The Magazine

Did Hitler Make History?

Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By DAVID FRUM
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It's a reminder of socialism's lingering prestige that people still refer to the tyranny that ruled Germany as "fascism" and the tyranny that ruled Russia as "Stalinism" -- as though one country had succumbed to a vast ideological system and the other simply to the evil of a single man. It would make much more sense to put it the other way around: Russia fell to "communism" and Germany was captured by "Hitlerism."

This is hardly pedantic quibbling. Americans now face European war for the first time since 1945. And this war has been understood by the Clinton administration and sold to the American public as a reprise of World War II half a century ago: the same sort of evil dictator, the same sort of racialist genocide, the same sort of mass suffering.

It's crucial, for this account of the war in Yugoslavia, that we believe Hitler's rule in Germany was not a unique catastrophe but remains to this day a live option, a political temptation to which other countries might give in, just as China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and -- for that matter -- Yugoslavia independently succumbed to communism.

Indeed, Hitler's uniqueness may become one of the great foreign policy questions of the next century, analogous to the bitter dispute that once roiled America's universities and think tanks over whether the Soviet Union was merely continuing the (nasty but limited) policies of czarist Russia or whether it sought to realize the insatiable ambitions of Communist ideology.

From Slovakia to China, faltering Communist regimes have resorted to ultranationalism to stifle calls for liberty, to foster the appearance of national unity, and to justify encroachment upon their neighbors. It may be that these combinations of authoritarianism, nationalism, and aggression are fading shadows soon to be banished by the brightness of constitutional democracy.

But after the horrific events of our century, who'd want to predict it? If they are not fading -- if Slobodan Milosevic represents the future -- then we will likely find ourselves spending considerable time debating whether he and men like him are repeating "what was done in the name of Germany" (in the chilling phrase of the German defense minister Rudolf Scharping). And so, half a century later, we have acquired a new and compelling reason to understand what did happen in Germany -- and the man who made it happen.

It's at just this juncture that the first volume of Ian Kershaw's massive biography of Hitler appears, the climax of four years of critically praised and commercially successful books about the Third Reich: Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners and Henry Turner's Hitler's Thirty Days to Power in 1996, John Lukacs's The Hitler of History in 1997, Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler last year, and, this year, the English translation of Brigitte Hamann's Hitler's Vienna, the definitive work on Hitler's youth and "lost" years.

Kershaw sums up the current state of Hitler scholarship with awe-inspiring comprehensiveness. He takes nothing for granted. One source for Hitler's early years, for instance, is a memoir written in the 1950s by August Kubizek, a young man from Linz who briefly lodged with Hitler during Hitler's Vienna period, 1908-1913. The two attended the opera together, which fact inspires footnote 110 to chapter two:

[Kubizek] mentions Hitler's admiration for Mahler, "at that time the conductor" in the Opera. Whether Hitler experienced Mahler conducting during his first two stays in Vienna cannot be established, but he and Kubizek could not have seen Mahler together, since Mahler's last performance, before leaving to take up his appointment at the New York Metropolitan Opera, was on 15 October 1907.

On the strength of his research, Kershaw authoritatively declares settled a series of problems that Hitler's biographers have been gnawing at for years. The claim that Hitler's paternal grandfather was Jewish: false. The story that Hitler fearfully hurled himself under the bodies of his comrades during the gun battle that crushed the November 1923 Munich putsch: false again. The rumors of extreme sexual abnormality: dismissed with scarcely a mention.

These are all probably sound conclusions, but the combination of minute detail and abrupt judgment makes Hitler an often blurry reading experience. Kershaw will summarize an entire library of research in a single sentence. That's a great achievement, but it results in a book that is as much bibliography as biography, and one that all but the most serious reader will have trouble grappling with and absorbing.