Before Adolf Hitler took power, virtually no one understood his unthinkable evil. Since his suicide, no one has fully explained how a talentless crank was able to turn Europe into a charnel house. In a new book, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris, Ian Kershaw supplies a piece of the puzzle.
‘What a piece of work is man!” says the Prince of Denmark. “How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” Well said, but where, as Ron Rosenbaum so intelligently asks in his recent book, Explaining Hitler, do all the Jeffrey Dahmers come from? This is sometimes put, by nervous theologians, as “the problem of evil.” We often phrase it, colloquially, as the problem of Hitler. “His face in those early years,” wrote Arthur Koestler in 1942, “an unshaped pudding with a black horizontal dot, came to life as the lights of obsession were switched on behind the eyeballs.” And then those paragons of animals, those with the godlike and angelic faculties of reason and understanding, flung themselves down by the million and groaned great noises of worship and adoration. And this in the country of Beethoven and Goethe, where, to continue with Koestler for a moment, “the features of it retained their crankish ridiculousness, with the black dot under the upturned nose and the second black dot pasted on the forefront, but it now assumed the grotesque horror of a totem-mask worn at ritual dances where human sacrifices are performed.” A piece of work—no question about that.
I treasure one episode, in the clotted pages of Mein Kampf, above all others. As a young, resentful loser hanging around in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Adolf Hitler was forced to seek employment on a construction site. He thought the labor beneath him, and he very much resented being pressed to join a union. The lunchtime chat of his fellows was even more repugnant to his nature: “Some of the men went into the nearest public house,” while “I drank my bottle of milk and ate my piece of bread somewhere on the side.” And when they talked politics, everything was rejected: the nation as an invention of the “capitalistic” classes—how often was I to hear just this word!—; the country as the instrument of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of the workers; the authority of the law as a means of suppressing the proletariat; the school as an institution for bringing up slaves as well as slave-drivers; religion as a means for doping the people destined for exploitation; morality as a sign of sheepish patience, and so forth. Nothing remained that was not dragged down into the dirt and the filth of the lowest depths.
It was this, said the young Hitler, which first persuaded him to study “book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet,” and to begin fighting back for race and nation and decency. “I argued till finally one day they applied the one means that wins the easiest victory over reason: terror and force. Some of the leaders of the other side gave me the choice of either leaving the job at once or of being thrown from the scaffold.” He sloped wolfishly away, later to notice the beards and caftans of the Viennese Jews and to discover another source of lifelong resentment. (One has to admire, also, his early revulsion against “terror and force.”)
[pullquote]We are not crazy about the author’s late-in-life swing to the American imperialist side, crowning his career as something of an overeducated brawling apologist for Bush & Co., but this remains one of his most lucid essays. [/pullquote]
The passage always sends me into a reverie. I think, first, of those solid Viennese workers who, by the ill luck of the draw, found themselves dealing with the staring eyes of Adolf Hitler at every lunch break. Austrian social democracy was not created by intimidation, so one imagines their patience being sorely tested before they finally told him he could either clear off or be dropped over the side. Then, in 1914, they and millions like them were dragooned into war by their Emperor and found—among others at the front—Corporal Adolf Hitler, the gung-ho enthusiast! All that having turned into a bloody nightmare for civilization, the few survivors got home and found … Adolf Hitler demanding revenge for the same war he had wanted in the first place! (He had meanwhile been exposed to poison gas, which I don’t think can have brought out the best in him.) Then the annexation of Austria, the creation of a new, thousand-year Reich, and, after a mere 12 years of that, hardly one brick standing upon another from one end of Germany and Austria to the next. Plenty of opportunities for construction workers. Was there one, I wonder, who ever made the connection and sometimes thought of the chance he had missed, to send that little bastard over the edge and right onto the brick pile below?
A foe of political correctness in one way, Hitler was its friend in another. Recall the bottle of milk he swilled while the others were boozing? (The frightful mustache was grown partly to distract attention from his rotting fangs and suppurating gums.) In the same way, he abhorred smoking, was a fanatical vegetarian, and would never allow jokes about sex in his presence. His tedious hypochondria and health-cultishness found expression in hysteria about “bacilli” and “vermin,” and were, eventually, something more than crankish. He was, like most of his gang leaders, morbidly pious about religion and the family.
Is it the insult to one’s integrity and intelligence—the shame of having still to cringe at the thought of such a person—that partly accounts for our continued fascination with der Führer?The maddening thought that, in other circumstances, he could have been such an ordinary bore and nuisance? The man’s opinions are trite and bigoted and deferential, and the prose in Mein Kampf is simply laughable in its pomposity. (When mutiny and rebellion broke out in Munich after the First World War, Hitler could not get over the shock. He burst into floods of tears, moaning in print that “the loyalty towards the honorable House of Wittelsbach [had] seemed to me to be stronger than the will of a few Jews.”) Yet attempts to make him absurd by caricature and contempt are always, somehow, failures. Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 farce, The Great Dictator,was in many ways a masterpiece, and Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Uiwas a workmanlike attempt to cut Hitler down to size by depicting him as a cheap crook and a tool of the rackets. P. G. Wodehouse introduced one of his Mulliner stories, published in 1937, with a heated pub discussion about “the situation in Germany.” Hitler must soon decide one way or another, says a thoughtful customer. There’s no dodging the issue. “He’ll have to let it grow or shave it off.” But if this style of subversive or mocking wit could do the job, there wouldn’t be a “problem of evil,” or such a Hitler conundrum, in the first place.
It hurts and nags, above all, that we never got his mug in court. The British officer Airey Neave, an ex-prisoner of the Gestapo who was one of the military lawyers at Nuremberg, went from cell to cell and thought: We were frightened for years by this? This gaggle of sniggering, talentless, self-pitying picknoses? Hitler’s foreign minister, the half-weeping Joachim von Ribbentrop, gave him, with shaking hands, a list of titled character witnesses, “chiefly members of the British aristocracy.” Hitler’s cashier, Walther Funk, on inspection, turned out to be a “depressing hypochondriac.” Robert Ley, organizer of slave labor, was “a slobbering creature.” Julius Streicher, purveyor of Jew-baiting pornography, was actually doing his second stretch in a Nuremberg jail. He’d been convicted of sadistic pederasty and resembled, as Rebecca West put it to Neave, the “sort of old man who gives trouble in parks.” Yet Hitler was never reduced to “human” scale in such fashion; never had to hire a lawyer and try to cop a plea. He only affected to be fond of Wagner—his favorite film was the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his actress of choice was Shirley Temple, and in music he preferred the kitsch operetta—but he did arrange a Götterdämmerung ending to his rule. As a consequence, there is a recurrent fantasy of retrieving him, and of making him talk.
It’s important to remember that many people, before the war, could look at Hitler and see a man with whom business could be done. Winston Churchill, in a 1935 essay from his book Great Contemporaries, had this to say:
It is not possible to form a just judgment of a public figure who has attained the enormous dimensions of Adolf Hitler until his life work as a whole is before us. Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds, history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, and even frightful methods, but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.
I’ve always thought that—coming as it did two years after Hitler’s seizure of power—this was a bit lenient. Churchill raised his eyebrows all right at the maltreatment of the German Jews, and at the pace of German re-armament, but (as he had done earlier with Mussolini) could not withhold admiration for Hitler’s Kampf itself: “The story of that struggle cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome all the authorities or resistances which barred his path.”
Look up H. L. Mencken’s review of Mein Kampf, as it appeared in The American Mercury of December 1933. Greatly to the distress of his old friend and publisher Alfred A. Knopf, among others, Mencken felt it his job to explain that the new Führerwas potentially onto something good. Not only did he describe as “sensible enough” the idea that “Germany’s first big task is to collar Austria and so consolidate the German people,” but he went on to state that anti-Semitism was more or less to be expected. (“The disadvantage of the Jew is that, to simple men, he always seems a kind of foreigner.”) Though he tried to soften the blow by comparing Hitler to fundamentalist Democrat William Jennings Bryan—harsh dispraise in the Mencken universe—he too found that there was a Jewish-Bolshevik threat to be combated: “The bloody Räterepublik at Munich—long forgotten elsewhere, but only too well remembered in Germany—had been set up and bossed by a Jew, and there were other Jews high in the councils of the Communist party, which proposed openly to repeat the Munich pillages and butcheries all over the country.”
Munich, Munich, always Munich. It was there in 1919, just 80 years ago, that the essential catalyst was found. After all, had Hitler not redeemed Germany from the awful moment when, as Winston Churchill himself put it, “the pride and will-power of the Prussian race broke into surrender and revolution behind the fighting lines”? In his new book, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris,Professor Ian Kershaw has hit upon the very moment that is suggested by the earlier passage inMein Kampf, and the—let’s be charitable—unintended compliments paid by Churchill and Mencken.
Do you recall the moment in The Silence of the Lambs when a moth chrysalis is discovered in the throat of a mutilated woman, and taken for examination? The entomologists at the Smithsonian lose no time in establishing that this sinister insect was present by design and had been carefully nurtured. “Somebody,” says the man with the tweezers, “grew this guy. Fed him honey and nightshade. Kept him warm. Somebody loved him.” The roach Hitler was just a drifter and a loser and a fantasist, but he was incubated all right, and shoved down the throats of the German people at the perfect psychological moment.
In Munich in late 1918 and 1919, Hitler’s two greatest enemies made common cause. The Räterepublik, or “republic of councils,” was a radical and improvised regime that deposed the monarchy and denounced the war. (Its leader, the Jewish journalist and leftist Kurt Eisner, published the secret documents that showed how the Kaiser had pushed Austria into making a bullying ultimatum after the Sarajevo incident in 1914.) What horror that in Bavaria, Jews and mechanics and longhairs should rule! And that they should expose the war guilt of Imperial Germany! Mencken is right that there was pillage and butchery as a result, but in fact the bloodbath began when Eisner was murdered by a fanatical right-wing officer, and it did not stop until hundreds of Jewish and other “suspect” elements had been lynched by the predecessors of the Brownshirts, and “order” had been restored. In the course of this sanguinary ferment, according to documents unearthed by Professor Kershaw, Hitler found his patrons. A cabal of extreme nationalist and conservative officers in the army hired him as a spy, gave him some walking-around money, and noticed his talent for demagoguery. The leader of this group, Captain Karl Mayr, wrote a year or so later to one of his Fascist-minded civilian friends: “I’ve set up very capable young people. A Herr Hitler, for example, has become a motive force, a popular speaker of the first rank.”
‘The drummer,” his windup inventors called him. He was proud of the title. Later, it was the army that bought Hitler his first newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter,on which he was to found a career as the first modern politician to enjoy absolute mastery of the mass media. The brass also gave him arms and uniforms on the side to set up the Brownshirts. Somebody grew him. You can chuck out your Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest and Hugh Trevor-Roper biographies, in my opinion, and read only one relatively short book: The Meaning of Hitler, by the brave, brilliant former German exile Sebastian Haffner. In one dense paragraph, written in 1978, before the Kershaw disclosures, he guessed correctly that Hitler’s maniacal reaction to the Munich revolution in 1918–19 was the key that unlocked everything. Read it carefully, because it leaves nothing out:
“There must never again be and there will never again be a November 1918 in Germany,” was his first political resolution after a great many political ponderings and speculations. It was the first specific objective the young private politician set himself and incidentally the only one he truly accomplished. There was certainly no November 1918 in the Second World War—neither a timely termination of a lost war nor a revolution. Hitler prevented both.
Let us be clear about what this “never again a November 1918” implied. It implied quite a lot. First of all the determination to make impossible any future revolution in a situation analogous to November 1918. Secondly—since otherwise the first point would be left in the air—the determination to bring about once more a similar situation. And this implied, thirdly, the resumption of the war that was lost or believed to be lost. Fourthly, the war had to be resumed on the basis of a domestic constitution in which there were no potentially revolutionary forces. From here it was not far to the fifth point, the abolition of all Left-wing parties, and indeed why not, while one was about it, of all parties. Since, however, one could not abolish the people behind the Left-wing parties, the workers, they would have to be politically won over to nationalism, and this implied, sixth, that one had to offer them socialism, or at least a kind of socialism, in fact National Socialism. Seventh, their former faith, Marxism, had to be uprooted and that meant—eighth—the physical annihilation of the Marxist politicians and intellectuals who, fortunately, included quite a lot of Jews so that—ninth, and Hitler’s oldest wish—one could also, at the same time, exterminate all the Jews.
It becomes impossible to overstate the germinal importance of the 1918 collapse. The German army had fought, brilliantly and barbarously, against France, Britain, Russia, and later the United States. It had defeated Russia and, in the purely militarist sense, held the other Allies to a standoff. But it had, without noticing the fact, also ruined and beggared Germany. Either this calamity was the fault of the Imperial leadership (the view of the Marxist left) or it was the work of an “enemy within.” The crazy, intoxicating one-word Nazi slogan for the latter was Dolchstoss, or the “stab in the back.” Such a deluded fantasy required fantasists for its promotion.
The high intelligence of Haffner’s analysis explains both Hitler’s appeal to the lowest common denominator and the appeal of such a type to those who imagined they were using him. Hitler’s inventors and backers, from the obscure Captain Mayr up to Field Marshal von Hindenburg (the dense military man) and Fritz Thyssen (the greedy and cynical tycoon) and Franz von Papen (the Establishment wheeler-dealer), could have been taken as caricatures from some Monopoly board game. They neither wanted nor needed an all-out war with Russia and Britain and America, with a Final Solution thrown in. They desired an insurance policy against Communism. But for that they needed Hitler. And Hitler did need all of the foregoing. But he didn’t let on until it was too late. Professor Kershaw makes the same point in a different but equally chilling way. After the constitutional coup which brought Hitler to power in January 1933, the unscrupulous conservative von Papen, who had helped broker the deal, exclaimed, “We’ve hired him!” At the same moment, the senile President Hindenburg received a letter from his old comrade-in-arms Erich Ludendorff, who had led Germany’s armies on the Western Front, had helped originate the myth of the “stab in the back,” and had flirted often with Hitler in right-wing politics in Munich after 1919. “You have delivered up our holy German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time,” wrote the ultra-reactionary Ludendorff to his onetime commanding officer. “I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”
This means that, as early as 1933, a brutish and conceited militarist was more farseeing than, say, Winston Churchill. (Actually, the only person in Europe apart from Ludendorff who saw that there was something entirely new and completely hideous about Hitler was Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, about whom Churchill in his Great Contemporaries was much ruder than about Hitler himself. Trotsky also realized, unlike Ludendorff, that Hitlerism would be dire not just for the “holy German Fatherland.” As he wrote, at the eleventh hour, “today, not only in peasant homes but also in the city sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms…. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”)
Between Haffner’s incisive analysis and Kershaw’s meticulous historiography, it may be possible to give reason a small retrospective victory. Chroniclers of Hitlerism have tended to divide between those who stress the “subjective” personality, the man’s ravings and delusions and sexual inversions, and those who emphasize the “objective” conditions, the resentment of millions of Germans at national humiliation and general penury. Some other scholars have simply pointed out, as if on a blackboard, that Hitler loudly proposed to “cure” the second condition by railing at an “enemy within,” the Jews, and “an enemy without,” the Bolsheviks, with their Jewish characteristics. But that’s only to state the same problem in a different way. Obviously, there would have been nationalistic and anti-Semitic reaction to defeat on the battlefield, to the Communist threat, and to the Treaty of Versailles. W. H. Auden grasped this pathology, with a poet’s insight, in his “September 1, 1939”:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god …
So, what did occur at Linz, and in the other scenes of Hitler’s enchanting boyhood? It’s known that he had a brutal father and a doting mother, but as Kershaw carefully shows, there is no serious foundation to the rumors of hidden Jewish ancestry, deformity of the genitals, the incompetence or greed of a Jewish doctor at his mother’s deathbed, or any of the other whispers. His sex life managed to be both meager and distraught, but that just won’t do as a theory. Nor is it possible, on the evidence, to believe that Hitler didn’t really dislike the Jews and simply made a cynical, vote-getting “pitch” to those who did. (A surprising number of scholars have allowed themselves to think this.) For one thing—this is an observation of my own—Mein Kampf was published as an initially unsuccessful vote-getter in 1925, and at that time social democracy was very strong and popular, and the German Jews were still quite secure. To describe either as the work of Satan was to show what you really thought. (“There is no making pacts with Jews,” he tells us he decided back in 1918 when he had recovered from his nervous collapse. “There can only be the hard either-or. I, however, resolved to become a politician.”)
‘To become a politician.” Hitler got bad grades and spent several years mooching and brooding. He wanted to be an artist, and believed in his own distinctly slender genius as a painter. Aesthetic circles in Vienna boasted a strong Jewish presence, and envious mediocre bums throughout history have blamed their own lack of recognition on exclusion by such sophisticated cabals. Moreover, idle mediocre bums from the lower middle class have always detested trade unions and cosmopolitans in about equal measure. Young Adolf’s prejudices were completely banal until, having identified his shriveled little self with the Kaiser and the Emperor and the army, he saw all his old foes exploiting the moment of defeat by trying to seize power and mock his values. That—and don’t forget the gas with which he had been hit—drove him over the edge. (When he got power himself—Führer being the first actual job he had ever held—he at once shut down the unions and then viciously pillaged the galleries of a once civilized nation to hang most of the best modern paintings in Germany in a wildly philistine 1937 exhibition—in Munich—entitled “Degenerate Art.”)
In those and other details, his military and business backers let him have his way. They really had overstated, for “opportunist” reasons, the Jewish and Marxist threat. But they thought they owned a marionette. I did not know until I read Kershaw that the proposal for all German soldiers to take their “oath of unconditional loyalty” to the Führer himself actually came from the High Command. They thought this clever move would detach him from the vulgar Nazi Party and confirm him as their creature. A mistake. Arguably a very big mistake. They helped nationalize the concept of the lowest common denominator.
Yet deep within himself, Haffner argues, Hitler did not trust the German people, or think them worthy of his leadership. With outright military catastrophe threatening in 1944, he ordered the arrest of 5,000 leading German politicians, from minister to mayor (including the highly conservative politician Konrad Adenauer, later to become the first West German chancellor), because he thought they might go soft, and even sue for peace, and perhaps allow another November 1918 defeat. He kept his Final Solution a state secret, to be conducted well away from German soil—a compliment to public opinion in its way—and, at the end, coldly decided that Germany itself should be laid waste as a punishment for its weakness.
But then what is one to say of his overseas “enablers”? Two decades after his Munich “incubation,” Hitler must have giggled with incredulity in the fall of 1938 when the prime minister of Great Britain landed at the Munich airport and asked him if there was anything else, after Austria and the Rhineland, that he especially wanted. Hardly daring to hope, as we now know, Hitler replied in effect that Czechoslovakia would be nice. My own contribution to the anniversaries of 1919 and 1939, if I may mention it, is a foreword to a splendid book called In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion, by Professors Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel. This volume establishes conclusively that British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was no duped “appeaser,” with a silly mustache of his own. He had made a cold calculation that Hitler should be re-armed, and be allowed—if not, indeed, encouraged—to expand his Reich. This was partly to keep his marauding hands off the British Empire, and partly to encourage his “tough-minded” solution to the Bolshevik problem in the East. Chamberlain and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, refused even to meet with senior German officers who belatedly implored their help, at the last available moment, in overthrowing the madman. The German people, said these brave men, had been partly duped by Hitler because he had apparently restored full employment and overturned the unpopular and humiliating Treaty of Versailles, without resorting to war. A credible threat of resistance by Britain would destroy this illusion, and there were several generals ready to move against their former protégé. Go away, said His Majesty’s Government. (This story is also told in The Unnecessary War: Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler, by Patricia Meehan.) Hard to read about this, even now. Hard to remember, too, that in civilized France the reactionaries of 1936, appalled at the election of a Dreyfusard socialist Jew as premier, yelled “Better Hitler than Blum.” M. Léon Blum was deported to Buchenwald.
Of the countless blood-freezing facts about Adolf Hitler that several historians have established independently, there is one that keeps me awake more than any other. Not only did he “time” everything in anticipation of his own early death (he had always had morbid fantasies of illness and suicide), but, at different moments, he actually told close associates that this was his explicit motive. We must invade Russia now because I have not much time left to me … The transports to the East must begin because I am becoming frail and must see the task completed … Even some of his most toughened and cretinous underlings went pale when they heard this and suddenly realized its staggering import. This howling nihilist didn’t just need to destroy the Jews. He didn’t care if nobody outlived him. In other words, there was no time at which a stiff political or diplomatic resistance, or an assassination backed by the High Command, or even the toe of an Austrian construction worker’s cleated boot, might not have made all the difference. Any of these could have fucked him, and the apocalyptic horses he rode in on. He was a homicidal maniac in a hurry, and terribly afraid that he might not make it. Yet respectable circles in Germany, and in Britain and France (and, as we have recently learned from the files of Ford and General Motors, in these United States), decided that he was, on balance, a case of “the lesser evil.” Indeed, that was the only use of the word “evil” that they ever permitted themselves.