Hitler and History

Hans Keller

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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