The Hitler of History and Explaining Hitler

By John Lukacs
By Ron Rosenbaum

Since his death in 1945, there have been over one hundred biographies of Adolf Hitler, as well as countless histories and analyses of the Third Reich. Anyone attempting to deal with Hitler today faces a mass of material that has been likened to a mountain, a jungle, and a minefield.

Hitler is, in every sense of the word, a loaded subject.

Neither of these new books is a biography of Hitler. Lukacs’s theme is “Hitler’s popularity and its variations,” developed through a “history of his history.” Rosenbaum’s focus is both deeper and more narrow: an attempt to “explain the explainers” of Hitler’s evil – a search that goes beneath the Hitler of history into scholarly “subtexts and agendas.”

While both books are challenging and provocative, neither is meant to be revisionist. Lukacs, the professional academic, concentrates on Hitler as politician. Rosenbaum, the investigative reporter, is more interested in Hitler’s “evil” (something he identifies almost solely with the Holocaust). As a result, Explaining Hitler is more personal and profound, The Hitler of History more scholarly and precise.

While both books are thoroughly researched, not everything can be taken at face value. Rosenbaum, having the benefit of a later publication, disagrees with Lukacs’s explanation for the “crystallization” of Hitler’s anti-Semitism in 1919. I had problems with this too, but more because I don’t like the whole idea of a personality crystallizing.

Beyond this, a fuller critique might have questioned Lukacs’s main theme, that Hitler was “a populist revolutionary in a democratic age.” I can see where this is coming from, but I still think it is misleading. Hitler’s real popularity may be impossible to establish, but it is safe to say he was no apostle of democracy. And it is worth remembering that the Nazi Party was never elected by a majority in a free election.

On the other hand, Rosenbaum also has his slips.

At one point he raises the possibility that Hitler was present in a funeral procession for Kurt Eisner, a murdered Jewish Socialist, in 1919. The evidence for this is a a “piece of faded, scratchy newsreel footage” showing “a figure who looks remarkably like Hitler.”

Is it? Ronsenbaum isn’t sure, yet later in the book Hitler’s presence at the funeral is described as an established “fact.”

On another occasion, Rosenbaum casts doubt on Hitler’s description of his relationship with his niece Geli Raubal. Again, later in the book this is transformed into the “certainty” that Hitler lied about the relationship and was responsible for Geli’s suicide. Nothing about this is certain.

Both books focus on the major myths and mysteries that still surround Hitler: What caused his anti-Semitism? Did he have Jewish blood? What was his sex life like? Was he insatiable or impotent? When did he order the “final solution” and how involved was he in carrying it out? To what extent were the German people responsible for Hitler and his evil? The gaps in the historical record leave room for all kinds of speculation.

While they cast it in different terms, the final question in both books has to do with Hitler’s “exceptionality.” (Lukacs debates “greatness” but, in so far as this word can be applied to Hitler, I think it means the same thing.)

There is no questioning the exceptional effect Hitler had on history. In terms of final responsibility, the Second World War was his war, the Holocaust his crime. But was he a “spectacular anomaly,” or “the most extraordinary figure in the history of the twentieth century”? I don’t think so.

I wouldn’t want to explain Hitler entirely in terms of sweeping historical forces, what Rosenbaum calls the “abstractionist fallacy,” but it seems to me that the nineteenth-century idea of history being the biography of “great men” is even harder to defend.

This century has been witness to a host of all-too-ordinary (if not below average) individuals rising to positions of unprecedented influence and power. We have also seen that individuals can have an effect on history out of all proportion to any personal qualities they possess.

Arguably, the most influential political figure since 1945 has been Ronald Reagan. The most powerful man in the world today is Bill Clinton. The richest (indeed, the richest in history) is Bill Gates. Which of these individuals can be described as “great”? Are any of them, in any way, exceptional?

Adolf Hitler was not a man without qualities. He had a keen understanding of politics and propaganda that was far ahead of his time, as well as a tremendous capacity for hate. But perhaps when all the evidence is in we will be able to understand his historical importance better, and see him as a man of less personal interest and significance.

Review first published July 18, 1998.


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