Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Two New Biographies Reexamine Hitler

From left to right: Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler, Erich Raeder, and Wilhelm Keitel in the French village of Compiegne, June 22, 1940 (Patrick Kovacs/Reuters)
Hitler: A Biography, by Peter Longerich (Oxford University Press, 1,344 pp., $39.95), and Hitler: A Global Biography, by Brendan Simms (Basic Books, 704 pp., $40)

Adolf? Not again. My first reaction on learning that not one, but two, substantial new Hitler biographies were up for review was not one of unreserved joy. How much more is there to say? After all, Ian Kershaw’s two volumes from the turn of the century have stood the test of time very well. Nevertheless, as Brendan Simms, a professor in the history of international relations at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, demonstrates in the introduction to his Hitler: A Global Biography, the research grinds on. In his case, he has used a basic cradle-to-ashes format (Simms does not pretend to depict “the ‘whole’ Hitler”) as a frame on which to hang an intriguing — if not always convincing — reexamination of Hitler’s thinking.

Others have been digging elsewhere, and not always in expected places. Simms cites recent studies of Hitler’s architectural tastes, reading habits, and movie picks, evidence of the continuing and remarkably detailed scrutiny of someone whom Peter Longerich, a former professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London, describes in his new biography of Hitler as a “nobody.” That characterization is consistent with an evident determination to show a disdain (he typically puts the word “Führer” in scare quotes) that can seem forced. His forensic examination of the historical record (and not only when it comes to Hitler’s direct culpability for the Holocaust) is surely indictment enough.

To be fair, Longerich’s description of Hitler as a “nobody” refers principally to his chaotic early years, but it hovers over what is a curiously impersonal biography. Given the book’s length, and the central role in the operation of the regime that Longerich ascribes to Hitler (he has little sympathy for the notion that Hitler was a disengaged, “weak” dictator), there is not as much as might be expected on Hitler the man. Like Simms, Longerich uses what is purportedly a biography to tell a different sort of story, with many of its most interesting passages focused on how the Third Reich was actually run. It is a fascinating and at times brilliantly written read, but, as biography, it falls short. The contrast with Longerich’s earlier biography of Goebbels, in which he places a subtle portrayal of Hitler’s propaganda minister within a broader historical narrative, is striking.

This is not to say that Longerich takes no account of Hitler’s personality. He recognizes that the “personal element not only played a significant role in some important political decisions, but it contributed fundamentally to [Hitler’s] political outlook as a whole,” however he then goes on to brandish a straw man: Examinations of Hitler’s psyche, his lifestyle, and so on “cannot replace analysis of complex historical material.” Well, of course not, but it is hard not to think that Longerich is backing away from, nominally at least, his subject. A “chapter called ‘Hitler, the private man’ would,” he writes, be “voyeuristic” — an odd adjective for a biographer to use. Could it be a swipe at the historian and journalist Volker Ullrich, who in the first volume (the second will be out in English later this year) of his (so far) excellent Hitler biography has a chapter entitled “Hitler as Human Being” and another, for good measure, on “Hitler and Women”?

Longerich will use personal material, he sniffs, only when it would be “fruitful.” There are times when he does so: Hitler’s “awkwardness” with women (an aspect, I imagine, of unease over any form of intimacy) was transformed into the political statement that “Germany was his ‘bride,’” one of the elements of the aura — something, incidentally, that Longerich, like many historians, downplays — that contributed to Hitler’s appeal. To confront the premodern, millenarian strain running through Nazism and, not coincidentally, other 20th-century totalitarian ideologies would risk getting into territory that many historians prefer to avoid.

But even when Longerich does broach the “personal,” he does so (for the most part) to emphasize the idea of Hitler as a nobody — in which he is by no means alone (Kershaw, for one, takes a not-dissimilar tack) — even if his interpretation of that word expands as the public Hitler becomes all too much a somebody. “A private Hitler outside his public role,” he maintains, “simply did not exist.” According to Longerich, the “real” Hitler had been swallowed up within his political identity, an interpretation helpfully compatible with the case that he was a nonentity. Ullrich takes a more nuanced position: The impression that there was nothing behind the public persona was itself just part of a continuous performance that changed with Hitler’s sometimes uncannily acute reading of his audience — and thus his calculation of how to manipulate it. Hitler might, like any good actor, I reckon, have occasionally lost himself within his role, but to suggest that his own personality had been extinguished is to defy common sense.

And while this unbalanced, obsessive autodidact was not, intellectually, a Stalin, a Lenin, or a Mao, he displayed plenty of signs of intelligence, ranging from those manipulative skills to his use of design as propaganda to a near-photographic memory. But there is more of this in Ullrich’s book (and when it comes to Hitler’s thinking, particularly in the 1920s, in Simms’s too) than in Longerich’s. As a member of the intelligentsia himself, maybe Longerich did not want to acknowledge the definitive barbarian as an aspiring member of his tribe. As a consequence, readers of his book will arrive at its conclusion with a useful picture of what Hitler did, but with rather less of an idea of who he was.

That said, Longerich does not duck a discussion of Hitler’s personality when looking for the source of the pathological anti-Semitism that came to define his life and ended 6 million others’. “Environmental” considerations are not enough. The answer, argues Longerich, is not to be found in Hitler’s vagabond youth in Vienna, a city in which “anti-Semitism was a fixture of everyday life” (and, for that matter, politics), nor is it to be found on the Western Front, even if the latter, in Ullrich’s opinion, helped foster, in the most literal fashion, Hitler’s perception of existence as a life-and-death struggle. The best explanation, believes Longerich, lies in the shame Hitler felt at Germany’s defeat, a shame that could not be softened by a resumption of career, friendship, and family life, of which this eccentric loner had very little.

Unable to accept the real reasons Germany had lost, Hitler, a fantasist since his adolescence, took refuge in a dreamworld of conspiracy theory in which Jews were allocated a uniquely malevolent role. Anti-Semitism is hardly a rarity in European history. It had, in some ways, revived in intensity in the decades before the war. But in the Bavaria of 1919, roiled by revolution as well as defeat, anti-Semitism, writes Longerich, “spread like wildfire.” Hitler absorbed it, echoed it, and, aided by his oratorical gifts and the anticipation by some on the far right that a savior was on the way (an image he played up to), amplified it into, eventually, an apocalypse.

A letter from September 1919 is the earliest surviving text in which Hitler sets out his views on the “Jewish question.” Central to it is Hitler’s argument that Jews were (in Longerich’s words) behind “the unscrupulous and amoral greed of finance capital. . . . Anti-Semitism (and not the socialism of the left) was the key to removing this exploitative system.” The same letter also attracts Simms’s attention. He sees Hitler’s anti-Semitism as being “profoundly anti-capitalistic rather than anti-communist in origin,” so much so, indeed, that, to Hitler, Bolshevism itself was little more than an instrument of Jewish capital. But such conspiracism reads more like the symptoms of a psychosis than its cause. The same can be said of Hitler’s reference to Jews in the letter as the “racial tuberculosis of the peoples,” language (cited by Simms and Longerich) that suggests that Hitler’s obsession was already well in place, and already contained the seeds of mass murder: A disease, after all, should be eliminated.

The fact that, as Simms puts it, Hitler “defined the ‘Jewish problem’ partly as a medical issue” also reflected a nationalism that had slipped from a simple extension of the tribal into the sort of pseudoscientific thinking that was far from unusual at the time. Hitler looked at humanity with a veterinarian’s eye, and, as, Simms explains, he was (even putting aside the country’s Jewish minority) less than impressed by a Germany that was “no longer based on a unitary [‘Nordic’] racial core” thanks to both immigration and, even more, emigration, particularly to America, of the “best . . . for centuries.” Drawn across the Atlantic by opportunity and, in particular, open spaces of the type that Germany, in Hitler’s view, lacked, they had helped build the nation that, by entering the war in 1917, had finally brought their ancestral homeland down.

Hitler, according to Simms, both admired and dreaded America. He respected America’s dynamism, its modernity, and its drive towards widespread prosperity. And he was also taken by the way that, as he saw it, the United States had created a “living space” for its people by crushing the indigenous people who had lived there beforehand, a precedent, in many respects, for the Lebensraum he dreamt of creating for Germany in the east. But he was also preoccupied with the growth of American power. Whatever Hitler’s earlier hopes might have been for an alliance with the British, a people he admired, Simms argues that he believed that there would have to be a final showdown between Germany and “Anglo-America,” and that this drove much of his strategy in the wartime years. Indeed, “the conviction that there would have to be a confrontation sooner or later” explains Hitler’s bewildering decision to declare war on the United States in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

The American angle is a proposition (and this is far from the only instance in which he succumbs to this temptation) that Simms pushes too far, but, for all its flaws, this book, which should be read as a contribution to a debate rather than as a definitive text, is a worthwhile reexamination of some long-standing assumptions about the Third Reich, on, additionally, topics such as Hitler’s interwar attitudes to Poland and — a perennial favorite — just how socialist National Socialism really was. The result is often thought-provoking, sometimes enlightening, and rarely uninteresting, but to return to Simms’s original admission, it is not “the ‘whole’ Hitler.”

For something closer to that, it may well be worth waiting to see if Ullrich’s second volume builds on the success of the first.

This article appears as “Hitler Revisited” in the March 9, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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