In my will it will one day be written that nothing is to be engraved on my tombstone but 'Adolf Hitler'. I shall create my own title for myself in my name itself. — Adolf Hitler
And in the last analysis, success is what matters. — Adolf Hitler
At 4.45 on the morning of 1st September 1939, the German battleship 'Schleswig-Holstein' opened fire on the Westerplatte, the fortress on the Gulf of Danzig. At the same time, troops rose from their positions all along the German-Polish border, while squadrons of bombers flew over them in grey swarms towards the east. He was afraid, Hitler had told his commanders eight days earlier, that 'some dirty dog will present me with a mediation plan at the last moment'; now he was free of his fears. War had begun.(1)
In the streets of Berlin and the other German cities, however, there was neither jubilation nor that mass intoxication of men lusting for death so dear to totalitarian manipulators of the popular mood. In the depression which marked the outbreak of this war, people went about their business quietly, in dull resignation (2) and lined the street only thinly when Hitler drove to the Kroll Opera House soon after 10 o'clock to explain his decision in a speech to the Reichstag. He seemed nervous and ill-assured; vacillating between forced arrogance and desperate attempts to justify himself, he heaped reproaches on Poland and solemnly stated that he had no quarrel with the West, but rather a desire to reach an understanding. Towards the end he stressed that he would not take off his soldier's coat until victory had been secured, or he would not survive the outcome.
'I therefore want to assure the whole world: there will never be another November 1918 in German history.'(3)
Two days later, when the declarations of war by Britain and France had reached him, he went to the front.
To the last he had vaguely hoped the Western powers would not honour their guarantee to Poland. Wrongly advised, but also the victim of his own crude Machiavellianism, he could not believe that a world power would fulfil an agreement without the prospect of concrete gain, merely to keep its word, to maintain its honour, and because its patience had reached breaking point. He had never bothered to test this. For the first time, three days after fighting began, his contempt for reality, his renunciation of diplomatic methods, and his trust in his own intuition, to which he deferred all the more stubbornly the more it deceived him, now avenged themselves on him.
This lack of psychological and political planning went hand in hand with inadequate economic and military preparation. In fact, war had been launched, in a striking example of the Hitlerian policy of risk, not least in order to create the economic and military conditions necessary for its pursuance. But many of the preparations had not gone beyond the earliest stages. Of the planned four months' stockpile of armaments and reserves of all kinds, for example, on an average only 25 per cent was in existence.(4) Although Hitler had assured the Reichstag in his speech on 1st September that he had spent ninety thousand million marks in six years on building up the Wehrmacht, too much had been done under pressure of time, too much left to improvisation. There was too little of the methodical seriousness required in the face of Germany's provocation of almost the whole world, the implications of which had evidently never been fully appreciated. Nor had the various alternative contingencies been thought out: the possible battle-fronts, the course of the fighting and the measures to be adopted. The then Chief of Staff, General Halder, commented angrily,
'Incredible as it may sound, Hitler did not even have a general plan for the war.'(5)
Torn this way and that between choleric elation and exhaustion, Hitler lashed out savagely in all directions, threw his armies over ever new frontiers, ceaselessly conquering fresh territories, none of which was large enough to satisfy his egomania. Anyone probing the root cause of the war and the manner of waging it is continually led back to considerations of Hitler's character; for, much as the war looks like a predatory excursion necessitated by the Third Reich's ruinous economic policy, great as was the influence of outdated nationalist, ideological or missionary motives, it was the purely hegemonic aims that overlay all others. The urge to dominate Europe, and ultimately the world, although backed by ideological and racial arguments, was at bottom nothing more nor less than the desire to exercise sovereignty.
'The question,' Hitler himself once laconically put it, 'is not the fate of National Socialist Germany, but who is to dominate Europe in the future.'(6)
Only in this light can we understand the orgy of expansionism, at first sight as senseless as it is impressive, which placed Hitler's flag on the General Staff maps from the Volga to the Atlantic, from the North Cape to the Nile, with no economy of forces.
'The foreign policy of the national bourgeois world has in truth always been a border policy; as against that, the policy of the National Socialist movement will always be a territorial one,'
Hitler had written in 1928 in an essay on foreign policy.(7) In this and similar formulas he proclaimed his restless will to power, which knew neither halt nor satisfaction. After the consolidation of his internal power, it broke out in an extravagant hunger for space and, guided by his vulgarized Darwinist axioms, sought new goals, new confirmations and aggrandisements of itself.
'I have to choose between victory and destruction. I choose victory.'(8)
The first phase of the war consisted of a series of breath-taking lightning campaigns which, from a professional military point of view, were undoubtedly remarkable achievements. Poland, whose military men in vainglorious illusion had seen themselves already in Berlin, was overrun in nineteen days; Denmark and Norway in two months; Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in six weeks; Yugoslavia, Greece, the island of Crete in about the same time; and finally Cyrenaica, after being lost by Germany's greedy but feeble Italian allies, was recovered in nine days. Once it had been discovered, the recipe for success remained almost unvaried, based chiefly on the advance of massed tanks straight through the enemy lines, followed by a pincer movement and encirclement. The German superiority lay less in a preponderance of men or materials than in unswerving application of the principle of the rapid mobile operation which, combined with sudden air attacks and commando and paratroop assaults behind the front, had the effect not so much of 'defeating' the enemy in the classical sense as of so confusing him that he became incapable of fighting and ready to capitulate.
The so-called 'scythe cut' strategy was so strikingly successful, especially in the West, that Hitler became intoxicated by the possibilities it opened up and took more and more part in the military conduct of the war. His unbridled self-confidence swelled still further on the strength of his not inconsiderable share in the development of this strategy, so that he soon came to regard every victory as solely the result of his personal inspiration, wealth of ideas and brilliance as a general. Every fresh success distorted his vision still further, till finally he felt himself infinitely superior to the despised generals.
'This little affair of operational command is something that anybody can do,'
he said after dismissing Brauchitsch and taking over command of the Army, (9) while Goebbels extolled him more and more extravagantly as the 'greatest general of all time'.
At the same time few would deny that he possessed certain military qualifications which were only strengthened by his autodidact's freedom from preconceptions.(10) In addition to his feeling for the potentialities of modern warfare — it was Hitler, for example, who instigated the creation of motorized and armoured units — he had an exceptional ability to see into the mind of his enemy, well proved in well-calculated surprise attacks, in his accurate prediction of tactical counter-measures, and in his lightning seizure of opportunities. These qualities were offset by his failure to distinguish between the possible and the impossible, his at first grandiose and later hysterical contempt for facts, and his inability to reconcile large-scale plans conceived in a flash with concrete situations and requirements. Admittedly, he had his staff to cope with the detailed work, which remained alien to him to the last; but both his nature, in which a superior during the First World War had recognized the characteristics of a 'completely intolerable fault-finder, know-all and grumbler',(11) and his complex-ridden attitude towards the officer class, which was never free from the resentment of the man risen from the ranks and the former Munich putschist, made any calm collaboration based on objective principles impossible.
'He wanted believers, who obeyed without asking questions. Independent minds were anathema to him,'
commented one of his former colleagues. When the war took a turn for the worse, he began, in apparently pathological outbursts of emotion, to reprimand his generals, to dismiss them, recall them, and then repudiate them again. This moodiness and lack of self-control introduced a destructive element of unrest into all operations and, just as much as his excessive distrust. disqualified him for any sort of generalship. In the end he fell back on stubborn poses.(12)
The disaster already foreshadowed in such behaviour was accelerated by a growing lack of flexibility and tactical mobility. His supreme adaptability to changing situations, unhampered by any programme, in which the believing minority of his fellow-fighters of the past had seen so much treachery and betrayal, gave place to a rigidity compounded of arrogance and ideological fanaticism. Under the influence of his initial success, he abandoned the well-tried principle of pursuing two lines at the same time, which had so often confused his opponents, rendered him unassailable and smoothed his way, in favour of a policy of overbearing directness that was nothing but the total renunciation of political means. This trait was already discernible in the clearly fraudulent 'appeal to reason' — the peace offer to Britain after the conclusion of the campaign in the West — and it was further provocatively displayed in his treatment of the occupied countries. Not merely incapable of generosity, but also scorning all counsels of wisdom in his conviction of invincibility he knew only the one unchanging precept of 'grab and hold'. True, his decisions were no longer free; just as his economic policy had forced him into war, so now, in the face of the increasing strain on Germany's economic resources, he was forced to adopt a policy of exploitation which in turn continually reduced the area of his freedom of decision. Nevertheless, it would have been possible to prevent every increase in the area of his power from necessarily enlarging the circle of his enemies, but for his arrogance and deliberate advocacy of the policy of force. For a time the idea of the 'European nation', intentionally kept vague, came to the fore, the only attempt that he made to drape crude and stupid suppression with an ideological cloak of partnership. But in view of the terrorist practices provocatively aimed at demonstrating German superiority, the idea of a Greater German Reich, which in any case seemed fantastic, found no lasting response among the Belgians, the French, the Baltic peoples or the Ukrainians.(13)
The National Socialist plan for power, ordered and continually reinforced by Hitler himself, was seen at its most revolting in those regions of Poland incorporated into the Reich. where that biological 'cleansing' of all alien 'trash' and ensuing Germanization which Hitler, in his indescribably vulgar language, had also announced for the so-called Old Reich, was already in full swing (14). The administration of these provinces derived its barbaric character (in spite of the function of routine and sometimes in opposition to it) from rival groups of torturers and dreamers, murderers and stock-breeders of human beings. They became the 'new ground not merely for national and territorial expansion', but also for 'National Socialist self-realization'.(15) It was not a case of the degeneration of earlier ideal programmes, as Alfred Rosenberg and Hans Frank were to complain in their cells at Nuremberg, but of their systematic fulfilment.
The idea of territorial conquest in the East, of the 'great Germanic march', remained the imperial 'leitmotiv' in Hitler's life, and he turned to it as a saving solution in his indecision as to the further conduct of the war after the victorious conclusions of the campaign in the West; for in the meantime the lack of concrete aims that gave this war so largely the character of a blind dynamic aggression, had turned a series of impressive military successes into a series of useless victories. Britain's power remained unbroken, and among the motives for the renewed assault on the East quickly worked out by Hitler, with his capacity for finding plausible justifications for his impulsive decisions, was the idea that the destruction of Russia would mean the destruction of Britain's last hope of continuing the war with any prospect of success. We gain some idea of the extent to which Hitler overestimated his own abilities from the fact that, after the defeat of Russia, he planned to shatter the foundations of the British Empire by a vast three-pronged attack via North Africa, the Balkans and the Caucasus, and as early as 1941 gave the Wehrmacht General Staff the order to prepare plans for an invasion of India through Afghanistan.(16) Equally important to his decision to attack Russia was the conviction, never entirely concealed, of the inevitability of the 'final conflict with Bolshevism'. Cynically suppressed after the conclusion of the Moscow Pact, it was now revived as Hitler found himself increasingly entangled in his own ideology. One must
'never conduct more than one struggle at a time', he had once stated. 'One struggle after the other; really the proverb ought not to be "Many enemies, much honour" but "Many enemies, much stupidity."'
If he had boasted after the pact with Russia that he had saved Germany from the danger of a war on two fronts, he now wrote to Mussolini that his partnership with the Soviet Union had always been irksome to him. 'I am happy now to be delivered from this torment.'(17)
Not least of the calculations behind his decision had been the idea that he could bring Russia to her knees in the course of one summer. At a meeting of Gauleiters beforehand he assured his audience, with the grandiose air of the man spoilt by successive victories, that he would be in Leningrad within three weeks, (18) and the image of the Russian bear that was already dead but refused to lie down became, after the initial swift successes, a popular metaphor inspiring confidence. Only the premature winter halted the German advance. In the unparalleled catastrophe caused by the cold during the ensuing months, for which, significantly, the troops were totally unprepared, the veil of arrogant certainty seemed suddenly to tear and Hitler appeared for the first time to grasp the possibility of defeat. Between wild orders to hold on, which actually did lead to the stabilisation of the front, he exclaimed in desperation that the mere sight of snow caused him physical pain. He made a 'shattering impression' on Goebbels, who visited him at his headquarters; Goebbels found him 'greatly aged' and did not remember ever having seen him 'so grave and so withdrawn'.(19) In the gloomy mood of that winter he first made the remark that cropped up again at the end of his career: he was left
'ice-cold. If the German people were no longer inclined to give themselves body and soul in order to survive — then the German people would have nothing to do but disappear!' (20)
When spring set the frozen German advance in motion again, Hitler was seized with exaltation once more and at times actually complained that destiny had given him only second-rate opponents to wage war upon.
'The habit of underestimating the potentialities of the enemy, which he had always had,' the then Chief of the General Staff, General Halder, noted in his diary on 23rd July 1942, 'is gradually assuming grotesque proportions. There can be no further talk of serious work. This so-called "leadership" is marked by pathological reactions to momentary impressions and a complete inability to judge the possibilities open to the High Command.'(21)
In Hitler's unrestrained overestimation of his own capacities one of the essential causes of the defeat that could already be discerned in the midst of victory became increasingly apparent. It led him, especially in the southern section of the front, not only to disperse his forces, against all the principles of strategy, but also to renounce any policy for gaining the approbation and collaboration of the Russian peoples. He countered all attempts — by no means all hopeless — to stir up latent hostility to the Bolshevik regime by the preservation of certain autonomies or more humane treatment, with empty phrases drawn from his Herrenvolk ideology and his deep-rooted belief in the power of brutality.
'The idea of treating wars as anything other than the harshest means of settling questions of very existence,' he once said, 'is ridiculous. Every war costs blood, and the smell of blood arouses in man all the instincts which have lain within us since the beginning of the world: deeds of violence, the intoxication of murder, and many other things. Everything else is empty babble. A humane war exists only in bloodless brains.'(22)
In such maxims the primitive fascination of a consciousness stuck fast in its own formative period survives in crude analogies of the right of the stronger. Their effect was to ensure approval in the highest quarters for the policy of suppression now being practised with increasing savagery. They also lent support to demands for the ruthless use of the German forces themselves. When the loss of young officers was pointed out to Hitler, he replied uncomprehendingly, 'But that's what the young men are there for!'(23)
Hitler's attitude, attaching no value to human life except as an instrument for the satisfaction of his own ambition for power, was one of the reasons for the exceptionally heavy losses in the defeat that symbolized the turning point in the war — and in his own life — Stalingrad. Since 1919 when, as a returning soldier with no trade, he had embarked upon his ambitious career, destiny had led him higher and higher. The greater initiative, the more reckless courage, and finally luck, had always been on his side: he had won first the party, then Germany, and finally almost the whole of Europe. Now all of these deserted him at the same time and he had to pay with an unparalleled disaster for demands that had again and again been pushed to the extreme limit, to victory or disaster, but had at last been pushed too far.
He no longer seemed to succeed in anything, although — or because — with growing impatience he took over more and more and even involved himself in tactical details. 'Everything is as though under a spell,' he complained in exasperation. (24) And while his foes, who since the active intervention of the United States had over 75 per cent of the world's manpower, industrial capacity and sources of raw materials at their disposal, overran the outer bastions of his empire — North Africa, Sicily and the Ukraine — gained mastery of the air, and forced the collapse of the German U-boat campaign, Hitler buried himself in the solitude of his headquarters. There in almost manic impersonality, with security zones, barbed-wire and lines of outposts which on both Jodl and Goebbels produced the impression of a concentration camp, an embittered man, visibly deteriorating physically and in his own words tortured by melancholy, (25) ever more deeply entangled in the hatreds and complexes of his early years, organized between attacks of convulsive screaming and pathological rage the continued prosecution of the war and the frenzied murder of whole peoples.
It was the old outbreak into total anathema, the old unbridled reactions of the unsuccessful art student to all resistance from outside, only now horrifyingly translated from the impotent attitudes of puberty into reality. And just as nothing but technical reports came to break the monotonous austerity of his days, so he himself began to avoid public life. As soon as the war began, he moved into the background, and all propaganda efforts to exploit his withdrawal for the construction of a myth could not fill the place of that old feeling of his omnipresence, with the help of which the regime had released a latent superabundance of energy, spontaneity and readiness for self-sacrifice. Hitler appeared in public more and more rarely; after Stalingrad, only twice more. Faith in the power of oratory to sweep all before it had reached its limit in the face of a hostile world closed to all attempts to shake its resolution with words, even though Goebbels once noted in his diary that after a speech by the Fuhrer the English had 'become decidedly more modest'.(26) And if consciousness of his own lack of assurance was one of the reasons why Hitler shunned the platform, the result was to intensify it. He had often enough pointed to the increase in self-confidence which he derived from communication with the masses. Now he lost himself more and more in wild and yearning fantasies, which he spoke of to those immediately around him: the rebuilding of Berlin as the world capital Germania, the establishment of a museum for his favourite painters, Makart and Defregger, whose works he passionately collected, or the development of his 'home town', Linz, into the cultural metropolis of the Danube region, which was to receive a university and become a centre at which the 'three cosmologies of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Horbiger (glacial theory)' — would be taught.(27)
During strategic conferences Hitler's overwrought nerves sought release in explosive outbursts of rage, often with little cause. His unstable moods, which reduced to chaos all the work of conducting the war, vacillated between stubborn resolution and disdainful resignation. Repeatedly he was seized with a self-pitying longing for death.
'It is only a fraction of a second and then one is freed from everything and has one's quiet and eternal peace,' he said.(28)
As early as spring 1943 Goebbels noted with concern Hitler's growing inability to make decisions as well as his mistaken way of treating people, and observed that
'the Fuhrer now uses the phrase "When this war is over at last!" with increasing frequency'.(29)
About the same time Rommel heard him say that the war could scarcely be won now, but that none of the other powers would make peace with him. Now he would wage war to the end. But in the alternating hot and cold of Hitler's emotions despair again and again yielded to fresh confidence. When summer brought partial military successes, the Foreign Minister suggested peace feelers to Moscow. He was told:
'You know, Ribbentrop, if I come to terms with (30) Russia today I shall only attack her again tomorrow — I simply can't help it.'
Hitler was now completely buried in the mad world of his system of underground bunkers. It was 'tragic', noted Goebbels.(31) From the bearing of those around him, a mingling of fanatical believers and men without character, who moreover had strict orders to take an optimistic view of the situation, he built for himself an unfounded and illusory certainty of victory. But it was this ability to despise and ignore reality which alone enabled him to continue the struggle. Even before the war he had forbidden 'warning memoranda'; now he regarded all sober assessments of the situation as a 'personal insult'.(32) When Halder told him that the Russians were producing six or seven hundred tanks a month, Hitler thumped the table and said it was impossible, 'The Russians are dead.'(33)
He showed the same contempt for facts in his catastrophic inability to organize a retreat. The mere thought of it was repulsive to him, and all factual considerations were blocked by the rigid and unvarying formula that the troops were to stand firm 'to the last man'. His much-vaunted talents as a general were now seen to apply, at best, to offensive situations. To the last, with empty hands and caught in his own world of ghosts, he kept on planning new offensives. The prospect of defence showed up all the failings of this man who had always prided himself on his 'iron will' and scorned readiness to yield as weakness.
'The successful offensive strategist was devoid of ideas on the defensive,' wrote one of his closest colleagues, 'talentless to the point of disaster.'(34)
Disaster came inexorably closer. Since the Allied landing in Normandy the Reich had been fighting on three fronts, and with the increasing activity of the partisans of resistance movements, it was soon fighting on all fronts simultaneously. Germany was being squeezed in from all sides and pressed from above by almost continuous air attacks. A chain reaction was set up. The loss of sources of raw materials reduced production and shortened the life of the weapons already in use; this in turn contributed to further territorial losses, which then enabled the enemy to move his air bases even closer to the Reich itself. Even if the effects of the air war, as recent investigations have disclosed, were far below expectations and neither critically reduced the country's economic potential nor broke the nerve of the people, they nevertheless helped to foster a sceptical attitude towards the outcome of the war. To be sure, one side of the German character remained effective: credulous subordination amounting to self-abandonment, as well as an almost pathological devotion to discipline, stimulated with absolute calculation by National Socialist propaganda. But it was now the fatalistic obedience of a majority who, though incapable of revolt, were not willing to follow the regime any further along its chosen path. After the elation, mingled with disquiet, of the victorious phase, people now began to shut their ears to the calls to hold firm and the fulsome phrases of the propagandists and to prepare themselves for defeat.
'The yearning for peace, widespread among Germans, is also to be discerned elsewhere. Everyone is human.'(35)
By contrast, there reigned in the magically distorted atmosphere of the Fuhrer's headquarters an absurd certainty of victory, kept alive by Hitler with renewed exhortations and threats. He actually drew encouragement from the attempt of the conspirators of 20th July 1944, to save the honour of their country and establish a basis for its continued existence before total disaster supervened. Hitler attributed the failure of the attempt on his life to the will of Providence and inferred that he was chosen by Providence to bring the war to a victorious conclusion.
In the growing confusion produced by contradictory orders from the Fuhrer, the last elements of the defensive system broke down. Soon after the unsuccessful Ardennes offensive, which had come to grief in a thousand incompetencies, Hitler returned to Berlin, to the bunker under the Reich Chancellery. Here, protected by twenty-six feet of concrete as much from reality as from enemy bombs, to the accompaniment of attacks of rage, senseless orders to attack, and convulsive weeping, he once more constructed his world of delusions, which included miracle weapons, ultimate victory, and great buildings to go up after the war. His body ruined by drugs, at the mercy of the storms of his temperament, and tortured by distrust, he looked by all accounts like a figure from the kingdom of the shades.(36) He gestured wildly over maps, planned attacks, directed with a trembling hand armies that no longer existed, and as encirclement began described to his entourage the joy of the battle before the gates of Berlin which was going to decide the war. During the night-long brooding monologues, which reflected both the final stage of his intellectual decay and his bitterness at the 'cowardly failure' of the German people, he spoke
'almost exclusively of the training of dogs, questions of diet, and the stupidity and wickedness of the world'.(37)
Almost daily he took counsel from the horoscopes of an astrologer, and while the attacking Russian armies were already clashing with the hastily assembled remnants of the shattered German forces, fantastic hopes flickered again from the conjunction of planets, ascendants and transits in the square. Only when the ring had closed around the government district, and he ruled over nothing but a few million cubic yards of rubble, did he begin to give in.
On the night of 29th April, after he had begun the process of ending his existence with a scene of macabre pedantry and married his companion of many years, Eva Braun, he dictated his political testament. It contained protestations of his own innocence, accusations of foreign treachery and of undeserved disloyalty, and in its repetition of the old formulas demonstrated his lifelong inability to learn. He had never outgrown his first prejudices, hatreds and complexes, and remained to the end fixed in a monotonous sameness of thought and feeling. After nominating his successor he concluded, in an empty embittered gesture:
'Above all I charge the leaders of the nation and those under them to scrupulous observance of the laws of race and to merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.'(38)
The following afternoon, with Russian troops only a few blocks from the Reich Chancellery, Hitler prepared to take his life.
'He sat there,' an orderly officer wrote later, 'apathetic and distractedly brooding, indifferent to everything going on around him, tormented, lifeless, a man dying slowly and with difficulty who was bound indissolubly to his destiny and was now being strangled by it. Then I knew that this was the end!'(39)
Shortly after 3 p.m. he retired with Eva Braun to his private rooms. At this moment, a contemporary report says, a dance began in the canteen of the bunker, in which the weeks of nervous tension sought a violent release; it seemed liken final theatrical effect staged by the underworld as it called back its servant. Not even the thought that the Fuhrer was in the very act of dying had power to interrupt the dance. In his last hour the word of a man who had once forced a continent to obey did not reach beyond the walls of his underground cell.
A single shot rang out. The commander of the SS guard, Rattenhuber, who had been waiting with a few others in the corridor, went in and found Hitler lying on the sofa, which was soaked in blood. Beside him lay Eva Braun, an unused revolver in her lap; she had taken poison. Rattenhuber had the two bodies taken into the garden, and petrol poured over them, then sent for the mourners: Goebbels, Bormann, General Burgdorf, Hitler's valet Linge, and a few others. A burst of Russian firing drove them back into the bunker, and one of those present threw a burning rag on the bodies. As the flames shot up they all stood to attention with hands raised in the Nazi salute. A member of the guard who passed the spot half an hour after the ceremony couldn't recognize Hitler because he was already pretty burnt.(40) On the evening of the following day Radio Hamburg announced that
'our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler died for Germany in his command post in the Reich Chancellery this afternoon, fighting to his last breath against Bolshevism'.
Even this last announcement still suggested a claim to the greatness at which this man had ceaselessly, violently grasped and tried to make a tragedy of what was in fact much more like the trite horror pictures of his favourite painter Makart. But we do not need to read a symbolic background into the manner of Hitler's death to note its revealing features. The unique mixture and contrast of banality and significance, of the commonplace that yet had historic status, seems one further example of the dialectic and driving mechanism of this dissonant character, which took its most powerful drive from the tension between what he was and what he wished to be. Hitler was undoubtedly great and a figure of historic significance. There is tragedy here too; the tragedy is that of his victims, and the greatness stems almost exclusively from destructiveness. In the sum total of this life, constructive achievements are lacking to an extent scarcely paralleled among the most savage figures of history. What his contemporaries saw as constructive achievements were either counterfeits devised for effect with the aid of compulsion, deception, and propaganda tricks, or were intended solely to give him the means to further his all-embracing destructiveness. Even in the account given by the man who was the first to join him, this motive keeps showing through the descriptions of outbursts of hate, contemptuous emotional coldness, frenzied self-seeking; and in retrospect Hitler's career seems to follow the same monotonous theme of destruction, played out on an ever-larger stage and with ever-growing means and power. Everything that may be associated with his career — his excesses in the use of power, the war, his systematic attempts at genocide — in the end merely conforms to the same inner consistency.
It is the same despairing man who failed every constructive task and test, the hopeless prisoner of his own negative impulses, the man who at an early age had
'felt chagrined at the idea that my life would have to run its course along peaceful and orderly lines'
and was aware that history, if in no other way, also measures a man's greatness by the magnitude of the catastrophes he causes. This monstrous desire 'one day to read my name in the history books' led him far beyond the limits of his murky, amorphous personality which, with its deformities, dullness and petit bourgeois drabness, ensured shattering failure every time he devoted himself seriously to any occupation. Only respect for the dead and the ruins he left behind forbid us to dismiss this life as no more than a nauseating, vulgar and bloody horror story, which fundamentally is all it amounts to; not without justice the epoch of his rise and power has been called
'the age of the demonic nonentities'.(41)
The historian who studies this figure is continually up against the difficulty
'of making the catastrophic magnitude of the events tally with the inconceivable commonplaceness of the individual who set them in motion'.(42)
To equate the obviously inferior features of Hitler's personality with lack of intelligence or actual stupidity would be to make the same mistake as so many of his self-confident partners and opponents. The elements of his biography which have been set forth within the scheme of this study prove the opposite often enough. On the basis of a few primitive notions fixed at an early stage in complex aggressive attitudes, he generally reacted with extraordinary acuteness and, to use one of his own favourite expressions, with 'icy coldness', with no counter-balancing sense of compassion, of morality or of respectability — a familiar phenomenon in psychiatry. It was just this manic and unflinching concentration on the one aim of increasing his personal power which for so long ensured the superiority of his tactics over all his opponents within the country and the majority of those outside, until, in the wilful provocation of almost the whole world, it revealed the primitive narrowness of outlook that was his essential characteristic.
In the end not only Hitler the tactician but also Hitler the demagogue was destroyed by his one-sidedness and over confidence in his methods. One witness at the trial before the Munich People's Court, asked about the discussions which took place the night before the march on the Feldherrnhalle, replied,
'Herr Hitler kept shouting all the time: Propaganda, propaganda, all that matters is propaganda! ' (43)
With no sense of proportion he saw events in history, the rise or fall of its leading figures, essentially in terms of greater or lesser skill in propaganda, and tried to prove this by citing Mayor Lueger, the First World War, or the nationalist movement. His own triumphs as an agitator, with their subjective emotional uplift and ecstatic self-liberation, reinforced his overestimation of the effect of propaganda. There was a core of truth in his view of the rise of great mass movements through the power of eloquent orators to inspire emotional fervour; but his basic error was to mistake the intoxication of the movement for conversion, frenzy for a sworn purpose, and systematically aroused shouts for the Fuhrer for evidence of unconditional loyalty. By mistaking the result of careful manipulation for reality, he became a victim himself. His experiences in the so-called period of struggle, where his skill as a propagandist had had its greatest successes, served him ever after as a model. Incurably confined within the narrow outlook of the jumped-up provincial party leader, he was unable to see even a world war as anything but an election campaign expanded to global proportions.
'Hitler thereupon pointed out,' notes a commentator on the table talk at the Fuhrer's headquarters, 'that this war was a faithful copy of conditions during the period of struggle. What then took place among the parties within the country was today taking place as a struggle between the nations outside.'(44)
In actual fact, frequently renewed outbursts of propagandist emotion were necessary if he was to maintain his hold on Germany. The advantage during the period of struggle had been that Hitler could see real aims, real obstacles, real opponents to fire his rhetorical energy and concentrate it in an integrated effort. The war, after a short phase of bewilderment, brought similar conditions, though at a far more demanding level and with less attractive prospects, especially as Hitler himself upset the approximate balance which he had hitherto maintained between the importance of his opponents and the level of his propaganda effort. When he abandoned the role of the demagogue for that of the general the intensity of public emotional attachment to his person immediately diminished, not least for this very reason. This showed once more how far the Third Reich, terrorist pressure aside, was an unreal construction held together by the power of Hitler's rhetoric. Having renounced true conviction in favour of the momentary self-surrender of emotional intoxication, it found its cohesion perpetually threatened by apathy.
When Hitler gave up speaking in public, his power over men's minds deteriorated, and so too, in a curious parallel, did he. 'Everything I am, I am through you alone', he once cried to the masses. It was true, not merely as regards his acquisition of power, but also in a deeper, almost physiological, way.(45) His rhetorical excesses throughout his life from his earliest appearances in Munich beer halls to the laborious and exhausted struggles of his last years served not simply to whip up other people's energies, but also to stimulate his own. Above and beyond all propaganda considerations, they were a means of self-preservation. During the final phase of the war he complained in a depressed mood that he would never again be able to deliver a great speech. The idea of the end of his career as an orator was linked with the idea of the end altogether.(46)
Only the rhetorical ability that enabled him to turn so many adverse circumstances to his advantage, his power of persuasion over men's minds, can entirely explain this man's rise and career. It was far more significant to his success than his Machiavellian, statesmanlike or even military capacities, the limits of which became clear quite early on and served rather to ensure his downfall. He himself once said that his whole life could be summed up as 'a ceaseless effort to persuade people', and the irresistible effect of his persuasion is attested by the unbroken chain of individual and collective capitulations that line his path. There were the early opponents and rivals within the party, the masses of the late 1920s and 1930s and even a foreign diplomat who once confessed that in the face of Hitler's rhetorical power it had
'repeatedly happened' that 'for a few minutes he became a convinced National Socialist'.(47)
No doubt Valentin's famous saying that the story of Hitler was the story of his underestimation is correct; but so is the opposite. Contemporaries who saw in Hitler 'merely a demagogue' were just as wrong as those who paid homage to his 'extraordinary personality' or 'greatness'. In the particular conditions of the time the ability to mislead gave a demagogue exceptional power. At the same time, Hitler's case showed how this ability may go hand in hand with an extraordinary primitiveness. This has been denied by people who met Hitler personally, but not very convincingly. In so far as their judgements did not merely disclose the perverted criteria of the time or were not blurred by the theatrical brilliance of Hitler's display of power, they always projected features of the transcendent mass agitator into the personality as a whole, although the vulgar traits in that personality were plain for all to see and recorded in innumerable accounts and in the texts of speeches and writings. The automatic fascination exercised by the mediumistic powers of Hitler the speaker distorted people's judgement. It helped to conceal the nakedness of his fundamentally squalid personal make-up and gave even his tritest utterances an aura of importance; and again and again it contributed to his success as a statesman. An entirely comparable automatic reaction is shown in the resistance, still widespread today, to accepting such an inexpressibly commonplace figure as Hitler as the man behind events of such extraordinary magnitude. But we need only take one look at his profession of faith, 'Mein Kampf', or his 'Table Talk' to become aware of his real nature. In both documents, which mark the beginning and the end of his political career, he reveals himself without the irritating effects of the demagogue; he is not 'beside himself', as he was during his speeches, but despite all his masquerading entirely his normal self; and he shows in page after page, with an exhausting shrill monotony, a platitudinousness, an inability to rise above his own complexes, a human, moral and intellectual inferiority that explodes all myths to the contrary.
He once said that his philosophy of life had not changed since his Vienna days, and in fact at the zenith of his success he remained the inmate of the men's hostel, the pathological semi-genius from the Twentieth District to whom, for a terrible moment of history, power was given over individuals and nations. His definition of politics bears unmistakable traces of those early experiences. It was, he said,
'the attainment of a goal by all conceivable means: persuasion, cunning, astuteness, persistence, kindness, slyness, but also brutality'.
The power which he ensured for himself by these means he conceived only in its most primitive form as the use of force, extermination, war; and all the extremes to which he went in the exercise of power were intended solely to provide ever-renewed confirmation of his personal, unlimited possession of that power.
'Genius of an extraordinary stamp,' he remarked with one eye on himself, 'is not to be judged by the normal standards whereby we judge other men'.(48)
To the 'era of personal happiness', whose end he once proclaimed, he opposed an exclusively functional vision of man in which the sum of the individuals, far below the claims of the 'geniuses' to grandeur and historical fame, appeared merely as 'planetary bacilli'.(49)
This idea also set the tone of his relationship with the German people. He tried to justify transforming society into a closed, totally manageable unit, available for all his personal power aims, with the revealing phrase that
'monkeys put to death any members of their community who show a desire to live apart. And what the apes do, men do too, in their own manner.'(50)
There was more to this than a desire to subjugate his own people; his will to power felt itself threatened by anyone else's freedom, and cramped in its ego-obsession by anyone else's self-determination, and quite logically sought nothing less than world domination.(51) The destruction of opponents and those who held aloof within Germany was necessary for two reasons: opposition and neutrality were not merely a challenge to the totalitarian demand for power but also constituted a disturbing element in the attempt to weld the German people into a cohesive whole, with the maximum striking force, in preparation for their expansionist mission. Hitler liked to describe the earth as an 'elusive trophy' reserved for the strongest in the struggle of races and nations — and he was determined to win that trophy.(52) The idea that this might hopelessly overtax the strength and resources of the country neither worried nor deterred him.
'The German people,' he retorted in 1938 with his own peculiar brand of irony, evidently to a warning someone had given him, 'once survived war with the Romans. The German people survived the Migration of the Peoples ... the later great struggles of the early and late Middle Ages. Then the German people survived the religious wars of more recent times. Then later the German people survived the Napoleonic Wars, the Wars of Liberation, they even survived a world war, even the Revolution [of 1918] — they will also survive me!' (53)
Similarly later, during the war, the suggestion of the end of Germany, which he had so thoughtlessly provoked, drew from him merely the comment — but this time without irony 'that the fat was in the fire'.
Remarks Hitler made to Albert Speer in March 1945 show his view of his relationship with the German people as strictly that of user and used: if the war were lost the German people would also be lost; there was no need to worry about ensuring their continued existence even on a primitive level, for they would have proved themselves the weaker. Germany was not his 'bride', as Hitler once remarked, but — as Napoleon said of France — his mistress. She was indeed too weak for the sweeping plans for world domination which he had had in mind for her, and among the many reasons for Hitler's failure this violent overtaxing of Germany's strength, in the face of the facts, including the relative power of the protagonists, is one of the most important. He was always waiting to 'turn up nineteen points with three throws of the dice', and in his obstinate contempt for reality he stuck to the belief that he had succeeded in doing so right down to the death agony in his bunker underworld. Even if it is not true, as cynics say, that history judges men by results, Hitler's life does deserve to be 'measured solely by its one and only criterion, success'. (54) Of the grand and premature aim of an empire that would last for a thousand years, nothing was left. Neither the structure of his state nor a residue of his ideological system nor even his territorial conquests survived him, and the 'struggle against Bolshevism', which had been a central point of National Socialist ideology, brought the enemy deep into the heart of Europe. It was appropriate that a power structure built exclusively for himself and shaped exclusively by himself should collapse when he collapsed. All he left behind were ruins, and nothing else.
However, something remains unexplained when we consider how it was that Hitler, in spite of such a personality, could achieve not only dominion over Germany but also hegemony over Europe, before he was toppled by the united strength of almost the whole world. It is true that we must first establish the criteria of a century before we can take the measure of the man who ruled this century. The still visible traces of his legacy prevent our underestimating Hitler, but we can judge his calibre only if we take account of the period and its susceptibility both to the demagogue's power to lead it astray and to its own weakness and fears.
We must look beyond the mere failure of the German people. It is true that every nation bears the responsibility for its own history. But the emergence of Hitler, the conditions for his rise and his triumph, depended on circumstances far beyond the narrower framework of conditions in Germany. We need not mention Versailles, nor Munich, nor Moscow. We may confine ourselves to the common inner characteristics of which these and countless other comparable stages on the road were only symptoms: the turning away of almost all European powers from reason and realism; the disenchantment with traditional values and ethical standards, accompanied by a lack of will to defend any moral and legal principles whatever; a shortsighted striving for advantage and security as well as, in particular, a susceptibility to illusion — the fatal characteristic of the epoch. He was setting out to do battle with an evil beast, said Chamberlain before taking off for Bad Godesberg in September 1938, (55) but we know how unprepared he was for that battle, and how far he was concerned to find fresh justification for his own pusillanimous and absurd optimism, although Hitler's tactics and his aggressive resolution had been demonstrated not only in his conquest of power within Germany but also in his switch to an expansionist foreign policy, which he had long since abandoned any attempt to disguise. Hitler was the outcome of a long process of degeneration not confined to a single country, the end result of a development that was as much European as it was German, a common failure. This does not diminish the responsibility of the German people, but it divides it.
Similarly, Hitler did not destroy Germany alone, but put an end to the old Europe with its sterile rivalries, its narrow-mindedness, its selfish patriotism, and its deceitful imperatives. He put an end too to its splendour, its grandeur, and the magic of its douceur de vivre. The hour of that Europe is past and we shall never see it again. By the hand of the man whom it brought to power, the lights were really and finally put out over Europe.