The Hollow Man, Filled with Hate
Hitler by Joachim C. Fest, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1974. 844 pages. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston.
This is a biography, though after about 1933 it really becomes a history of the third Reich, albeit one that pays even more attention that usual to the Führer‘s quirks and foibles — for Hitler is always, always, viewed from some distance. The tenor is more like a biography of some figure shrouded in the depths of history, a Hannibal, perhaps, or a Otto III. After a discussion of Hitler’s origins, his formative influences and his time in Vienna, there are very few glimpses of his private life. He fell in love with a half-niece of his, Geli Raubal but she killed herself in the early thirties, possibly to get away from him, and this appears to be an event that affected him deeply and permanently. But beyond that there is very little here that is truly personal. He liked to (or felt compelled to) pontificate for hours in the evenings to an audience that felt compelled to listen politely. And he liked his Wagner. But he never shapes up as a whole man. Can this be done? Do his deeds make it impossible to (want to) consider him as a rounded human being, or was there no such thing present in the first place? In that sense he remains a hole at the centre of the book.
So the usual examination of private life as found in almost every modern biography is absent. Hitler ate simple meals, loved his dogs and was a mess of neuroses, anxieties, mad theories and cunning, but his dreams, errors and ‘achievements’ were all written out in his actions, as if he had no private life, no thoughts beside the grandiose. He had his dreams — like emptying the Crimea and importing the whole population of the South Tyrol to live there, like establishing Berlin as a world capital — but they were all akin to the things he did do. There are few private dreams (though he did imagine retiring to curate and art gallery), no personal scandals, no jilted lovers and divorced wives. Not even a drinking problem (though there is an apparent dependence on mood altering drugs as the war went on, but even those are more to keep him functioning in a mechanical, lifeless kind of way). Even Eva Braun barely gains a mention, and given her tightly circumscribed role in Hitler’s life, this is as it should be.
The book opens with a prologue, (provocatively?) titled ‘Hitler and Historical Greatness’. It makes the point that, had he died in 1938, he would have been seen as the rebuilder of Germany, a man who, yes, had some unseemly quirks, but who put a great nation back on its feet, gave it confidence and set it on the path to recovery after the grim years of the Weimar republic and the depression. (I am not so sure — Hitler’s Germany was paying its bills by printing money and would have come undone financially had it not gone to war, I suspect.)
We see the miasma of anti-Semitism and German nationalism that existed in pre-WWI Vienna, we see the reaction to the ‘betrayal’ of 1918, the anger created by the Versailles treaty and war reparations — Hitler comes out (inevitably, perhaps) as a mix of his inherent nature (his ability to judge and manipulate people, his uncanny abilities as an orator, his unshakeable belief that he and he alone knew what to do and how) and the environment that shaped him, that let his warped genius thrive. The way he turned so many reversals into triumphs in the early years, the faith he had in his own vision and his own leadership, these things are remarkable and show him as just as driven, compulsive, and inflexible in the 1920s as he was in the 1940s. Crucially, Fest clearly demonstrates that Hitler did not ‘go crazy’ as the war went against him. Indeed, the war stripped away a veneer of reasonableness which he had put on in the 1920s as part of his strategy to gain power, and showed him more clearly as what he always had been. His consistency is remarkable. The war of 1939, the turning against Russia in search of lebensraum, the Holocaust, his ongoing desire to reach an understanding with the British Empire (basically, “you let me do as I like in Europe, and I won’t challenge you at sea, do we have a deal?”); it is all in Mein Kampf or one of his early speeches. One of the many remarkable sides to the story is just how frank Hitler was in his statements of intent, and yet how, when he switched tactics and extolled peace and made political deals in the 1930s, statesmen were prepared to — were desperate to — believe him.
We see how the many opportunities to halt his momentum were wasted, right up to the phoney war of 1940, when 100 French divisions could — as they had promised Poland they would — have rolled into western Germany in the face of at most 25 German divisions. But his grasp of the lack of will in his opponents was uncanny. Indeed, amidst the cavalcade of weak leadership, the arrival of Churchill — glimpsed tangentially here — only grows in importance. Germany was never strong enough in men and material to wage a massive war of attrition, and when the rapid victories ceased, doom was a matter of time. (That, says Fest, is the true reason behind blitzkrieg.) When an implacable foe arose, Hitler was oddly powerless. He could not understand a man who would not negotiate opportunistically.
War, it is clear, was inevitable — it was his aim all along. The politicking of the 1930s was explicitly a preliminary for war. He did not strengthen Germany to improve the lives of Germans but to create an arsenal. He could not have drawn back, pleased with building his greater Germany after the Anschluss and his success in Czechoslovakia any more than he could have ceased his anti-Semitism or fear/hatred of Bolshevism.
Similarly, even more grimly, the minorities he oppressed were always doomed. The Holocaust was no striking out of a doomed regime but integral to the machinery of state. Nazi Germany was ruled by a political system built on obedience, violence, and exclusion. The Holocaust was a completely natural extension of Hitler’s racial theories and of his anti-Semitism, both of which pre-dated even World War I.
Hitler, the prologue suggests, made a lot of history, yet there was no greatness in him. He was a small man, full of fear, vindictiveness and wrong-headed idiocy, yet convinced of his own destiny such that he managed to drag a whole nation, one in desperate need of self-belief and revenge, along with him to its doom.
As we already knew, nobody wins.