Still messing with our heads
- Hitler: A Life by Peter Longerich
Oxford, 1324 pp, £30.00, July, ISBN 978 0 19 879609 1
- Hitler: Only the World Was Enough by Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 668 pp, £30.00, September, ISBN 978 1 84614 247 5
Something very strange happens in the middle of The End, the sixth and last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s titanic work of self-description. At around page 482, the book swerves away from scenes of family and social life, and plunges, like a car crashing through a safety barrier, into a prolonged reflection on Adolf Hitler. For 360 pages Knausgaard discusses Hitler’s youthful longing and seriousness, his love for his mother, his struggle with an authoritarian father, his refusal of the destinies prescribed for him by convention. Long passages are given over to summarising, or simply quoting from, the first volume of Mein Kampf, written while Hitler was in prison in 1925. Knausgaard reflects (twice) on that moment in 1945, preserved on film, when Hitler emerged, ‘his hands shaking with sickness’, from a bunker beneath Berlin, ‘with the world in flames and millions of people dead as a result of his volition’, to greet a line of young boys who had been called up to defend the collapsing city. In that perilous moment, he writes, Hitler revealed, ‘in a fleeting gleam of his eyes … something warm and kind, his soul’. ‘He was a small person,’ Knausgaard concedes, ‘but so are we all.’ And out of these and many other thoughts about Hitler spiral a long series of reflections on modern life, accompanied by high-end literary and cultural references. Not until page 848 does The End escape from Hitler’s orbit. In the meantime, the reader has trekked across a massive, crater-like depression in the book’s structure. It is like coming up for air when we are finally allowed to re-inhabit the body of the writer: ‘I sat down again, poured myself some tepid coffee from the vacuum jug and lit another cigarette.’
What is Hitler doing in this book? I suppose his appearance at some point was inevitable, given that the cycle’s Norwegian title, reluctantly accepted by Knausgaard’s publisher, was Min Kamp. (The German translator refused to use Mein Kampf as the title, and the books are published in Germany under the clunking rubric Das autobiografische Projekt.) Asked why he chose the title, Knausgaard has tended to fudge. A friend suggested it, he told one interviewer. It was better than his other working titles, ‘Argentina’ and ‘Parrot Park’. The Hitler essay at the heart of Book 6 doesn’t answer the question either, not directly. We have to infer its purpose by examining the services Hitler performs for the man who has summoned him back from the dead.
Mein Kampf, Knausgaard says, is ‘literature’s only unmentionable work’. To read it is to travel into a forbidden zone. What Knausgaard finds when he breaches the taboo is a crumpled, Hitler-shaped image of himself. The hated father, the beloved mother, the fear of intimacy, the sense of outsiderhood and the ponderous seriousness with which he approaches life, all these fixtures of the self on display throughout Min Kamp are also present in the author of Mein Kampf. Even Hitler’s abstention from masturbation, recalled by his youthful roommate August Kubizek and much discussed in the Hitler literature, chimes with Knausgaard’s belated and laborious efforts at onanism, bleakly recorded in Book 4.
To frame the journey towards Hitler as an encounter with oneself is unexpected. It doesn’t mean that Knausgaard endorses Hitler’s acts or worldview, though he insists that it must be possible to distinguish between who Hitler was and what he did. In the case of the young Hitler, already himself but not yet the author of a genocidal war, the distinction seems (at least to Knausgaard) impossible to deny. Hence the rage he directs at Ian Kershaw, the author of the classic English-language biography. Knausgaard accuses Kershaw of adopting a dismissive attitude towards the young Hitler, of failing to warm to the passion and innocence of his subject. This excessively ‘negative’ view, Knausgaard suggests, is not just ‘immature’, it makes the biography ‘almost unreadable’.
These strictures are bewildering. It is one thing for a male Norwegian writer to emote empathetically in the direction of an image of Adolf Hitler he has developed in his own mind after reading half a dozen books. But the task of Kershaw, who has immersed himself over decades in treatises and archival records, can scarcely be to sound out his own spiritual affinity with Hitler, it must rather be to understand what it was about him, even in his youth, that might help explain his later career. The distanciated, analytical perspective of the historian is precisely what disgusts Knausgaard.
By fixing on Hitler as the disturbing doppelgänger of the authorial ego, Knausgaard expands his work’s moral remit by folding into it the arc of modern history. Hitler becomes a test case for the Narrenfreiheit of the contemporary novelist. Readers with a better understanding than I have of the Norwegian context will no doubt discern other, local resonances. But it may be worth bearing in mind that the impact of the Nazi occupation on Norwegian society was especially deep. In trials that lasted from 1945 until 1957, more than 90,000 cases of collaboration were investigated (3.2 per cent of the country’s population was involved) and 46,000 people were sentenced. Far from stabilising the country, as the returning Norwegian government-in-exile had hoped, the trials had a profoundly polarising effect. This was the most expansive juridical reckoning anywhere in postwar Europe. Knausgaard makes no mention of these events, beyond registering his surprise when he discovers a Nazi pin among the belongings of his dead father. But the controversy of the trials resonates in his need to express both the attraction and the repulsion awakened in him by Nazism and Hitler.
To turn to Peter Longerich’s Hitler: A Life, superbly translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe, is to re-encounter the sober, appraising diction that Knausgaard deplores in Kershaw’s writing. Longerich is in no doubt that his subject was emotionally ‘retarded’ and unable to feel empathy. Hitler’s early life reveals, he writes, a ‘lack of feeling in his dealings with others’, a ‘marked egocentricity’ and a tendency to seek refuge in a ‘fantasy world focused on himself’. Even as a soldier during the First World War he stood out as an ‘eccentric loner’: his only emotionally significant relationship was with his dog Foxl, which was allowed to sleep with him.
Longerich’s meticulous account touches on many issues, from Hitler’s management of dissent within his party to his thoughts on foreign policy, rearmament and the economy; from the tactical skill with which he handled the relations between his movement and the political elites to his understanding and consolidation of his own leadership role. Longerich has little time for the notion that Hitler’s charisma was crucial to sustaining the regime’s authority. The monopolistic control of media and public communications was more important than the ‘Hitler myth’ explored by Kershaw, or, for that matter, the spiritual-erotic union imagined by Knausgaard between the ‘we-less I’ of Hitler and the ‘I-less we’ of the German people.
Two strands of Longerich’s argument are especially worthy of note. The first is that, despite the claims he made throughout his life, Hitler’s early career was not marked by a lonely mission to save his country. On the contrary, his entry into politics was orchestrated by powerful interests. It was the Reichswehr (German Army) Information Department in Munich that arranged for Hitler to be trained in public speaking and then employed him as an agitator to immunise the soldiers still serving in Munich against the appeal of socialism. As a naturally talented popular speaker who stood out for the vehemence of his antisemitism, Hitler soon merged into a network of army officers, racist journalists and extreme right-wing organisations, all of them united in their aim of building a platform for anti-socialist agitation. In 1920-21 these groups were also sponsored and encouraged by the Bavarian government under Gustav von Kahr, who worked hard to transform Bavaria into a ‘cell of order’ in which right-wing groups could flourish.
Throughout the Weimar years and especially in the period 1930-33, Hitler continued to be seen as a potential asset by conservative interests who hoped to use him as a weapon against the political left. The so-called seizure of power was as much the achievement of these conservative elites as it was of the Nazi leaders and their movement. It was they, and not the Nazis, who prematurely dissolved two parliaments in 1930 and 1932 at a time when support for the far right was growing; it was they who brought down the Social-Democrat government of Prussia in the summer of 1932 with a coup that replaced the elected Prussian state government with an imperial commissariat. And it was the absorption of Prussia into the federal government that enabled Hermann Goering to secure control of the Prussian police force – the largest in Germany – after the appointment of Hitler to the chancellorship. Here, too, the conservatives provided the Nazis with key tools for the consolidation of their own power. Even the Reichstag Fire Decrees, which suspended civil and political rights, and the Enabling Act, which made it possible for the Hitler cabinet to override parliament, were devices concocted by the conservatives. Electoral success and control over a large political movement with a formidable militia were important assets, but it was the combination of these advantages with the collaboration of the old elites that gave Hitler and his party the edge they needed in 1933.
The extent of Hitler’s ability to shape the evolution of his regime has long been the subject of debate. ‘Intentionalists’ argued that he enjoyed a plenitude of power and used it to pursue a consistent programme. ‘Structuralists’ argued that the chaotic interplay between poorly co-ordinated centres of power opened the regime to influence from below, meaning that its leaders were as often as not carried along on a tide of ‘cumulative radicalisation’ generated by negative energies they were responsible for releasing but which were not ultimately under their control. Kershaw’s biography balanced the two perspectives, identifying the many different local and regional initiatives that shaped policy but also insisting on Hitler’s role in deciding which would be adopted.
Longerich pushes hard in the intentionalist direction, identifying Hitler as the key decision-maker at virtually every key juncture. Hitler directed the putsch against the SA and other opponents of the regime in the summer of 1934, enabled the forcible sterilisation of the ‘Rhineland bastards’ (children of French colonial troops and German women) in 1937, and triggered the murder of seventy thousand people under the ‘euthanasia’ programme of 1939-41. Hitler ensured that the war against the Soviet Union would be one of racial conquest and annihilation, insisting that it was ‘a confrontation between two ideologies’ in the course of which ‘the Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia … must be eliminated.’ And Hitler was implicated in every stage of the genocide against the Jews. In April 1943, for example, he hectored the Hungarian leader, Admiral Horthy, insisting that he send Hungary’s Jews to the death camps. ‘Jews’, he told Horthy, had to be ‘treated like tuberculosis bacilli’. The Slovaks, the Croatians and other satellites were also taken to task for dragging their feet over the deportation of ‘their’ Jews.
Longerich’s meticulous account draws on stupendous reading in the archives. If there is a weakness, it lies in the decision to focus the inquiry so tightly on Hitler alone. Whereas the early part of the book is scrupulously attentive to context and to the young Hitler’s dependence on a multitude of helpers, the fully-fledged dictator dominates the stage. And this, of course, makes it harder to verify the claims Longerich makes for Hitler’s central place in the regime’s decision-making structure.
Longerich’s book moves steadily over its terrain, like one of those cleaners on the floors of swimming pools that collect drowned insects and dead leaves. Brendan Simms’s Hitler: Only the World Was Enough is a very different undertaking; written with passion, it grabs the reader by the elbow and propels her from the very first page towards one, ultimate conclusion. The central argument is that at the centre of Hitler’s worldview was a profound preoccupation with ‘Anglo-America’. It began on the Western Front during the First World War when his unit faced British, Canadian and Australian troops and found them to be tough fighters. It deepened in 1918 when he encountered some American prisoners of war, freshly arrived from across the Atlantic, and noticed that some of them had German names. These ‘seminal’ experiences, Simms argues, ensured that Hitler became obsessed with the power, size and global reach of capitalist Anglo-America. He also came to believe that ‘the Anglo-Saxons’ enjoyed these advantages in part because their racial value had been elevated by the influx over several centuries of German emigrants who, by leaving their country, had placed sound hereditary material in the hands of a foreign power.
Simms is not the first historian to stress the importance of America to Nazism. Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction (2006) highlighted the crushing asymmetries between the American and German war efforts in 1941-45 and his next book, The Deluge (2014), proposed a rethinking of the 20th century as an era marked not by the fragility, but by the immense power of the liberal Anglo-American order. In tracing Hitler’s thinking about the Anglo-world across an impressive range of fronts over the span of his political career, Simms is able to show that the US and Britain were more important reference points than has previously been acknowledged, and that Hitler’s geopolitical vision was genuinely global. The case he makes for this claim is compelling and original. If this were the book’s objective, we could simply record our approval and retire, tired but happy, to bed. But Simms has a much larger objective in view.
His book, he announces in the introduction, is not intended to be ‘additive’ in the sense of merely bringing new ideas to an existing literature. Instead, it aims to be ‘substitutive’. The book is not offering a new perspective on Hitler: it is proposing a new theory of Hitler. Hitler’s antisemitism, his quest for ‘living space’ in the east, his aspiration to overcome class antagonisms through the creation of a harmonious ‘people’s community’ (Volksgemeinschaft), even his architectural preferences – all of these, in Simms’s reading, are subordinate functions of his obsession with Anglo-America. The Volksgemeinschaft becomes Germany’s attempt to match the American Dream; the aim of the war with Russia is to deny resources to the Anglo-Americans; antisemitism is merely an articulation of Hitler’s loathing for Anglo-American ‘plutocratic capitalism’.
Rethinking Hitler in this way forces Simms to shunt the Soviet Union, the decisive theatre of the war, to the margins of his analysis. Even when Hitler is bogged down in his attritional conflict with the Red Army, Simms insists it is Anglo-America he has in his sights. Not all of these claims are new. In a controversial study published in 1987, the German historian Rainer Zitelmann argued that Hitler was contemptuous of radical antisemites, admired Stalin and pursued eastern ‘living space’ chiefly as a means of achieving parity with the United States. What sets Simms apart is his determination to answer every question with the same argument.
This means that Hitler has to be uncoupled from the idea of anti-Bolshevism and aligned instead with the enemies of ‘plutocratic capitalism’. But was Hitler an ‘anti-capitalist’? There was an anti-capitalist ‘left wing’ within the Nazi Party, but Hitler never made any serious effort to follow through on their demands: the banks were never nationalised, corporate profits remained buoyant, department stores remained in business, and the power of those Nazis who espoused a ‘second [social] revolution’ was destroyed by the putsch of 1934, in which he played a central role. As for Hitler’s frequent expressions of loathing for Bolshevism and the German left (not to mention his regime’s murderous attacks on both), Simms has to put these aside as aberrations or decode them as indirect references to world Jewry and its capitalist schemes.
Hitler’s antisemitism, too, becomes a dependent variable. But while it’s certainly true that he toyed with the idea of using the Jews as ‘hostages’ to deter Washington from entering the war, Simms’s reasoning makes it impossible to explain the increase in the intensity of the use of extermination in the last years of the conflict, when America was already in the fight and nothing could be gained through further killing sprees within the shrinking area under German control. Longerich argues, rightly in my view, that for Hitler the extermination of the Jews was an end in its own right, but also that it became a tool of power politics, drawing satellite governments into a web of criminal complicity from which there could be no escape. As Lucy Dawidowicz argued many years ago and Richard Evans reminded us more recently, Hitler’s ‘war against the Jews’ really was a war against the Jews.
Simms’s monocausal approach creates an inertia at the heart of his narrative. Hitler, having been shaped for life by his early wartime encounters, is immune to change. That he acquired a set of enduring convictions fairly early seems plausible, but that he fixed them into an unalterable hierarchy and stuck to this order of priorities throughout his life seems much less likely. Hitler’s political commentaries, memoranda and monologues – and, for that matter, his political behaviour and decision-making – are full of moments when he seems to switch from one priority to another as circumstances change. In Longerich’s account, Hitler is repeatedly forced to pull back from one commitment and prioritise another. For Simms, Hitler’s mind is as unreactive as argon gas: he never yields an iota to the pressure of events. The closing sentence of the last chapter says it all: ‘As in the beginning, so at the end.’
Hitler got a lot of things wrong, Simms tells us, and his career was ultimately a ‘catastrophic failure’. But he was ‘exactly right’ about ‘the overwhelming power of Anglo-America’ and ‘entirely accurate’ in his conviction that the Germans were too weak to prevail against ‘the “Anglo-Saxons”, the global “master race”’. It was a fatal error, Simms observes, to muster a continental European ‘coalition of cripples’ against the awesome might of Anglo-America, whose exploits against the Third Reich are reported with knee-hugging gusto. Simms’s suggestion that Hitler was fundamentally anti-capitalist has already earned him a sharp rebuke from Richard Evans in the Guardian. Evans accused him of using Hitler to besmirch the reputation of the left and of thereby importing into British academic discourse the extremist polemics of the American alt-right. This seems to me a misunderstanding. Simms’s book displays a geopolitical vision of a post-Brexit world in which Anglo-America rises above a weak and fragmented Europe too lacking in political cohesion to wield real power on the global stage. It is no accident that the book’s subtitle gestures to The World Is Not Enough (1999), in which James Bond and an American nuclear physicist save the world from chaos. Simms is a prolific commentator on current affairs and he has repeatedly criticised the EU states (especially Ireland) for failing to see that Britain, like America, is, by tradition and character, an ‘ordering power’, not a power that can be subordinated to an order greater than itself. It is, quite simply, a country of a different, stronger and better kind. On this question, it seems that Simms and his subject are in agreement.
Knausgaard recalls the sensation of near nausea that overcame him as he began reading Mein Kampf: ‘Hitler’s words and Hitler’s thoughts were thereby admitted to my own mind and for a brief moment became a part of it.’ Simms confesses a similar apprehension: ‘the author,’ he writes, ‘has tried throughout to get into Hitler’s mind, without letting [Hitler] get into his.’ Whether Hitler gets into our minds, or we mislay something of our own inside his, it’s clear that this strange and hateful man, who has been dead for 74 years, is still messing with our heads.