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Hitler: demon, dummy or smooth operator?

Posted by Mad Mitch on UTC 2018-06-12 09:14.

  • Yet another piece about Hitler? Really?
  • Yes, really. We know so much about him, yet are still struggling to answer most of the big questions.

Prompted by a bundle of scholarly Hitler biographies that are appearing or are about to appear, in a perceptive review of one of the them, Andreas Wirsching gave a brief tour d'horizon of the state of Hitler scholarship since 1945. Wirsching is Professor for Recent History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich.

He starts his piece by asking, given the latest flood of Hitler biographies, what on earth is left to know about Hitler, what more can be said about him? There is, it seems, quite a lot still to be said.

Wirsching identifies three epochs of our view of Hitler. The first of these was a view of the 'demon' Hitler who held the more or less helpless German people in his thrall:

In the period after the Second World War the dominant idea was that of a monolithic Führer-State with seemingly everything subordinate to the Führer. On the one hand, this view reflected the contemporary impression of the absolute power of the regime; on the other it was attractive, because of its exculpatory effect and the fact that it blocked off deeper questions of the responsibility of the Germans for the crimes of the National Socialists. It was easy to portray Hitler as someone 'completely different', as an alien, external phenomenon which broke over German history in a fully metaphysical manner. In the extreme case of this, Hitler was held to be 'a demon that was spewed up from the depths', as the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung put it in 1955.

In der Zeit nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg dominierte die Idee eines monolithischen Führerstaates, in dem alles dem Diktator untergeordnet zu sein schien. Sie entsprach zum einen dem zeitgenössischen Eindruck von der Allmacht des Regimes; zum anderen aber war sie verführerisch, weil sie exkulpatorisch wirkte und tieferes Fragen nach der Verantwortung der Deutschen für die nationalsozialistischen Verbrechen mit dem Verweis auf Hitler abblockte. Allzu leicht erschien Hitler als das «ganz Andere», als ein letztlich fremdes, exogenes Phänomen, das in geradezu metaphysischer Weise über die deutsche Geschichte hereingebrochen war. Im Extremfall galt Hitler dann als «ein aus der Tiefe hervorgegurgelter Dämon», wie 1955 in der «Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung» zu lesen war.

Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember often coming across the phrase in the German media, the Nazi-Gewaltherrschaft, literally the 'Nazi rule of violence', and wondering about this facile dichotomy of a few violent, oppressive Nazis running everyone else. We can't hold their belief in this fairy story against the Germans of the time – the peace-loving people of the new, hyper-constitutional state of Germany had to jump over their own shadows in order to make any progress at all: the idea of the demonic dictator was the psychological crutch that helped them over those dark memories.

That epoch passed, as it had to, so artificial it had been. The new generation came of political age in the mid-1980s and happily embraced the pregnant formulation of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930-2017), himself a historian, die Gnade der späten Geburt, 'the blessing of the late birth'. We were all sociologists then and thus predisposed to come to a new understanding of Hitler as the puppet of greater forces. Wirsching:

Research during the 1970s and 1980s thoroughly dismantled such views, in that it demonstrated the deep roots of National Socialism in German society and culture. Hitler came to be seen more and more as a projection surface or as a rather passive, even 'weak dictator' (Hans Mommsen) in the midst of a chaotic, polycratic and at the same time self-destructive system of power. Ian Kershaw's magisterial Hitler biography in the years 1998/2000 put the accent on the supra-individual forces and interests that were bundled together in Hitler's 'charisma'.

Während der 1970er und 1980er Jahre hat die Forschung solche Bilder gründlich dekonstruiert, indem sie die tiefe Verankerung des Nationalsozialismus in der deutschen Gesellschaft und Kultur nachwies. Mehr und mehr galt Hitler nun primär als Projektionsfläche oder als eher passiver, ja «schwacher Diktator» (Hans Mommsen) inmitten eines chaotisch-«polykratischen» und zugleich selbstzerstörerischen Herrschaftssystems. Und noch Ian Kershaws magistrale Hitler-Biografie aus den Jahren 1998/2000 legte den Akzent auf die überindividuellen Kräfte und Interessen, die in Hitlers «Charisma» gebündelt worden seien.

Nearly two years ago we looked at the work of the Polish emigré artist Arthur Szyk. His masterly 1942 caricature of Hitler 'leading the ball' – showing the little Führer surrounded by all the huge forces that supported him – prefigures the sociological viewpoint:

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), 'Satan Leads the Ball'

Full view of Satan Leads the Ball, by Arthur Szyk, 1942. There are detailed images and analysis in our original article.

The view of Hitler as a gormless puppet attached to strings worked by others is as incomplete as that of him as a Mephistophelean demon. But at least it led to a reassessment of the role played by the common people within the National Socialist power structures. It is this viewpoint that is now being revised as new primary sources come to light:

Hitler re-entered more strongly the centre of the analysis of National Socialism. He appears as an unscrupulous and at the same time skilful power broker who knew how to expand and exploit his freedom of action continuously.

Hitler rückt als handelndes Subjekt wieder stärker in das Zentrum der Analyse des Nationalsozialismus. Er erscheint als ein skrupelloser und zugleich geschickter Machtpolitiker, der es verstand, seine Handlungsspielräume stetig zu erweitern und auszunutzen.

In other words, the 'demonic' was there, visible today in the photographs of his adoring public as well as in many contemporary accounts; those selfsame photographs also show us Hitler as the projection surface for wider forces in German society of the time – the worshipped one needed his worshippers – but Hitler, unsuccessful, ill-educated, also had a talent for controlling and mobilising those forces.

It was not necessarily an intuitive talent with which he was born – we land there by the demonic again – it seems more likely to have been learned in the political activism of the times after the First World War.

As Wirsching points out, up until 1920 Hitler had had no success at all; after the first success of his life in that year the intuitive and the learned or merely imitated came together and he hit his stride from one success to another. A little over fifteen years later his followers would consider him invincible, infallible, so well had everything gone for him. The religious mantle of the great Destiny assigned to him by some higher power was laid upon his shoulders.

Then, after 1943, it all started to fall apart. His skills failed, his successes came to an end. Bit by bit the political and social management, the messianic faith and all the other factors that unite in the Führer image crumbled. The distress and confusion of the common people in the final months of that crumbling we looked at through the eyes of the refugee Victor Klemperer earlier this year.