The Magazine

Did Hitler Make History?

Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By DAVID FRUM
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Hitler owed his success to economic crisis: Without the inflation of 1923, he could never have made his putsch; once stability returned, his party's share of the vote fell to 2.6 percent. Had the Great Depression been averted, he would have faded entirely away. Kershaw emphasizes how much Hitler's career owed to the complicity of others: the army units that provided weapons to nationalist paramilitary forces in 1919-20, the crazed Russian emigres who helped finance him, the biased judiciary that repeatedly failed to punish Nazis. And finally, of course, the bone headed politicians and army officers who permitted Hitler to assume the chancellorship in 1933. Hitler's first English-language biographer, Alan Bullock, saw this pattern as evidence of Hitler's cunning. Kershaw sees it as a reminder of the larger social forces at work. His chapter on January 1933 is tellingly entitled: "Levered Into Power."

Nor is Kershaw's Hitler even very much of a dictator. Kershaw is much impressed by the school of modern history that sees the Third Reich as the opposite of a totalitarian regime: Hitler was simply too lazy and slovenly to run a government in the way that Stalin did. Hitler's agriculture minister Walther Darre tried vainly for two full years to get an appointment to discuss Germany's worsening farm problem. Kershaw bitingly describes the corruption and chaos of Hitler's peace time regime, with the state treasury treated as Hitler's personal; exchequer and businesses lavishing bribes on cronies to extract favors from the crumbling apparatus of government:

A flood of legislation emanating independently from each ministry had to be formulated by a cumbersome and grossly inefficient process whereby drafts were circulated and recirculated among ministers until some consensus was reached. Only at that stage would Hitler, if he approved after its contents were briefly summarized for him, sign the bill (usually scarcely bothering to read it) and turn it into law.

If Hitler felt pressed for time, "legislation that had taken months to prepare could simply be ignored or postponed, sometimes indefinitely."

The collapse of legal institutions and the weakness of the central dictatorship turned Germany into a kind of demented feudal system. The most important chapter in Kershaw's Hitler, "Working Towards the Fuhrer," quotes to powerful effect a 1934 speech by an official in the Prussian agriculture ministry.

Everyone with opportunity to observe it knows that the Fuhrer can only with great difficulty order from above everything he intends to carry out sooner or later. On the contrary, until now everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuhrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals . . . have waited for commands and orders. . . . However, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuhrer, to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Fuhrer along his lines and towards his aim will...have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work.

But what was the spirit of the Fuhrer? Given the radicalism of Hitler's own rhetoric and the barbarity of the men he choose as his closest associates, the disorder of the regime touched off what Kershaw calls a "Darwinian struggle," with victory going to the cruelest, the most ruthless, and (of course) the most anti-Semitic. "Hitler's personalized form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals."

Kershaw's dry style unwittingly denies the Hitler story much of its drama: Ron Rosenbaum, by comparison, describes the complicity of the German judiciary in Hitler's crimes with a blood-boiling fury. Rosenbaum agrees that Hitler was essentially a petty criminal, not a demon god, but he makes that criminality vivid and contemptible in a way that Kershaw never quite manages.

Kershaw, however, has his reasons for writing dryly, and they are stated flatly at the beginning of the book, when he explains his refusal to dwell on the stories of Hitler's twisted sexuality:"And even if the alleged repulsive perversions really were his private proclivities, how exactly they would help to explain the rapid descent of the complex and sophisticated German state into gross inhumanity after 1933 is not readily self-evident."

As Kershaw sees it, Hitler is not the most important part of his own story. The real protagonist is the German state, and the important puzzle Kershaw wants to unravel is not why Hitler did what he did, but rather why the Germans did what they did.

This is probably not the best frame of mind in which to attempt a biography, and it may explain why Kershaw's Hitler so often seems listless. Unlike Brigitte Hamann, who sleuths out the details of Hitler's time in Vienna and brings the most malignant sections of that glittering, horrible city to life, Kershaw does not seem at all sure that the biographical approach will teach us anything worth knowing.

Perhaps it is for this reason that so many reviewers have described his book as "biography for the 1990s."The phrase is meant as praise, of course, implying that the book is up-to-date. But unfortunately it also implies that the book reflects the 1990s academic aversion to the human personality in history. Kershaw singles out some leaders for special praise, but the most he will concede even to his heroes is that they have "symbolized the positive values of the century, have epitomized belief in humanity, hope for the future."

Even Karl Marx conceded that human beings make their own history (though he added that they do not make it precisely as they will). Now we seem bent on out-Marxing Marx, and eliminating even Hitler -- surely the one man without whom the twentieth century would have been different -- in favor of the impersonal collection of people, institutions, and ideas we call "Germany."

This is not a formula for moral responsibility. Even Daniel Goldhagen, a man given to rhetorical excesses (to put it mildly), returned in the best sections of Hitler's Willing Executioners to the responsibility of the individuals who ran the killing machine for Hitler: It was not "the German state" that did these things, but individual people like Fritz Muller of Salzburg, who served in a particular place at a particular time and is even now collecting a pension from his government; and Karl Shulz of Konigsberg, who served somewhere else and now lives in a little flat in the south of Spain; and half a million more like them.

So, too, the caustic brilliance of Henry Turner's Hitler's Thirty Days to Power is that it never for one moment forgives the villainy and incompetence of the politicians and soldiers who let Hitler take power -- and it musters its outrage not in a utopian spirit but in a grimly realistic one. The most practical option in 1933 for stabilizing the country and heading off Nazi dictatorship was a military coup and an authoritarian regime run by officers of the old aristocracy -- and Turner believes we can blame men who failed to seize their chance to ward off a catastrophe they had every reason to foresee.

Look again at Kershaw's description of Hitler in power. To say that what really shaped Germany in the 1930s is the spontaneous action of individual Germans -- "ordinary citizens denouncing neighbors to the Gestapo, . . . businessmen happy to exploit anti-Jewish legislation to rid themselves of competitors" -- is to minimize the importance of the dictatorship under which that spontaneous action occurred.

Ordinary citizens often want to be rid of their neighbors, and businessmen often want to do down the competition, but it's seldom that they can invoke the unconstrained power of the state to do it. The fact that Hitler was sleeping till noon, eating a leisurely lunch, going for a walk, signing a few papers, and then screening movies until the small hours of the morning does not remove him from responsibility -- not just the moral responsibility, which Kershaw coincedes, but the operational responsibility as well.

In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum wisely reminds us of Hitler's comment when challenged back in the 1920s over the seeming chaos of the Nazi party: "Nothing happens except by my will." Hitler chose to run his government this way, and these methods yielded for him the results he wanted. His government achieved considerable success in achieving his top priorities: cementing his power in place, murdering the Jews, waging war, and surrounding him with cheering crowds. If it was not so successful at managing the farm problem, that was by his decision and a result of his choices.

But if Kershaw's Hitler is a Hitler for the 1990s in his insignificance, he is also a Hitler for the 1990s in another way. Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris is a book that, for all its deficiencies, makes particularly useful reading now in our new time of dictators and ethnic hatred. One can believe that Hitler's personality is both more interesting and more important than Kershaw thinks, and still accept Kershaw's contention that Hitler's evil is not the whole of the story. In 1984, Milton Himmelfarb published in Commentary a justly famous essay on Hitler's extreme personal capability entitled "No Hitler, No Holocaust." That's very true. But one can add, "No German Army, no Holocaust either."

As decisive as Hitler was to Germany, had Germany been something other than the dominant technological, military, and economic power in Europe, he would have been far less significant to the fate of the world. Without Germany, Hitler is Idi Amin. What made Hitler dangerous to non-Germans -- including the almost entirely non-German Jews who died at Auschwitz and Treblinka -- was the meeting of the wrong man with the wrong country. That's why it was obtuse of Vice President A1 Gore to call Slobodan Milosevic a "junior-league Hitler" (and not only because he meant "minor-league"). A minor-league Hitler simply isn't a Hitler.

One of the saddest consequences of America's increasing ignorance of history is its progressive identification of Nazism not only as the worst evil, but as the only evil. Much of the time, the use of Nazis as all-purpose bad guys is merely ridiculous -- as when Steven Spielberg has Indiana Jones tangling with a Nazi expedition in Egypt in the 1930s, when Egypt was a British protectorate.

But at crucial moments it can be genuinely dangerous, and we are now, in April 1999, at one of those crucial moments. Suppose that some ordinance required us to refrain from invoking Hitler in any but the most extreme circumstances. What impact would it have, I wonder, if President Clinton were forced to say that the Serbs' expulsion of the Kosovars is the worst human-rights offense in Europe since the Turks expelled two million Greeks from Anatolia in 1922? It's true, of course -- but doesn't it seem to lack the same urgency? After all, Americans do not typically remember to reproach themselves for having stood idly by in 1922.

By comparing anything to Hitler, we have already decided its moral meaning: We are saying "this is the worst thing there could be." But what Hitler ought to teach us -- and the scholars who write about him ought to remind us -- is that there are gradations even in wickedness. And those gradations matter.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.