Lukacs, hitler of historyRosenbaum, Explaining Hitler

Brush up your Hitler

by John D. Clare
Teaching History, Feb. 1999

review of two recent books about Hitler
Hitler in History Project, by Prof. Harold Marcuse (homepage)

Links, formatted & archived Sept. 12, 2005

Portrayals of 1920s Hitler
1950s: Idealist or Opportunist?
'Hitler-Wave' of 60s and 70s
1970s: 'Historicisation' or 'Admiration'?

Debates of the 80s & 90s


Background (back to top)

Introduction (back to top)

When I started teaching history in the 1970s, a lot of the work done in schools was a fact-heavy trudge through a string of mnemonics. Explanations were delivered (and learned by the pupils) as immutable truths. Given the exigencies of examination league tables, perhaps, I sense pressure to go back to this. But, fortunately, the National Curriculum requires teachers to address 'interpretations of history', and this, surely, is the way forward. It is in informed debate that the subject comes to life.

How should we be stretching our best pupils at every level? They have to demonstrate that they know 'the basics', but they ought also to be showing that they have some independence and originality of thought. An informed class debate on an important issue will at once generate creative ideas, stimulate spontaneity of thought and emphasise the importance of factual support in logical argument. However, if teachers are to address 'interpretations of history in a meaningful way, we need to go beyond issues as facile as 'Was king John bad?', and we need to be up-to-date in our own scholarship.

So - what are the issues exercising historians interpreting Hitler? Two recent books John Lukacs, The Hitler of History and Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler have made it much easier for history teachers to find out.

Of the two, Lukacs (pronounced 'Loo-kash') offers the more academic approach. In Chapter One he gives the reader an historical survey of how historians have written about Hitler. The succeeding chapters provide surveys of (and Lukacs' opinions on) the different problems of biographical interpretation which are still 'live' issues - such as 'Was Hitler an aberration in German history or a symptom of it?', 'Was Hitler 'evil'?' and 'Was Hitler 'evil'?' and 'Was Hitler 'great'?'. For teachers seeking interesting 'big questions' to consider at Key Stage 3 and GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education, like US high school diploma], such issues provide ideas for discussion with pupils (of all ages).

Ron Rosenbaum is a journalist. He tells us his aim in his Introduction: so many writers have tried to explain Hitler that he decided instead to 'explain the explainers'. The reader accompanies Rosenbaum on this mission - delving into archives, travelling round Germany, interviewing different people (note: 'people' for, as well as historians, Rosenbaum interviews the film-maker Claude Lanzmann, the novelist George Steiner, the theologian Emil Fackenheim). The book is less academic than Lukacs' - even, at points, salacious - but it's more fun! Unlike Lukacs, you won't get away with reading only Chapter One. If you have to choose, read Chapters 3-5 and 14-20; it's all thought-provoking stuff.

All secondary history teachers need to know at least some historiography of Hitler if they are to outline the issues, to steer discussion with confidence or to set up activities exploring real historiographical debates. Just because average ability Year 9s and grade C/D-ish Year 10s might not (yet) be able to read raw Lukacs it does not mean that we cannot draw on his understandings to mediate difficult ideas through imaginative activities. Moreover, the historiography of Hitler is really a fascinating study of the rest of the 20th century - how its preoccupations have shifted our understandings, our choices of narrative detail. This, of course, is what the National Curriculum requirement and the GCSE requirement to teach 'interpretations' is all about. Here is just a taste of the journey on which Lukacs and Rosenbaum will take you.

[Portrayals of 1920s Hitler:] (back to top)
Hitler on Hitler

Hitler wrote his own account of his life and thought, of course. Mein Kampf presents a Hitler who had a relatively happy childhood (despite conflict with his father about his ultimate profession) during which his history teacher, Dr Poetsch, filled him with a love of Germany. His early twenties, by contrast, in Vienna, eking out a living as a painter, were unhappy and 'a continual struggle with Hunger'. It was in these years, he claimed, that he formed his ideology - the hatred of Communism and (in a famous encounter) of the Jews. After the defeat of 1918, he 'decided to go into politics'. Mein Kampf sold in millions, and made Hitler a rich man, although he himself later declared it 'superseded' by events. All writers agree that it if you want a description of his life, it is a very unreliable account. It is written to create a myth.

The Journalists' Hitler (back to top)

During his rise to power, in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, a number of accounts of Hitler were written. Most of the biographies - such as that by his childhood friend August Kubizek, or by a tramp Hitler once knew, Reinhold Hanisch - are anecdotal, highly-coloured, and factually inaccurate. They proved a rich source of evidence for the psycho-historians of the 1980s! More valuable are the accounts of German journalists of the time. Konrad Heiden was the first person to change the diminutive for National Socialist ('Naso') to the word 'Nazi' - a Bavarian slang word meaning 'simpleton' (like 'Christian', the term stuck). Heiden's Adolf Hitler: The Age of Irresponsibility (1936) is described by Lukacs as 'dense with details [and] insightful personal commentaries'. Rosenbaum, by contrast, finds it 'overwrought and melodramatic [offering] Suetonian detail about that Caligula's court' - although it doesn't stop him using Heiden extensively in an over-long section rehearsing Hitler's alleged sexual perversions with his niece Geli Raubal. The German journalists - amongst whom the reporters of the anti-Nazi Munich Post were prominent - presented a view of Nazi corruption, criminality, blackmail and terror: brutal thugs murdering their way to power (their warnings fell on deaf German ears, and most of them went to exile or death after 1933). Pupils using them as a source need to remember the caveats (origin-context-motive) that apply to using any source material.

The 1950s: Idealist or Opportunist? (back to top)

After the war, many historians (particularly French writers) believed that it was too soon to write an objective account of Hitler (Lukacs, interestingly, rejects the very terms 'objective' and 'subjective' - since an historian's instruments are words, which have to be chosen, 'his selection of every word is not merely a scientific or stylistic problem but also a moral one': i.e. ALL writing is 'subjective'.) Nevertheless, the 1950s saw two accounts of note. Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952) is now regarded as out-of-date. Bullock - who claimed that he wrote 'without any particular axe to grind or case to argue' - presented a Hitler little different to that of the Munich Post journalists: 'an entirely unprincipled opportunist' who was prepared to say, and do, anything necessary to get power. In particular, Bullock drew attention to the political manoeuvring which brought Hitler to power in 1933. The counter-view to this was presented by Hugh Trevor-Roper, an Oxford don who had investigated Hitler's death for M16. In his 1953 introduction - entitled 'The Mind of Adolf Hitler' - to Hitler's Secret Conversations (i.e. an edition of Hitler's 'Table Talk'), Trevor-Roper presented Hitler as a man 'convinced of his own rectitude', who genuinely believed what he told the German people. This view was echoed in the first German biography of Hitler - by Gorlitz and Quint, two conservative historians who wrote under pseudonyms. Their Hitler (1952) was a fanatical radical who rose to power because of the weakness of his political opponents.

The general opinion today, is that Hitler genuinely believed what he was saying (in 1979, the historian KD Bracher argued that Hitler was an ideologue, propelled to self-destruction by his ideology, a fanatic for whom 'nothing else mattered in the end' save a perverse desire to massacre the Jews). Even Bullock has changed his mind on the issue; his position now is that Hitler came to believe his own propaganda a standpoint which informs his most recent book on Hitler: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991).

Another key historian of the 1950s who turned his attention to Hitler was A.J.P Taylor. Although Taylor is not regarded as an authoritative source nowadays, his collected essays in Europe, Grandeur and Decline (1967) are still worth reading, if only as a source of strong opinions which could fuel a class discussion! Moreover, with the right input and set-up, our brightest 13 and 14 year-olds ought to be able to work out why Taylor is no longer academically respectable. Taylor found Hitler 'loathsome', with 'a depth and elaboration of evil all his own, as though something primitive had emerged from the bowels of the earth'. But Hitler 'though evil, was great in action'. Taylor was one of the first historians to recognise the statesman in Hitler, who out-manoeuvred his political opponents ('a man bent on success on the one side, and a group of politicians without ideas or principles on the other'). Taylor was also open in his hatred of Germans ('It is all very well to like Italians better than Germans. Who doesn't?'). For him, both world wars were part of a wider German 'struggle for mastery' over Europe. Thus, for Taylor, it was the Germans who were responsible for Hitler. He was their fault: 'If there had been a strong democratic sentiment in Germany, Hitler would never have come to power . . . No doubt men deserved what they got, when they went round crying for a hero.'

The 'Hitler-Wave' of the 1960s and 1970s (back to top)

The '60s, and especially the '70s, saw a 'Hitler-wave' of interest in Hitler, and a number of important biographical contributions. It will distress older teachers who spent a summer holiday wading through the 1400 pages of William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), to find that Lukacs dismisses it as 'superficial'. Shirer was an American correspondent who worked in Hitler's Germany, and experienced events at first hand. His Foreword freely admits his loathing of the Third Reich with its 'ugly assault upon the human spirit' (it also lists the vast quantity of archive material available, of which the 485 tons of German Foreign Office documents form only a small part). For Shirer, 'there almost certainly would never have been a Third Reich' without Hitler, who is an example of 'the power of personality' in history. Shirer's Hitler 'was possessed of a demonic personality, a granite will, uncanny instincts, a cold ruthlessness, a remarkable intellect [and] a soaring imagination'. His political ideas, formed in Vienna, gave him a mission and a message which - through the Depression and 'a shabby political deal' - brought him spectacular power and success 'until, drunk with power and success, he overreached himself.' During the '60s, two German historians produced books which largely endorsed this view of Hitler. Frederick Heer (1967) demonstrated how Hitler's ideology could only be understood in the context of Austrian antiSemitism. And Eberhard Jackel (1969) showed that Hitler's Weltanschauung (world view) was an early-formed ideology, to which he remained consistent throughout his life, and which led inevitably to the invasion of Russia and the 'Final Solution'.

The 1970s: 'Historicisation' or 'Admiration'? (back to top)

After 1970, a generation of historians who had not had to fight against Hitler were able, as the historian Martin Broszat recommended in 1985, to move away from the 'demonisation' of Hitler, towards the 'historicisation' of Hitler. Thus, although Marxist historians continued to represent Hitler merely as the 'compliant creature' of big business, in the west a new picture of Hitler began to form. It saw 1933-1945 as a part of German history like any other, and started using objective terminology when speaking of Hitler and his times, avoiding the pejorative and value-laden terms usually applied to Nazi Germany - from 'evil' and 'demonic' to 'dictatorship'.

Beyond this development, indeed, some historians even saw some attributes worthy of admiration in Hitler. Joachim Fest, the German historian of a highly-regarded 1973 biography, asserted that, if Hitler had died in 1938, 'few would hesitate to name him as one of the greatest statesmen of Germany'. John Toland, an American journalist, conducted 159 interviews with people who knew Hitler - including his cooks and his chauffeur - as part of the research for his 1977 biography. Although he claimed that 'my book has no thesis', he called Hitler 'probably the greatest mover and shaker of the twentieth century', and his book regularly showed admiration for its subject. (Toland's Hitler is now available in a cheap edition, ISBN 1-85326-6760).

Although his work has absolutely no academic credence, teachers should also be aware of David Irving (Hitler's War, 1977). He, too, conducted interviews with members of the Nazi coterie (Rosenbaum thinks they seduced him). Irving, who doubts that Hitler ever gave the order for the Final Solution - which he asserts was small-scale and localised, if it ever happened at all - ended up as an apologist for Hitler, and regular lecturer to neo-Nazi audiences. Lukacs dismisses him as an 'amateur', and criticises his technique ('a fragment of a document is enough for Irving to build a very questionable thesis on its contents or on the lack of them') and scholarship (some of his footnote references are irrelevant or do not exist). The 1970s also saw the work of the psycho-historians; scholars who tried to apply psychology to our knowledge of Hitler to try to find 'the roots of his evil'. Primary among them were Walter Langer, Robert G.L. Waite and Rudolph Binion. Teachers interested in these ideas will find them explained by Rosenbaum (though, strangely, Rosenbaum neglects Hitler's fascination with the occult). They are fascinating, many are hilarious, and some fly directly in the face of the facts. They claim, variously, that Hitler was psychotic:

  • because his penis was bitten by a goat,
  • because he only had one testicle,
  • because he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute,
  • because he had a Jewish grandfather,
  • because his father beat him,
  • because his father beat his mother
  • because malignant incestuousness (towards his mother) developed into an obsessive love of death,
  • because a Jewish doctor failed to cure his mother of cancer,
  • because of post-hypnotic suggestion (at Pasewalk hospital in 1918),
  • because of post-encephalitic sociopathy (the result of being gassed in the First World War) or
  • because of sexual perversion (notably in his relationship with Geli Raubal - it is a fact that all the six woman in Hitler's life committed or attempted suicide)

A number of historians have declared Hitler 'a raving maniac' or 'a sick swine'. Strangely, claims that Hitler was psychologically disturbed also tended towards a rehabilitation of Hitler, since, in our society, a person who is insane is deemed not responsible, in law, for the acts he has committed. Fling that one at Years 9, 10 and 11 and they really start to understand how a society's values can reshape the histories it tells.

The Debates of the 1980s and 1990s (back to top)

The 1980s were characterised by (occasionally violent) debates about Hitler. One debate is known as the Historikerstreit - the 'historian's quarrel'. It was essentially a political clash about history and German national identity, between writers whose work might be perceived as a 'rehabilitation' of Hitler, and those who feared that this presaged a revival of Nazism. The historian Ernst Nolte, who saw Nazism as a reaction against the tyranny and dangers of Soviet Bolshevism, offered an important contribution to this debate. Another important idea was the 'Dual War' theory of Andreas Hillgruber, who asserted that, until 1941, Hitler was fighting an ordinary, traditional 'European War; largely unwillingly; only after he invaded Russia did the war become the ideological struggle-to-the-death that Hitler had always wanted.

A second, much more important - and continuing - debate is that between the 'intentionalists' and the 'functionalists: Functionalist historians, essentially, revolted against the intentionalist idea, explicit or implicit in many biographies, that Hitler had, in some way, created the Third Reich. Lukacs tends towards the intentionalists: 'Zeitgeist' [the spirit of the times] may have assisted Hitler's coming to power; but in the end he created his own Zeitgeist. Similarly, the modern German historian Rainer Zitelmann (who, interestingly, asserts that we need to use the primary sources much more critically) argues that Hitler intentionally modernised Germany. Zitelmann's Hitler was 'far more rational than up to now thought', and came to power because his ideas were radically revolutionary - and because he had a sound understanding of the economy. Thus the German economic revival was a result of Hitler's reflationary policies, not just an offshoot of re-armament - which, incidentally, is directly contrary to the opinion of the British historian Tim Mason, who argues that by 1939 Hitler had got the German economy into such a mess that he was propelled into war as the only way to prevent economic melt-down.

By contrast, functionalist writers have sought to shift the emphasis away from Hitler. 'Functionalism' is a term used both generally (great men do not make history) and of Nazi-Germany and the Holocaust specifically (where the impetus is seen as coming from lower-ranking officials rather than simply Hitler). This is the viewpoint that is generally accepted in its moderate form by most academic historians. In the general sense of functionalism, Rosenbaum details some fascinating (if far-fetched) explanations of the Hitler phenomenon, which teachers may enjoy floating with their pupils. Was the 'final solution' the ultimate product of white, Western ideas about what is beautiful (as George Hersey argues) or the inevitable endresult of Christian anti-Semitism (as Hyam Maccoby thinks)? The author George Steiner, in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., suggests that Nazism was a reaction against the 'blackmail of transcendence' perpetrated upon humanity by three Jewish thinkers (Moses, Jesus and Marx) who had foisted unattainable moral codes upon western civilisation - Steiner's Hitler represents an upwelling of folk-revenge by a people sick of feeling guilty!

The respected historian Saul Freidlander is a 'functionalist' historian (although he suspects that some functionalists go too far in trying to remove Hitler from the picture). In his book, Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997), Freidlander sees the rise of Hitler as a complex causality, but emphasises what he calls 'redemptive anti- Semitism'- the mixture of racial and Christian anti-Semitism, mixed with Wagnerian nationalism and fear of Bolshevism, which was seeking a 'redeemer' to 'save' Germany. Similarly, the historian Daniel Goldhagen, in Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) claims that Nazism was the result of a unique 'eliminationist anti-Semitism' which developed through the 19th century, and which Germans embraced. By the end of the war, he claims, half a million Germans were actively (and enthusiastically) engaged in killing Jews. Goldhagen's scholarship is heavily criticised, but his ideas -- which emphasise the willingness and the 'German-ness' of the Holocaust - are keenly debated.

The most recent (1998) account of Hitler by Ian Kershaw - Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris - is a broadly functionalist biography. In his narrative, Kershaw seeks to demonstrate that Hitler was created by his environment and propelled to power by it. Kershaw's Hitler picks up his ideas in Vienna, is given his start in politics as a tool of the army, and comes to power because developments in Germany - social Darwinism, nationalism, fear of communism, acceptance of public violence, a disastrous war, and economic fluctuations - created an environment in which Germans were seeking a saviour. Kershaw asserts Weber's definition of charismatic leadership which claims that hero-worship develops in the needs of the worshipper, not in the character of the hero. Kershaw's Hitler is reactive, dependant on others, inconsistent, lazy, hesitant and nervous. Even after 1933, according to Kershaw, Hitler was of secondary importance - the explosion of national socialist activity occurred because organisations and individuals within Germany believed that they should `work towards the Fuhrer' Another time, another place, and neither Hitler nor his ideas would have got anywhere.

The Textbooks (back to top)

Given this rich range of ideas and debates, textbooks on Hitler and the rise of Nazism are generally disappointing. At Key Stage 3, most offer only an anodyne narrative, and the best merely a selection of different factors which helped the rise of Hitler to power. GCSE textbooks, whilst treating the subject in a more detailed way, go little beyond this approach. Few even require the pupils to weigh the importance of the various factors, never mind assess whether or not Hitler was responsible for his rise to power- a typical question (in a GCSE textbook which devotes 44 pages to 'How was Hitler able to dominate Germany?') asks simply: 'The text describes many factors which helped the Nazis. Explain how each one helped them: The pupils are never lifted into the shape and the significance of the real debates (which would probably help them to remember things). In some GCSE accounts, the degree of political detail is tedious in the extreme.

I have not found one book which addresses directly the issues of interpretation listed by Lukacs. Most GCSE textbooks dissect the topic instead into a series of individual events (such as the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar government and the Munich Putsch) and simply ask analytical questions about each episode. Many books are littered with judgement- statements such as: 'Hitler was a political genius but he could not have [come to power] without help'. Most toggle between 'Hitler did ..' and 'the Nazis did ...' as though the two terms were synonymous. Thus pupils under the age of 16 are spoon-fed a general-functionalist view of Hitler, in which his rise to power is viewed as the inevitable result of a number of general factors in Germany. Only at A-level do pupils' books adequately acknowledge the existence of different historians' opinions on Hitler and the Third Reich. Teachers who wish to read a short overview of the issues are recommended DG Williamson, The Third Reich (Longman Seminar Studies, 1995). Nevertheless, there is enough information in most modern KS3 and GCSE textbooks for the teacher, with adaptation, to allow his pupils to address the big, overview questions:

  • Was Hitler the main cause of his own rise to power?
  • Was Hitler 'evil'?
  • Was Hitler 'great'?

and/or to express opinions about:

  • Was he a tricster or a 'fanatic'?
  • Was Hitler's rise to power inevitable?
  • Was Hitler mad?
  • Why are people today so fascinated by Hitler?
  • Can we study Hitler objectively?

The challenge is now to bring this kind of issue before Key Stage 3 and GCSE pupils, giving them opportunity for informed debate which will inspire and create historical interest. Specialist historical knowledge, including historiographical understanding, is essential at all levels of secondary teaching and creates even bigger intellectual demands of the lower secondary school teacher who must attempt to mediate and enthuse without distortion.

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