The Magazine

Did Hitler Make History?

Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By DAVID FRUM
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Kershaw wants to be rid, once and for all, of the myth of Hitler as the demonic god: the Miltonic Hitler, the Hitler of superhuman evil. This is the Hitler who haunts most popular writing about the Nazis and appears even in some of the more serious accounts.

Kershaw's Hitler is instead a distinctly mediocre man. Hitler always insisted that he'd arrived at his political views suddenly. He claimed to have discovered anti-Semitism in a single fatal encounter with a Jew in a Vienna street, staring at the man's face and wondering "Is this a German?" He asserted that he had charged into a political career at the end of 1918 as he recovered from British gas and heard the terrible news of the German surrender. The Hitler of Mein Kamp is a character out of nineteenth-century Romanticism, always being clapped by grand volcanic moments of passion and prophetic insight.

Some writers believe we should take Hitler at his words: Lucy Dawidowicz, for instance, held that Hitler's murderous hatred of the Jews did indeed take form in October-November 1918 and that his occasional tendency to avoid explicit references to Jews and to instead denounce "profiteers," "exploiters," and "international finance" was inspired by his sense of what he could get away with at the moment and what he could not. Others, like John Lukacs, date Hitler's conversion to extreme anti-Semitism to his witnessing of the abortive 1919 Bolshevik coup in Bavaria, some of the leaders of which were Jews.

But Kershaw's Hitler is not at all Romantic: He's a completely derivative person who read few of the books he claimed to have read and thought little for himself. Kershaw disagrees with Brigitte Hamann's argument that Hitler came to his anti-Semitism in Munich after the First World War. Rather, according to Kershaw, he absorbed it early from the gutter newspapers first of his hometown of Linz and then of Vienna.

Kershaw deals with Hamann's evidence -- the recollections of those who knew Hitler that he complained of the lack of statues to Heine in Germany, praised Jewish courage in the face of persecution, and liked the music of Offen-bach -- by pointing out that the mental atmosphere in pre-war Vienna was so poisonously anti-Semitic that the young Hitler could have spilled a lot of bile before anybody took any notice of it. Then, too, the dealer who sold the water-colors Hitler lived by was Jewish, and Hitler -- always the opportunist -- took care with his words around people who might repeat them to the man who provided him his livelihood.

What came late to Hitler were not his hatreds, but his ambitions to act on them. His interest in ultranationalist politics was stirred, Kershaw maintains, by the army instructors who hired him to give postwar political instruction to the shrunken German Army. Kershaw makes much of Hitler's passivity during the Bolsheviks' attempted coup in Bavaria and the military counter-coup in 1919, arguing that through all the tumult of that year, Hitler's main aim was to avoid being demobilized and having to find a job. "Hitler," he remarks, "did not come to politics, . . . politics came to him -- in the Munich barracks."

In every respect other than his capacity for evil, Kershaw's Hitler is a limited man. This is no Napoleon, who committed great crimes but also great acts of statesmanship. Kershaw aptly quotes a remark of Plutarch's: "When destiny raises a base character by acts of great importance, it reveals his lack of substance." Hitler, Kershaw says, was an unperson, with no private identity beyond his public acts. Which means that his biographer must "focus not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power -- the power of the Fuhrer."

Kershaw's Hitler is not even a great politician. The Munich putsch was idiotically organized, with no attempt to neutralize the army that made short work of it. Mein Kampf was boring and sold badly, especially the second volume released after Hitler's notoriety from the Putsch had faded. He hated administrative work and idled away his post-Putsch days while his associates tried to rebuild the Nazi party, with little success.