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.

And although his clear account (as distinct from his evaluation) of Hitler’s life is, to my knowledge, absolutely free of factual error, surrounding mistakes are legion – which is not a criticism, because I must insist that they’re bound to be. The Gestapo and the SS, for example, are described as ‘much the same thing’. You might as well thus describe grass and greenness: all Gestapo was SS, but there was plenty of SS (including a school mate of mine) that wasn’t anywhere near the Gestapo. Then there is a careful list of concentration camps in general and women’s camps in particular – excluding the one where my grandmother was killed in her nineties.

Again, if the Nazi bureaucrats had ‘worked with efficiency’, I wouldn’t be alive: I was released from pre-extermination prison although a Gestapo warrant for my arrest had been issued while I was inside. Two of those bureaucrats, moreover, subsequently failed to identify me and to have me arrested, while a third placed the contents of my Gestapo file at my (or rather a half-Jewish cousin’s, his former girlfriend’s) disposal in exchange for an appropriate bribe. ‘In the early years of Nazism, anti-semitism contributed to Hitler’s popularity.’ Contributed? I didn’t know a single Nazi, budding or full-grown, who had the slightest interest in anything else. In short, history is for readers who weren’t there when it happened.

Unfortunately for three of our historians, I was a victim of the Kristallnacht pogrom (about six weeks before my escape to England), if ‘victim’ is the word for one of the tiny proportion of eventual survivors. All the Barneses seem to know about the event is that ‘Jewish synagogues’ (what other synagogues are there?) and Jewish private property were destroyed, while ‘some of the Jews could only walk the streets and pass their time in restaurants’: this is an eye-witness account of a day when we were beaten, tortured, and articulately prepared for an early demise which, for some, was to prove almost immediate.

So one turns to Stone in the hope of reality, a bit of it. He does at least mention ‘90 murders’ (I don’t accept either the figure or the possibility of ascertaining or assessing the correct number, doubtless a multiplex multiple), duly reports the burning down of synagogues and ‘several’ Jewish houses, and contends that ‘35,000 Jews were taken to concentration camps for forced emigration.’ In Vienna alone, according to the Nazis’ own statistical survey, 1,950 Jewish dwellings were destroyed or ransacked, nor is the figure of 35,000 arrests remotely credible: again in Vienna alone, 70,000 Jews were arrested as early as March 1938, when the majority of the city’s 200,000 Jews (including myself) escaped arrest, while in November, I hardly knew anybody who hadn’t been arrested.

But the climax of Stone’s misinformation is our alleged ‘forced emigration’ – the precisest possible opposite of the truth: emigration was a Jewish dream, usually unattainable; what was forced upon us at that stage was imprisonment and the concentration camp – whence, for the vast majority, there was only one possible eventual emigration, to the gas chambers. And if Mr Stone thinks that ‘the British in particular [had] a distinguished record from [1938] on’ so far as ‘generous’ admittance of Jews from Nazi territory was concerned, I am ready to give him a list of personal friends and acquaintances, all gassed, who would be alive today if the British had admitted them, in or after 1938, to this country or Palestine. My own British visa I owed, exclusively, to my English brother-in-law and his financial guarantee: without him, the gas chamber would have been an absolute certainty.

The central Nazi slogan was not ‘One People, One Country, One Leader’ but, all-importantly, ‘One Empire’ (ein Reich): there is no chapter without such none too minor mistakes – which, however, do not mar Norman Stone’s biographical achievement. In fact, when I say that he goes wrong in the evaluation of Hitler’s life, I am concerned with and about the man’s public life, for the picture of Hitler’s own character, of the uninteresting person that was Hitler, is immaculate: ‘He lived for power, and his image of a man of power dictated his way of life. The private Hitler was a boring and banal figure ...’

So was the public Hitler for anybody who had retained his sanity – and it is this crucial fact which we are not yet sane enough to realise. In my long-considered submission, he was a stupid, semi-literate paranoiac, a textbook illustration of both persecution mania and megalomania, and it was the German war generals who, ‘appalled’, ‘thought that Hitler was mad’ who have evinced the most realistic insight so far – naturally so, under the pressure of reality. ‘In his own way, he was an intellectual.’ So is every psychotic idiot who thinks he is. On 7 December 1930, he ‘made a brilliant, emotional address’ which, as an 11-year-old, I questioned my father and uncle about: was this not a raving half-wit? Had I missed anything? No, they said – for at that stage, receptive insanity was confined to party members, whereas, by now, it even affects critical historians.

As for Hitler’s historical role, any such madman would have done, and ‘his real achievements’ are Stone’s fantasy, though by no means his alone. It is deeply depressing to find that the historian’s occupational obsession with objectivity drives a man of stature into downright silliness – for his ‘major reappraisal of Adolf Hitler’ teaches us, in the words of the publisher’s publicity sheet, that ‘he did not destroy German democracy – on the contrary, in January 1933 Hitler provided the first majority-based government Germany had in three years.’ What undiluted nonsense! Fortunately, Stone’s own account disproves it: the Nazis never got more than 37.6 per cent of the vote in an election worth its name.

Now it might be thought that at least a historical monograph like Peter Paret’s could be absolved from history’s original sin, the inevitability of wrong facts: if the denotation of the subject is sufficiently narrow, its connotation might be proportionately free of fancy. Maybe, maybe not; I personally have not come across a guiltless specimen. So far as Paret’s own fascinating ‘detailed history’ of the Berlin ‘secession’ from academicism is concerned, the irony is that it is too narrow a denotation (in the strictly logical sense, meaning the ‘aggregate of objects that may be included under’ the word ‘secession’) that produces the gravest factual error, which is one of indefensible omission.

That is to say, while Paret does not forget the secessions of Dresden, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Weimar, while two Swiss artists, Arnold Böcklin and Ferdinand Hodler, are naturally included in the ‘aggregate of objects’, since they were ‘regarded as essentially German’, the equally German Viennese secession is utterly neglected, though such names as Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser leave one in no doubt about the historic, rather than merely historical, role it played in the history of German Modernism, not to speak of its enemies. But of violently wrong elementary facts, at least, the study seems entirely free, simply because it isn’t the history of anything big, wide, long. German Romantic Painting is in all conscience – with the result that all levels of factual error are, of necessity, represented in this impressive chronicle, not only of the Romantics’ art, but also of their aesthetics and their world views.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) remains one of the greatest art historians of all time, if not the greatest – because, and (in my view) inasmuch as, he was decidedly more than a historian; by the 1760s, his history of ancient art had been translated into English. Yet in 1980, a searching English art history is unable to get his name right: on page 26 it’s both ‘Winckelmann’ and ‘Wincklemann’, and on the preceding page, his two Christian names are Johan (sic) and Jacob; we have to wait until page 260, i.e. the Index, to get his name altogether straight.

But a true art historian goes beyond the history of his own art into that of others – and music, in particular, tends to be drawn in as (dare I, a musician, say it?) the art of arts; nor do I contest the relevance and indeed original thoughtfulness of some of Dr Vaughan’s incorporations of my art. The fact remains that there are no such things as his proudly presented ‘major fifths and fourths’, except in the historian’s professional excursions beyond his knowledge, which will even produce metaphors the application of whose descriptive terms demands rigid reductio ad absurdum.

Take the author’s analytic description of Carl Blechen’s ‘View over Roofs and Gardens’, ‘a matchless example of direct painting before a view from a window’, complete with a superb plate (the castigating italics are mine): ‘The angle of the foreground roof becomes part of a series of diagonals and horizontals that pivot around a central hut; the sharp edge of light that it brings into the middle of the painting forms the incisive keynote to the sensitive modulations of tones in the landscapes behind it.’ A keynote is a tonic – the note on whose triad a key is based, the note which gives a key its name, and which is the first note of its scale: C is the keynote of C major. It follows that no keynote can be more ‘incisive’ than any other, nor indeed can modulations possess a keynote: modulation means change of key and hence of keynote – the passing from one key(note) to another. Dr Vaughan does not, of course, use the concept of ‘modulation’ in the musical sense – nor indeed need he, so long as he doesn’t attribute a keynote to it! I hasten to add that I am not accusing him of unmusicality: on the contrary, there is evidence of his musical sensitivity – which, through his inadequate musical knowledge, he often makes the worst of. His wideranging historical approach necessitates the employment of his ignorance or, at best, his peripheral vision: let’s blame history rather than him, for it is history that has promoted peripheral vision to the status of clairvoyance, and hearsay to that of peripheral vision.

Schopenhauer’s central complaint, the confusion of chronology and causality, comes into its own, on top and at the bottom of mine, with the history of Germany as seen by that conscious and deliberate wisdom after the event – the event that was Hitler – which never stops to consider the mere possibility that when sufficiently traumatic, an event stupefies rather than enlightens, producing mythical causes, a mythological aetiology, for what has been experienced as the exact negative of a miracle – a nightmare realised, materialised, a daymare. The tragic truth is that diagnosis acts as therapy – for the diagnostician. From Israel’s boycott of Wagner through Peter Paret’s meaningful pointer to the sinister claim ‘that the secession’s dominant values were un-German and sensual, propagated by foreigners and Jews for economic gain,’ to William Vaughan’s own misrepresentation of Wagner, the myth of a pre-Hitlerian, and especially a Romantic, latent Nazi ideology has come to dominate our historical thought, worldwide.

‘The folk-tale became the image of the intuitive life of the people, which had too often been absent from more sophisticated forms of culture. In their own ways both Nietzsche and Wagner later paid tribute to this intuitive tradition in the myth-dominated narratives of their works.’ Did they? If Dr Vaughan had not – like Israel – relied on hearsay Wagner, he would have realised how Wagner-dominated the myths of his operas were – and it’s a distinct, prophetic anti-Nazi domination to boot. Though the Nibelungen pervade his book to the extent of at least ten references to them, he would call these references to him: does he think there was such a creature as der Nibelungen?

‘The most obvious survival’ of German Romanticism ‘was the faith in a national identity.’

This fostered the emphasis on a German art, in dependent of other cultures. Today we are all too aware of the 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. When Hitler gave his speech at the opening of the German Art exhibition in 1837 [sic] as part of his campaign against degenerate ‘international’ art he singled out the Romantics as people who were ‘in essence ... the most glorious representatives of those noble Germans in search of the true intrinsic virtues of our people’. Support from this quarter can only alienate ...

– to the point of one’s misreading one’s Fichte, Kleist, Nietzsche, Wagner and, incidentally, one’s Kant and Schelling, and apparently of not reading Schopenhauer at all.

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. When, as a six-year-old, I was beaten up by a gang of fervent Roman Catholics because I had murdered Christ, I was fortunately wise enough not to conclude that ‘support from this quarter can only alienate,’ and retained my disinterested interest in both the Christian religion and the figure of its founder – even though, in due course, a fat line came to run from those Christians to the National Socialists into whom they grew.

It isn’t only that any comparable psychotic, fluently stupid enough for his revelations to have ‘intuitive’ mass appeal, would have done in the socio-psychological circumstances. Many another tradition would have lent itself to comparable ‘distortions’: in fact, the Christian tradition did – in the Middle Ages. A straight line runs between Jesus, the prophetic burning of the Jews, the Crusades, the Nazis and, at the time of writing, the Ayatollah Khomeini – a line that can be relied upon to keep running. As for the Berlin secession’s ‘victory in the war over modernism in Germany’, which ‘was lost’ as the Nazis came to power, i.e. ‘after the decline and collapse of the empire and the destruction of the Weimar Republic’, we must never forget that all art worth its description is secessionist. That doesn’t turn all artists of the time, or all official secessionists, into prophetic anti-Nazis, nor were the anti-secessionists prophetic Nazis: anti-Modernism isn’t Nazism, and many were the anti-Modern anti-Nazis.

The history of collective evil is the history of mankind, and so long as we search for the specific causes of what is a natural state, or find them without a search, in art of all unlikely places, we haven’t begun to understand this state, its naturalness, the nature of collective regression. It is any collective behaviour which, unnaturally, isn’t evil that is in need of explanation; and in my empirical opinion, history can’t provide any such explanation.

Give me a single history or, for that matter, a single biography to which this review’s criticisms (Schopenhauer’s included) do not apply in principle, after you have shown it to experts in all relevant fields (even if it’s ‘only’ a music history), and I shall joyfully withdraw a sceptical a priori view that is based on long and painful a posteriori suffering. Meanwhile, I hasten to concede that two mammoth histories and one mammoth biography belong to my favourite books – Egon Friedell’s Cultural History of Antiquity and Cultural History of Modern Times, and Cosima Wagner’s two-volume Diaries. But then, they’re less than history and less than biography respectively, and proportionately substantial, escaping many a mistake by not caring about what, as proper, scholarly studies, they would have had to care about: it’s history’s comprehensive conscience that condemns it as a discipline, because the demands of such a conscience cannot be met. I stand to be corrected, with both feet firmly on the ground.