David Frum April 26th, 1999 at 12:00 am
>It’s a reminder of socialism’s lingering prestige that
people still refer to the tyranny that ruled Germany as "fascism" and
the tyranny that ruled Russia as "Stalinism" — as though one country
had succumbed to a vast ideological system and the other simply to the evil of
a single man. It would make much more sense to put it the other way around:
Russia fell to "communism" and Germany was captured by
>This is hardly pedantic quibbling. Americans now face
European war for the first time since 1945. And this war has been understood by
the Clinton administration and sold to the American public as a reprise of
World War II half a century ago: the same sort of evil dictator, the same sort
of racialist genocide, the same sort of mass suffering.
>It’s crucial, for this account of the war in Yugoslavia,
that we believe Hitler’s rule in Germany was not a unique catastrophe but
remains to this day a live option, a political temptation to which other
countries might give in, just as China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and — for that
matter — Yugoslavia independently succumbed to communism.
>Indeed, Hitler’s uniqueness may become one of the great
foreign policy questions of the next century, analogous to the bitter dispute
that once roiled America’s universities and think tanks over whether the Soviet
Union was merely continuing the (nasty but limited) policies of czarist Russia
or whether it sought to realize the insatiable ambitions of Communist ideology.
>From Slovakia to China, faltering Communist regimes have
resorted to ultranationalism to stifle calls for liberty, to foster the
appearance of national unity, and to justify encroachment upon their neighbors.
It may be that these combinations of authoritarianism, nationalism, and
aggression are fading shadows soon to be banished by the brightness of
>But after the horrific events of our century, who’d want to
predict it? If they are not fading — if Slobodan Milosevic represents the
future — then we will likely find ourselves spending considerable time
debating whether he and men like him are repeating "what was done in the
name of Germany" (in the chilling phrase of the German defense minister
Rudolf Scharping). And so, half a century later, we have acquired a new and
compelling reason to understand what did happen in Germany — and the man who
made it happen.
>It’s at just this juncture that the first volume of Ian
Kershaw’s massive biography of Hitler appears, the climax of four years of
critically praised and commercially successful books about the Third Reich:
Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners > and Henry Turner’s Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power > in 1996, John Lukacs’s The Hitler of History > in 1997, Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler > last year, and, this year, the English translation of
Brigitte Hamann’s Hitler’s Vienna, the
definitive work on Hitler’s youth and "lost" years.
>Kershaw sums up the current state of Hitler scholarship
with awe-inspiring comprehensiveness. He takes nothing for granted. One source
for Hitler’s early years, for instance, is a memoir written in the 1950s by
August Kubizek, a young man from Linz who briefly lodged with Hitler during
Hitler’s Vienna period, 1908-1913. The two attended the opera together, which
fact inspires footnote 110 to chapter two:
>[Kubizek] mentions Hitler’s admiration for Mahler, "at
that time the conductor" in the Opera. Whether Hitler experienced Mahler
conducting during his first two stays in Vienna cannot be established, but he
and Kubizek could not have seen Mahler together, since Mahler’s last
performance, before leaving to take up his appointment at the New York
Metropolitan Opera, was on 15 October 1907.
>On the strength of his research, Kershaw authoritatively
declares settled a series of problems that Hitler’s biographers have been
gnawing at for years. The claim that Hitler’s paternal grandfather was Jewish:
false. The story that Hitler fearfully hurled himself under the bodies of his
comrades during the gun battle that crushed the November 1923 Munich putsch: > false again. The rumors of extreme sexual abnormality:
dismissed with scarcely a mention.
>These are all probably sound conclusions, but the
combination of minute detail and abrupt judgment makes Hitler > an often blurry reading experience. Kershaw will summarize
an entire library of research in a single sentence. That’s a great achievement,
but it results in a book that is as much bibliography as biography, and one
that all but the most serious reader will have trouble grappling with and
>Kershaw wants to be rid, once and for all, of the myth of
Hitler as the demonic god: the Miltonic Hitler, the Hitler of superhuman evil.
This is the Hitler who haunts most popular writing about the Nazis and appears
even in some of the more serious accounts.
>Kershaw’s Hitler is instead a distinctly mediocre man.
Hitler always insisted that he’d arrived at his political views suddenly. He
claimed to have discovered anti-Semitism in a single fatal encounter with a Jew
in a Vienna street, staring at the man’s face and wondering "Is this a
German?" He asserted that he had charged into a political career at the
end of 1918 as he recovered from British gas and heard the terrible news of the
German surrender. The Hitler of Mein Kamp
is a character out of nineteenth-century Romanticism, always being clapped by
grand volcanic moments of passion and prophetic insight.
>Some writers believe we should take Hitler at his words:
Lucy Dawidowicz, for instance, held that Hitler’s murderous hatred of the Jews
did indeed take form in October-November 1918 and that his occasional tendency
to avoid explicit references to Jews and to instead denounce
"profiteers," "exploiters," and "international
finance" was inspired by his sense of what he could get away with at the
moment and what he could not. Others, like John Lukacs, date Hitler’s
conversion to extreme anti-Semitism to his witnessing of the abortive 1919
Bolshevik coup in Bavaria, some of the leaders of which were Jews.
>But Kershaw’s Hitler is not at all Romantic: He’s a
completely derivative person who read few of the books he claimed to have read
and thought little for himself. Kershaw disagrees with Brigitte Hamann’s
argument that Hitler came to his anti-Semitism in Munich after the First World
War. Rather, according to Kershaw, he absorbed it early from the gutter
newspapers first of his hometown of Linz and then of Vienna.
>Kershaw deals with Hamann’s evidence — the recollections
of those who knew Hitler that he complained of the lack of statues to Heine in
Germany, praised Jewish courage in the face of persecution, and liked the music
of Offen-bach — by pointing out that the mental atmosphere in pre-war Vienna
was so poisonously anti-Semitic that the young Hitler could have spilled a lot
of bile before anybody took any notice of it. Then, too, the dealer who sold
the water-colors Hitler lived by was Jewish, and Hitler — always the
opportunist — took care with his words around people who might repeat them to
the man who provided him his livelihood.
>What came late to Hitler were not his hatreds, but his
ambitions to act on them. His interest in ultranationalist politics was
stirred, Kershaw maintains, by the army instructors who hired him to give
postwar political instruction to the shrunken German Army. Kershaw makes much
of Hitler’s passivity during the Bolsheviks’ attempted coup in Bavaria and the
military counter-coup in 1919, arguing that through all the tumult of that
year, Hitler’s main aim was to avoid being demobilized and having to find a
job. "Hitler," he remarks, "did not come to politics, . . .
politics came to him — in the Munich barracks."
>In every respect other than his capacity for evil,
Kershaw’s Hitler is a limited man. This is no Napoleon, who committed great
crimes but also great acts of statesmanship. Kershaw aptly quotes a remark of
Plutarch’s: "When destiny raises a base character by acts of great
importance, it reveals his lack of substance." Hitler, Kershaw says, was
an unperson, with no private identity beyond his public acts. Which means that
his biographer must "focus not upon the personality of Hitler, but
squarely and directly upon the character of his power — the power of the
>Kershaw’s Hitler is not even a great politician. The Munich
putsch was idiotically organized, with
no attempt to neutralize the army that made short work of it. Mein Kampf > was boring and sold badly, especially the second volume
released after Hitler’s notoriety from the Putsch > had faded. He hated administrative work and idled away his
post-Putsch days while his associates
tried to rebuild the Nazi party, with little success.
>Hitler owed his success to economic crisis: Without the
inflation of 1923, he could never have made his putsch; > once stability returned, his party’s share of the vote
fell to 2.6 percent. Had the Great Depression been averted, he would have faded
entirely away. Kershaw emphasizes how much Hitler’s career owed to the
complicity of others: the army units that provided weapons to nationalist
paramilitary forces in 1919-20, the crazed Russian emigres who helped finance
him, the biased judiciary that repeatedly failed to punish Nazis. And finally,
of course, the bone headed politicians and army officers who permitted Hitler
to assume the chancellorship in 1933. Hitler’s first English-language
biographer, Alan Bullock, saw this pattern as evidence of Hitler’s cunning.
Kershaw sees it as a reminder of the larger social forces at work. His chapter
on January 1933 is tellingly entitled: "Levered Into Power."
>Nor is Kershaw’s Hitler even very much of a dictator.
Kershaw is much impressed by the school of modern history that sees the Third
Reich as the opposite of a totalitarian regime: Hitler was simply too lazy and
slovenly to run a government in the way that Stalin did. Hitler’s agriculture
minister Walther Darre tried vainly for two full years to get an appointment to
discuss Germany’s worsening farm problem. Kershaw bitingly describes the
corruption and chaos of Hitler’s peace time regime, with the state treasury treated
as Hitler’s personal; exchequer and businesses lavishing bribes on cronies to
extract favors from the crumbling apparatus of government:
>A flood of legislation emanating independently from each
ministry had to be formulated by a cumbersome and grossly inefficient process
whereby drafts were circulated and recirculated among ministers until some
consensus was reached. Only at that stage would Hitler, if he approved after
its contents were briefly summarized for him, sign the bill (usually scarcely bothering
to read it) and turn it into law.
>If Hitler felt pressed for time, "legislation that had
taken months to prepare could simply be ignored or postponed, sometimes
>The collapse of legal institutions and the weakness of the
central dictatorship turned Germany into a kind of demented feudal system. The
most important chapter in Kershaw’s Hitler, > "Working Towards the Fuhrer," quotes to powerful
effect a 1934 speech by an official in the Prussian agriculture ministry.
>Everyone with opportunity to observe it knows that the
Fuhrer can only with great difficulty order from above everything he intends to
carry out sooner or later. On the contrary, until now everyone has best worked
in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuhrer.
Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals . . .
have waited for commands and orders. . . . However, it is the duty of every
single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuhrer, to work towards him.
Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who
works correctly towards the Fuhrer along his lines and towards his aim
will…have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal
confirmation of his work.
>But what was the spirit of the Fuhrer? Given the radicalism
of Hitler’s own rhetoric and the barbarity of the men he choose as his closest
associates, the disorder of the regime touched off what Kershaw calls a
"Darwinian struggle," with victory going to the cruelest, the most ruthless,
and (of course) the most anti-Semitic. "Hitler’s personalized form of rule
invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so
long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals."
>Kershaw’s dry style unwittingly denies the Hitler story
much of its drama: Ron Rosenbaum, by comparison, describes the complicity of
the German judiciary in Hitler’s crimes with a blood-boiling fury. Rosenbaum
agrees that Hitler was essentially a petty criminal, not a demon god, but he
makes that criminality vivid and contemptible in a way that Kershaw never quite
>Kershaw, however, has his reasons for writing dryly, and
they are stated flatly at the beginning of the book, when he explains his
refusal to dwell on the stories of Hitler’s twisted sexuality: "And even
if the alleged repulsive perversions really were his private proclivities, how
exactly they would help to explain the rapid descent of the complex and
sophisticated German state into gross inhumanity after 1933 is not readily
>As Kershaw sees it, Hitler is not the most important part
of his own story. The real protagonist is the German state, and the important
puzzle Kershaw wants to unravel is not why Hitler did what he did, but rather
why the Germans did what they did.
>This is probably not the best frame of mind in which to
attempt a biography, and it may explain why Kershaw’s Hitler > so often seems listless. Unlike Brigitte Hamann, who
sleuths out the details of Hitler’s time in Vienna and brings the most
malignant sections of that glittering, horrible city to life, Kershaw does not
seem at all sure that the biographical approach will teach us anything worth
>Perhaps it is for this reason that so many reviewers have
described his book as "biography for the 1990s." The phrase is meant
as praise, of course, implying that the book is up-to-date. But unfortunately
it also implies that the book reflects the 1990s academic aversion to the human
personality in history. Kershaw singles out some leaders for special praise,
but the most he will concede even to his heroes is that they have
"symbolized the positive values of the century, have epitomized belief in
humanity, hope for the future."
>Even Karl Marx conceded that human beings make their own history
(though he added that they do not make it precisely as they will). Now we seem
bent on out-Marxing Marx, and eliminating even Hitler — surely the one man
without whom the twentieth century would have been different — in favor of the
impersonal collection of people, institutions, and ideas we call
>This is not a formula for moral responsibility. Even Daniel
Goldhagen, a man given to rhetorical excesses (to put it mildly), returned in
the best sections of Hitler’s Willing Executioners > to the responsibility of the individuals who ran the
killing machine for Hitler: It was not "the German state" that did
these things, but individual people like Fritz Muller of Salzburg, who served
in a particular place at a particular time and is even now collecting a pension
from his government; and Karl Shulz of Konigsberg, who served somewhere else
and now lives in a little flat in the south of Spain; and half a million more
>So, too, the caustic brilliance of Henry Turner’s Hitler’s
Thirty Days to Power is that it never for
one moment forgives the villainy and incompetence of the politicians and
soldiers who let Hitler take power — and it musters its outrage not in a
utopian spirit but in a grimly realistic one. The most practical option in 1933
for stabilizing the country and heading off Nazi dictatorship was a military
coup and an authoritarian regime run by officers of the old aristocracy — and
Turner believes we can blame men who failed to seize their chance to ward off a
catastrophe they had every reason to foresee.
>Look again at Kershaw’s description of Hitler in power. To
say that what really shaped Germany in the 1930s is the spontaneous action of
individual Germans — "ordinary citizens denouncing neighbors to the
Gestapo, . . . businessmen happy to exploit anti-Jewish legislation to rid
themselves of competitors" — is to minimize the importance of the
dictatorship under which that spontaneous action occurred.
>Ordinary citizens often want to be rid of their neighbors,
and businessmen often want to do down the competition, but it’s seldom that
they can invoke the unconstrained power of the state to do it. The fact that
Hitler was sleeping till noon, eating a leisurely lunch, going for a walk,
signing a few papers, and then screening movies until the small hours of the
morning does not remove him from responsibility — not just the moral
responsibility, which Kershaw coincedes, but the operational responsibility as
>In Explaining Hitler,
Ron Rosenbaum wisely reminds us of Hitler’s comment when challenged back in the
1920s over the seeming chaos of the Nazi party: "Nothing happens except by
my will." Hitler chose to run his government this way, and these methods
yielded for him the results he wanted. His government achieved considerable
success in achieving his top priorities: cementing his power in place,
murdering the Jews, waging war, and surrounding him with cheering crowds. If it
was not so successful at managing the farm problem, that was by his decision
and a result of his choices.
>But if Kershaw’s Hitler is a Hitler for the 1990s in his
insignificance, he is also a Hitler for the 1990s in another way. Hitler:
1889-1936, Hubris is a book that, for all
its deficiencies, makes particularly useful reading now in our new time of
dictators and ethnic hatred. One can believe that Hitler’s personality is both
more interesting and more important than Kershaw thinks, and still accept
Kershaw’s contention that Hitler’s evil is not the whole of the story. In 1984,
Milton Himmelfarb published in Commentary
a justly famous essay on Hitler’s extreme personal capability entitled "No
Hitler, No Holocaust." That’s very true. But one can add, "No German
Army, no Holocaust either."
>As decisive as Hitler was to Germany, had Germany been
something other than the dominant technological, military, and economic power
in Europe, he would have been far less significant to the fate of the world.
Without Germany, Hitler is Idi Amin. What made Hitler dangerous to non-Germans
– including the almost entirely non-German Jews who died at Auschwitz and
Treblinka — was the meeting of the wrong man with the wrong country. That’s
why it was obtuse of Vice President A1 Gore to call Slobodan Milosevic a
"junior-league Hitler" (and not only because he meant "minor-league").
A minor-league Hitler simply isn’t a Hitler.
>One of the saddest consequences of America’s increasing
ignorance of history is its progressive identification of Nazism not only as
the worst evil, but as the only evil. Much of the time, the use of Nazis as
all-purpose bad guys is merely ridiculous — as when Steven Spielberg has
Indiana Jones tangling with a Nazi expedition in Egypt in the 1930s, when Egypt
was a British protectorate.
>But at crucial moments it can be genuinely dangerous, and
we are now, in April 1999, at one