affected Hitler scholarship. Lukacs points out that in the 1995 edition of his Hitler biography, Joachim Fest, who had supported Nolte during the controversy, claimed that the objective historical approach to Hitler and his times that the historian Martin Broszat had called for in 1984 as a means of relieving the blockage that National Socialism has imposed on German historical consciousness was far from being achieved. In fact, Fest claimed that Hitler was still being demonized, that his portrait had become more “unclear,” that he was still “our contemporary,” that “the shadows of his contemporariness (sic) [were] becoming deeper and deeper,” and that this situation was not likely to improve so long as important questions and topics relating to the Führer remained “taboos,” for instance the question of whether his anti-Bolshevism had not been justified.
In 1989, one of the most brilliant and influential of the younger historians, Rainer Zitelmann, published a short political biography of Hitler in which the revisionist note was clear. Zitelmann wrote, “The picture drawn here of Hitler differs from [others] very substantially. He appears here as a politician, whose thinking and actions were essentially much more rational than hitherto accepted.” He added, “In some fields research about National Socialism is still in its beginnings…. In the end the picture of Hitler appears as essentially more complex, differentiated, and uncertain.” And then, with a look to the older biographies, which Zitelmann regards as excellent for their time but now superseded in many ways, he suggested that the time had come to lower the tone of indignation while discussing Hitler. “Soberness is also needed in the language. That is far from the truth in all of the biographies of Hitler [including Fest’s].”
None of this indicates that a wave of rehabilitation is in the offing, although Zitelmann has on occasion relied on David Irving’s researches and given him qualified praise, and although Lukacs is concerned because sometimes there is no real distinction between Zitelmann’s revisionism and “a kind of rehabilitation.” But it does suggest that the accepted picture of Hitler will continue to be modified and that new interpretations will challenge the critical capacities of historians dedicated to the pursuit of truth.
This is not, of course, new. For decades now, views about different parts of Hitler’s life and career that were once firmly held have had to yield under the impact of new findings. Take, as an example, the question of when Hitler actually became the Hitler of history, or—to put it another way—when his ideas crystallized and his persona attained its mature form. Until recently most historians have been inclined to accept Hitler’s own statements in Mein Kampf that the six years that he spent in Vienna after his mother’s death in 1907 were “the most fundamental schooling” of his life, the “most difficult school,” where, he wrote, “I gained the fundament of my world-view…. The granite-hard fundament of my later actions.”
That the Vienna years were important is of course true (although the researches of Werner Maser have proven that they were not a period of dire poverty, as Hitler claimed), and in his last years he often spoke of Vienna with an affection that is absent from Mein Kampf. But one cannot say that his ideas crystallized in Vienna or that he acquired a clear vision of his future course there. For one thing, although he claimed that he left Vienna “an absolute Anti-Semite,” Lukacs points out that there is no record of private or public anti-Semitic utterances on his part before his thirty-first year. For another, Hitler’s account of his Vienna period tells us very little about political ambition on his part. It took the war, in which Hitler served from its first to last day, and Germany’s defeat to awaken his political consciousness. It took the experience of the Munich Soviet in 1919 and his discovery in its aftermath that he was able to make public speeches, and, more important, that he could persuade people, to make him decide to go into politics. Even after that, as Eberhard Jaeckel, the most astute student of Hitler’s Weltanschauung, has written, the development of Hitler’s ideology was gradual, and it may not have been complete until he had completed the writing of Mein Kampf in 1924.
Similarly, the question of whether Hitler should be considered a reactionary or a revolutionary receives responses from historians today that are different from those that were common during the 1930s and 1940s. In the foreground of their thinking then was the recollection that his takeover of power came about through the maneuvers of a conservative clique headed by Franz von Papen and that its result was the destruction of the democratic Weimar Republic. It was easy to assume that with the passage of the Enabling Act in March 1933, which gave Hitler virtually full powers, Germany would return, as Paul Reynaud was to say in 1940, to “the Middle Ages again, but not illuminated by the mercy of Christ.”
Yet the nature of Hitler’s domestic program after 1933 failed to support that assumption, for—as the American historian David Schoenbaum was the first to point out—it brought about what could only be described as a social revolution in Germany,5 and one that was hardly to the advantage of the old political and social establishment. German historians were often reluctant to relinquish the reactionary label and to accept Hitler’s revolutionary credentials, and Hans Mommsen once posed the question “Is it proper to give National Socialism the adjective ‘revolutionary,’ and therefore array it with those developments in the history of Europe that had begun with the French Revolution of 1789?”
Lukacs comments that “there is something unnecessarily cautious and pedantic about this kind of semantic reluctance.” It is hard to deny that Hitler’s ideas, his rhetoric, his plans, and the way he effected them were something radically new in German politics and that, despite his ability to dissemble when he needed the support of the established classes, in reality he represented a complete break with the past. Even before he came to power, Lukacs writes,
he had become repelled by the traditionalist values of the German bourgeoisie. He was contemptuous of their caution, of their thrift, of their respect for the monarchy, of their social aspirations, of their desire for safety, of their class-consciousness, of an entire range of their characteristics, ranging from bourgeois “Gemütlichkeit” to the old-fashioned standards of patriciandom.
As soon as he could, he turned from them to his true constituency, the broad national community. The forging of the Volksgenossenschaft—the unity of the nation—upon the basis of the nearly complete and voluntary acquiescence of the people was a revolution unique in German history.
It was, moreover, a modern revolution, implemented by a party that prided itself upon being a party of youth (in 1931 70 percent of the SA in Berlin were under thirty, and 60 percent of Nazi Reichstag members in 1930 were under forty) and whose plans for changing society broke with the past. Zitelmann wrote in 1994 that Hitler
did not let himself be governed by backward visions of a medieval social order. In many ways his model was the United States. Although he rejected capitalist economics and the democratic order of the USA, he nevertheless admired its technological-industrial development.
He admired as well America’s methods of advertising and its ability to calculate and stimulate the desires of the majority, which he emulated skillfully. In his views of the role of women in society, Hitler was certainly not enlightened, and his views on art (although not on architecture) were, to say the least, benighted. But he was no reactionary, and his social policies were more successful than those of the Weimar Republic in breaking down class barriers and building a new middle-class society. Lukacs is correct in calling him “a populist revolutionary in a democratic age, notwithstanding all of the then still extant older elements of German institutions and German society, many of which [the churches and the universities, for instance] he knew how to employ for his purposes.”
The populist nature of the Nazi regime deserves to be emphasized. Hitler’s Germany is often referred to as a totalitarian state or a police state, but it was so only to a limited degree. Except for the Jews, toward whom Hitler had an obsessive hatred, and former and potential dissidents, and homosexuals and Gypsies, most people, at least until the war years, remained surprisingly unrestrained by state control, and even those who were plotting to overthrow the regime found it relatively easy to travel abroad in pursuit of assistance. Hitler rarely used the word “total” and denied that he wanted to be a dictator. In a speech in Munich in 1934, he said:
In Germany bayonets do not terrorize a people. Here a government is supported by the confidence of the entire people…. I have not been imposed by anyone upon this people. From this people I have grown up, in the people I have remained, to the people I return. My pride is that I know no statesman in the world who with greater right than I can say that he is representative of the people.
Most of his audience probably found that persuasive, for the fall of the Weimar Republic had been accepted almost with relief and with a feeling that a new time of national unity and social cohesion was dawning. Zitelmann has written that “the end of [parliamentary] democracy seemed to mean to many the beginning of true popular rule.”
It has been observed that even before Hitler assumed office a strong wave of nationalism was sweeping the country, a feeling that the time had come for Germans to be proud of themselves again and to reassert themselves in world affairs. Nationalism, Lukacs argues, in contrast to old-fashioned patriotism, is a modern and populist phenomenon, inseparable from the myth of a people jealous of the right of membership in the Volk and prone to the violent denunciation of those who do not belong. Since the days in Vienna Hitler had been a pan-German nationalist in the most extreme sense, and his nationalism was imbued by that hatred which was always a part of his secret self, and which had led him, in a speech in 1923, to cry out, “For the liberation of a people more is needed than an economic policy, more than industry: if a people is to become free, it needs pride and willpower, defiance, hate, hate and once again hate.” Once he was in of-fice, that nationalism, projected outward in the service of his foreign and racist policies, boded disaster for Germany’s neighbors and those he considered to be its internal enemies, but Hitler had no doubt that it would be supported by most of the German people.
Lukacs’s treatment of Hitler’s foreign policy and his conduct of the war that he precipitated in 1939 is less satisfactory than other parts of his interesting book, and he is often argumentative and, not infrequently, dogmatic. He seems reluctant to attribute much importance to the basic principles of foreign policy laid down in Mein Kampf, including the need for Germany to dominate Eastern Europe. But Bullock and other historians have pointed out that Hitler repeated them more emphatically in his second book in 1928 and in his speeches to the industrialists in Düsseldorf in 1930 and to his generals in February 1933, and although—allowing for his tactical elasticity, which Hermann Rauschning once said he carried “to a pitch of virtuosity”6—these were in fact the principles he followed in implementing his policy.
In his discussion of the Sudeten crisis, Lukacs maintains that it would have taken only a few days for Germany to have conquered Czechoslovakia if it had come to war, although he makes no assessment of the quality of Czech troops or the strength of their defenses (which greatly impressed German officers after the crisis was over). Lukacs is also needlessly categorical in his flat refusal to accept Fest’s argument that Hitler could not have survived a military conspiracy in September 1938. He rightly says that by 1938 Hitler had brought about a diplomatic revolution in Europe, with Italy on his side, the French and British on the defensive, and Austria and the Sudetenland absorbed into the Reich. But he doesn’t tell us much about how Hitler accomplished this, as Gerhard Weinberg7 and other diplomatic historians have done, describing, for example, the brilliance of Hitler’s diplomacy in the years when he could not back it up with force, and the mixture of blandishment, threat, and audacity that began with the Rhineland coup of 1936. He fails to make the point that the weaknesses of Western diplomacy in the 1930s affected him with a fatal sense of overconfidence, so that he was incapable of appreciating the signs of growing strength and resolution that came to him from Britain in 1939. He told his generals, when announcing his decision to attack Poland, that Britain and France would not intervene. “Our enemies are small fry,” he boasted. “I saw them at Munich.”8 This self-assurance was probably as important in driving him forward as his private fear, which Lukacs stresses, that time was running out on him and that he might die before he could accomplish his objectives.
But what were those objectives, for example, in the assault upon Russia in 1941? A major theme in Lukacs’s treatment of Hitler’s strategy is the question whether it was driven by ideology or Realpolitik, a subject that has inspired much wrangling among historians. Lukacs gives us a sampling of their opinions, while arguing himself that in 1941 the political motive was dominant—the desire, by defeating Russia, to discourage the British war effort and perhaps drive Britain out of the war—and the ideological ones—the acquisition of lebensraum for the Great German Reich of the future and the desire to extirpate “Jewish Bolshevism”—secondary, but not inconsequential.
This remained true after the German armies had failed to take Moscow and Hitler realized, sooner than most people, that he could not win the war on his own terms. His strategy now, Lukacs claims, became one of holding on, like Frederick II in the Seven Years War, against a ring of powerful enemies, continuing to inflict heavy blows against their troops and waiting for one of his major antagonists to lose heart and leave the war. The ideological aspect of this strategy, the extermination of the Jews, which began in earnest after the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 and continued until the end of the conflict, was here again secondary to the military-political one. Although the Holocaust was certainly authorized in Hitler’s name and derived from his hatred of Jews, he remained aloof from its implementation and was evidently unwilling “to read or hear or see reports of what was really done to Jews in the east.”
How talented a military leader was the man whom German soldiers by the end of the war were sardonically calling Gröfaz (the Greatest Feldherr of All Time)? He had an astonishing grasp of detail and a creative fantasy in technical questions and matters of armament, and his personal contributions to weaponry—his choice of the antitank gun for the Russian campaign, for example—were highly successful. Moreover, he had undeniable gifts as a strategist, and Alfred Jodl once cited as proof of this his plan for the Scandinavian campaign, his concept for invasion of France, and his order during the winter of 1941-1942 that there should be no retreat from the positions won. But Jodl also pointed out that, after Stalingrad, when it became clear to all that the tide of battle had turned, his role as strategist was essentially over, and he now began to interfere with operational matters in a disruptive and eventually disastrous manner.
In discussing Hitler’s military gifts, Lukacs writes that he had learned much from his service in the First World War. This is undoubtedly true, but it is also true that some of what he had learned was dangerous, and that this included the idea that wars are won by the force of will. This lay at the very heart of Hitler’s prejudice against mobility in defensive military operations and of his misbegotten insistence—in Russia, in North Africa, in France in 1944—that there should be no retreat even from positions menaced by overwhelmingly superior forces. The flaw in this was that however strong Hitler’s faith in the willpower of the common German soldier, he forgot that the enemy had willpower too. This was manifest on the tactical as well as the political level and was not the least reason for the failure of Hitler’s Frederician strategy.
At an early point in his engrossing book, Lukacs—sounding as if he were nominating Hitler for the distinction of Person of the Century—writes :
He may have been the most popular revolutionary leader in the history of the modern world. The emphasis is on the word popular, because Hitler belongs to the democratic, not the aristocratic, age of history. He is not properly comparable to a Caesar, a Cromwell, a Napoleon. Utterly different from them, he was, more than any of them, able to energize the majority of a great people, in his lifetime the most educated people of the world, convincing them to follow his leadership to astonishing achievements and extraordinary efforts and making them believe that what they (and he) stood for was an antithesis of evil. He led them to prosperity and pride, inspiring in them a confidence with which they conquered almost all of Europe, achieving a German hegemony soon lost because he overreached himself. His Reich, which was to have lasted a thousand years, ended after twelve; yet he had an enormous impact and left a more indelible mark upon this century than any other dictator, a Lenin or a Stalin or a Mao.
In the wake of the war and the defeat, the loyalty and affection that he had inspired to the bitter end disappeared with startling suddenness. Friedrich Heer has written that in the German lands, and especially in Christian and conservative circles, people were willing to regard him
as a daemon, an anti-Christ, as a phenomenon beyond understanding, disappearing [thus] into metaphysical clouds. This retreat into a…metaphysical hell…served, first of all, as a kind of relief: one did not want to admit that one was also responsible for the rise, for the assumption of power, for the Europe-wide destructive achievements of this man.
There are good reasons to believe that this attitude has changed profoundly in the last decades. How otherwise can we explain the positive reaction in Germany to Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, with its involved and exaggerated claim that all of Hitler’s crimes were committed in accordance with the wishes of the German people? This may indicate that the process of historicizing Hitler—of making him a part of German history rather than an inexplicable force outside it—has made more progress than Joachim Fest believed. It is questionable, however, whether it has gone so far as to make Germans comfortable with the picture of a Hitler redux that Lukacs adumbrates in a gloomy rumination on the state of Western civilization at the very end of his book, where he wonders whether, during a general collapse of social institutions and values, Hitler’s reputation might not rise in the eyes of “orderly people, who may regard him as a kind of Diocletian, a tough last architect of an imperial order.”
Germans who have had difficulty accepting Hitler as part of their past will hardly be happy about such speculations about his role in their future.
November 20, 1997
Sebastian Haffner, Anmerkungen zu Hitler (Munich:Kindler, 1978). ↩
Gerhard Schreiber, Hitler Interpretationen, 1923-1983 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, second edition, 1988), p. 335. ↩
John Lukacs, The Last European War, 1939-1941 (Anchor/Doubleday, 1976); The Duel: 10 May-31 July: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler (Ticknor and Fields, 1991). ↩
David Schoenbaum, Hitler’s Social Revolution (Doubleday, 1966). ↩
Hermann Rauschning, The Revolution of Nihilism (Alliance, 1939), p. 185. ↩
See Gerhard L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany (University of Chicago Press, 1970), and Germany, Hitler and World War II (Cambridge University Press, 1995). ↩
See my review of Donald Cameron Watt’s How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-1939, in The New York Review, October 12, 1989, p. 14. ↩