Part of my course load this year requires me to teach Nazi Germany. Frankly, it’s been years since I’ve done work on the Second World War, but I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the subject. The unfortunate thing is that studying the Nazis is emotionally challenging if only because good history requires, to paraphrase Atticus Finch’s words to his daughter Scout, the ability to walk around in another man’s shoes. Of course empathy for an abused black man is easier for us to grasp that for a demonic mass-murderer. And yet the historical enterprise seeks truth: what happened, why did it happen, why did people do what they did? To answer these questions there is no choice but to get into Hitler’s jackboots and strut around a bit, no matter how painful for the historically conscious.
A. N. Wilson has written a short but complete history of Hitler entitled, well, Hitler. For the most part his methodology is on track and he does a good job standing above the emotional fray and giving a straight account of the man and his times. He does fall into some unnecessary dissonance with his description of counterfactual history as a mere parlor game while occasionally playing the parlor game himself. Alternative histories can be specious, and Wilson is astute to point this out, but we must be careful not to be fooled into thinking that what happened must have happened. Nevertheless, one thing (among others) that Wilson does well is help the reader appreciate not only how insane Hitler was, but more importantly, how normal and sane he was by the standards of his times.
Wilson writes in his summary (and I quote him at length):
“Hitler’s zest for the modern, his belief that humanity would become more reasonable when it had cast off the shackled of the past—the old-type handwriting, religion, and forth—and embraced science and modern roads, was a belief shared with almost all forward-thinking people at the time, and it continues to be the underlying belief-system of the liberal intelligentsia who control the West. His belief led directly to genocide and devastating war. At the same time, he believed himself to be enlightened and forward-looking, non-smoking, vegetarian, opposed to hunting, in favor of abortion and euthanasia.
Have we asked ourselves the right questions about Hitler’s ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ beliefs? By eliminating some of his more grotesque prejudices from our moral vocabulary, have we really cast off his legacy? Do not the politicians in today’s Western world, when they wish to impose their values on some other nation or group of peoples, still feel themselves entitled to use war as the ultimate weapon? Far from having cast off Hitler’s legacy, many of the world’s politicians, and especially those who consider themselves most enlightened, are in fact his heirs. For that reason, we will perhaps always be compelled to think about his life—and the chilling fact that in all his world-outlook and his views, Hitler was an embodiment, albeit an exaggerated embodiment, of the beliefs of the average modern person. Moreover, in the choreography of modern life, with our love of spectacularly large football stadia, pop festivals and open-air religious celebrations, are we quite sure that we are not displaying a collective, subconscious re-enactment for the Nuremberg Rallies? The modern Olympic Games, for example, are modeled on the Berlin Games of 1936. The Olympic torch was a Nazi invention.
While the commonplace, ordinary side of Hitler insisted that the human race had come of age, that it was now led by reason not mumbo-jumbo, that it was rational and scientific, the extraordinary Hitler, the Mage-Hitler, the Wizard Hitler, demonstrated the exact opposite to be the case. His career showed that human beings in crowds behave as irrationally in modern times as they did in the Dark Ages—possible more irrationally, since the techniques of modern broadcasting, lighting, film and propaganda can appeal to the darker depths of our chaotic souls more immediately than an old village seer or hell-fire preach could ever hope to do. Hitler’s career proved that human nature was actually as chaotic, as easily led, as superstitious, as passionate as the characters in the wilder of Dostoyevsky’s novels or as the tormented mythological being of Wagner’s operas. Hitler demonstrated with the most terrifying skill that humanity can be seduced without much difficulty into acts of collective insanity.
So it is that we can never finish reading the story of his without a sense of unease. Does our present world contain a Hitler? Maybe not in Linz, maybe not in the dosshouses of Vienna, but does there lurk somewhere, living at present a life of obscurity, a human being somewhere on our planet, who possesses the arcane and sinister gift, when the right historical moment arises, of once more leading the masses to frenzied acts of mutual destruction. The poet’s old question remains—
What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
A. N. Wilson, Hitler, 187-190.
There are a number of things that could be said here, but I will leave it to a single thought. Hitler was in the most profound sense, a populist. He sought to embody the people, to lead the people, to be their hero. He pulled the Germans out of the depths of the world-wide Great Depression, he tore up the hated Treaty of Versailles, and he made Germans proud to be German again. He embodied modernity and succeeded in most everything he did in his rise to power. The struggling nations of the world looked upon the German miracle with envy and awe. Further, the Nazis did not come to power through a coup. Unlike Stalinist Russia where people endured the regime, in Germany the Nazis and Hitler were actually popular, if not totally loved. The retrospectively observed evil of the regime should not blind us to the fact that the characteristics of the modernity Hitler offered are still very much with us today and praised by Western elites and populace alike.
That said, I still think Wilson overstates the connection between modern politicians and Hitler. But maybe that’s because anytime you make a comparison between Hitler and the present people reflexively shut you out. Nevertheless, it’s worth keeping a clear picture of Hitler in our mind, and avoid brushing him off as an insane man. His sanity was the thing that made him most dangerous.