Historical story

The riddle Hitler

How did Hitler get his ideas? What did he read? And what did he understand? These questions underlie many recent studies on Hitler. Do they also provide new insights? Or should we accept a conclusion that Harry Mulish already drew in 1962:'Hitler didn't have to read or think. He knew.'

Every year so many titles about the phenomenon Adolf Hitler are published that it no longer seems feasible to discover a line in them. Yet I make an attempt. The publication of the biography Hitler 1889-1936. Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945:Nemesis (2000) (translated into Dutch in 1999 and 2000 respectively) by British historian Ian Kershaw marks a cut-off point in the contemporary Hitler study. For two reasons:first, Kershaw settled the old battle between the "intentionalists" and "functionalists" in the historiography of Hitler and the Third Reich in his more than 2,000-page biography. That struggle started (with some precursors) in Germany in the 1960s, but also affected Anglo-Saxon historians and for decades raged like a peat fire in the historiography of Hitler and his 'thousand-year empire'. Important protagonists of that discussion were the intentionalists Klaus Hildebrand and Andreas Hillgruber and the functionalists Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen.

The intentionalists argued that Hitler was the decisive factor of the Third Reich, making all the important decisions (such as the attack on the Soviet Union and the murder of European Jews). They did not deny that the Third Reich was not a tightly-run dictatorship, but a chaotic jumble of power centers such as the party, the bureaucracy, the SS and the Wehrmacht, working alongside each other. Hildebrand and Hillgruber, however, believed that the chaos only strengthened Hitler's power. On the other hand, Hans Mommsen in particular provoked with his statement that Hitler had been 'a weak dictator', much less powerful than has long been assumed. Martin Broszat, who wrote an excellent analysis in 1969 with Der Staat Hitlers, seemed to provide the basis for Mommsen's provocation:he showed conclusively that the Third Reich was indeed a chaotic dictatorship, in which the various authorities pushed each other to further radicalization.

The problem of Broszat's otherwise excellent book, however, was already expressed in the title:Der Staat Hitlers. Because no matter how chaotic that state may be, the title betrays that the Third Reich ultimately revolved around that one man. Broszat was the man who put Ian Kershaw on the trail of the Nazi regime. Kershaw collaborated on the monumental project Bayern in der NS-Zeit, which in the 1970s wanted to shed new light on the attitude of the general population on the basis of daily life in that state. Kershaw was an avowed functionalist at the time, who saw nothing in a biographical approach to Hitler or other Third Reich leaders. He wrote several studies on the people's views on the Third Reich in general and on Hitler in particular.

But Kershaw, like his teacher Broszat, could not avoid the figure of Hitler. His two-part biography was published at the end of the 20th century. Had Kershaw succumbed in his biography to the intentionalists, who hung the entire Third Reich on Hitler? And did he give up his functionalist approach? Not that. Kershaw tried to unite both approaches in his biography and succeeded to a great extent. He not only wrote a biography of Hitler but, more than previous biographers, placed him against the background of his time. And he took the space to outline the holocaust, Hitler's most important legacy.


Anyone wishing to surpass Kershaw's biography in balance and completeness had to be well-versed. There seems to be little to add to Hitler's rise, his seizure of power and his downfall. And yet something gnawed. Wasn't the person of Hitler too one-dimensional? That is the view of John Lukacs, the prolific American historian of Hungarian descent, who in 1997 published a book on the historiography of Hitler. Lukacs thought Kershaw's biography was important enough to include a chapter in a reissue of his book. He speaks with appreciation of the biography but considers Kershaw a better historian than biographer. For "the question of the "private" Hitler remains," he writes in Hitler and the Historians .

Lukacs is not alone in this view, as can be seen from the literature published this century about Hitler. Where Kershaw posited that with Hitler private and public were so fused that they could no longer be separated, there is an increasing search for Hitler's idiosyncrasies. Like his reading habits. American historian Timothy W. Ryback recently published Hitler's private library. Ryback examines how and what Hitler read. That is not so easy, because part of his extensive library, numbering thousands of volumes, came into Russian hands and has disappeared without a trace, another part was in his country house on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria and came into American hands. And then there were several soldiers who took copies home. Nevertheless, Ryback tries to find out what Hitler read and how he was influenced on the basis of a meticulous reconstruction.

What did Hitler read? In the First World War, the Austrian war volunteer in the German army would fall back on his lost love, art. In 1915 he bought Berlin, an architectural history written in 1908 with 179 images by the art critic Max Osborn. A thin book that praised the Prussian capital. But what does this say about Hitler? Ryback writes that the book has dog-eared ears, a sign that Hitler enjoyed Osborn's jubilant tone over the architectural beauty of Berlin.

But was Hitler's reading a sign of consent? After all, it is known that Hitler never had much to do with Berlin and was and always remained South German oriented. In the same book, Hitler is said to have read the chapter on Frederick the Great to pieces. Osborn was critical of the monarch, who was said to be stingy and meddlesome. To what extent did this judgment affect Hitler? Hardly, you would think, since Hitler was an admirer of Frederick all his life. In other words, it is not immediately apparent from what Hitler read how he was influenced. This example can be supplemented with many others:Ryback suggests a lot but delivers little.

Readers of his otherwise well-written study are therefore left unsatisfied. Hitler's private library is reminiscent of Harry Mulisch's report The case 40/61 (on the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961). This book is not infallible:Mulisch's claim, for example, that Eichmann was not a convinced anti-Semite but a dutiful official who merely obeyed, has not stood up to closer scrutiny. His argument about Hitler's anti-Semitism is more astute and also makes one think about Hitler's reading habits in a broader sense:"Without Hitler, the murderous chatter could have continued for centuries, resulting at the most in a series of pogroms, as they have taken place throughout the Christian era. Millions of people, now dead, would still be alive. The thing is, Hitler did not need the writing from Gobineau to Rosenberg. He valued it as a kind of canonical tradition, going on alongside or behind that which he possessed, something far more terrible:a mystical revelation. He didn't have to read or think. He knew.'


That is, of course, somewhat exaggerated. Nobody lives in a vacuum, not even Adolf Hitler, but Mulisch's argument does contain a grain of truth:Hitler only read to confirm his intuitively formed world view. That's not surprising, that happens to a lot of people. What makes Hitler special is that from his intuitively formed world view full of bizarre assumptions (the most important:the Jew is the evil of the world) he brewed a world view that contained an iron logic for his followers in all madness.

That worldview falls from the messy Mein Kampf, which is a mixture of hybrid autobiography and contemporary polemic, less readable than from the much more unknown Zweites Buch, a manuscript discovered in the archives in the early 1960s and published by the American historian Gerhard Weinberg. This book, written in 1928, kept Hitler in his desk drawer so as not to snub the admired Italian dictator Mussolini:the manuscript contained a passage referring to South Tyrol that should (should) belong to Germany.

In Zweites Buch Hitler briefly unfolds his world view:the evil in the world comes from the Jews, who form a hidden nation without a state. Spreading the Jews, they settle like "bacilli" in healthy nations, depriving them of their vitality, with the aim of bringing their world domination closer. In his day, Hitler saw another state that the Jews had put themselves at the head of:the Soviet Union, which under Lenin and Trotsky preached the international class struggle and seemed to live up to its worst expectations.

This worldview was not constructed from identifiable sources, although Ryback does point to possible influences, such as Rassenkunde des Deutschen Volkes (1923) by Hans F.K. Günther and Henry Fords The International Jew (1922) which was translated into German in 1922. That Hitler did not mention these sources is not only due to carelessness or deliberate tactics to make it appear that all this madness had sprung from his own mind. What was essentially true:Hitler himself deepened and hardened the vague, often hidden but clearly present anti-Semitism, on the basis of that elusive instinct that drove him to see evil in 'the Jew'.

The mystery of Hitler's anti-Semitism can (and will) be searched for for decades to come, and therefore also for everything in his life that gives a glimpse of the how and why of this murderous fanaticism. Thus, his relationship with his mother, with women in general, and his sexual preferences and activities have been sought in the past. But the solution of the riddle never really came any closer. Will this stop the search for Hitler's intentions? Certainly not. At the same time, research continues into the image of Hitler among the German people between 1933 and 1945.

In line with Ian Kershaw so early in his career, for example, is the recently published Letters to Hitler, that was compiled by the German historian Henrik Eberle. This book has not received the attention it deserves in the Netherlands:it shows on the basis of numerous letters how the Hitler image of the Germans fluctuated over the years:he was the man who offered hope for the future (early 1930s). ), the 'divine' savior of Germany (after the seizure of power). But in the end, towards the end of the war, the average German, struggling for survival himself, was indifferent to Hitler's fate. Thus perished the glory of the failed art student, who subjugated and dragged Europe into a dramatic world war and mass slaughter without parallel.

That is why the investigation continued, even after Kershaw's monumental, almost 'definitive' biography, in which Hitler's intentions and his elaboration are so well united. Hitler's legacy (World War II and the Holocaust) is too burdensome to let it rest.