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A dictator seen in perspective
An absorbing survey of what historians have made of Hitler
WITH THIS dense, formidably researched, but very readable volume, John Lukacs enhances his well-earned reputation as one of the most original contemporary historians of Europe. Even avid students of the Third Reich are likely to learn some unsuspected fact of Hitler's character or at least some interesting reflections from his voluminous writings and recorded conversations.
Most readers would not have been aware, for example, that Hitler's father lived in the building where Napoleon's second Empress, Marie-Louise, exchanged her Austrian for her French entourage on her way to her marriage. Some will be surprised to know that Hitler said to Speer, "Perhaps I am not a pious churchgoer . . . But deep inside I am still a devout believer . . . Whoever fights bravely and does not capitulate . . . will not be abandoned by the Almighty but receive the blessing of Providence."
And it was astonishing for me to read that Eva Braun's sister claimed that Hitler and his mistress had prayed together before committing suicide. Few would have known that Hitler learned about the American West and was much interested in cowboy history from reading the works of the German best-selling author Karl May, or that he had had the cigarette air-brushed out of Stalin's hand in the official German photograph of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact: "The signing of a pact between two great nations is a solemn act; one does not do that with a cigarette between one's fingers."
Some of Hitler's trenchant remarks are almost refreshing. "I am not a Dictator and will never be one . . . any popinjay can rule as a dictator." Or, "Why should I nationalise the industries? I will nationalise the people." I had forgotten that he referred to the British appeasers as "my Hugenbergs". (Hugenberg was the industrialist who had contributed generously to Hitler's rise in the unfounded hope of influencing him), and that he had told Speer that Autobahns would be his Parthenon.
Mr Lukacs offers a kindly opinion of Hitler's little-read poems: "Of course, Hitler was no Rupert Brooke, but the poems are not laughable." Among the decisive elements in Josef Goebbels's unwavering adherence to Hitler was Hitler's assertion to him in 1926: "God's most beautiful gift bestowed on us is the hate of our enemies, whom we in turn hate from the bottom of our hearts."
Mr Lukacs has considerable aphoristic talents, "Generalisations, like brooms, should sweep and not stand in a corner." Or, "Many professional historians, bombinating in their airless circles, tend to ignore or dismiss Churchill the historian". The Hitler of History is not a biography; it is a discussion of a wide range of conventional historical treatments of Hitler, from the David Irving whitewash, rigorously exposed here, to the theory of Hitler the diabolical or satanic, which the author also opposes as unjust and overly convenient.
However, Mr Lukacs points out that Hitler possessed a number of agreed-upon characteristics of the Antichrist, as defined by St John of the Apocalypse. We read of Hitler's greater ideological development in Munich, where he witnessed the "ridiculous and sordid episode of the Munich Soviet Republic with its Jewish and European intellectuals, et al", than in Vienna. In that city though, he "recognised . . . that life is but a continuous bitter struggle between the weak and the strong . . . and that life is not ruled by the principles of humanity but by victory and defeat".
John Lukacs does better than anyone else I have read at explaining the phenomenon of Hitler, the nature and limits of his genius and the very high and continuing interest in him, most recently illustrated by Ian Kershaw's outstanding two-volume biography.
Hitler's claim to genius lies in his ability to translate his thoughts into popular ideas and then to have those ideas change the world, at least for a time. He was not, as Pius XII rather belatedly claimed, a "satanic apparition". This metaphysical notion tends to acquit people of their normal responsibilities. Mr Lukacs affirms that Hitler was undoubtedly profoundly evil, but belonged among those whom La Rochefoucauld identified as figures "who would be less dangerous if they had not something good about them". He was one of Jacob Burckhardt's category of "terrible simplifiers".
Hitler produced, for a brief period, such a state of national serenity that German birth rates and marriage rates shot up while crime rates shrivelled. Jails were empty and judges idle. Hitler's artistic interest, and at times temperament, were not an affectation. Mr Lukacs credits him with significant architectural aptitudes and rightly points out his talent to attract and impress certain notable writers including Jules Romains, Andre Gide, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. By careful analysis, Hitler is portrayed as much more of a nationalist than a racist, though he was extreme in both respects -- an upholder of a censored version of the German "kultur" and an enemy of civilisation.
And in his disdain for the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and the capitalists, he was an authentic socialist, though he always dismissed Marxism, with considerable accuracy, as unsustainable nonsense. We learn that Hitler was not as optimistic as his generals about Germany's ability to defeat the USSR, and enigmatically described Russia on the eve of his invasion of it as like "a ship in the Flying Dutchman". The explanation here for his decision to invade: that if he were successful, Churchill and Roosevelt (or their successors) would eventually have to concede their inability to dislodge Hitler from control of central Europe and have to make peace with him, is reasonably convincing.
Where Mr Lukacs slips somewhat is in his explanation of Hitler's motives in declaring war on the United States after Pearl Harbor: because he "could hardly betray his Japanese ally by welching on the principal item in their alliance". Since Hitler's only interest in Japan was its potential for discomforting Stalin, which it didn't do, why couldn't he? The Berlin-Tokyo axis was only a defensive alliance. A statesman of Roosevelt's agility and strategic insight would presumably have found some pretext for plunging into war with Germany, but Hitler could have made it difficult for him to do so.
He could probably have held Britain and Russia off indefinitely, but once he was at war with the USA as well, Churchill and de Gaulle immediately saw he was doomed. And Lukacs also skims a little lightly over Hitler's explanation to the German public that war with the United States was brought about by Roosevelt's Jewish entourage. This was as foolish tactically as it was substantively, and the author underemphasises the degree to which Hitler was, by this time, at least intermittently, a raving lunatic.
Mr Lukacs concedes the impossibility of discerning the sources of Hitler's genocidal hatred of Jews and of his propensity to hate generally and he graciously spares the reader excessive psychoanalytical speculation. He does however rightly credit Hitler with almost demiurgic powers of will, and debunks the notion that he had an exclusively apocalyptic view of Germany's future.
In his brilliant survey of the range of German historical treatment of Hitler, the author is perhaps a little too indulgent of those who credit Hitler with unintended decolonisation and the breaking up of the European empires. And maybe the demarcation-line between Hitler's legitimate continuation of Bismarck's policies and respectable German nationalism and his evil perversion of them could have been more clearly drawn. Withal, this is a masterful, absorbing and succinct study that pulls together an immense amount of conflicting historical interpretation and offers important insights into current German intellectual trends.
1. See our legal index on Hungarian-born Mr Lukàcs (who claimed in the Philadelphia Inquirer to have forsworn his Jewish birth).
2. Mr Lukàcs is deeply envious of the Hitler historians who researched the subject properly and at first hand.
3. Mr Lukàcs did not speak to a single member of Hitler's staff before, during, or after writing this book. His London publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson assured Mr Irving as recently as December 2000 that their lawyers had cut all the libels -- i.e. defamatory lies -- about him out of the English text. ¡Vamos a ver.!