the Hitler of History

John Lukacs, The Hitler of History (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).


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            There is no shortage of historical literature on the Third Reich, and biographies of Adolf Hitler abound.  John Lukacs’s The Hitler of History is, as he makes abundantly clear, not another biography of Hitler; it is, as the title suggests, a history of the history of Hitler.  Lukacs provides a historiographical review of the different biographies of Hitler, gleaning from them patterns in the interpretations of Hitler’s life in order to answer certain questions that he feels have remained inadequately answered.

Lukacs begins his book with an impressive overview of the Hitler biographies that he feels contributed the most to the understanding of Hitler.  His mastery of the topic and the reviewed books is remarkable and is made evident not only in the body of his book, but in the meticulously precise footnotes, as well.  Lukacs’s review extends to over fifteen biographies of Hitler and begins with what he feels to be the “first substantial” Hitler biography, written by Konrad Heiden in 1936.  While he provides commentary on many more works, his focus (in the historiographical chapter and throughout the book) is primarily on a handful of biographies, namely those written by Andreas Hillgruber in 1965, Ernst Deuerlein in 1969 (which Lukacs considers the “best short biography of Hitler”), Percy Ernst Schramm in 1971, Joachim Fest in 1973 (the “best long biography”), John Toland in 1977 (the first “big biography” by an American), David Irving in 1977 (which receives criticism from Lukacs for rehabilitating Hitler), Rainer Zitelman in 1987, and Ian Kershaw in 1991.

After this review, Lukacs shows that during “the last fifty years many Germans did not want to think much about Hitler.  But many of their historians did” (40).  This discussion among German historians led to a dispute known as the Historikerstreit, or “Historian’s Controversy.”  This Historikerstreit was sparked by conservatives Ernst Nolke, who essentially argued that Auschwitz was not conceivable without the prior existence of the Soviet gulags, and Andreas Hillgruber, who presented the “two war theory,” which stated that in one perspective, Hitler’s war with the West, while regrettable, was a “normal war.”  Hitler’s war with Soviet Russia, on the other hand, should be seen as a separate war, a war for the defense of Western civilization against the onslaught of Communism.  While Lukacs acknowledges particular contributions made by these historians, he ultimately condemns such interpretations as rehabilitation of Nazi Germany (if not directly Hitler himself).

Lukacs also addresses the issue of historians’ handling of Hitler’s statesmanship.  Ultimately, Lukacs argues that Hitler deserves more credit as a strategist (both politically and even militarily) than has been traditionally given to him.  Perhaps most shocking from this chapter is Lukacs’s assertion that once Hitler realized that a total victory over his enemies was no longer possible, his new goal became to bring his enemies to a point where they would have to deal with him on his own terms.  Such a view of a Hitler willing to revaluate his plans stands in contrast to the view of Hitler as an unyielding ideologue portrayed by many of his biographers.

Lukacs’s book also attempts to humanize Hitler.  Lukacs argues, as have other historians, that labeling Hitler as “evil,” removes all responsibility for his actions.  Throughout the book, he stresses the duality of Hitler’s personality in order to show that Hitler was, in fact, human: “there were dualities in Hitler himself.  That, too, is a normal condition” (101), “Those are formative years in any man’s life” (55), and “there were instances when he, like every other human being…had to adjust” (130).

Lukacs’s strongest argument comes in his handling of whether Hitler should be considered a reactionary or a revolutionary.  He points out that many people have been reluctant to label anything to do with Hitler as “revolutionary.”  However, he defines a reactionary as someone who wants to turn history backward, or return to a previous point in time, and a revolutionary as someone who looks to the future, as an advocate of progress (76).  Lukacs then points out how Hitler strove for a radical break with the Modern Age.  This new age resembled the “tyranny of the majority” predicted by Tocqueville, but Lukacs stresses that by utilizing the power of the masses, Hitler had established a new type of democracy, a “tyranny through the majority” (117), and this new power, which gained its legitimacy from the “will of the German Volk” was revolutionary.  In fact, Lukacs states that, because of this change in the relationship of power, “In the Hitler movement Germany experienced its only genuine revolution” (108) and asserts in his conclusion that Hitler “was the greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century” (258).

Lukacs guides the readers through these topics and others with ease.  His style is both conversational and inviting to readers.  Any critique of the book cannot be leveled against his knowledge of the subject matter, but instead against his handling of particular issues.  While he makes it clear that this is not a history of Hitler and that his purpose is not to discuss details in length, Lukacs sometimes makes sweeping or definitive remarks and then simply moves on without first adequately substantiating his statement.  For example, he explains Hitler’s seemingly irrational declaration of war on the United States, a matter that he admits has baffled historians for years, simply as Hitler’s loyalty to the treaty he had with Japan (154).  Also, Lukacs’s argument that Hitler was more nationalistic than racist, highlighted by Hitler’s quote that “there is no such thing as the Jewish race,” (123) may leave readers wanting further explanation.  Furthermore, whereas Lukacs is careful to define the many terms he uses throughout the book, his harshest criticism of other authors is that they are engaging in a rehabilitation of Hitler; he does this without ever providing a clear definition of what he means by “rehabilitation.”

Overall, Lukacs’s book is a significant contribution to Hitler studies and also sheds light on the relationship between history and biography.  It perhaps raises more questions than it does provide definitive answers; however, it does not seem likely that Lukacs would regard this as something negative, because as he said, history “is not the pure truth but the pursuit of truth” (223).

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