Springtime for Hitler Again
My book review and column about R. H. S. Stolfi’s Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny provoked quite a response from friends who emailed me and from contributors to the Literary Loft forum on BookBalloon.com. I replied briefly to the emails and posted a few replies to the balloonists. But that kind of tit-for-tat, which I quite enjoy, cannot do justice to what I feel about Stolfi's book and his subject.
Several years ago a literary critic pointed out that whatever is said in a book review leaves much unsaid. There is just no way for the critic to say that for every argument she or he makes, a counter argument can also be made. Susan Sontag was a master at this sort of argumentation, often refuting her own positions—most notably her views on Leni Riefenstahl. In Against Interpretation, she praises Triumph of the Will as a beautiful work of art. Sontag argues that not to appreciate the film's formal structure because its content is vile is to deny there is an aesthetic “beyond evil and tyranny”—to borrow Stolfi’s subtitle. Nearly ten years later, in “Fascinating Fascism,” by then appalled at the way Riefenstahl had been rehabilitated as an artist and even as a figure the women’s movement was celebrating, Sontag contended that a fascist aesthetic, a worship of the beautiful and powerful to the exclusion of everything else, permeated Riefenstahl’s career from first to last.
To put it another way, simply saying the word Hitler immediately conjures up concentration camps and the murder of millions. Unlike the Sontag of Against Interpretation, who put “Hitler” in quotation marks to indicate that she was writing about the figure created in Riefenstahl’s film, certain viewers and readers can only see Hitler. For them, he simply cannot be viewed apart from the Holocaust. And I seriously doubt that anything I could say would change their reactions.
For me, biography is an end in itself. Any life may be the subject of a biography. It is all a matter of how that life is told. It distresses me that reviews of any given biography usually discuss the subject but not the book, not the narrative form of the story. In contrast, what I find attractive in Stolfi is the structure of his argument. He writes a thesis biography, which means he excludes a good deal that does not fit his propositions, and he presupposes certain ideas that I do not endorse. He takes for granted, for example, that the Allies were just as responsible for World War I as was Germany. And yet, it does not matter that I disagree, since what he sets out to show is why Hitler was able to take shrewd advantage of German grievances over the Versailles Treaty. Because Stolfi shares Hitler’s views that Germany got a dirty deal, he is able to set out Hitler’s complaints against the Allies in very clear terms. This tack alone separates him from most other Hitler biographers. They may concede the unfairness of the reparations Germany was forced to pay, but in the main they do not take to heart just how awful the situation seemed to a people who though not defeated on the battlefield, saw themselves as victims of duplicitous politicians in league with the Reds.
I confess that I read Stolfi’s biography with rising excitement. Suddenly Hitler was stepping forward commanding the stage—and without the intervening moral disapproval of the biographer. I don’t mean that Stolfi is blind to Hitler’s evil, but as his subtitle suggests he is trying to get beyond it—that is beyond it as the focus of his narrative—in order to show why the man and his followers could so identify with his messianic program to save Germany. Yes, save it. The very idea of even contemplating the notion of Hitler as a savior, in any guise, has probably already lost me (not to mention Stolfi) readers who find any effort to “understand” Hitler repugnant. Stolfi and I, they presume, are doing business with the devil.
But my rising excitement over reading Stolfi has another, more personal explanation, and this column affords me as a reviewer and critic a rare opportunity to reveal myself. When I read Stolfi, I respond to him as someone who has been reading and thinking about Hitler and the Holocaust for fifty years. It began in high school, when I read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It has been many years since I opened that book, but I seem to recall at least one scene in which Hitler is shown throwing himself down on a carpet and virtually foaming at the mouth. Naturally, my first impressions were of a madman. Later, in college, I read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An essay on these books became my first publication.
These early reading experiences formed the basis of a lifelong interest. When I went to Poland in 1979 on a Fulbright Fellowship, my first excursion was to Auschwitz, which was also the last place I visited when I left Poland in 1980. During my Polish sojourn, I also visited an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Gdansk, where I was teaching. The gravestones had been vandalized—the result not of the Nazi occupation of the country, but of a much later campaign of anti-Semitic violence. None of my colleagues at the university wanted to speak about it—except for Max, who was not Jewish but who said to me: “When there are no more Jews in Poland, I will be the last Jew.” I heard anti-Semitic jokes at faculty parties. What happened in Auschwitz could not have happened without Hitler, of course, but he sure had a lot of helpers. Why should that be? Like everyone else, Stolfi cannot explain the evil. In fact, because he believes that Hitler did not regard himself as evil, Stolfi doesn’t even try to explain the dictator’s heinousness. And that is even worse.
But Stolfi does not let us off the hook. If Hitler did not believe he was perpetuating evil, then we are obliged to explore the origins and ramifications of his beliefs, as well as the prevailing conditions of post-World War I Germany that both aroused and aided Hitler. And that is the basic point of Stolfi’s book. He has to sacrifice many other worthy points of view, but in doing so, I believe, he has made a valuable contribution not only to studies of Hitler, but to the study of biography itself.
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.