THE HITLER OF HISTORY
By John Lukacs
EXPLAINING HITLER: THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF HIS EVIL
By Ron Rosenbaum
Since his death in 1945, there have been over one hundred biographies of
Adolf Hitler, as well as countless histories and analyses of the Third Reich.
Anyone attempting to deal with Hitler today faces a mass of material that has
been likened to a mountain, a jungle, and a minefield.
Hitler is, in every sense of the word, a loaded subject.
Neither of these new books is a biography of Hitler. Lukacs's theme is
"Hitler's popularity and its variations," developed through a
"history of his history." Rosenbaum's focus is both deeper and more
narrow: an attempt to "explain the explainers" of Hitler's evil - a
search that goes beneath the Hitler of history into scholarly "subtexts and
While both books are challenging and provocative, neither is meant to be
revisionist. Lukacs, the professional academic, concentrates on Hitler as
politician. Rosenbaum, the investigative reporter, is more interested in
Hitler's "evil" (something he identifies almost solely with the
Holocaust). As a result, Explaining Hitler is more personal and profound,
The Hitler of History more scholarly and precise.
While both books are thoroughly researched, not everything can be taken at
face value. Rosenbaum, having the benefit of a later publication, disagrees with
Lukacs's explanation for the "crystallization" of Hitler's
anti-Semitism in 1919. I had problems with this too, but more because I don't
like the whole idea of a personality crystallizing.
Beyond this, a fuller critique might have questioned Lukacs's main theme,
that Hitler was "a populist revolutionary in a democratic age." I can
see where this is coming from, but I still think it is misleading. Hitler's real
popularity may be impossible to establish, but it is safe to say he was no
apostle of democracy. And it is worth remembering that the Nazi Party was never
elected by a majority in a free election.
On the other hand, Rosenbaum also has his slips.
At one point he raises the possibility that Hitler was present in a funeral
procession for Kurt Eisner, a murdered Jewish Socialist, in 1919. The evidence
for this is a a "piece of faded, scratchy newsreel footage" showing
"a figure who looks remarkably like Hitler."
Is it? Ronsenbaum isn't sure, yet later in the book Hitler's presence at the
funeral is described as an established "fact."
On another occasion, Rosenbaum casts doubt on Hitler's description of his
relationship with his niece Geli Raubal. Again, later in the book this is
transformed into the "certainty" that Hitler lied about the
relationship and was responsible for Geli's suicide. Nothing about this is
Both books focus on the major myths and mysteries that still surround Hitler:
What caused his anti-Semitism? Did he have Jewish blood? What was his sex life
like? Was he insatiable or impotent? When did he order the "final
solution" and how involved was he in carrying it out? To what extent were
the German people responsible for Hitler and his evil? The gaps in the
historical record leave room for all kinds of speculation.
While they cast it in different terms, the final question in both books has
to do with Hitler's "exceptionality." (Lukacs debates
"greatness" but, in so far as this word can be applied to Hitler, I
think it means the same thing.)
There is no questioning the exceptional effect Hitler had on history. In
terms of final responsibility, the Second World War was his war, the Holocaust
his crime. But was he a "spectacular anomaly," or "the most
extraordinary figure in the history of the twentieth century"? I don't
I wouldn't want to explain Hitler entirely in terms of sweeping historical
forces, what Rosenbaum calls the "abstractionist fallacy," but it
seems to me that the nineteenth-century idea of history being the biography of
"great men" is even harder to defend.
This century has been witness to a host of all-too-ordinary (if not below
average) individuals rising to positions of unprecedented influence and power.
We have also seen that individuals can have an effect on history out of all
proportion to any personal qualities they possess.
Arguably, the most influential political figure since 1945 has been Ronald
Reagan. The most powerful man in the world today is Bill Clinton. The richest
(indeed, the richest in history) is Bill Gates. Which of these individuals can
be described as "great"? Are any of them, in any way, exceptional?
Adolf Hitler was not a man without qualities. He had a keen understanding of
politics and propaganda that was far ahead of his time, as well as a tremendous
capacity for hate. But perhaps when all the evidence is in we will be able to
understand his historical importance better, and see him as a man of less
personal interest and significance.
Review first published July 18, 1998.