Charisma and catastrophe
“How could one of the most civilised societies on earth become the instrument of a mind of such malice? I confess that my heart sank at the thought of spending any more hours in the company of this personification of radical evil. Yet we cannot wholly avert our eyes”
Of making many books about Hitler there is no end; and much study of him is a weariness of the flesh. Two more are out this summer, both by historians capable of addressing the ultimately insoluble problem that every Hitler biographer must confront: how could one of the most civilised societies on earth become the instrument of a mind of such malice? I confess that my heart sank at the thought of spending any more hours in the company of this personification of radical evil. Yet we cannot wholly avert our eyes, for each generation can and must learn from his monstrous example how to recognise the little Hitlers among us.
Peter Longerich’s Hitler: A Life demonstrates a mastery of a vast mass of primary and secondary research (the bibliography alone runs to 70 pages) that is remarkable even for a German professor. The resulting synthesis has enabled the author to move beyond the antithetical “intentionalist” and “structuralist” interpretations that still dominated the academic scene when Sir Ian Kershaw’s standard work appeared two decades ago. As an expert on the Holocaust, as well as the biographer of Himmler and Goebbels, Longerich is uniquely equipped to explore the enigma of a Führer who manipulated and ultimately ruined not only his lieutenants but an entire continent, in order to annihilate an imaginary enemy. He sees Hitler as a “nobody” whose insatiable demand for recognition drove him to create a dictatorship over which he eventually assumed total control, enabling him to unleash war and genocide on a hitherto unimaginable scale.
Longerich’s biography appeared in German four years ago. This means that its scholarship has informed that of the eminent Peterhouse historian Brendan Simms. His Hitler: Only the World was Enough offers a fresh, indeed brilliantly original study of the subject. In his introduction, Simms states frankly that, while he “cannot provide the ‘whole’ Hitler himself, he hopes to show that our picture of him has hitherto been seriously incomplete”. His argument is threefold. First, Hitler’s lifelong preoccupation was not primarily with “Bolshevism”, as has been assumed, but with “Anglo-America and global capitalism”. Second, he saw the Germans as inferior to the British and the Americans. Third, the focus on the “negative eugenics” against the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, has led us to ignore his “positive eugenics”, aimed at raising the Germans to the Anglo-American level. “All this means we have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just with ‘world Jewry’ but with the ‘Anglo-Saxons’.”
While Longerich places the main emphasis of his book on a comprehensive account of how Hitler exercised power, Simms is more interested in the question of why. Both agree that he saw the war as an existential struggle against “the Jews”, especially from 1941 onwards. Longerich shows that Hitler himself was responsible for the radicalisation of the war against the Soviet Union into one of racial extermination. But this process was part of Hitler’s need to implicate an often reluctant German nation, not only in his pitiless bid to reverse the unexpected defeat of 1918—“the Second World War was Hitler’s War”—but also in his genocidal project, above all the annihilation of European Jewry, thereby deliberately incriminating his compatriots and allies. At heart a control freak, unable to admit mistakes, let alone failure, he took ever more aggressive and repressive measures to ward off the inevitable collapse. Longerich’s Hitler shows how the move from charisma to control led to catastrophe.
Simms would not disagree with Longerich’s narrative, but he supplies an overarching rationale that makes sense, not merely in psychopathological but also in political terms. His Hitler is a grand strategist, whose global ambitions are driven by an inferiority complex vis à vis “Anglo-America”. The clue is in the subtitle: “Only the world was enough.” Only by dominating the European mainland could Germany compete on equal terms with the British Empire and the United States. It was this imperative that led him to destroy the old system by which Britain had maintained a balance of power on the Continent, in order to allow the Germans their rightful Lebensraum, “living space”.
Not only the Nazi leader’s nationalism but also his socialism came into play: the Anglo-Saxon powers were the representatives of capitalism, or “plutocracy”, and at times Hitlerian ideology echoed the language of international class struggle, between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. During the first two years of the war, Stalin was only too happy to carve up Eastern Europe with Hitler and to supply him with the raw materials he needed to prosecute the war in the West. When Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally in 1941, his primary aim, Simms argues, was not to create a Nazi utopia on Russian soil, but to deprive the British of any hope of victory, thereby forcing them to sue for peace.
Simms suggests that Hitler’s strategy was not mad, indeed might even have succeeded. He plays down the cliché of Hitler as a ranting megalomaniac, pointing to the only surviving recording of him in a private setting, during negotiations with the Finnish leader Marshal Mannerheim, in which the Führer speaks calmly and rationally. It’s true that in his last days in the bunker, Hitler did lose touch with reality, rather as he is depicted by Bruno Ganz in Downfall. But both biographies demonstrate that there is no denying his ubiquitous presence. He was the producer, director and star performer of the Nazi show, dominating the extreme Right in Germany long before the brief span that the Thousand Year Reich actually lasted.
Why was Hitler so consumed with envy of the Anglo-Saxon powers that he was ready to risk the total destruction of Europe in order to assert German parity? He was deadly serious about the racial theories that for him explained the success of the British and Americans: the best Germans had migrated to England (in the dark ages) and the United States (in the 18th and 19th centuries), leaving behind the less enterprising dross. But he also believed that Jewish influence was even stronger among his enemies than in Germany and his native Austria. Hence the corruption of capitalism into “plutocracy” and of socialism into Marxism. Nazi ideology was, of course, a rationale for anti-Semitism, “the socialism of fools”. But it was also a vulgarisation of the theory of the Austrian social democratic theoretician Rudolf Hilferding, whose book Das Finanzkapital (“financial capitalism”) described the ascendancy of the global capital markets, the banks and stock exchanges, which collaborated or merged with state institutions to create monopolies. This critique of capitalism provided ammunition to target mythical “Jewish speculators”, who provided Hitler with a convenient scapegoat for the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
The threat of Soviet communism might be a useful rabble-rousing device. But in Hitler’s eyes, the City of London and Wall Street were far more powerful than the Kremlin. His own genocidal policies convinced him that his Jewish enemies in the West would seek revenge. In 1941, while America was still neutral, the Nazis made much of Germany Must Perish, a self-published booklet by a Jewish businessman, Theodore N. Kaufman, advocating the mass sterilisation of the German people. Hitler personally ordered a propaganda campaign, claiming that Kaufman had “a close relationship” to Roosevelt. In reality, Kaufman was an obscure isolationist, with no influence at all.
When Hitler declared war on the US, in one of the last of his Reichstag speeches on December 11, 1941, he claimed that Roosevelt, like Woodrow Wilson before him, was “mentally disturbed” and that his long tenure in office could only be explained by the sinister “power” behind him of “the eternal Jew”. Simms gives this speech prominence in his account: there Hitler set out in detail his claim that “the American President and his plutocratic clique” intended to establish “an unlimited economic dictatorship” over the world. The world was now, he declared, at war—a war between the German Reich and the “Anglo-Saxon-Jewish-capitalist world”. For him, Soviet Russia played a minor role.
The very next day, December 12, Hitler told a private gathering of his Gauleiter that the bloodcurdling “prophecy” he had made in 1939, that he would hold the Jews responsible for the war, was now coming to pass: “The world war is here [and] the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.” For Simms, “the principal motivation for and context to Hitler’s war of annihilation against European Jewry was his relationship with the United States.” He also argues that before Barbarossa, just six months before, Hitler had intended to starve Soviet prisoners and up to 30 million Slav civilians to death, shoot the Soviet Jews, but keep the Jews of Western and Central Europe alive as hostages. Now he needed the Slavs alive, to work as slave labour to increase war production to fight the global crusade he had unleashed against Germany. But Europe’s Jews—all of them—would die. Weeks later, at the Wannsee Conference, the orders were given to carry out Hitler’s death sentence on the Jews. It didn’t stop until he was stopped. By then it was too late.
The main objection to the interpretation of Simms is implied by the caustic reminder from Vladimir Putin during last month’s D-Day commemoration (to which he, unlike Angela Merkel, was not invited): some 80 per cent of German military losses were on the Eastern Front. It was at the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk that the Wehrmacht was decisively defeated. Yet I am persuaded by Simms that Hitler always saw the West as the main enemy. He consistently underestimated the strength of the Soviet Union and starved his armies there of resources, especially aircraft, that might have turned the tide, preferring to build costly “revenge weapons” to bombard England. Even in December 1944, when the Red Army was about to invade the Reich, he threw all his reserves into one final, suicidal offensive in the Ardennes, the scene of his victory in 1940. Hitler told his generals that the hoped to show “Aryan” Americans the futility of the war. The death of Roosevelt in April 1945 prompted fantasies of dividing the Allies, who would come to their senses now that “the greatest war criminal of all times” was no longer holding them together. Once he conceded that the war was lost, he ordered Ribbentrop, his oleaginous foreign minister, to offer the British a union of the German Reich and the British Empire, with its capital in London. This was a sick man’s fantasy, but he was not wrong to suggest that the Anglo-American alliance would need the Germans to maintain the balance of power in a Europe where Stalin would be calling the shots. Within a decade of the war, West Germany was rearmed and a member of Nato.
Apart from Roosevelt, it was Churchill whom Hitler saw as his arch-enemy. Nazi propaganda perpetuated the canard of an alcoholic Prime Minister. Privately, though, Hitler envied his more gifted foe. Otto Dietrich, his press secretary, testified that Hitler read all Churchill’s speeches during the Battle of Britain, adding that “measured by his outwardly irrational reaction . . . he secretly admired them”.
Hitler’s secret admiration for Churchill was shared by other Nazis. In a massive two-volume propaganda work, Die Englische Kulturideologie (“The English Cultural Ideology”) published in 1941, Hildegard Gauger, a Tübingen academic, writes about Churchill as a rhetorician. Conceding his “masterly command of his mother tongue”, she denied that such eloquence was the same as real leadership. But she could not deny the truth: “England has never had a Prime Minister who was a greater artist of the language than Winston Churchill.” Did Churchill study Hitler’s speeches as Hitler studied Churchill’s? No: the true orator despises the demagogue.
Simms wisely eschews any didactic purpose. But there is profound contemporary significance in his recasting Hitler as a politician fighting what Aurel Kolnai in 1938 already called “the war against the West”. To this day, here in Britain, there are politicians who combine anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism. They peddle the politics of resentment, of the “have-nots” against the “haves”. They call themselves socialists and their enemies Nazis, but they often turn a blind eye to mass murder and they like to make scapegoats of the “Zionists”. We all know who they are. And we British, of all people, ought to know better than to lend them our votes.
Hitler: A Life
By Peter Longerich
Oxford, 1344pp, £30.00
Hitler: Only the World was Enough
By Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 704pp, £30.00