Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hitler: monster or human?

Hitler the monster by A.L. Tarter
I have never been intrigued by the person of Adolf Hitler. Most of what I know of the history of World Wars I and II comes from college history courses. I am more familiar with the literary writers of the Nazi era or the portrayals of that era in literature or fiction than through in-depth historical study. A friend told me yesterday that she was reading a book entitled 1944: I can't see myself picking it up. There are too many other books I want to read, mostly on literary subjects. Still, from my earliest days as a student of German, I did ponder the connection between Germans and the phenomenon of National Socialism, especially its genocidal program. Two years studying in Germany in the late 1960s did not really offer an answer, even after I had got to know people who had been alive in World War II. As an American, I have been very blessed not to have ever been confronted with such evil. One lives only when one lives, and I cannot say how I would have reacted had I lived in Germany and seen Jewish neighbors being hauled away. The Nazi state was a terror state, as was life under the Soviets.

For most of us, the Hitler we see in news clips seems so preposterous that it is hard to account that anyone took him seriously. And thus, we throw up our hands and don't look further at the phenomenon of Hitler. Thank goodness for historians who do take the trouble to enlighten us. A recent issue of London Review of Books has a review by Neal Ascherson of Hitler's Ascent, 1889–1939 by the German Historian Volker Ullrich. (Here is a link to the German edition.) The LRB heading, "Hitler as Human," indicates Ulrich's focus: the caricature of Hitler as having no private life "perpetuates the view that his crimes were committed by a monster –– not by a German or Austrian human being." Ullrich shows that Hitler did have a private life –– although a pretty boring one –– that he had friends, especially married couples, the wife of which would mother him and whom he would reward with displays of Austrian charm.

Austrian charm at tea time
Ullrich's book was criticized in Germany for its personalizing of the F├╝hrer, and Ascherson concedes that the most fascinating parts concern "Hitler among women or with his flaky nouveau-riche guests up at the Berghof, over Berchtestgaden." Yet these sections, as Ascherson writes, are embedded in a detailed narrative of his political life, from youth to his installation as chancellor and up to the outbreak of World War II. The following quote from Ascherson's review was for me the most illuminating aspect of Hitler's perversity:

"Reading this familiar 'early years' tale again, Hitler as a personality no longer seems so outlandish. What does mark him out is his conscious abandonment of conventional morality: the monstrous, shameless ease with which he lied, betrayed, and murdered. The traits of his character, on the other hand, are not remarkable in themselves. Thousands of people around us daydream about world conquest, fondle hate fantasies about what they might do to immigrants or jihadists, lap up conspiracy theories or impress their mates -- after a pint or six -- with bellowing rants about politicians or bankers. Most of them, fortunately, stay below the political radar. They lack a soil in which their urges can swell until they overshadow the earth. They lack the license of Alasdair Gray's Law of Inverse Exclusion (outlined in his novel Lanark), which 'enables a flea in a matchbook to declare itself jailer of the universe.' And they lack a weapon."

BTW, on Hitler's voice, Ascherson writes that it was an excellent one and that his harsh Lower Bavarian accent "seems to have given North Germans an impression of sincerity rather than provincial uncouthness." But, as he admits, reading or listening to the speeches today, one is left with a sense of bafflement: "How could anyone have taken seriously such stagy bellowing and preposterous ideas?" Hitler seems to have been an astute performer. His speeches were preceded by a "strong warm-up," after which he strode onto the stage or into the hall, "deliberately late." Where possible, the seating was spread out horizontally before him, which gave his performance a stronger impact.

Picture source: The Daily Mail

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