Hitler and History
- Hitler by Norman Stone
Hodder, 195 pp, £6.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 340 24980 3
- Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ in Britain and America: A Publishing History 1930-39 by James Barnes and Patience Barnes
Cambridge, 158 pp, £8.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 521 22691 0
- The Berlin Secession: Modernism and Its Enemies in Imperial Germany by Peter Paret
Harvard, 262 pp, £10.50, December 1980, ISBN 0 674 06773 8
- German Romantic Painting by William Vaughan
Yale, 260 pp, £19.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 300 02387 1
My title is intended to be quadruply functional: the four books raise four interpenetrating problems – and not one problem per book either. That Hitler himself remains an incurable problem is proved by our civilisation’s continued, compulsive preoccupation with his personality – which a George Steiner even undertook to reinvent: his The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. has been reviewed in these pages, nor are Norman Stone, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes always less fanciful. And if Hitler’s personality remains an unanswered question, so too, does the history of National Socialism – which a book like Robert Harbison’s recent Deliberate Regression: The disastrous history of Romantic individualism in thought and art, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to 20th-century fascism (1980) interprets as dreamfully as Steiner recreates Hitler. The reason why I quote Harbison’s enormous subtitle in full is that it is symptomatic of one of our intellectual age’s grand delusions – of the belief that Hitler has a specific history in German Romanticism. It is a delusion which Peter Paret and especially William Vaughan are quite ready to take for reality, while Norman Stone’s own dreams about ‘the positive qualities of Hitler, his real achievements’ (thus Professor J.H. Plumb’s Introduction) aid and abet it: if Hitler was some sort of genius, he is part of the history of German, nationalistic genius. The whitewashing of Hitler goes together with the soiling of his past.
Last but first, there is what for me is the most insoluble problem of them all – history itself. I have never understood it as a discipline, simply because I consider the minimal incidence of error too high for intellectual comfort. So far as I am aware, I have only one predecessor (Karl Popper’s case against historical destiny is a different proposition: disproved, in my view, by any prognostic philosophy of history that proves itself – above all, Spengler’s Decline of the West). But it must be admitted that the reasons for Schopenhauer’s hostility to history differed from mine: it was post hoc ergo propter hoc which he considered history’s ineluctable fallacy. We see his point – about which, however, there can always be argument. Wrong facts, on the other hand, are demonstrably unavoidable: neither the power of Norman Stone’s intellect nor his conscientious research are in question.
For any given purpose, the historian needs more facts than he has at his disposal or is able to ascertain, verify, confirm. There are, of course, levels of factual illusion – nor is a historian of Norman Stone’s recognised calibre able to escape the most elementary level: he tells us that ‘Sir Neville Chamberlain, the 69-year-old British Prime Minister, flew to meet Hitler at Munich.’ The face of the secretary to whom I am dictating this piece remains unmoved while she is taking down this quotation – but then, in 1938, she was minus 15, whereas I was plus 19. What would her face have looked like if I had dictated something about Dame Margaret Thatcher? Her face now clinches my point: we underreact to untruths about the past and over-react against untruths about the present.
The Barneses could never have written their meticulous ‘Publishing History’ if they hadn’t been downright obsessional about factual accuracy. Yet they tell us that Hitler got his German citizenship in February 1932, ‘just in time to run for the Presidency of the Weimar Republic’. Again my secretary’s face remains unmoved – less forgivably so: ‘the Presidency’? It was the Weimar Republic’s president, Field-Marshal Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and it was the chancellorship for which Hitler had run. Hindenburg died in 1934, and as Stone reminds us, ‘Hitler, without opposition, proclaimed himself president and subsequently also head of the armed forces, which had to swear an oath of personal loyalty to him.’ Thus a tiny mistake inevitably creates, or makes possible, prolonged historical confusion.
But while Stone’s is, inevitably, the more important book – a competent biography of Hitler is of greater relevance to what life and death are about than a competent biography of Mein Kampf – there are, in fact, one or two places where the Barneses score over him, where their facts beat his desire to be unprecedentedly, unconventionally factual. With a serious historian’s weighty flippancy, he observes, for once deceived by Hitler’s own lies, that Mein Kampf ‘cannot be taken as a blueprint for anything save Hitler’s royalties’. This verdict would have made me suspect a lesser scholar of never really having read the Führer’s testament of illiteracy and, yes, magnetic stupidity – until the Barneses would have reminded me that there are two ways of looking at Mein Kampf: ‘In retrospect it usually made sense; in prospect it deceived as often as it revealed.’ An eminently reasonable differential diagnosis. For the sake of his historical aphorism, a leading historian has, paradoxically, refused to look at the past in retrospect.
Vol. 3 No. 3 · 19 February 1981
From Kate Graham
SIR: In the last issue of the London Review of Books (LRB, 5 February), Hans Keller, in his lofty way, talks of ‘one of our intellectual age’s grand delusions – the belief that Hitler has a specific history in German Romanticism.’ After rebuking the authors of the three other books under review, he takes William Vaughan to task for his assumption that there is a ‘line that runs between the nationalistic assertions of Fichte, Kleist and Friedrich to those of Nietzsche and Wagner and eventually to those of the National Socialists’. Adjoining Mr Keller’s article is a review of Cosima Wagner’s Diaries. Wagner, it appears, had mixed feelings about the performances of his work – or rather about the fact that they had to be performed at all since he found the audiences so disagreeable. ‘Nothing but hooked noses at Tristan,’ he remarked. A fire at the Ringtheater in Vienna ‘delighted’ him and led to a vision of ‘burning all the Jews at a performance of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise’. Anyone can see that there is a similarity here between Wagner’s fantasy and those that Hitler put into practice, and as Wagner’s preceded Hitler’s, it would seem natural to speak of a ‘line’ between them. This does not, of course, establish the case that ‘Hitler has a specific history in German Romanticism.’ Nor would one want to say that German Romanticism grew out of German anti-semitism. But only a delusion of another kind would lead anyone to claim that there was never any connection between the two.
Vol. 3 No. 4 · 5 March 1981
From Hans Keller
SIR: As distinct from Miss Kate Graham (Letters, 19 February), I only write about Wagner (or anybody else) if and when I know as much as I can about him. Had she read the two fat volumes of Cosima Wagner’s Diaries from which she quotes out of context, she would have discovered 1. Wagner’s downright prophetic anti-Nazi attitude (which I touched upon), 2. his Jewish friends (including the Parsifal conductor Hermann Levi, a conscious Jew who passionately defended Wagner against Miss Graham’s type of accusation), and 3. the source of his pathological and inconsistent anti-semitism – to wit, the far more consistent Cosima herself, who no doubt ‘amended’ his remark before she recorded it.
What Cosima says Wagner said in private, then, is not part of German Romanticism – only of Miss Graham’s picture of it. In fact, her letter is welcome evidence in support of my case against history in general and the delusion of Wagner’s Nazism in particular – as are Cosima’s eye-opening Diaries themselves, when read in toto.
Vol. 3 No. 5 · 19 March 1981
From Iring Fetscher
SIR: I like the witty and trenchant ways of British criticism and enjoyed above all Clive James’s snobby review of Ian Hunter’s very provincial biography of Malcolm Muggeridge (LRB, 5 February) and Hans Keller’s piece on ‘Hitler and History’ (LRB, 5 February). In the latter, however, I found one unfortunate error, which should be corrected. Hans Keller makes fun of the Barneses’ ignorance about the German presidency in 1932. ‘Hitler got his German citizenship just in time to run for the Presidency of the Weimar Republic,’ said the Barneses, but they were simply right! On 25 February, Hitler was made a Regierungsrat (and thus became a citizen of the German Reich) in the Land Braunschweig, where his party was governing in a coalition. He was now eligible for the presidential election which took place on 13 March (first turn) and 10 April (second turn). At the second turn Hitler was beaten by Hindenburg, who got 19.35 million votes against 13.41 million. Already at the first turn the Catholic Zentrum Party and the Social Democrats had appealed to their voters to vote for Hindenburg, who felt quite uncomfortable at this new support from what for him was the ‘far left’. But only in that way could Hitler’s victory at the presidential elections be avoided.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main
Hans Keller writes: If Hitler ran for the Presidency, I did not know: it isn’t only historians whose historical knowledge is incomplete. I am grateful for, and fascinated by, the correction. History should be written in order to be corrected.
Vol. 3 No. 6 · 2 April 1981
From William Vaughan
SIR: Hans Keller claims to write about a person only ‘if and when I know as much about him as I can’. This makes amusing reading in view of his performance in the review of my book German Romantic Painting (LRB, 5 February) that gave occasion to the letter by Kate Graham which he attacks (Letters, 5 March). For example, he writes in an authoritative tone about the greatness of Winckelmann, and seeks to establish my ignorance of this writer by drawing attention to proof-reading errors that occur on four of the fifty-odd occasions that his name occurs in my text. But in the course of doing so, he manages to confuse Winckelmann’s two most famous works, talking of The History of Ancient Art (1764) when Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art (1755) is clearly intended. It would not even have been necessary for Mr Keller to consult an edition of Winckelmann’s writings to avoid this mistake. An attentive reading of the book he was reviewing would have been sufficient.
The lack of knowledge of the visual arts that Mr Keller displays here and elsewhere in his review helps to explain why he avoided the subject of my book and concentrated instead on misprints, musical analogies and some general reflections on German history. It does not explain why a man who claims to write on people only when he has informed himself as fully as possible should have undertaken to review a book on a group of painters about whom he appears to know next to nothing, and in whom he expresses little interest.
Mr Keller accuses Miss Graham of quoting Wagner out of context. But quoting out of context is exactly what he does in the passage that gave rise to Miss Graham’s original objections. In this Mr Keller claims I interpret German history ‘in Nazi manner’ and cites my reference to the ‘line’ that runs from the nationalism of the Romantics to Hitler. What he does not mention is that this reference occurs in the opening part of a paragraph that concludes: ‘the Nazis based their claims upon the distortion of a tradition. In fact it was not they, but the “degenerate” artists whom they ridiculed – Nolde, Munch, Ernst, Barlach and Klee – who were continuing the Romantics’ exploration of an indigenous art’ (p. 239).
Department of History of Art, University College, London
From Richard Webster
SIR: In Vol. 3, No 4 of the LRB Hans Keller, in a manner even more lofty than that adopted in his original review, dismisses out of hand Kate Graham’s criticism of his position. In his reply to her letter he suggests that ‘the source’ of Wagner’s anti-semitism is to be found in the attitude of his wife Cosima. Having thus constructed a neat myth of exculpation, Keller goes on to deal with one of Wagner’s anti-semitic remarks by writing that ‘Cosima … no doubt “amended” his remark before she recorded it.’ If this were indeed the case, it might lend some support to Keller’s views. But there is no evidence that it was the case. Faced with such speculations one can only observe that ‘no doubt’ is a rather misleading way of saying ‘perhaps’.
In fact, when it comes to Wagner’s anti-semitism we do not have to rely on what Cosima says he said in private. We have Wagner’s own words – and a great many of them too. In 1881 he wrote to the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II: ‘I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything that is noble in it; it is certain that we Germans will go under before them, and perhaps I am the last German who knows how to stand up as an art-loving man against Judaism that is already getting control of everything.’ This remark is in no sense an isolated aberration and its tenor goes some way towards explaining the deep affinity which Hitler felt for Wagner. According to his childhood friend Kubizek, Hitler ‘looked for much more than a model and an example in Wagner. He literally appropriated Wagner’s personality as if he wanted to make it an integral part of his individuality.’ Once again it must be said that this does not establish the case that ‘Hitler has a specific history in German Romanticism.’ But Kate Graham in her very reasonable letter never endorsed such a vague and inclusive view: her concern was only to counter the delusory notion that there was never any connection between German Romanticism and German anti-semitism.
It is disturbing that in addition to denying such a connection Hans Keller evidently believes it is both reasonable and useful to characterise Hitler as ‘a stupid, semi-literate paranoiac’, a ‘psychotic idiot’ and ‘a raving half-wit’. Hitler was none of these things. Nor does it make any sense to write about National Socialism as an eruption of ‘natural evil’ brought about by what Keller calls ‘collective regression’. It must be suggested that the only purpose served by such pseudo-medical explanations is to defend a limited and inadequate concept of human nature. Such a limited concept is frequently apparent in discussions of anti-semitism and behind it there often lies an ideologically purged version of history. Only when we cease to be bound by this narrow ideological view can we begin to recognise that, up to the time of the Second World War, anti-semitism, far from being an occasional alien intruder into our culture, had always existed in intimate relation to our most revered orthodoxies – not only to Christianity but also to many areas of our literary and artistic tradition.
To adopt such a view of history is not to engage on the project which Hans Keller describes, in which ‘the white-washing of Hitler goes together with the soiling of his past.’ It is rather to refuse that dangerous consolatory mythology in which Hitler and National Socialism, having been identified with the forces of ‘anti-culture’, come to be seen as the repository of all evil: a modern Antichrist onto whom we may indiscriminately project our own violence and indeed the hidden violence of our own social structure. The danger of such a mythology – one whose psychological function is so similar to the mythology of anti-semitism – is that it encourages the discipline of history to commit the most serious of all its possible crimes: that of whitewashing the present. It is against that crime, and not against any of the imaginary sins of history which Hans Keller catalogues, that we need to be eternally vigilant.
Vol. 3 No. 7 · 16 April 1981
From Hans Keller
SIR: The intensity of your correspondents’ excitement (Letters, 2 April) is proportionate to the degree to which they leave my case untouched; hard feelings are no substitute for hard fact. So long as the reader is able to discern my original piece in the dark of the reactions against it, I am content. It may help him, however, to be reminded of what I didn’t say. I did not 1. ‘confuse Winckelmann’s two most famous works’, 2. quote William Vaughan out of context, 3. deny Wagner’s anti-semitism, and 4. suggest ‘that there was never any connection between German romanticism and German anti-semitism.’
1. Anxious to apply lex talionis, William Vaughan is in frantic search of my ignorance: I am said to be ‘talking of The History of Ancient Art (1974) when Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art (1755) is clearly intended’. Where and how Dr Vaughan found this clear intention is not my problem; for my part, I meant what I said. I may add that I have no first-hand knowledge of English translations of Winckelmann, whom I read in the original. Dr Vaughan seems to imply that Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke was translated into English by the 1760s; if so, I didn’t know. I only knew about the early translations, into French and English, of Winckelmann’s history of ancient art.
2. Dr Vaughan submits that I did not mention his reference ‘to the “line” that runs from the nationalism of the romantics to Hitler’ in the context of his concluding remark about the Nazis’ ‘distortion of a tradition’. I am baffled, for it almost looks as if he had missed a paragraph: ‘In other words, while Dr Vaughan does add that “the Nazis based their claims upon the distortion of a tradition,” he himself reinterprets that tradition in the Nazi manner, for otherwise he wouldn’t find any line that runs between it and National Socialism, except for the line that Hitler drew, backwards.’
3. As for Richard Webster, we don’t need Wagner’s letters to the King of Bavaria for the purpose of describing his anti-semitism; Wagner’s published essay, Das Judentum in der Musik, contains Mr Webster’s evidence. But in order to gain a clear picture of Wagner’s deeply ambivalent attitude towards the Jews, we have to know what his friend, the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, had to say about it, and why he forgave Wagner. It’s the old story: we shouldn’t judge people in public before we know everything there is to be known about them. If Richard Webster had read Cosima’s Diaries, he wouldn’t talk about the ‘myth’ of her anti-semitic influence on Wagner; it was, incidentally, Israel’s leading composer, Josef Tal, who first drew my attention to this evidence. For the rest, if Mr Webster is cross about my ‘exculpating’ Wagner (which I don’t), what would he say to Hermann Levi (who does)? Are we to assume that Mr Webster knows more about Wagner than Levi did?
4. As my self-quotation under 2. shows, I didn’t deny Hitler’s identification with Wagner, but Wagner’s (and other romantics’) prophetic identification with Hitler.
I know it is an easy thing to say, but since it is, in my opinion, fact, it has to be said: I don’t think you can understand Hitler and his history without having experienced the growth and explosion of National Socialism; the understanding of collective evil is, to that extent, esoteric. As I pointed out in a recent book, much of what I experienced I wouldn’t – couldn’t – have believed if my best and most truthful friend had told me about it. Conversely, with the experience behind me, the theories flung at my case give me the feeling of remote unreality. I am still waiting for a single mind that has shared my experience to disagree with me.
Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981
From Richard Webster
SIR: In reply to my letter, Hans Keller successfully refutes a view which I did not advance (Letters, 16 April). At no point in my letter did I deny Cosima’s influence on Wagner’s anti-semitism. What I described as a myth was Keller’s claim that Cosima was the ‘source’ of her husband’s anti-semitism. This claim seemed to me, and still seems, indefensible.
Hans Keller goes on to draw attention to the ambivalence of Wagner’s attitude towards Jews ands cites as an example the composer’s friendship with the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, who ‘forgave’ Wagner. It is certainly true that we cannot understand Wagner’s anti-semitism without considering this friendship, but the charitable interpretation made of it by Keller is by no means the only possible one. The opposing view is put by Leon Poliakov when he writes (in The History of Anti-Semitism, Vol. III), that Wagner ‘extended the feelings of affection he had for animals, to servile Jews, castrated by him, men like Joseph Rubenstein or Hermann Levi, Wagner’s human dogs, animated objects, subject to his complete control … This sort of transference has also been observed in the Nazi killers, great animal lovers, who also lavished affectionate benevolence on the Jewish slaves allocated to their personal service.’ It might well be that Hans Keller would disagree with this interpretation of Wagner’s behaviour but he should not make the easy assumption that those who dispute his views do so simply out of ignorance.
The case of Wagner would not be so important were it not for the fact that it would be possible to engage in similar arguments over the anti-semitism of Chaucer, Marlowe, Voltaire and Dostoevsky, or, indeed, of Martin Luther and Karl Marx. Because of an excessive love of ‘culture’ or an indiscriminate respect for Christianity, the anti-semitic attitudes of these and countless other figures tend again and again to be minimised, bowdlerised or suppressed. It is perhaps this form of historical revisionism, rather than that of David Irving and other like-minded historians, that is most dangerous: it is dangerous precisely because it is so frequently practised unconsciously and endorsed unknowingly.