The People’s Hitler

Does Hitler’s popularity discredit populism itself?

The Hitler of History
By John Lukacs
Knopf; 320 pages; $26

It is one of the paradoxes of modern biography that Adolf Hitler, who came frighteningly close to establishing his Thousand Year Reich, has seldom been taken seriously as a political leader. In Hitler’s own day, Churchill called him a “guttersniper”; Brecht parodied him in the character of Arturo Ui, a buffoonish thug implausibly thrust into power; and Neville Chamberlain—well, enough said about Mr. Chamberlain. Afraid of being branded revisionists, Hitler’s biographers have been largely reluctant to acknowledge his political talents. Thus have they given us Hitler as “psychopathic god” and “unprincipled opportunist,” but never as “statesman”—a title that, even in the age of the Kissingers and the Pinochets, has lost little of its luster.

But, as the historian John Lukacs underscores in his study The Hitler of History, the Nazi dictator was not simply the century’s most murderous tyrant; he was one of its most brilliant politicians. Lukacs, a distinguished historian of modern Europe, has reflected perceptively in previous books on the Nazi leader’s hypnotic allure. In The Hitler of History, Lukacs adopts a more historiographical approach, examining, comparing, and correcting the interpretations of Hitler’s biographers. Lukacs’ courtly prose can mask the bold scope of his ambitions: Besides critiquing Hitler biographies, Lukacs is also advancing his own reading of Hitler.

Hitler, says Lukacs, was a peculiarly modern demagogue. More than any of his peers, including Mussolini, he created an electrifying fusion of aggressive nationalism and populist rhetoric. An early practitioner of McLuhanesque politics who was “extraordinarily aware of his pictorial image,” Hitler “understood the popular effect of the cult of the ‘star’ ” on his fans, the ordinary Germans who admired and even loved him. (“If only the Führer knew!”—the cry of many ordinary Germans who felt betrayed by the Nazi regime—suggests the depth of their affection.)

Often dismissed as a poor military strategist intoxicated by quixotic ambitions, Hitler was in fact extremely adept at sizing up his opponents’ weaknesses and understood acutely the “supreme importance of land power” with the “motorization of military movement.” As a result, he succeeded, in less than a decade, in making himself the ruler of Europe from the gates of Moscow to the English Channel. Indeed, until his obsessive vision of cleansing Europe of the Jews and conquering Soviet Russia overcame his pragmatic instincts, Hitler did not make a wrong move. His victories emboldened him and his National Socialist followers to visit untold misery upon their victims. As Lukacs writes, he “left a more indelible mark upon the century than any other dictator, a Lenin or a Stalin or a Mao.”

Much of the writing about Hitler falls into the category of “Hitlerology,” a form of insipid voyeurism similar to that surrounding Kennedy or, perhaps closer to the point, Jack the Ripper. The details about Hitler’s personality titillate, but they rarely edify, even though Hitler’s fanatical devotion to his mother does provide a rather chilling rebuttal to a faith in family values.

Lukacs does not himself always resist the temptation of Hitlerology. He tells of Hitler’s love of romantic poetry and “creamy Viennese cakes”—the only exceptions, apparently, to his unyielding asceticism—and speculates, in ponderous footnotes studded with citations from Kierkegaard, on the theological nature of evil. (A Catholic writer, Lukacs whitewashes the record of the church as “the least compromised and … sometimes even inspiring” of institutions. If so, why has the church subsequently apologized for its cozying up to Hitler?) For the most part, though, Lukacs concentrates on the disturbing specter that has come to haunt Hitler scholarship—Hitler’s “admirers and defenders, open and hidden.” The most notorious Hitler apologist is the British Holocaust revisionist David Irving, who has worked tirelessly to exculpate the Führer while lashing out at his adversaries. As Lukacs observes, Irving has not scrupled to invent “evidence” that Stalin planned to attack Germany before Hitler’s invasion and that “Hitler again and again ordered the ‘Jewish problem’ set aside until the war was won.”

Since the mid-’80s, a subtler but arguably more insidious form of revisionism has come from such reputable German scholars as Ernest Nolte and the late Andreas Hillgruber, both leading participants in the Historikerstreit, a quarrel among German historians over the uniqueness and meaning of the Holocaust. While rebuking Hitler for declaring war against the Western democracies, Nolte offered an implicit justification of the Holocaust as an anxious, reactive measure sparked by “the previous practices and exterminations by the Russian Revolution.” For Nolte, Stalin was the original sinner. Hillgruber added his own provocative twist by proclaiming that German historians were obliged to “identify” with the German soldiers on the Eastern front who were protecting Germany from Bolshevism. The thrust of such interpretations, as Lukacs argues, was to rehabilitate Hitler as a German patriot and anti-Communist.

Although Lukacs has some—in my view, rather too much—compassion for Nolte’s and Hillgruber’s “bitterness against [the] anti-nationalist consensus among German historians,” he concludes that “their explanations amounted to a kind of relativization” to the point of “defending Hitler.” And yet, that shrewd critique of revisionism notwithstanding, Lukacs’ own corrections to Hitler history are idiosyncratic and often wrong. For instance, we are told that “foreign policy was secondary [to German unity] in Hitler’s intentions,” although Hitler saw these aims as inseparable—invoking, in Mein Kampf, Germany’s need for “living space” (lebensraum) and her “moral right to acquire foreign land and soil.” Indeed, as the self-proclaimed imperial savior of an Aryan Europe weakened by Jews and socialism, he exalted the quest for lebensraum as a struggle to the death. No less questionable is Lukacs’ claim that Hitler, for all his hatred of the inferior races, was not a biological racist. Lukacs gleans this insight from a solitary remark by Hitler, in 1945, to the effect that “from the genetic point of view there is no such thing as the Jewish race.” If Hitler was less a biological racist than an extreme nationalist, as Lukacs asserts, this was a distinction without a difference to the millions of Germans instructed in such particulars of Social Darwinist “science” as how to tell a Jewish skull from an Aryan one.

Why would Lukacs underplay Hitler the racist? Because he is more intent upon painting Hitler as a populist—a creature of the baleful age that wrested authority from responsible elites and enshrined popular sovereignty. Lukacs, who came of age in Hungary while Hitler was in power, has long described himself as a “reactionary”—not a Gingrichian rightist but a partisan of the patrician mores of pre-World War I Europe. Because Hitler took to the streets and disregarded the niceties of bourgeois politics, Lukacs considers him an anti-bourgeois “revolutionary” and a friend of the proletariat. While Lukacs is right to point out that Hitler “was contemptuous of [the bourgeoisie’s] caution, of their thrift, … of their desire for safety,” Hitler did not crush their political parties and send them in droves to labor camps—this fate he reserved for the organized working class. Nor did Hitler try to abolish capitalism, as Lukacs suggests, although, like his adversary Roosevelt, he did expand state supervision of private industry. Despite his penchant for revolutionary rhetoric, his inspired use of modern techniques of collective mobilization, and his willingness to strike up a tactical alliance with Stalin, Hitler remained a committed foe of what he called “Jew-Bolshevism,” and indeed, of all leveling ideologies.

Lukacs often writes as though Hitler, or rather Hitlerism, triumphed in the war. That’s because, for Lukacs, the horror of Hitlerism is simply an expression of the horror of modern collectivism. “In one sense Hitler’s vision survived him,” notes Lukacs. “During the twentieth century the compound of nationalism with socialism has become the nearly universal practice for all states … [w]hether they call themselves socialist or not. … We are all national socialists now.” Does this mean that the difference between, say, Swedish social democracy and Nazi state capitalism is less significant than the similarities? Or between Afrikaner white supremacism and post-apartheid multiracial democracy? Lukacs would not, of course, go that far. But in using Hitler to illustrate the threat of power passing into the hands of the masses, he ignores an important distinction between mass societies: those ruled by charismatic dictators, unchecked by popular representation; and those governed by democratic institutions. With some exceptions, we are all democrats now. Perverse as this may sound, Hitler is one reason why.