English writer A.N. Wilson has written a brief biography of a lonely, lazy youth with few skills, a youth who bullied others and threw tantrums when he didn't get his way.
This indolent art student and Austrian army draft dodger's name was alternately spelled: "Hiedler/Huttler/Hitler, all variations of the same name, which means "one who lives in a hut" and who ended up dead in a bunker.
To begin, Wilson recapitulates the gruesome facts. Hitler instigated the mass-murder of as many as 6 million Jews. "He forced Western Europe, and eventually the whole world, into a calamitous war in which more than 50 million Europeans were killed. When he committed suicide in 1945, he left his country a burning heap of ruins, financially bankrupt, militarily abject, physically wrecked." Hitler was also "habitually kind to servants," said his maid, Rosa Mitterer, if that matters.
Not everyone likes Wilson's new biography. Richard J. Evans, professor of history and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, an authority on the Third Reich, is furious about Wilson's effort. He writes, "It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography," he says. "What might do as a background research for a novel won't do as preparation for a serious work of history," he notes.
I smell some academic jealousy here that is common and sometimes justified, depending upon who's complaining. When Hugh Trevor-Roper, an earlier English historian, wrote a small volume titled "Last Days of Hitler," some historians complained about his being out of his field. Trevor-Roper went on to become professor of modern history at Oxford. My own view is that Wilson seems a compulsive writer lately. In addition to the Hitler biography, he has also published "Dante In Love" and "The Elizabethans" this year. It probably wouldn't hurt him to take a break. But in the interval, he does no great harm with this "Hitler-Lite" volume that reminds the world of Hitler's crimes, even if the effort is not up to Evans' standard.
What of Hitler's early years? We are told that Hitler went from being a shy youth and a failed art student in Linz, Austria, to acquiring a Wagnerian vision of Teutonic cultural supremacy who defined his own "heroic" quest. What books did he read?
Young Hitler read Schopenhauer's gloom-filled tracts, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Gulliver's Travels" and "Don Quixote," along with his favorite author, German adventure writer Karl May, who wrote Wild West stories with their heroes, Surehand and the American Indian Winnetou, battling against insuperable odds and triumphing through an exercise of the will.
Hitler had a number of women friends and lovers. Wilson says that "Hitler's sexuality was all but normal." He had a relationship with Maria Reiter, known as Mimi, age 16, when he was 37. His half-sister's daughter, a 16-year-old named Geli, came to keep house for him. Hitler was passionate in his love for her; we're not certain what kind. She shot herself. And of course there was Eva Braun, his final housemate, who called him "Wolf." One wonders what Wilson considers "normal."
Beyond his lazing about for days at the Berghof, or Mountain Court, he was subject to hypochondria with alternating fits of energy and apparent depression. His mind-set included a rejection of Catholicism's beliefs while holding onto its pomp, ritual and doctrinaire attitudes. These elements helped shape his approach to leadership.
Where Wilson touches a nerve is in his assertion that Hitler was just an ordinary guy. He writes, "Hitler embodied the views of any popular newspaper, any bar-parlour bore, from England to Russia, from Finland to Sicily, during his lifetime ... Hitler was ... an exaggerated embodiment of the beliefs of the average modern person."
How can this statement be true? The argument goes to what Hitler believed. He thought that science had replaced religion, that Darwin has explained the struggles of history, that the fittest would survive, and that the "Aryan" or Eurasian race was superior to the Jews and the "savages" found in Africa and South America.
But did the average man and woman have these convictions? If so, what's the evidence?
Wilson's evidence is that people thought that the specter of bankruptcy that had been haunting Europe since the beginning of the industrial revolution, was just around the corner. And it was. Bankruptcy was an unintended consequence of that revolution, and somehow, our author says, people believed that Jews were connected to it and to the roiling of the markets.
This apocalyptic view mirrored the larger temper of Hitler's times. This mode of thinking, as well as the outbreak of the First World War (a failure of leadership), "made Hitler possible," according to the English Hitler scholar, Ian Kershaw, cited by Wilson.
When reparations had to be made by the Germans to the Allies after World War I, Germany was unable to do so. By November 1923, an American dollar was worth 130,000 marks. Result: German middle-class savings were worth zilch.
It was in this milieu that Hitler laid his views out in "Mein Kampf (My Struggle)" but world leaders paid no attention. Why would they? Hitler was serving a five-year term in Lansberg prison for an attempted putsch, a failed revolution. He dictated the book to the devout Rudolf Hess, who typed it. That the world paid no attention was unfortunate, because Hitler made clear in it what his plans for the future were.
If Hitler didn't have a Final Solution in mind in "My Struggle," Wilson notes, he spoke clearly of the defeat of Germany in World War I as having been unnecessary if "twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters had been held under poison gas."
With an almost magical psychological leverage, Wilson describes how Hitler used widespread fear to take over the shell of a small political unit to become the voice of the radical right in Germany. He headed up a splinter party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, whose supporters shortened the party's name to the acronym in German, NSDAP, Nazis.
He was immensely popular. When Hitler became chancellor, more than 50,000 Berliners joined the Nazi Party in the month after his accession to power.
Thus, in a very short time, says Wilson, "with very little energy, a modest education, and no obvious 'leadership' qualities, Hitler nevertheless rose to become Chancellor of Germany and changed the course of world history."
The Struggle/Fight lay ahead, and it was a fight for the future identity of Germany.
Hitler was successful at first. Wilson says that "this man who had no obvious talent for anything but public speaking, the manipulation of crowds ... dominated European history. For the first six of those years, he performed what appeared to be an economic miracle: he led his country out of the gravest economic crisis ... He gave it full employment and apparent prosperity."
In time, Hitler's rise to power and the vaunted 1,000-year reign of the Third Reich grew to be an increasing threat in the larger world. After his annexation of Austria, the Sudetenland and destruction of Czechoslovakia, his monstrousness was recognized. Perhaps the world did not realize that even more incredible Nazi savagery was on the way with the murder of millions of Jews.
Michael D. Langan began contributing to The Buffalo News more than 30 years ago.
By A.N. Wilson
224 pages, $24.99