“An historian is a prophet in retrospect.”
—A.W. von Schlegel

Wir sind mit Hitler noch lange nicht fertig (“We are nowhere near done with Hitler”): the warning by two contemporary German historians provides an apt opening line to John Lukacs’s delightful book. His “history of the evolution of our knowledge of Hitler” seeks to explain why, as we approach the new century, Adolf Hitler continues to haunt and fascinate us, why—more than five decades after his death—he remains our troubling contemporary.

The Hitler of History is an eloquent and authoritative survey of other historians’ attempts to deal with Hitler the man, the political leader, and the military strategist. While it is a “history of [Hitler’s] history, and a history of his biographies,” it also contains insights into historiography, epistemology, intellectual history, and the philosophy of history. In spite of the author’s intentions, but perhaps inevitably so. The Hitler of History also ends up being a book about Hitler. In just under 300 pages, Lukacs shows us why Hitler remains a moral problem—a problem far deeper and intractable than the current academic and popular usage of the term “moral” would imply. Lukacs knows that the purpose of historical knowledge is not mere accuracy, but understanding.

How close are we, then, to the “historicization” of Hitler, as opposed to the facile demonization of him? Lukacs makes it clear that the task is far from over, and that “historicization” has more to do with how we deal with the problem of our own moribund civilization than with the record of the Führer and his times. Hitler cannot become an historical figure as long as the dilemmas and neuroses of his century continue.

Lukacs’s survey is necessarily selective (Hitleriana has spawned hundreds of tides in all languages, without much sign of abating) and it focuses mainly on a dozen or so German authors who have made their mark since the 1960’s. With a couple of exceptions, most non-German historians are given short shrift, either because their work is obsolete, because it contributes little to our understanding of the period, or because it is biased and methodologically flawed.

The “early” Germans—those writing in the 60’s—are boringly conventional (Heiber), fairly superficial (Gisevius), or devoted to unearthing voluminous empirical data at the expense of “understanding” (Maser). With the cumbersome Hillgruber, who exploits the antiquated academic apparatus of “professional objectivity” to conceal a nationalist- conservative agenda, we encounter the first hint of the “dual war” theory. This “doubtful thesis, to say the least” (as Lukacs calls it) asserts that from September 1939 until June 1941 Germany was waging an europäisches Normalkrieg against the Western democracies that only turned nasty with Operation Barbarossa. Lukacs is more sympathetic toward Percy Ernst Schramm, an elegant North German patrician who could have fit comfortably into the setting of The Magic Mountain, or the smoking room of an English country estate. Writing in the early 1960’s, Schramm exposed the fallacy—and the danger—of a then-common tendency to trivialize Hitler. Ernst Deuerlein’s Hitler: A Political Biography (1969), which Lukacs calls “the best short Hitler biography,” is also well-written. Deuerlein pondered a key problem—”how Hitler had been possible”—that also preoccupied Sebastian Haffner, who asserted the unquestionable unity of Hitler with the German people in the 1930’s. With the onset of the 1980’s, a new generation of scholars emerged, having no personal memories of the Third Reich. This period was marked by the debate between “Functionalists” and “Intentionalists,” between those who regard Hitler as an opportunist and those who regard him as an ideologue. Lukacs’s implied conclusion, with which there can be little argument, is that the Nazi hierarchy may have been “functionalist” in form and outward appearance but it was always “intentionalist” in substance (even though the nature of that intent was concealed behind the multiple layers of Hitler’s secretiveness).

The second half of the 1980’s brought us the famous (in Germany, at least) “Quarrel of the Historians,” no longer a civilized debate but a bitter controversy over the nature of National Socialism and its proper place in the context of European history. The “neoconservatiye” camp in the dispute (Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, later joined by the young and talented Rainer Zitelmann, and supported “from without” by Joachim Fest), made a number of claims that threatened to shatter the acceptance of a general consensus sought for decades by the left-liberal, anti-nationalist German academic and intellectual establishment represented by Jurgen Habermas.

Nolte’s thesis was that Nazism must be understood as a reaction to Soviet Bolshevism: the Gulag preceded Auschwitz, and indirectly led to it. Hillgruber further developed his thesis of “Two wars” (conventional, 1939-41; apocalyptic, 1941-45) to the point where he sought to present the desperate German struggle against the Red Army in 1944-45 as a doomed epic that had developed—in spite of Hitler, rather than thanks to him—into an all-German defense of Western civilization against Eastern barbarity. While the older authors implicitly sought to separate the story of the Third Reich from Hitler, the uncompromising young newcomer Zitelmann deepened the split by asserting that Hitler was truly a revolutionary, that his aspirations and visions were essentially modem, and that “[his] thinking and actions were essentially much more rational than hitherto accepted.” (Lukacs’s warning that Zitelmann’s views contain the seeds of “at least a partial rehabilitation” seems to be confirmed by the latter’s recent willingness to become an advocate of ultra-nationalist positions that are alarming, and not only to Germans.)

Lukacs’s ensuing treatment of the dilemmas posed by Hitler’s biographers and historians is masterly and confident. Lukacs regards Hitler as the ultimate refutation of the economic interpretation of history and of the notion that history is made not by individual persons but by underlying social conditions and economic forces. His argument: the war would not have come in 1939 except for Hitler. Far from being “mad,” Hitler “was a normal human being” whose inclination to evil, while reprehensible, was itself normal. His evil intentions—most notably the killing of European Jews—”were spiritual, not physical,” which only makes the deed more reprehensible. The problem is complicated by the great popularity of the Führer, who “may have been the most popular revolutionary leader in the history of the modern world. . . . [He] belongs to the democratic, not the aristocratic, age of history.”

Given Lukacs’s acceptance of Hitler as a “revolutionary” in his ideas, his rhetoric, and his plans and their execution, the reader is puzzled by the author’s uncompromising dismissal of the view that Bolshevik brutality affected the rest of Europe and provided an impetus for later Nazi outrages, since the horror of Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia cannot be divorced from the totality of Western experiences in this century. Contrary to Lukacs’s implication, Russia under communism was an eminently European phenomenon, not a marginal episode that can be confined to the dark heart of the Eurasian steppes.

Ideologically inspired mass murder— symbolically injected into Russia’s weakened body-politic by tire Kaiser’s sealed train from Switzerland—was neither the invention nor the unique prerogative of a brutal, Asiatic Russia needing to be judged by standards different from those of the rest of Europe. Lukacs invokes the Russian tradition of Ivan the Terrible to dismiss Fest’s and Nolte’s linkage; but the exact or near-contemporaries of Ivan slaughtered the burghers of Antwerp with a papal blessing in 1585, brutalized Germany and Bohemia during the Thirty Years’ War, and sacked Drogheda under the banner of the New Model Army. Almost two centuries later General Westermann, a client of Danton, triumphantly reported to the Convention that “the Vendée is no more. . . . I have burned it in the woods and marshes of Savenay. . . . I have trampled their children beneath our horses’ feet; I have massacred their women, so they will no longer give birth to brigands; I do not have a single prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated them all. Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment!” In 1794, at the harbor of Rochefort, thousands of nonjuror priests were slowly starved to death on the decks of prison hulks. At Angers, thousands were summarily shot. But the “infernal columns,” the Einsatzgruppen of their day, could not accomplish enough killing by conventional methods. A solution was successfully applied at Nantes, where thousands were systematically drowned—the first attempt at industrialized and “depersonalized” mass murder in history.

The list goes on, but the point is clear: Western Europe cannot be judged “by its own standards” because those standards are not qualitatively different from those of its Slavic-Orthodox cousins. Lukacs is right to concur in the description of Hitler as a revolutionary, but he is mistaken in denying the link between 1789, 1917, and 1933 (or, more aptly, 1942-45).

The decline and ultimate collapse of the religious impulse among Europeans, from the Atlantic to the Urals, created a gaping hole that was filled by ideologies uninhibited by religious restraints and motivated by the will to power. Lukacs aptly describes Hitler as “an idealist determinist” who believed in the supreme importance of will and the supreme power of ideas, and acknowledges that the Hegelian Zeitgeist may have assisted Hitler’s rise to power. Lukacs believes nonetheless that the very fact of his taking power enabled Hitler to create his own Zeitgeist, and argues that “contrary to Hegel or Dostoyevsky, what men do to ideas is more important than what ideas do to them.”

But is it? Lukacs recognizes the Germans’ obsession with the relationship between the word and the world, but one wishes he had dwelt longer on the centrality of this obsession, since it lies at the heart of the phenomenon of Hitler, as well as of German philosophy, literature, and politics. Thomas Mann tells a story of a town devoid of people—but all the church bells are ringing. Who is ringing the bells? Why, “the spirit of storytelling,” Mann triumphantly asserts. But are they real bells? Ach, once we have read about them, they do become real: they have been brought into existence as a conceptual province of reality.

As this terribly important strain in the German tradition suggests, the entire world (except for that insignificant fragment of it directly accessible to our sensory examination) only exists as an assemblage of ideas. In that assemblage Mann’s town is as real—if not more so—than, say, Cincinnati, which undeniably “exists” but which we remain unaware of until some gruesome crime or memorable sports statistic hits the headlines. Thus Field Marshal Kesselring argued—as late as March 1945!—that Germany’s ultimate victory could be predicted with “mathematical precision”: since defeat was impossible, its victorious alternative was unavoidable, Wunderwaffen or no Wunderwaffen. These fellows would not allow mere facts of a lower order to get in the way of their nominalist reality.

This psychotic paradigm seems to hold the clue to a problem with which neither Hitler’s biographers nor Lukacs deals satisfactorily: the assorted malaises of Weimar politics and society notwithstanding, how could the Generalität remain so supine? Why were the Wehrmacht upper brass so pliant in the face of ultimate disaster? Was it just the terrible perversion of an oath-based loyalty that annulled their duty to their country, to themselves, and—perhaps more importantly—to their caste?

Lukacs’s survey helps us understand why the generals failed to resist Hitler’s dictatorship while the going was good. It nevertheless leaves open the question of why they went along with his disastrous interventions in military administration after the crisis of December 1941—from his insane obsession with boosting the paper numbers of divisions contrary to battlefield reality to his refusal to allow relatively intact units to retreat from Stalingrad, Tunisia, or Kurland. Lukacs is right not to absolve Hitler on account of “madness” — he was bad, rather than mad —but he ought to have dwelt more on the postmodern quality of the Führer’s allegedly “rational” actions based on nominalist assumptions. It simply will not do to bypass the problem by asserting that “hubris is a fault of character rather than of vision; and Hitler was not blind.”

After July 1940, but more acutely after December 1941, Hitler was strategically bankrupt. “His underestimation of enemy potentialities, always his shortcoming, is now assuming grotesque forms,” noted General Haider. He micromanaged army groups, divisions, even regiments; he refused to speak to Jodl; he shouted at, and otherwise quarreled with, all his commanders-in-chief, all his chiefs-of-staff, most of his field-marshals and sector commanders. His generals could not confront him because they had also fallen victim to the source of German strategic hubris: in the words of Geyer, “the conviction that the Germans could rule others in lieu of governing themselves.”

When at last a group of senior staff officers (significantly not field commanders) steeled themselves to kill Hitler, theirs was a pragmatic rebellion against nominalist determinism, not a true moral choice. Lukacs is therefore giving the plotters too much credit when he refers to Count Stauffenberg as a “hero.” After reading The Hitler of History, one retains the impression that the July plot was born not out of its perpetrators’ realization that Germany had unleashed unspeakable misery upon Europe (and itself) but out of their well-grounded fear that the Vaterland was now threatened with the dreadful bill for its actions.

In an ironic reversal of the claim of one of their modern detractors, the plotters seem to have been “morally responsible” (in terms of their sense of responsibility for Germany’s vitally threatened national interests) rather than “responsible moralists.” The mundane fact remains that Stauffenberg failed to kill Hitler because the plot required his survival in order to handle the Putsch in Berlin after Hitler’s death. Hitler could have been killed any time before July 20, 1944, had one of the plotters been willing to accept his own death as a price for the deed. The plotters ended up with the worst of both worlds: they were as unworthy of their endeavor as they were of their oath of loyalty.

The lesson of Hitler is that the pursuit of global power for its own sake is the Great Temptation in human history, the path of ruin that winds from Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, to Napoleon and Hitler. This lesson is yet to be absorbed by America’s current globalist “elite,” as we stand on the threshold of a new Dark Age, deluding ourselves that “the West has won.”

As for the dangerous future, to which Lukacs makes reference in his conclusion, Hitler is already revered “by at least some of the New Barbarians,” notably in the Islamic world; he has been, in fact, ever since the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem affixed the Crescent to the SS mast in 1943. But how can the great and good John Lukacs raise an effective alarm—as an historian, if not as a prophet—while so many Americans remain ignorant of their own history, let alone that of other peoples? Who will listen when men like Lukacs warn that our rulers are doing around the world today what Athens did after leading the Hellenic coalition against Persian aggression—attempting to convert leadership into pseudoimperial hegemony? The result, as we know, was the destruction of Hellas as a political and military factor for all time. The warning that the same is in store for America, Europe, and the shrinking remnants of Christendom is long overdue. The banner of “democracy and human rights” will not save us, just as the fact that Hitler was a “democratic” populist did not save Germany. 


[The Hitler of History, by John Lukacs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 279 pp., $26.00]