by John Toland.
Doubleday. 1035 pp. $14.95.
The disparity between Adolf Hitler’s enormous power and influence, on the one hand, and the repellent character of his life, on the other, poses a peculiarly difficult problem for the biographer. How did a semi-educated ex-corporal, whose ideas verged on the insane, become the absolute ruler of one of the most advanced countries in Europe? An easy way to answer this question is simply to dismiss it, and that is precisely what many biographers of Hitler have done. Hitler, they say, represented the summation of his times, he was the necessary consequence of profound social, economic, and cultural trends. Understand those, and you have understood him. Thus, most “biographies” of Hitler are, in fact, either social histories of the Weimar Republic or extended investigations of the “German mind.” By defining Hitler as a socio-cultural phenomenon, historians are spared the difficult and painful task of actually coming to grips with the man himself.
John Toland’s biography of Hitler takes just the opposite tack. Toland concentrates almost exclusively on the details of Hitler’s life, major and minor, while ignoring the social, political, and cultural matrix of Nazism. This approach is not without its advantages, but the life of Hitler which we are finally left with is, in its own way, as incomplete and misleading as earlier versions.
Toland makes it abundantly clear that Hitler was a man of considerable talent and ability. He had a powerful and original (though very narrow) intellect and a photographic memory. His grasp of strategic affairs was, at times, superior to that of his generals. He could convey, in his voice and apparently in his very person, a ruthlessness and an intimation of boundless violence which many Germans, not least the intellectuals, found immensely attractive. Most importantly, he was a master of the art of propaganda; his notorious speeches, far from being spontaneous outpourings, were carefully thought out beforehand to achieve their desired effect. Toland’s assertion that Hitler’s grasp of crowd psychology “indicated that he had read Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” is a little preposterous, but there is no doubt that, whether from his experience of German and British wartime propaganda at the front or from his observation of Karl Lueger’s highly successful demagogic techniques in pre-war Vienna, Hitler had a real understanding of the psychology of the mass.
These qualities, which Toland stresses, demonstrate that Hitler was anything but what Joachim Fest, a previous biographer, called an “unperson.” On the contrary, Hitler had real and substantial talents, and under different circumstances might well have made a brilliant career for himself in the German underworld. But taken by themselves, Hitler’s talents do not explain his phenomenal rise to power. It is on this issue that Toland’s study becomes seriously misleading.
“By mid-1933,” Toland writes, “the majority of Germans supported Hitler.” Indeed, “it seemed that almost everyone was for Hitler,” whose magnetic personality and seductive propaganda were sufficient, Toland implies, to win over an entire nation. But Toland’s account does not square with the facts. In no free election did Hitler or the Nazis ever gain a majority of the votes. By 1932, in fact, the Nazis began losing votes. Nor was “almost everyone” for Hitler. The working class (except for the unemployed), voting either Communist or Socialist, remained virtually immune to Hitler’s “magic” (the term is Carl Jung’s, cited by Toland), and Hitler eventually gave up trying to win it over, concentrating instead on his real source of support, the lower-middle class. By 1932, however, the Nazi party, in the words of the eminent German historian, Karl Dietrich Bracher, “ran up against those sociologically conditioned limits which . . . put an end to its further expansion.” While it is impossible to explain Hitler away in terms of underlying social factors, such factors nevertheless set a fairly precise limit to Hitler’s charisma.
Hitler’s ultimate leap to power came about because an irresponsible clique of conservative German politicians (Papen, Hugenberg, Hindenburg) believed they could use Hitler for their own ends. “This tiny minority,” Bracher has written, “through its ambitious, overweening alliance with the totalitarian mass movement, helped the National Socialists into those positions of power which Hitler could never have captured on his own.” Once in power, of course, Hitler made short shrift of his erstwhile conservative allies, yet without their assistance he would not, for all his “magic,” have come to power in the first place.
If Toland’s analysis of Hitler’s rise to power is misleading, his evaluation of Hitler’s behavior once in power also leaves much to be desired. Thus, he credits Hitler with holding a socialist ideology and argues that Hitler’s achievements during his early years in office were truly “considerable and impressive.” Apart from making the trains run on time, Hitler introduced a new spirit of egalitarian-ism into German society: “He strove to unite people of all social levels—except, of course, the Jews—and his brand of socialism excluded neither the wealthy nor the middle class.” So impressive were his reforms that “if Hitler had died in 1937 on the fourth anniversary of his coming to power—the great economic crisis notwithstanding—he would undoubtedly have gone down as one of the greatest figures in German history.”
Toland’s concentration on biographical detail and his blindness to complex social reality have led him seriously astray here. Although it is true that Hitler carried out a number of reforms which appeared egalitarian in nature, those reforms were an essential part of his totalitarian program. As the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf has written: “The National Socialists had to break the traditional, and in effect anti-liberal, loyalties to region and religion, family and corporation, in order to realize their claim to total power.” Since the Wilhelmine social order was anti-liberal and anti-egalitarian, Hitler’s reforms occasionally assumed a progressive mask, but their intent was plainly totalitarian: to establish Nazi control over all facets of German society by destroying every vestige of traditionalism, particularism. and independence. Hitler’s early reforms were of a piece with the system of concentration camps also instituted during this “progressive” period. All were essential to the consolidation of the SS state.
Toland muddies the waters still further by his frequent references to Hitler’s “socialist” policies. Like the Communists, the Nazis were allegedly committed to radical social change. Because they “shared similar socialist goals,” Nazis and Communists often “fought together,” says Toland. Apparently, Toland is unaware that Nazi-Communist cooperation stemmed solely from Stalin’s decision, formalized at the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, to brand “Social Fascism” (i.e., social democracy) the principal enemy of the proletariat. Since the Comintern had declared that “The main enemy is on the Left,” German Communists, in joining with the Nazis to destroy parliamentary democracy (“rotten bourgeois liberalism”), were merely carrying out directives. Their cooperation was tactical, not ideological. The Communists believed that even if Hitler came to power, he would be unable to solve Germany’s domestic problems and Nazi rule would thus form a convenient prelude to a Communist seizure of power. Like Papen and Hugenberg, Stalin thought he could use Hitler and the Nazis for his own purposes.
It is one of the merits of Toland’s study that he demonstrates and abundantly documents the centrality of Hitler’s anti-Semitism to his Weltanschauung. It might seem that after the murder of six million Jews this proposition would hardly require further proof, but unfortunately such is not the case. In a recent article, for example, Geoffrey Barraclough, the British historian, argued that there is really no conclusive evidence that Hitler was a particularly virulent anti-Semite: for all we know, Himmler or Heydrich might have been responsible for the Final Solution. The evidence which Toland has amassed to the contrary is overwhelming.
The trouble with Toland’s discussion of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, however, is that he treats it largely as a private obsession, relating it to Hitler’s grief over his mother’s death, which he unconsciously blamed on her Jewish physician and, by extension, on all the Jews. Hitler’s “radical anti-Semitism,” Toland argues, was very different from the “conventional anti-Semitism” of his fellow Germans. While “the resurgence of German honor and military might, the seizure of lost Germanic territories, and even Lebensraum in the East were approved heartily by most of his countrymen,” the “great majority” of Germans “merely wanted a continuation of the limited Jewish persecution which had already received the tacit approval of millions of Westerners.”
Toland’s account is simplistic. “Of the conglomerate social, economic, and political appeals that the NSDAP directed at the German people,” writes Lucy S. Dawidowicz in The War Against the Jews, “its racial doctrine was most attractive.”
Yet for the average National Socialist, and still more for the party’s fellow travelers, out of the whole corpus of racial teachings, the anti-Jewish doctrine had the greatest dynamic potency. The reports of early NSDAP meetings reveal, from the record of audience responses, that violent attacks on the Jews provided orgasmic outbursts and that Hitler was most adept at getting the blood to tingle with his threats against the Jews. For the audience, the convolutions of Hitler’s ideology were, in the end, reduced in significance to the timeworn slogan of German anti-Semitism: “Jude verrecke.”
The difference between Hitler’s “radical anti-Semitism” and the “conventional anti-Semitism” of the vast majority of Germans, in other words, was not nearly so great as Toland makes it appear.
Finally, for all the personal data which Toland has collected, he himself appears not to know just what to make of Adolf Hitler. “My book has no thesis,” he informs the reader in a foreword, “and any conclusions to be found in it were reached only during the writing.” His “most meaningful” conclusion is that Hitler was “a warped archangel, a hybrid of Prometheus and Lucifer.” In an epilogue, Toland calls Hitler “the most extraordinary figure in the history of the 20th century.” Given his particular approach, this conclusion was bound to suggest itself. After all, a man who could, by the sheer force of his personality alone, radically transform an entire nation must surely in some sense be great. Once it is recalled, however, that Hitler’s rise to power was related to a highly unusual social and political situation, as well as to an extraordinarily potent tradition of anti-Semitism, it becomes more nearly possible to see him as he truly was: a gifted fanatic, a magnificent sewer-rat, but far removed from any redeeming measure of greatness. During his lifetime Nazi propaganda apotheosized Hitler, creating the inspiring myth of an infallible superhuman. It would be a pity if John Toland’s generally sober, engrossing study of his life contributed indirectly to a revival of the myth of the Fuehrer.