III. Hitler, Germany, and the Holocaust
|Some Russian history|
|In his book Russian Rebels: 1600-1800, Paul Avrich makes a number of comments about the origins, leaders, and events of pre-revolutionary Russian peasant rebellions that are strikingly pertinent to the rise and fall of Hitler. Consider for example this description of the Cossack rebel leader Stenka Razin by a 19th-century Russian historian:
There was something fascinating in his speech...The crowd sensed some supernatural strength in him, against which it was useless to struggle. They called him a sorcerer; and in fact there was in his soul some dreadful and mysterious darkness" [p. 69].
There were many differences between Hitler and Razin of course, but the passage is suggestive. Consider some more comments about Ivan Bolotnikov, who led a violent and destructive peasant revolt in the 17th century:
...personal magnetism, as well as a gift for military leadership, and an extraordinary ability to command the devotion of the lower classes...the first movement from below bent on overturning the existing social order [p. 10]... he had sprung from the same social depths as his adherents and was able to articulate their grievances and aspirations...His was a cry of vengeance [p. 25]...He was a coarse and bloodthirsty brigand with a virulent hatred of the upper classes [p. 39].
Some other interesting comments are made about the previously mentioned Stenka Razin:
...All the ingredients for a mass upheaval - bondage, bureaucratic despotism, spiritual crisis - had steadily accumulated. All, that is to say, save one: the appearance of a charismatic leader to rally the people to his banner [p. 59]...By all accounts he was a born leader, a Cossack of striking personality and appearance, endowed with charismatic powers to influence the behavior of others...He had an instinctive understanding of simple men, and his ability to incarnate the popular ideal of the deliverer was unsurpassed by any other rebel leader. At some point in his life he evidently conceived a hatred for men of privilege and authority...he accurately gauged the mood of the lower classes [p. 68]...His dramatic success on the Caspian surely strengthened his self-confidence and sense of power, as did the aura of invincibility that now surrounded him [p. 77]...They saw in Stenka a man of more than merely human qualities, a messiah sent by Providence to lead them to the promised Land...the popular desire for a redeemer was too strong to be easily dissipated [p. 94]...Razin, however vaguely and inarticulately, was resisting the modernization and secularization of Russian life [p. 118].
Concerning Emelian Pugachev, the 18th-century rebel leader whose movement was (like the others) finally crushed, Avrich says:
...'the rural population went in crowds to meet Pugachev and greeted him as their saviour' [Frederick the Great on Pugachev, cited p. 228]...'In their blind ignorance,' wrote General Golitsyn, 'the common people everywhere greet this infernal monster with exclamations of joy' [p. 228]...the people's faith in a messianic ruler who would rescue them from their tormenters [p. 250]...Pugachev was fully alive to their grievances; indeed, he himself shared them [p. 231]...His propaganda, however, seemed better calculated to arouse a thirst for revenge than to present a clear vision of the future society...his leaflets and manifestoes inspired a greater destructive passion, particularly among the peasantry, than ever before [p. 249]...Yet, for all his charismatic qualities, Pugachev went down in defeat [p. 251].
There are other close parallels between Hitler's Third Reich and these more primitive peasant rebellions. One is extreme violence and brutality:
...In its cyclonic fury the Pugachevshchina surpassed the most terrible scenes of Razin's revolt a century before. 'Everyone was gripped with fear,' wrote an eyewitness. 'Death hung continually over the heads of the landowners'...the destruction was immense and a 'large number of gentry perished.' Another officer reported seeing 'countless bodies' everywhere - hanged, decapitated, mutilated [p. 234]...Pugachev's own hatred of the gentry was unbridled. As he moved down the Volga he issued numerous appeals to exterminate the landlords...Landlords and their families were tortured, strangled, drowned, impaled, set aflame, beaten to death [p. 233].
Writing of this and other rebellions, Avrich says:
Each was marked by immense human suffering [p. 1]...in reprisal the town was subjected to an orgy of looting, burning, and killing [p. 28]...Each night they were taken out by hundreds and slaughtered 'like oxen' and their bodies shoved beneath the ice of the Yauza River [p. 35]...a long orgy of bloodletting [p. 87]...Acts of violence occurred on an unparalleled scale [p. 232].
|Of course, since the rebels of the 17th and 18th centuries didn't have the benefits of modern technology to assist them, they were unable to perpetrate truly advanced and scientific atrocities. This is one of the obvious differences, but still the parallels are evident. There are also significant similarities in the area of causality.
...The urban poor suffered not only from economic hardship but also from the psychological effects of disorientation [p. 89]...The populace yearned for a messiah to restore a lost era of freedom and happiness [p. 15]...rootless and destitute men who could find no secure place in a society where traditional ties were disintegrating. Anxiety and despair were endemic [p. 24]...What held them together was a common hatred of the nobility and of the existing social order...All had suffered a loss of autonomy and status as well as of economic prosperity. And all, as a result, looked back to a lost past which they yearned to recapture [p. 231]...Its immediate causes - the extinction of the ruling dynasty and the famine which followed [p. 46]...It formed a nucleus around which all dissident social elements, all elements opposed to the secularized, bureaucratic, and Westernized power-state in the making, might rally [p. 143]...They aimed to root out alien elements in both society and religion [p. 144]...a vast floating population, rootless, disoriented, and desperate, bereft of its traditional anchors...yet without any new anchors to take their place [p. 46].
The misery of the people made them look for someone to blame, and they blamed the boyars, the nobles, whom they considered to be the origin of their misfortunes:
...Biblical myth was mingled with a pagan demonology in which the nobility formed an alien breed of parasites sucking the blood of the people. Pugachev's was a Manichaean vision which pitted the forces of good, embodied in the common folk, against the forces of evil, embodied in the landlords and officials [p. 228]...the boyars were wicked usurpers, demons in human form who throve on the people's enslavement. To eliminate them - to 'cleanse' or 'remove' them from the land, as rebel propaganda put it - was their devout wish [p. 256]...eliminate the traitors and the bloodsuckers [p. 89]...The governing strata, it was thought, did not belong to the Russian folk, but formed a class apart, an alien breed of parasites sucking the blood of the poor [p. 144]...Any sudden misfortune, such as famine or war, might provoke them into a frenzy of violence against their real or imaginary tormentors...in moments of extreme stress the urban poor could become a vicious, uncontrollable mob [pp. 56-57].
One passage pertaining to Bolotnikov's revolt is rather striking:
...In such times of social dislocation the Russian people lived in a state of high emotion bordering on mass hysteria. Credulous townsmen and villagers were more receptive than ever to myths, rumors, and seditious propaganda. They listened eagerly to the firebrands and missionaries who were able to translate their inarticulate hatreds and hopes into a more or less coherent vision...To the poor the wealthy aristocrats were the authors of all the miseries with which they were afflicted. The boyars, in their eyes, had ceased to be human beings and had become the incarnation of evil, monsters endowed with infernal powers, onto whom the downtrodden projected all that they feared and hated...Bolotnikov's revolt served as a grim warning that the passivity of the masses could, by the right kind of agitation, be swiftly transformed into a paroxysm of burning, pillage, and slaughter. But in the end his rising was doomed to fail [pp. 46-47].
A rabble rousing firebrand with charismatic gifts of leadership articulates the fury of people who have suffered not only defeat in war and great economic hardship, but also the loss of their traditional customs and way of life. He sets off on a violent campaign of conquest and revenge before he is finally brought down by superior forces, and the rebellion ends, having accomplished nothing but misery and destruction. Hitler had some instructive precedents.
Avrich's comments on the final results of the four peasant rebellions he describes are significant: "... (Razin) failed to realize his objectives. Indeed, his revolt hastened the very developments he had hoped to forestall [p. 117]...they set out with millennial visions and ended in failure and death...they achieved the very opposite of their hopes" [p. 258].
Totalitarianism and democracy
|There are some more recent parallels between Germany and Russia. The imperial dynasties of both countries were destroyed by the First World War. Attempts to set up democratic governments followed, and the attempts failed, ending in dictatorship. There are also profound similarities between Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, and their hideous totalitarian dictatorships have much in common.
It isn't necessary to point out the obvious differences between Germany and Russia. At this point, it is significant that there are similarities - not that this necessarily explains anything, but it does show that some of the factors behind the rise of Hitler are not entirely unique to Germany. In fact, if we broaden our horizons and include France and China in this brief overview, some very definite trends or tendencies are apparent. In all four countries the collapse or overthrow of a dynasty was followed by an attempt to set up a democratic government. In every case the attempt ended in dictatorship.
There must be some deeper principles at work; if we can analyze them, it will help to explain how dictatorship arose in Germany. To find these deeper principles, a comparison of these failed revolutions with the successful American Revolution might be instructive. Why did one succeed while the others ended in tyranny? For one thing, once it was adopted the new American government had a great deal of popular support, and no serious opposition. In France, the reactionary nobility; in China, the warlords and later the Communists; in Russia, the Bolsheviks; in Germany, the extreme right and the extreme left - these groups worked diligently to overthrow the new government (or, at least in the case of the warlords in China, to resist it), and in every case they were successful.
Moreover, the Americans were fortunate enough to have material prosperity. The suffering and misery of the French, Chinese, and Russian peasantries and the economic problems of Germany in the 1920's and 30's require no documentation. There is a bitterness and hostility engendered by prolonged suffering and oppression that makes reason and compromise difficult.
Thirdly, the Americans had a prolonged period of peace in which to establish their new government. A certain amount of stability seems to be requisite, and that was lacking in the other four countries, riven as they were by invasion, civil war, internal strife, or the bitterness of recent defeat and national humiliation. Also, it is easy to forget the extent to which Bolshevism did directly menace Germany after the collapse of the Hohenzollerns. The Communists seized power in Munich and attempted to do so in Berlin, as well as in other cities, and had to be defeated by serious fighting. The Communist threat was not just a McCarthyist bogeyman, and Hitler skillfully exploited very real fears.
| Fourthly, the Americans had the advantage of a democratic tradition. 18th-century American participatory democracy, which had been slowly developing in England for centuries since the Magna Carta, was unknown to the Chinese, the Russians, and the French, except as a theory admired by some intellectuals. Those three nations had known nothing but despotism for centuries. Significantly, the Germans had had in the Wilhelmine era a certain measure of democracy, and partly as a result of this their attempt at democracy following the abdication of the Kaiser lasted much longer than the completely futile efforts of Sun Yat Sen, Kerensky, or the French revolutionaries.
Fifthly, there is such a thing as the quality of a people. It is intangible, but real nonetheless. Because of their freer and more open horizons, because of a greater degree of education diffused among the common people (vastly greater than in Russia, France, and China), because of their prosperity, and also because of certain moral qualities (including a respect for a law and a willingness to compromise) derived to a significant extent from Protestant Christianity, and because of the other aforementioned factors, the Americans found it much easier to deliberate calmly and reach the desired end rationally.
Finally, the American government established by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was deeply and profoundly in harmony with the character and aspirations of the people. It was not the brainchild of a few abstract thinkers or an arbitrary creation of outsiders, fundamentally at odds with the people it was supposed to govern.
It is true, of course, that democracy was successfully established in Germany and Japan after 1945, imposed from without, and that by force, but nevertheless enough of the requisite conditions were present: absence of significant internal opposition; material prosperity; and a prolonged period of peace.
It is evident that democracy is a plant that flourishes only in certain types of soil, and when we look at Weimar Germany the most basic reasons for the collapse of the government are not in dispute: intense opposition from the right and from the left; economic hardship; the alien nature of the government that had been imposed on a defeated Germany from without by a victorious coalition of foreign powers that then left the government to its own devices and did little to ensure its survival; and complicity in the hated Treaty of Versailles. That the Weimar government failed is not surprising - although until the economic crisis of the 30's the government seemed to have a real chance of survival.
One obvious lesson to be derived from all of this is that when people suffer long enough, they will value security and stability over freedom. They will willingly follow a "saviour," placing survival first and rights second. This is true of Americans too by the way. If they are ever put through enough misery, they will willingly sacrifice liberty on the altar of security. In fact, there is something unnatural about democracy, unfortunately. The vast majority of governments all over the world throughout recorded history have not been democratic. Democracy is an experiment, and a recent one at that.
That the Weimar Republic ended in dictatorship is not a great mystery, but this of course does nothing to explain the form that Hitler's dictatorship took. There have been many dictators who did not have Hitler's bizarre racial theories, and these very general and obvious observations on democracy and totalitarianism leave a great deal unexplained. There are also some deeper mysteries of the human personality that play a role in this.
|That people want security and stability and will give up a lot to get it is easy to understand. Also easy to understand is the desire for revenge. Less obvious are the thirst for military glory, for empire, and even the love of war which, to take only one example of many, impelled the Vikings on their hazardous journeys far beyond what can be accounted for by merely materialistic causes such as overpopulation in poor territory. Napoleon, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Alexander, they all led willing legions who as Homer described took delight in war.
Such feelings are completely off the radar screens of people who lack such archaic feelings themselves - and they cannot be explained by materialism. They can be explained spiritually though as a thirst for more than mere existence, a need for something higher which has been distorted and corrupted by the fall, and by the power of sin.
This thirst for greatness and conquest, intensified by the humiliation of recent defeat and loss of territory, was a major element in the deep enthusiasm Hitler generated with his fiery speeches. Openly and skillfully appealing to the unchristian desires for revenge (which the bible condemns), and for human glory and national greatness (which to the serious Christian are vanity), Hitler deliberately played upon evil emotions and inflamed the lusts of his foolish and wicked listeners.
Another basic emotion is the desire to blame someone else for our problems. Hitler did not blame the German people as a whole for enthusiastically rushing off to war in the spring of 1914, rejoicing in the hope of victory and conquest. He did not blame the Kaiser or the German General Staff for totally failing (like the Allied commanders) to understand the new nature of modern war. No, if the Germans were defeated it was someone else's fault - whose?
Of course, it could not have been the fault of the brave and heroic soldiers who fought so valiantly for the Fatherland. It could not have been the fault of the great heroes Hindenburg and Ludendorff - it was obviously the fault of traitors at home who stabbed Germany in the back. And who were these traitors? Pacifists, cowards, shirkers, leftwingers, socialists, and Communists who towards the end of the war organized strikes in the munitions industry, encouraged revolts and defeatism in the armed forces, and set up Soviet style Soldiers, Sailors, and Workers Councils - it was these Marxists and Reds who had prevented Germany from winning the war.
Such words fell like rain on parched soil in the hearts of those who had rushed off to war with such joyous hopes of slaughter, glory, conquest and imperial victory - only to find themselves humiliated and defeated in the end. As to why the aforementioned traitors and backstabbers should be identified as agents of world Jewry, that will be discussed in another place.
Another reason for Hitler's appeal to the masses was their insecurity. This insecurity had two aspects - political and economic on the one hand, and philosophical and spiritual on the other. Politically and economically, the Germans had a deep hunger for an end to the turmoil and instability of the Weimar Republic, and longed for the security Germany had known under the Hohenzollerns.
Philosophically and spiritually, the dramatic decline of Christianity in the previous century, with the accompanying moral relativism of modernism, left a need for meaning, for purpose, for something to believe in - and National Socialism filled that void. Thus there was a religious dimension to Naziism that appealed not only to material needs, but also to the deepest spiritual needs of the heart.
There is much in Hitler that is easy to understand. He appealed to people (speaking of his ascent to power prior to 1933) primarily because of his ideas. The theatrical aspects of his movement - the flags, symbols, songs, marches, parades - and the theatrical aspects of his speeches - the gestures, the planned and constantly repeated crescendos from calm reasonableness to anger to fury and passion - all of these intensified Hitler's appeal, and were carefully calculated to do so. Apart from power given him by Satan, however, humanly speaking the real source of his hold over the masses was his ideas, and also the knowledge that he was prepared to act on his ideas. He was not just giving some theoretical and useless intellectual speeches, like others who had some similar ideas but only talked about them. Hitler fully meant what he said and was prepared to carry it out.
That the alien and hated Weimar government should be destroyed; that Germany needed a leader, not a gaggle of useless parliamentarians totally incapable of dealing with Germany's problems; that Germany's defeat in the war should be avenged; that the lost territories should be regained; that the humiliating restrictions on Germany's military power stipulated by the Versailles Treaty should be repudiated; that Germany should be a great power and the traitors responsible for its defeat should be punished - all of this is very logical and reasonable from a non-Christian, secular point of view. If Hitler had been content with those goals, and had stopped after achieving them, he would have been remembered merely as another Napoleon, Caesar, or Bismarck - a national hero of great but still human proportions.
Unfortunately, however, Hitler was not content with those goals. In addition he had an ideology, as well as a deep spirit of evil, lies, hatred, and cruelty, which made him not merely a conqueror, but also one of the greatest criminals of all time, along with Lenin, Stalin, and Mao: but where those men carefully concealed their crimes and ambitions behind a facade of "democracy," "peace," "elimination of colonialism," and other such seemingly reasonable goals, Hitler relished flaunting his bizarre ideology of lies and hate in the face of the world (though Hitler too used lies and deception on a tactical level and was devious in the attaining of the long range goals he had openly and honestly expressed).
Especially because of his ideology, which resulted not only in his attempt to exterminate the Jews, but also in cruel treatment of Slavs and even of Germans who aroused his anger, Hitler reached inspired heights of cruelty that have never been surpassed. This is the more striking in that it occurred after decades of "progress," of "modernism," thus making a cruel mockery of the entire modernist program and destroying the self-congratulatory fantasy of inevitable and unending progress. Those who believe in the biblical doctrine of original sin are immune to such harmful delusions and can easily fit Hitler and the Holocaust, as well as all human evil and cruelty, into the lower regions of their divinely revealed biblical worldview.
At any rate, it is Hitler's ideology that requires lengthy and subtle analysis, not the mere facts of his rise to power, which fall within ordinary parameters of previously experienced history. And how shall it be analyzed? Contrary to what some have asserted, there is a clear logic to Hitler's thought. If you accept certain presuppositions, you arrive at a definite end by a thoroughly comprehensible process of reasoning. In the end Hitler was mad of course, largely or completely so, giving raving orders to non-existent armies as his world crumbled around him, but in his beginning and in his rise Hitler was very logical and reasonable - if you accept certain false and ugly presuppositions.
To look into this more closely, it might be useful to examine something of Hitler's life - not in its entirety, but up to the point in which his political views were clearly defined, and his career well under way. Then it will be necessary to examine in some detail philosophical trends and influences that were clearly evident long before Hitler was born. These not only influenced his thought, since Hitler was very much a man of his time, but also influenced the thoughts of many others and contributed (along with the political, economic, and psychological factors we have mentioned) to the creation of an environment favorable to his rise.
Hitler's early years
|I am greatly indebted to Walter S. Frank's online work Adolf Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer (Who was Responsible?) [www.smoter.com/hitler.htm], and all of the biographical material in this and following sections pertaining to Hitler's early life comes from that source. Some might question the wisdom of relying too much on one source, but his analysis seems very sound, and his documentation thorough. If in some way he has erred in his analysis of Hitler, or if I have erred in my understanding of his analysis, this does not detract from the main points of this study. Details of Hitler's childhood and youth are not central to my purpose. More important are the origins of Hitler's ideas, and this complex subject will be analyzed at length, irrespective of what Hitler's youth may or may not have been. Since I have used the online version of Frank's work, I am unable to give page numbers. The biography is divided into four sections, however: I. The Boy, II. The Young Man, III. The Soldier, and IV. The Politician. Each main section is subdivided into numbered subsections. Thus quotes are referenced as II. 3 - Section II, subsection 3. Each subsection is fairly short and has its own footnotes, so cited material should not be too difficult to locate. Asterisks in quoted passages are Frank's footnotes.
It is instructive to have some historical background, but the answer to the riddle of Hitler, and an explanation of the Holocaust, are not to be found in his childhood or youth, although there is a significant amount of information available about this period of his life. Friends - yes, Hitler had friends - relatives, friends of the family, classmates, teachers: many of them recorded their recollections and some of them, like August Kubizek and Reinhold Hanisch, wrote at length about the Hitler they knew. In none of the biographical information, however, is there anything to suggest what Hitler would later become.
In fact, if one resists the temptation to write history backwards, and looks only at the available material without preconceptions, a consistent picture emerges of Hitler as an average child and as a pleasant, talented, widely read, and agreeable young man. As an adolescent, he had quarrels with his father about inadequate grades or about wanting to be an artist, but many people have had conflicts with their fathers. Hitler didn't do well in some classes in high school and didn't take the test necessary for graduation, but he had what was in all outward respects a normal childhood. Even if Hitler's father was a disagreeable man who thrashed his son "everyday" as his sister said [I.2], this does nothing to explain the holocaust. Playing cowboys and Indians with his friends (Wild West novels were popular in Germany in Hitler's youth), spending summers on his uncle's farm, taking piano lessons - there is nothing out of the ordinary here.
More interestingly, there is a significant amount of evidence to show that the young Hitler was intelligent and even likeable. As a teenager he had artistic ambitions, and had some artistic ability. He read widely, and was by no means stupid or lazy, although he disliked some aspects of high school and failed to apply himself in all subjects. He had some knowledge of poetry, theater, and music, as well as art, and was according to his friend August Kubizek a serious and respectable person. He could be impatient or angry when disagreed with, and may have been inclined to value Kubizek as an agreeable listener, but there is no hint of viciousness, brutality, or pure, unalloyed evil such as he later embodied. Eduard Bloch, the Jewish doctor who treated Hitler's mother when she was dying of cancer, described Hitler as "well mannered," "neat," "obedient," "quiet," and "well-bred" [I. 3]. When Hitler's mother was ill he did all he could to take care of her, and according to both Kubizek and Bloch truly loved and cared for his mother [ibid.]. Hitler's legal guardian praised his willingness to give up a part of his inheritance to be used for his eleven-year-old sister [ibid.], and Hitler received a letter of reference from his landlord that described him as "mature and sensible beyond his years," "serious and ambitious," and "nice, steady going" [ibid.]. Obviously, there must have been emotions and attitudes working beneath the surface, but these will never be known. Frank quotes a source as saying that once Hitler was "faint from rage" in a disagreement with his father [I. 2], and having hostility where there should have been love and respect between father and son could not have been conducive to Hitler's healthy psychological development.
There are a few hints which, if true, are suggestive - but barely so. Someone remembered Adolf talking to himself at night, on the hill behind his house or sitting on a cemetery wall [I. 1]. Kubizek relates that Adolf once shared with him a feeling, however brief or vague, that someday he would do something great [I. 3]. Historians may be inclined to dismiss that with a knowing smile, but Kubizek's account overall seems very plausible, and it is not unheard of for young men to have ambitions or dreams - even if for most of them the dreams turn out to be nothing. But, all of this doesn't explain anything.
|As to Hitler's Catholic education, he did go to a Catholic school as a boy, sang in the choir, and even had, apparently, a boyish idea of becoming a priest [I. 1]. There is no indication that Hitler's parents did anything to instill religious values in him - apparently his father didn't do much but pressure him about his grades and his career. I also received a "Christian" education in the sense that I went to church and Sunday regularly all through childhood and adolescence, but it meant nothing to me and when I was in college my behaviour and values could not be called Christian in any sense of the word. After his father's death Hitler attended church only for weddings and funerals [I. 2]. Nevertheless, Hitler was confirmed in the Catholic Church. Frank says of this, citing other historians:
It was obvious to everyone present that he was against the confirmation and only went through with it to please his mother. On the ride back to Leonding he was almost rude to his sponsors who went to considerable expense to stand for him. Back at home, a group of Adolf's playmates were waiting for him and he soon dashed off to a chorus of Indian war hoots [I. 2].
Other evidence exists showing the young Hitler to have been - outwardly at least - a surprisingly normal person. In 1908, on his 19th birthday, Hitler wrote the following note to Kubizek:
While thanking you for your letter, I must tell you immediately how pleased I am that your dear father is really coming with you to Vienna. Providing you and he have no objections, I will meet you at the station on Thursday at 11 o'clock. You write that you are having such lovely weather, which almost upsets me as, if it were not raining here, we too would be having lovely weather. I am very pleased that you are bringing a viola. On Tuesday I shall buy myself ... cotton ... and...paste, for my ears naturally. That ... you are going blind affects me very deeply; you will play more and more wrong notes than ever. Then you will become blind and I gradually mad. Oh, My! But meanwhile I wish you and your esteemed parents at least a happy Easter ....
Adolf Hitler [II. 4]
A postcard written to Kubizek a few months later reads:
My best thanks for your kindness. You don't need to send me butter and cheese now. But I thank you most gratefully for the kind thought. Tonight I am going to see Lohengrin. Kindest regards to you and your esteemed parents.
Adolf Hitler.[II. 4]
There is no reason to dispute Kubizek's description in his book (The Young Hitler I Knew) of a young Hitler with literary and artistic ambitions, trying to write at various times a short story, a play, and an opera. Other corroborating evidence verifies that Hitler was a serious young man with a great interest in reading. Some historians have been too wise in neglecting Kubizek's testimony. There is a tendency to assume from the outset that any attempt to describe youthful experiences with someone who later became famous must inevitably be flawed, but this is by no means the case.
Kubizek's account seems very credible - but, again, it does nothing to explain how an outwardly decent young man turned into such a horrifying monster of cruelty. Trying to describe Hitler as a spoiled, rotten, lazy and ignorant kid does nothing to solve the mystery either. If we want to understand Hitler, it is necessary to pay more attention to the ideas which directed his evil energy, and to the times which allowed him to flourish. And, as was said earlier, it is above all necessary to have some awareness of the invisible spiritual powers of evil which Hitler served so faithfully, and which were mentioned briefly in the first part of this essay.
Before looking more closely into Hitler's "thought," let us continue with this brief overview of his life. His descent into poverty after his rejection by the Vienna School of Fine Arts is well known. For a time he continued his practice of reading widely, not only in art, but also in "mythology, religion, history, and biography" [II. 4]. As he sank more deeply into abject failure he had to devote himself to the problems of mere existence, but eventually he was able to work his way up by selling small paintings, and after a brief period we are once again confronted with a Hitler who was to outward appearances surprisingly normal. His painting made enough for him to pay for modest but decent furnishings at a men's hostel, and accounts of him during this period show him to have been a likeable enough person, though given to heated political arguments on occasion.
|He moved to Munich in 1913 and continued an outwardly agreeable lifestyle; painting enough to support himself left him with ample time for reading or sightseeing. He rented a room from a Mr. and Mrs. Popp, who later mentioned his heavy reading on various subjects and described him as "modest" and "charming" [II. 7]. He even helped around the house, and read books to their son.
When war broke out in 1914, the youthful Hitler was, like so many others, filled with patriotic enthusiasm, and joined the army. By all accounts he was an exceptionally good soldier; he adapted well to discipline and the military life, was fearless under fire, and was awarded a number of decorations, including the Iron Cross First Class, not usually given to men in the lower ranks.
He was promoted to corporal, and seems to have been liked, accepted, and respected by his comrades, at least in the first part of the war. Later defeatism and lack of enthusiasm for the Kaiser became more widespread, and Hitler's patriotism was less and less popular. Even earlier, some may have considered his excessive devotion rather odd:
Hans Mend, one of Hitler's fellow recruits was impressed by Hitler's "dynamic glance and by his unusual presence," even though Hitler was dressed in his gray-green uniform like the other recruits. Mend stated, "I thought he might be an academic because a lot of them had joined the...Regiment."* On the other hand, Mend almost laughed out loud when he saw the look on Hitler's face the first time he was handed a rifle. Hitler, he said, looked at it with the delight of a woman looking at her jewelry [II. 7].
As with the earlier part of his life, there is nothing in the most detailed examination of his war record to explain the Holocaust. The real transformation of Hitler into the Fuhrer begins with Germany's defeat, when Hitler was filled with rage and hatred - as, of course, many others must have been also. Still, there are some points of interest in Hitler's military biography that merit comment.
For one thing, Hitler seems to have been a very talented and exceptional individual. He continued painting, and made more than forty paintings which have some merit. He also drew cartoons of trench life and of his fellow soldiers that show some sense of humor [III. 9]. He often had time for reading (the bible and Schopenhauer) and continued to make a good impression on his comrades and superiors [ibid.]. About reading the bible, he said that he found its teachings to be "not a very good recipe for the front" [ibid.].
Furthermore, he continued to be an outstanding soldier. His recommendation for the Iron Cross First Class (he earned six medals), written by a Lieutenant-Colonel named von Godin, reads:
As a runner his coolness and dash in both trench and open warfare have been exemplary, and invariably he has shown himself ready to volunteer for tasks in the most difficult situations and at great danger to himself. Whenever communications have been totally disrupted at a critical moment in a battle, it has been thanks to Hitler's unflagging and devoted efforts that important messages continued to get through despite every difficulty. [III. 11]
Frank offers several suggestions as to why Hitler did not rise higher in rank. For one thing, his promotion would have led to the loss of an effective dispatch runner; moreover, he cared little for such military formalities as clicking heels and may have had an indifference to the details of military discipline that would make some look on him as being unsuitable for promotion. A third reason is expressed in an apt quotation from Erich Remarque's famous war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Criticizing the military mentality, he referred to one of his front line characters as "the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal" [III. 11]. In addition, Hitler may have preferred serving in a lower position so as to preserve a certain independence of mind.
More noteworthy is the fact of Hitler's survival through years of the most intense warfare imaginable. Frank's comments here are instructive:
After one year in the front lines Hitler had cheated death on numerous occasions. In 1914 Hitler had been standing in a dugout when the arrival of four officers caused the place to be overcrowded forcing Hitler and three companions to step out for awhile and wait. "We had been waiting there for less than five minutes," Hitler wrote his lawyer friend, "when a shell hit the dugout ... killing or wounding the rest of the staff."* In another incident Hitler related how he was eating his dinner with several other soldiers when: "Suddenly a voice seemed to be saying to me, 'Get up and go over there.' It was so clear and insistent that I obeyed mechanically as if it had been an officer's order. I rose at once to my feet and walked twenty yards along the trench, carrying my dinner in its tin-can. I then sat down to go on eating, my mind once more at rest. Hardly had I done so when a flash and deafening roar came from the part of the trench I had just left. A stray shell had burst over the men where I had been sitting, everyone was killed."* Even Hitler's fellow soldiers noted his charmed life and some believed that if they stayed around Hitler, "nothing will happen."* After one notable attack which left the regiment decimated, one of Hitler comrades turned to him and declared: "Man, there's no bullet made with your name on it!"* A telephone operator at regimental headquarters would later relate another incident:
Well, it was the day when the [Brits] attacked and we no longer had any communications to the front. No telephone functioned, the heavy fire had torn all cables, courier dogs and messenger pigeons no longer returned, everything failed, so Adolf had to dare it and carry a message out in danger of his life. We all said to each other--he won't come back!--but he came back in good condition and could give the regiment important information about everything."*[III. 9]
|More passages from Frank are instructive:
The area thundered and flashed - bombardments, barrages, curtain fires, mines, rifles, machine guns, hand-grenades - a never ceasing steel net of shattering, corroding death, intermingled with poison gas, flame throwers and plunging bayonets. Corpses lay everywhere. At the entrance to one little village lay "more than 800 bodies, 'horribly mangled by the incessant shell-fire.'"*
Because of the constant shifting of the front lines and the heavy artillery bombardments, wired communications between regimental headquarters and the front lines were nonexistent. Through the chatter of machine guns, the roar of exploding shells, the hum of shell fragments alive in the air, and the groans of suffering men, Hitler shuttled back and forth. "Then I saw men falling around me in thousands," Hitler later stated. "Thus I learned that life is a cruel struggle, and has no other object but the preservation of the species. The individual can disappear, provided there are other men to replace him."*
...For a hundred and fifty miles, from the Somme to Verdun, the land was a giant lunar-scape with dying men, open grave-yards, and rotting corpses. At Verdun the Germans advanced about five miles, while on the Somme the British advanced about the same. For this trade the leaders of the opposing countries sustained over 600,000 casualties at Verdun and over 1,000,000 on the Somme. Even an arch-patriot like Hitler was appalled by the senseless losses.* Like many of his fellow recruits he slowly came to believe that the old leadership that he once thought so highly of, was failing them. Hitler astonished a comrade by stating: "I would make the leaders responsible for these men who have fallen."*
...That evening, the shelling was so devastating in the Fromelles sector that no one ventured to stick his head out of his hole. All regimental field telephones were out. Hitler and another runner were sent out to deliver messages, according to their officer, "in the face of almost certain death."* The barrage was so intense that every step forward was an act of suicide. After diving, crawling, running, dodging and taking advantage of every shell hole and ditch, Hitler returned dragging along the other man who "collapsed from exhaustion."* The officers were surprised and amazed that they returned alive.
On July l9, the Battle of Fromelles intensified and the area became a howling waste. No place was safe and the life of a dispatch runner was "measured in hours rather than days."* During one of the barrages the shell fire was so heavy that it was believed no single runner could get through. It soon became commonplace to send off as many as six runners with the same message assuming "five would probably be wounded or killed"*[III. 9]
It is poetic to speculate that the Holocaust may have begun there, in the nightmare of the Western Front, but the obvious fact intrudes that many men experienced the Great War to the fullest, and did not become maniacal dictators. The soldiers of the Allied forces at least returned to countries in which the old social order was still outwardly intact. It was the collapse of their own order that made it more difficult for returning German soldiers to put their combat experiences behind them and resume normal lives.
Yet there is more to it than that. Hitler's experiences in the war must have made it much easier for him to act out the ideas of 19th-century intellectuals for whom "struggle," "survival of the fittest," "elimination of the weak," and the "Overman's" ability to trample over corpses in pursuit of his goal were merely words in books. Inured to the fear of death and hardship that paralyzed so many of the pacifists, intellectuals, gullible diplomats, academics, and journalists of the 20's and 30's, Hitler emerged from the cauldron of the Western Front fully capable of acting out what others preferred to discuss in the classroom or in the library.
Another passage on Hitler's experiences in the war is worth noting before attempting to examine Hitler's "thought":
Hitler saw the List regiment decimated, rebuilt and then decimated time after time. His "charmed life" slowly began to solidify his long-held conviction that "fate" was watching over him. Every soldier who survived the List Regiment "could consider himself fortunate, enjoying the special protection of Providence,"* and Hitler became convinced that he was being spared for a reason. "You will hear much about me," Hitler told a comrade, "Just wait until my time comes."* When another comrade asked him what he was going to do after the war, Hitler was letting fate decide the issue when he answered: "I'll become an artist or go into politics." When asked which political party he liked, he quickly answered, "none." [III. 11]
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