The Hitler of History by John Lukacs
The Hitler of History
by John Lukacs
Knopf. 219 pp. $26.00
There are already over 100 biographies of Hitler, and the volume of supporting scholarly literature is immense. It is unlikely that the archives still have anything very significant to reveal about him, his career, or his motives. The evidence, such as it is, is in. In The Hitler of History, the Hungarian-born intellectual historian John Lukacs, who has written eighteen previous books on subjects ranging from the cold war to the history of Philadelphia, has had the creative idea of exploring what Hitler’s biographers have done with that evidence.
To prepare the ground, Lukacs gives his own thorough and crisp account of what we know about the Fuehrer. Two leading questions in his survey have the lasting power to disturb: what sort of man was Hitler, and why did a civilized people like the Germans follow him? The answers involve a complex interaction of fact and morality, so complex that many people—especially Germans—prefer not to think about them at all, but rather write Hitler off as an evil sorcerer. As against this, Lukacs insists throughout that Hitler is a historical figure, to be assessed by his actions and their consequences.
This means that we must absorb some unpleasant truths about the man. For one thing, Lukacs argues, by the standards of other willing criminals of history, Hitler’s intellectual talents were considerable. Though a failed artist, a café day-dreamer, and a traditionalist in many habits and ways of thought, the Fuehrer was at the same time a revolutionary, a visionary modernizer, and an “alarmingly effective strategist.” He was also, Lukacs writes, “courageous, self-assured, on many occasions steadfast, loyal to his friends and to those working for him, self-disciplined, and modest in his physical wants.”
But Hitler was inconsistent; dualities in his character abounded, and these, together with discrepancies between his publicly and privately expressed views, endowed him with a malign secretiveness all his own. A mass-murderer, he was personally squeamish. He could invent the figment of “Jewish-Bolshevism” and rant about it at the top of his voice, while at the same time privately respecting Stalin, and, even more contrarily, appreciating him as a fellow anti-Semite. Hitler claimed that the British were racial Aryans who would come around to him, but justified the invasion of the Soviet Union as the only way to destroy Britain for good. A hypochondriac afraid that he would die with his ambitions unfulfilled, he waged a war that ended in his own suicide.
Hitler’s Nietzschean belief in the absolute power of the will was driven by hate, which Lukacs considers the “prime element in his character.” In more than one speech, Hitler repeated, “There is only defiance and hate, hate and hate again!” And the core element here, of course, was hatred of Jews.
Its genesis remains something of a mystery. In Mein Kampf Hitler claims to have slowly, almost reluctantly, concluded that the Jews were in fact what the anti-Semites of pre-1914 Vienna said they were: a deadly menace to civilization. To Lukacs, it seems likely that Hitler’s anti-Semitism may indeed have begun in Vienna, but owed more to his experiences in Munich after 1919. Following the Bolshevik model, Communists had seized power there briefly in the postwar turbulence. Their regime included a disproportionate number of Jews who could be blamed afterward for the excesses of a thoroughly frightening revolution.
Although Hitler knew exactly what he wanted, he was always flexible enough to adjust his ideas to circumstances, balancing the purity of his hate against his ability to work his will. In the wake of his failed coup in Munich in 1923, he was, as Lukacs shows, careful to make allies of the conservative middle class, and he employed his rhetorical skills to persuade the masses that they would be safer with him than with the Communists. A revolution made by storm troopers, Hitler had learned, was bound to provoke a counter-reaction—it is far too simplistic to say that Hitler brawled and brutalized his way to power. On the contrary, succeeding through democratic channels, he was able to declare with pride that no statesman had a greater right to call himself a true representative of his people.
And, in fact, the German people for the most part had no great objection to the burgeoning totalitarian apparatus of the state, perceiving it rather as the fulfillment of German nationalism. Although the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 proved that Hitler was quite prepared to kill former close associates if they stood in his way, this was swept under the carpet in the years of triumph that followed. The mass of Germans, as Lukacs puts it, “loved and perhaps even admired Hitler.” Lukacs agrees with Joachim Fest, one of Hitler’s finest biographers, who has gone so far as to say that if Hitler had died in 1938, few Germans would have hesitated “to name him as one of the greatest statesmen of Germany.”
But Hitler did not die then. Three years later, in the autumn of 1941, the war he had unleashed, and which had engulfed all of Europe, had already reached the stage where he realized he could not win it. Ostensibly the crusade to destroy Bolshevism had been central to Nazi ideology; but now Hitler did what he could to present that conflict as a more conventional struggle between nations and cultures. By contrast, he decided at the same time to give full vent to his hatred for Jews. With the Final Solution at least, he could still have his way.
As the war proceeded, he became more disciplined and hard-working, and often displayed sounder judgment than his generals. Not without reason, he believed that a coalition including both the U.S. and the USSR was so unnatural that he could exploit its strains, playing one off against the other. In what is admittedly a minority view among historians, Lukacs contends that the image of a Hitler becoming increasingly fanatic and irrational as he approached the end is a false one.
Such, in a nutshell, is Lukacs’s own portrait of Hitler. How, in his historiographical survey, have Hitler’s many biographers measured up?
The German émigré journalist Konrad Heiden before the war, and other historians shortly afterward, provided the material that forms the basis of most of what we know about the German dictator. Altogether, as Lukacs demonstrates, the work of these early biographers was done conscientiously, and such errors as have become established are trivial. He specially commends the works of Fest, Alan Bullock, Sebastian Haffner, and Marlis Steinert.
In Germany, a tentative rehabilitation of Hitler began in the 1950’s. Many, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer among them, argued that Germany had really been engaged in two simultaneous world wars: a mistaken one against the democracies, and a justified one against Communism. Hitler, in this reading, was merely a premature cold warrior.
By the 1980’s, in the much-publicized Historikerstreit or “historians’ quarrel,” this interpretative tendency was amplified. Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber, and others, all of them professional historians, argued that Nazi crime was relative, a matter of degree. Soviet Communists had been the first to perfect terror as the prime political weapon; Hitler had only employed Communist methods in self-defense. Refining the two-war theory of the 50’s, some even argued that Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was defensive, an attempt to preempt a Soviet attack (though not a shred of evidence shows that Stalin intended such an attack).
If some in Germany have been at pains to exculpate Hitler, others have gone too far in a different direction, portraying him as a demonic Pied Piper, and the German people as his unwitting dupes. Unconsciously or not, that is what the novelist Guenter Grass did in his international best-seller The Tin Drum (1959), a book that more than any other pulled the phenomenon of Nazism away from rational analysis into the realm of mythology. Unhistorical in itself, this demonization of Hitler serves to relieve Germans of responsibility for their behavior, converting them into hapless children or, even more absurdly, innocent victims.
Germans, of course, are not the only ones who have had difficulty coming to terms with the memory of Hitler. In differing degrees, the American biographer John Toland and the Englishman David Irving were the first to express outright admiration for their subject. A routine sort of writer, though persistent in his way, Toland was simply out of his depth in Adolf Hitler (1957). Irving, who recently published a nostalgic portrait of Joseph Goebbels, is a different matter. Lukacs cites chapter and verse to show how this writer, “twisting” documentary sources and quoting without references that can be verified, has been so much in the grip of his own imagination that in his work “a discriminating historical reconstruction of Hitler’s decisions and purposes hardly exists at all.”
Exposing such revisionism, debunking its false claims, is only part of Lukacs’s aim in writing The Hitler of History. While attempting to capture Hitler as he really was, he also means to ensure that any attempt to relativize the unique evil perpetrated by this man will be seen in advance for what it is—misrepresentation, wrong and immoral.
A great deal is at stake here. Hitler and National Socialism were destroyed, but countries everywhere have since become nationalist and /or socialist to a greater or lesser degree. Just as Napoleon created a 19th-century order out of the ancien régime, so Hitler converted Napoleon’s order into the world we have today. Unlike Napoleon, however, he had no nobility in him, being shaped only by “defiance and hate, hate and again hate!” That untempered hate has branded our whole age.