Springtime for Hitler
A. N. Wilson will publish a short biography of Adolf Hitler this spring, and I will be reviewing it for the Wall Street Journal. Robert Messenger, editor of the Journal’s book section, is giving me 1,500 words, and making this about the longest piece I will have done for that paper. But then Messenger is expecting me to deal with Wilson’s book in the context of the other major Hitler biographies. This is the kind of approach I specialized in when Messenger edited me at the New York Sun. It is a rare opportunity these days to be accorded so much space to review a book, unless we are speaking of the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, Book Forum, or a few other publications. Usually I get something like 450 words or fewer when reviewing for newspapers, as is the case for my review of R. H. S. Stolfi’s Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny, which appears in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
I had to bite my tongue when reviewing Stolfi, because I could have used 4500 words— which, lo and behold!, I now have at my disposal. Stolfi is a military historian steeped in the history of World War II, especially in the German theater of war. This book seems to be his first biography, and it is a doozy. His attack on Hitler biographers is as audacious and single-minded as his subject. He chides these writers for their inability to grasp Hitler’s greatness—indeed, for their systematic denigration of a man of genius. The pathological man they describe—vapid, a failed artist, second-rate in every respect, what Ian Kershaw, one of Hitler’s major biographers, calls an “unperson”—could not have achieved both the creative and destructive results that make him, in Stolfi’s words, the man of the century, one of Hegel’s world historical individuals.
Stolfi argues that calling Hitler evil will never bring us to an understanding of what Hitler thought he was doing. In short, Stolfi does what a good biographer must do: he empathizes with his subject. And yet, this attitude is precisely what no biographer has been willing to adopt. Consequently, even the great Hitler biographers (and Stolfi calls Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, and Ian Kershaw great so many times that it is difficult not to detect more than a little irony as well as respect in his words) have abrogated their responsibility to explain why Hitler acted as he did. Calling Hitler evil is rather like calling someone crazy. Once you use that word, you don’t need to explain anything. You can just tote up the examples of craziness.
Before I explain what Stolfi is up to, I have say there is something maniacal about his book. He is so relentless in probing and demolishing previous biographers that his work could be called the blitzkrieg of Hitler biographies. I also have to wonder if the undaunted Stolfi is deliberately pointing to a connection between himself and Hitler. Examine the photograph of the Fuehrer (that’s how the word is spelled in Stolfi’s book): a tight, low angle headshot of Hitler’s right side, with his eyes gazing outward, fixed on eternity. The photograph captures Hitler’s sense of himself as a savior dedicated to securing Germany’s future. Now look at Stolfi’s author’s photograph, also a tight head shot. He has the same determined look as Hitler, but the one eye visible in this pose seems to be looking straight ahead. Hitler’s photograph is the portrait of a dreamer; Stolfi’s the profile of the dreamer’s analyst.
Stolfi begins by situating Hitler in the context of world history, comparing him, for example, to Julius Caesar. In the decade-long Gallic Wars, Caesar’s armies killed a million men and sold another million—including the aged, women, and children—into slavery. In Stolfi’s view, Caesar was no less ferocious than Hitler. In fact, it is surprising that the biographer does not point out that if Caesar had more advanced technology at his disposal, he might have killed millions more, so intent was he on subduing alien peoples to his grandiose Roman ambition. Stolfi concedes that Caesar is a far more attractive man than Hitler, but both men, in his view, lack a “sense of proportion,” a deficiency that ultimately resulted in Caesar’s assassination and Hitler’s suicide.
Like a good biographer, Stolfi wants to know exactly when Hitler began to conceive himself as the redeemer of the German people. But for some strange reason, Stolfi defers disclosing the revelation that occurred to Hitler until pages 336–37, where you will find the account of August Kubizek, who befriended Hitler and shared his enthusiasm for grand opera. Sometime in 1906, when Hitler was twenty-one, he and Kubizek attended a performance in Linz, Austria, of Wagner’s early opera, Rienzi. Afterward, Hitler, standing atop a hill, “bathed in midnight starlight . . . [exclaimed] that he was experiencing a vision in which he would be the savior of his people.” Inexplicably, Stolfi does not speculate on what it was about the opera or its performance that inspired Hitler’s prophecy, although earlier he describes Hitler’s attraction to Wagner’s heroic plots. Perhaps Stolfi expects you to know your Wagner: In this case, the work concerns the story of Cola de Rienzi (1313–54), a man of the people who does battle against the nobility, defeats them, but then becomes the victim of a public that turns against him even as he makes his defiant last stand amidst the conflagration of Rome. It is odd that Hitler identified with an ultimate failure, although perhaps not so odd when you know that Susan Sontag wanted to become a writer after empathizing with Jack London’s writer-hero Martin Eden, who takes his own life, and that Cicily Fairfield took the name of the feminist Rebecca West, who kills herself in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. In all three cases, young enthusiasts with illusions of grandeur identify with what their heroes dare to do and not what these idols do to themselves. That Stolfi chooses not explore the darker implications of Rienzi may only mean the biographer does not want to detract from his portrayal of Hitler’s messianic drive. What Hitler took away from Rienzi was the idea that one man—and only one man—could save and restore the polity to greatness. This notion of a messiah, of a figure fixed on a future greatness “indispensable and irreplaceable,” as Stolfi puts it, sets Hitler apart not only from other German politicians, but from every other leader of his time. Like Muhammad proclaiming there is “no god but God,” Hitler announced an unalterable message.
The young Hitler (before 1908) is an intense idealist who does not seem to have the word hate in his vocabulary—or so says Stolfi, whose biography of Hitler is based not on primary sources but on a reading of previous biographers and firsthand accounts of Hitler’s friends and associates. Hitler is a competent, if not a brilliant artist, producing perhaps as many as two thousand watercolors, a man with a brilliant grasp of architecture, theater staging, and audience management that is already evident before his service as a corporal in World War I. That Hitler had a genuine aesthetic sense was acknowledged by no less than Thomas Mann, and of course Hitler knew exactly what he was doing when he engaged Leni Riefensthal to film the 1934 Nuremberg rally. It is surprising, by the way, that Stolfi does not even mention Riefenstahl, although he does give credit to the aesthetic of Ernst Hanfstaengl, a Harvard-educated German who became part of Hitler’s close circle in the years just before World War II. Stolfi does not say so, but Hanfstaengl contributed to the Nazi design of public spectacles by telling Hitler about the intricately choreographed parades of college football marching bands. (It is difficult, by the way, not to be reminded of Hollywood in Riefenstahl’s Busby Berkeley-like aerial shots of human bodies swinging out in formation across vast spaces, presenting images of mass perfection.)
In 1908 or thereabouts, Hitler for the first time identifies the Jews as the “supreme enemy of the Germans.” Stolfi notes that no biographer has pinpointed any particular episode that propelled Hitler to this dire conclusion. On the contrary, Stolfi takes Hitler at his word that he came to regard the Jews as the German nemesis as the result of an “objective” reading of history. “Objective,” in this context, I hasten to say, means only that Hitler’s hatred of Jews stemmed from no personal animus. He hated Jews the same way he hated Marxists and for the same reason. German communists believed in internationalism, in the uniting of workers across national boundaries. For Hitler, an ardent nationalist and Germanophile, the Communist Party in Germany was aiming for nothing less than the extinction of a people as Germans. The Jews were even worse in this respect, in that they had survived history as a distinct group, a race that in Hitler’s view could not be German. Even individual Jews born in Germany were only German incidentally. His view was not so different from anti-Papists in this country and elsewhere who supposed Catholics owed their allegiance not to a national entity but to the Pope. Of course, Hitler’s belief in the desirability of a pure, Aryan race made his anathema against Jews all the more virulent—a point that Stolfi is scarcely interested in pursuing, except for quoting this one chilling sentence from Mein Kampf about the Jewish problem: “[H]ere we are facing the question without whose solution all other attempts at a German reawakening or resurrection are and remain absolutely senseless and impossible.” Stolfi will return to this malign statement at the end of his biography, but in the main his work hinges on Hitler's devotion to Germany, and on what had been done to Germany during and after World War I. That obsession is the key, Stolfi insists, to explaining Hitler’s psychology and his actions.
Stolfi is incensed at the way biographers have treated Hitler’s war record, belittling Hitler’s wounds and his achievements. That Hitler, a combat soldier in the front lines, survived the war is itself a tribute both to extraordinary luck and skill. Most of the men who served beside Hitler died in action. Hitler went on fighting until he was gassed and invalided out of military service. But before that happened, he had proved adept as a “runner” conveying messages and as an intelligence officer, capable of capturing a French soldier unassisted. Unlike so many veterans who suffered shell shock, Hitler came out of the war intact, another miracle in Stolfi’s book. Hitler wore his medals and his wound badge prominently in public, and this display is key to understanding why his followers took him so seriously, the biographer argues, even though Hitler never dwelled on his own heroic actions or inflated his role in the war.
Stolfi wins my biographer’s heart when he paraphrases Plutarch: “[T]he most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the closest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles.” The ancient biographer is invoked in Stolfi’s description of a day in January 1915 when Corporal Hitler spotted a white terrier near a trench. The dog had wandered over from the no man’s land separating the British and German lines. While his fellow soldiers were absorbed in saving their own lives, Hitler carried the stray to the rear, taught it tricks (like climbing a ladder), and made it his constant companion and headquarters mascot before leaving the animal behind to be fed by others when gas warfare started and he was obliged to advance to the front lines. When Hitler returned to the rear, the dog was gone. Stolfi concludes: “Then, in words as strong as any in Mein Kampf pitched against the various enemies of the German fatherland, he would comment that ‘the swine who stole my dog doesn’t realize what he did to me.’ ” Stolfi then turns on Ian Kershaw, “straining” this incident “through antipathy” to say it is typical of Hitler’s preference for obedient animals who responded to his urge to dominate.” Maybe so, Stolfi admits, but he invokes Ockham’s Razor: “[N]o more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary,” to wit, “the simplest interpretation is always best. Hitler, conventional wisdom’s ice-cold unperson, had a fondness and compassion for animals.” At the very least, Stolfi’s view is therapeutic; it is an unfortunate tendency in modern biography to psychologize everything, and, in this case, to interpret Hitler’s every move as the exercise of an evil psychosis.
Out of the trenches and hospitals, Hitler returned to a postwar Germany torn apart by two alien forces: The occupiers, the French as well as the British, who not only demanded reparations but also insisted that Germany’s leaders sign documents stipulating that Germany alone was responsible for the war; and communist street gangs and (as Hitler saw it) Jewish intellectuals who agitated for a new republic founded on Marxist principles. To Hitler, both sets of enemies of Germany wished not merely to punish but to exterminate the nation. Other biographers, of course, have explored a postwar Germany full of resentments over the Versailles treaty, and many historians have acknowledged the unjust peace imposed on Germany. But none of them has adopted Stolfi’s intransigent, revisionist position that Hitler was essentially right, and that he was also justified in believing a monstrous lie had been imposed on his native land. The Allies, Stolfi asserts, were just as responsible for the war as Germany. Great Britain was a power as close to a world domination as any in history, he points out—although he does not deign to develop an analysis of how the war started, or explain what the world would have looked like if Germany had won. As Rebecca West once said, there are imperialists and bloody imperialists. She was not defending either one, but she was making a valid distinction. Stolfi, however, is intent on his excoriating, point-by-point narration of how the French, in particular, made it nearly impossible for the Weimar Republic to survive. The French, in short, created the conditions whereby it became possible for the uncompromising Hitler to emerge as Germany’s proud protector and promoter.
But French actions alone do not explain, let alone provide, the conditions under which Hitler’s sense of mission flourished. For that examination, Stolfi turns to an account of the chaotic November 1918 to May 1919 period in Munich, when 750 years of monarchical rule collapsed in the onslaught of a mob headed by socialist Kurt Eisner. Here is Stolfi in full cry, reveling in and revealing what this period’s events did to his subject:
Not one biographer points out that, in a single human being, the minister-president exemplified the enemy for Hitler: Kurt Eisner, revolutionary Marxist, Jew, internationalist, and fomenter of antiwar strikes in Germany in January 1918 while the field armies were still engaged in combat in the west. Hitler would have been presented by this apparition from hell of the destructor of a German Reich. Yet no biographer develops the Munich visions of Hitler that must have contributed to his conversion from intense, ineffectual, brooding loner into a German political phenomenon.
Note that Stolfi is, in a sense, producing evidence of his thesis out of surmise. All he has learned about Hitler is brought to bear on this scene, on what Hitler “must have” made of Eisner. Beware of biographers resorting to “must haves,” which signal lack of data. Stolfi might counter that his absorption of Hitler’s mentality and experience justify the passage I have quoted. And I am inclined to agree, even while I wish to point out that one reason no biographer before Stolfi has fastened on the Eisner/Hitler nexus is precisely because there is no record of one. R. G. Collingwood long ago noted that historical writing is more than the sum of its evidence, and that historians do more than work with scissors and paste, attaching one document to another. On the contrary, at some point written history becomes more than the sum of the facts on which it is based. Or as Collingwood concludes, ultimately the historian is his own authority. And so it is for Stolfi.
Hitler, in other words, had to save Germany from the Kurt Eisners, and Hitler’s formation of street gangs, for example, is not an example of Nazi ruthlessness per se but a response, Stolfi points out, to the much larger communist street gangs. Even the more moderate Social Democrats had their goons, Stolfi adds. In order to be heard in postwar Germany, you needed a bodyguard of belligerents. The caricature of beer-swilling Nazi rowdies is just that, Stolfi contends. He cites the great variety of social types that became attracted to the Nazi banner, including in one instance a businessman who bankrupted himself and suffered more than twenty wounds in street battles ensuring that Hitler could be heard. Thus Stolfi argues: “[T]he lesson for Hitler: the demonstrable success of Marxism as a mass movement derived not from the boring and repellent Marxist dialectic but from the practical techniques of organized physical violence.”
Coupled with this resort to violence was Hitler’s insistence on absolute truth—another sign of the messianic mission spelled out in Mein Kampf: “[P]olitical parties are inclined to compromise; philosophies never. Political parties even reckon with opponents; philosophies proclaim their infallibility.” Stolfi quotes this passage by way of explaining why Hitler was not a politician who negotiated with adversaries. Instead, he eliminated them. The single-minded Hitler, in the biographer’s estimation, suits Hegel’s definition of the world historical individual who is “not so unwise as to indulge in a variety of wishes to divide his interests. He is devoted to the one aim, regardless of all else.” Hitler’s aim was to restore Germany’s glory through his sole authority, and to do that he had to extinguish every element that stood in his way.
That Hitler was great by virtue of his grandiose mission does not mean, Stolfi concedes, that in many other respects the Fuehrer was banal. Biographers have seized on Hitler’s “unredeeming” aspects and thus have obscured, in Stolfi’s words, the “world historical personality”:
[T]he biographers steer us away from understanding the qualities that made him lift the world off its hinges and bombard us with his personal commonness. “No man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre” is a well-known proverb, and the biographical valets of Hitler handle him similarly. Hegel, however, added to the well-known proverb the words “but not because the hero is not a hero but because the latter is a valet.”
Take that, you Hitler biographers!
What makes Stolfi fun to read and contend with is his argument with biography itself, with the tendency of biographers, in this case, to repeat the same thesis because they share the same world view, the one that came into being with Hitler’s defeat. Stolfi’s virtue is to re-open the world that closed when Hitler took his own life. Or to put it another way, we are presented with
two Hitlers . . . one is the creature of the propaganda like treatment of hostile biographers, and the other one is a hero as seen through the eyes of contemporary followers. Each is rendered in extreme terms, and it is tempting to suggest a middle ground for some more balanced interpretation. But Hitler was one of the most determined personalities in mankind’s history, and to labor to find some middle ground is to labor to find someone that is not there. We are left with a cruel interpretive choice between either a bad man who did some good or a good man who did some bad. Hegel may come to our rescue here by pointing out that moral considerations of good and bad are irrelevant to a world-historical personality because he is in the process of taking an existing world and replacing it with a new one. In such a case the irrelevance is that an old morality would be replaced by a new one and the world-historical personality would write the history of an era. Whoever Hitler was—good, bad, or a man above such consideration—his followers accepted him as a savior.
The mistake previous biographers have made, according to Stolfi, is to treat Hitler as a politician intent on gaining power. But Hitler did not behave like a politician and abjured political alliances even when they would have benefitted him. As a messiah, he could not collaborate with anyone. Even when biographers have acknowledged Hitler’s idea of himself as Germany’s savior, they have referred to his “messiah complex,” which, Stolfi suggests, is tantamount to calling him delusional. And to Stolfi, Hitler was no more delusional than Jesus or Muhammad, which is to say not delusional at all. Hitler declared more than once that if he could not succeed entirely on his own and with the support of his followers, then he would commit suicide. He was not a demagogue, Stolfi insists: “A demagogue tells his audience what it wants to hear. A messiah tells his audience what he wants it to hear.” As late as May 1928, only thirty-nine thousand Berliners voted for the Nazis, whereas the Communists received 640,000 votes and the Social Democrats 855,000. Even against these overwhelming odds, the Nazis did battle in the streets with their enemies.
Hitler had no time to spare, Stolfi points out, because France had rigged an alliance that surrounded Germany. What is more, the hypochondriac Hitler worried that he would not have a normal life span. He was a world historical individual in a hurry, with the Spenglerian view that western civilization had become decadent, with modern art forsaking indigenous authenticity for a spurious internationalism—dominated, of course, by Jews who owed no allegiance to any particular culture. Hitler saw himself as part of a Nordic saga peopled by heroes facing “risky odds,” Stolfi explains. The biographer doubts, however, that Hitler wanted anything approaching world domination. On the contrary, he would have been perfectly happy reaching an accommodation with the British Empire—as long as he had a free hand to expand to the east and subdue those inferior Slavs, whose living space ought to be populated by the new Germans that Hitler’s thousand-year Reich would produce. Hitler did not even intend to blitzkrieg France and was surprised at how easily it fell. He wanted instead to secure in perpetuity a well-defended German state and would have accepted something less than a total French defeat. Historians have mistaken the results—the fall of France—for Hitler’s intentions, Stolfi claims.
In the midst of Stolfi’s geopolitical explorations of Hitler’s foreign policy, which up to 1939 resulted in one victory after another until he finally miscalculated what the Allies would do about Poland, the biographer interrupts his Hegelian narrative to present this romantic—and dare I say sentimental—portrayal of Eva Braun: “How is it possible that the biographical bête noir of the twentieth century would have attracted so innocent, decent, and perceptive a child who would have become his wife in shadowed waiting in 1935?” Braun was only seventeen when she first saw Hitler enter the photography shop where she was working. She was attracted to the soft-spoken, deferential, immaculately dressed, and courtly middle-aged man, and it did not take her long to fall in love with him. His avowal that only Germany could be his mistress distressed her, and in despair she tried to commit suicide twice. On the last day of their lives, she became his wife, since there was no longer any point in saying the nation’s messiah could not marry her. Until quite recently, historians and biographers have dismissed Eva Braun, even though as Heike B. Gortemaker documents in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, Hitler spent more time with Braun in the last years of his life than he did with Nazi luminaries such as Herman Goering or Josef Goebbels. Albert Speer, Hitler’s pet architect, studied Braun closely, admiring her handling of his Fuehrer. So Stolfi’s digression is apposite. To appreciate the Fuehrer’s hold on his following it is essential to bring Eva Braun into the story. Hitler apparently grew to love her, but she was not the only one who found him appealing. Stolfi does not mention it, but Hitler received thousands and thousands of love letters, and the adoration women bestowed on him is evident in the reaction shots in Triumph of the Will. Stolfi does mention, however, the presence of “the beautiful Englishwoman Unity Valkyrie Mitford,” who sought the company of the Fuehrer. I cannot resist quoting Sylvia Plath’s line from “Daddy”: “Every woman adores a fascist.”
Eva Braun was in fact an important part of what Stolfi consistently calls Hitler’s “bohemian” life, which began with his days as a struggling artist in Vienna. Hitler never kept regular hours, rarely spent a whole day in a government office, and was away from the centers of power so often that Albert Speer wondered how the Fuehrer got any work done. Hitler put off many key decisions until the very last minute. But Stolfi insists this was how this artist-messiah functioned best. Hitler would simply let problems percolate for days and then would take an action that was usually brilliant and counter-intuitive, the opposite of what conventional wisdom dictated.
This bohemian and bold manner of decision-making is what led Hitler into war with Russia. Here again, like his subject, Stolfi objects to the conventional wisdom that portrays the June 1941 invasion as folly. How could Hitler have supposed that a six- to ten-week invasion of such a vast territory could possibly succeed? But as Stolfi suggests, it almost did. By August, Hitler’s armies were in a position to take Moscow. Then Hitler made the worst decision of his life and of the war. He diverted the invasion toward the Ukraine and other areas in the Soviet Union that contained the rich natural resources that would sustain not just Germany’s wartime needs but its future. By the time Hitler turned his forces back toward Moscow, it was October and the beginning of the worst winter in two hundred years. Here is where Hitler lost the war, not where the Allies won, Stolfi concludes. Charting Hitler’s moves up to and including the invasion of Russia, the biographer notes that Hitler always took routes intended to secure territories rich in vital natural resources, even when doing so meant following a zig-zag pattern that frustrated his generals. It was that erratic and yet purposeful pattern and mind-set that undid Hitler—the world-historical individual who, in Stolfi’s estimation, defeated himself well before Stalingrad and D-Day.
When exactly Hitler realized the war was lost is not clear to Stolfi, but the biographer notes that it was only in 1942 that the concentration camps ramped up their machines of mass murder. In two paragraphs which mark the unbearably swift denouement of Stolfi’s contrarian book, he has Hitler deciding that the war might be lost but he can still execute the final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe. In his own mind, this “dark messiah,” as the biographer calls him, had finally lifted the siege of Germany, relieving it of the Jewish “bacillus” that had led to his land's “social decomposition.”
As I will say in my Star Tribune review, Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny is sure to provoke outrage but also admiration for R. H. S. Stolfi’s effort to offer a new and comprehensive exploration of Hitler’s psyche and the conditions that led both to his triumph and his eventual defeat.
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.