Ad Policy

Paul Reitter

Paul Reitter ( teaches in the German department at Ohio State University.

  • Biography January 9, 2003

    Explaining ‘The Magician’

    Thomas Mann's popularity has been going the way of the Buddenbrooks family business. It is in decline.

    Paul Reitter

  • Non-fiction October 10, 2002

    Racism: Coded as Culture?

    This book makes a good case for racism--the word, not the ideology. What necessitated a defense?

    Paul Reitter

  • Politics January 17, 2002

    Vienna: Waltz or Go-Go?

    Exile is the best school of dialectics.
             --Bertolt Brecht

    Peter Gay emigrated from Germany when he was a teenager and worked his way through the American academic system, taking a doctorate at Columbia University and then setting out on his career as a historian. It has lasted more than fifty years so far--at Columbia and, eventually, Yale. (Now emeritus, Gay directs the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers.) His first book, which appeared in 1952, examined Eduard Bernstein and evolutionary socialism. From there, Gay proceeded to cultivate a long and fecund engagement with the French Enlightenment, translating, anthologizing and interpreting key texts, and in doing so establishing himself as a major figure in the field. He also wrote a history of Puritan historians in America, which only added to his reputation for being prolific and self-reflexive. Toward the end of the 1960s his interests shifted, and Gay began to study the Germany of his youth. The move resulted in an instant classic, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider.

    Gay's timing was excellent, as the zeitgeist in America had generated enthusiasm for the anti-establishment fulminations of German Expressionist art. Compact, lucid and informative, Weimar Culture had a ready audience both outside and inside academe. But while Gay admired innovators like Kandinsky and Rilke, he hardly celebrated Expressionism in general. Indeed, here is where we first see Gay's impatience with, even disdain for, the Modernist "revolt" against bourgeois culture. He wrote about "the danger of the movement's commitment to passion." And Gay heaped approbation on what was so often the object of its scorn, arguing that Weimar democracy had a chance against Nazism only "because there were republicans who took the symbol of Weimar seriously and who tried, persistently and courageously, to give the ideal real content."

    Yet Gay was still years away from The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, his five-volume attempt to rehabilitate nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. He seemed to be up to something altogether different, in fact. In the mid-1970s, Gay began to use an interpretive tool that often functions as a sledgehammer in theories of Victorian society: psychoanalysis.

    Of course, Freud himself was in some ways thoroughly bourgeois. He worked assiduously and enjoyed family picnics. And, unlike many of the critics who have appropriated his thought--for example, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse--Freud subscribed to moderate political values. Gay has made much of this point. In Freud, Jews and Other Germans, which appeared a decade after Weimar Culture, Gay not only employed Freudian concepts to understand history, he also discussed the founder of psychoanalysis under the heading "the bourgeois as revolutionary." A decade later, Gay invoked this oxymoron again in his greatest scholarly achievement, a biography of Freud.

    In his new book, Schnitzler's Century, Gay asserts--to no one's surprise--that "bourgeoisophobes," who anathematize nineteenth-century bourgeois culture as grimly repressive, are misguided: For it was bourgeois thinkers who enabled us to penetrate into the deep structures of sexuality, meaning that there must be more to this culture than Victorian squeamishness and hypocrisy. Witness Freud. Witness also turn-of-the-century Vienna's most successful playwright, Arthur Schnitzler.

    According to Gay, Schnitzler, like Freud, recognized the ubiquity of sexual drives in psychic life; indeed, Freud himself praised Schnitzler's psychological acumen. And, a medical doctor who often reproached himself for being slothful, Schnitzler, too, had certain bourgeois sensibilities. But Schnitzler is no Freud in Gay's book; Gay bluntly contends that between the two, there is only one epoch-making thinker: Freud. So why did Gay call his new book Schnitzler's Century? The fact that he had put Freud's name in the subtitle of his multivolume history of bourgeois culture may be one reason. More important, despite his various bourgeois tendencies, Freud is too extraordinary, or not representative enough. The possessive form in Gay's title does not suggest that Schnitzler captured the essence of Victorian culture but rather that, while not at all average, Schnitzler's mind and lusty life are emblematic of his century. Gay's title makes a statement about Schnitzler's times, not about Schnitzler's art.

    But Schnitzler's art matters. Again, it undermines the myth of bourgeois prudery. Schnitzler's stories and plays about Vienna evoke a world of small lies and swirling concupiscence. The dark comedy La Ronde is the most familiar example. Written in 1894, the play was deemed too racy for the Viennese stage, and the first performance of it took place in Berlin more than twenty-five years later. La Ronde consists of ten one-acts. In each case there are two characters, a man and a woman; the center of the action, a sexual encounter, has been omitted, and prevaricating dominates the dialogue. One partner always moves on to the next one-act. The prostitute who is with a soldier in the first one-act rounds out the play by reappearing with a count in the final one-act. Dream Novella, whose premise Stanley Kubrick borrowed for Eyes Wide Shut, broods over similar themes, including dishonesty and too much honesty in the bedroom, and lust circulating recklessly though different social spheres.

    Schnitzler's writings abound with autobiographical references, and therefore, along with his letters and diaries (in which Schnitzler kept an exact and prodigious record of his orgasms), his art can be used to document the sexual openness of a real bourgeois experience. But Gay works with it sparingly. Schnitzler himself moves in and out of Schnitzler's Century, helping to introduce Gay's arguments and occasionally to illustrate them. As Gay writes in his preface, "He will appear in each of the chapters that follow, sometimes briefly as an impetus to broader investigations, sometimes as a participant."

    Gay's main organizational conceit is that Schnitzler's Century is the biography of a class. Yet the book is actually the biography of classes--the middle classes. Gay stresses that bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century encompassed an array of lifestyles, from the penury of struggling shopkeepers to parvenu opulence. His claim makes sense, of course, but it creates logistical difficulties. How to tell so many stories in a single book? And, in fact, Schnitzler's Century has very little narrative development. To get that you would have to read the books that it is supposed to synthesize, The Bourgeois Experience. In Schnitzler's Century Gay presents material from the most diverse regions of bourgeois culture. He helps us to see, for example, the variegations in Victorian sexology. However, he does not show us how sexology in the Victorian era changed, and why. Schnitzler's Century might address a century, yet its approach is mostly synchronic. Gay fits this century into a large frame and points to its parts--Schnitzler, Dickens, theosophy, German Romanticism--as though they belonged to one complex portrait, which he sets up as a triptych. He begins with the "Fundamentals," or basic living and working conditions. In the other two sections, "Drives and Defenses" and "The Victorian Mind," Gay analyzes different areas of the bourgeois psyche.

    Drawing on such sources as good and bad novels, the letters of famous politicians and of everyday people, newspapers, cookbooks, the writings of eminent scientists (Darwin, Rudolf Virchow), the writings of quacks and self-help manuals, Gay offers many lurid instances of sensuousness in bourgeois culture. But sometimes he goes over them too quickly. For example, he writes, "Here is a Parisian petty bourgeoise, a dressmaker, name and age unknown, writing to her lover in 1892: 'I am compelled to acknowledge to myself, 'I love you,' and I won't forget the night of love I spent with you. Dear friend, you must have noticed with what freedom I abandoned myself. I was not at all embarrassed by your presence for the first time. It must be that I am greatly taken with you, and that I'm almost convinced that I will experience happiness in your arms.'" According to Gay, the quotation bespeaks the earthy communication and relatively guilt-free legitimate pleasure among Victorians. Certainly the letter is passionate. And for just that reason the cautious phrase, "I'm almost convinced that I will experience happiness in your arms" has a jarring effect. After so much rapture, why "almost"? Why hit the brakes in an otherwise full-speed-ahead love letter? Many things could have prompted her to--including the very Victorian sexual unease that she supposedly did not feel. Gay does not stop to consider this possibility.

    No doubt he avoids involved analysis because he wants to make his book readable. And it is that. It is also admirably balanced. While Gay celebrates the polychromatic side of Victorian society, he also acknowledges its industrialized grayness. He discusses other nineteenth-century ills as well, such as imperialism and the emergence of racist anti-Semitism. Here his debt to Freud is at its most obvious: Gay views these problems as effects of our aggressive drives. Yet elsewhere Gay distances himself from Freud, arguing that Freud generalized unduly about the links between common neuroses and sexual restrictions in bourgeois culture.

    Freud is not the hero of Schnitzler's Century. If the book has a guiding spirit it is Freud's American colleague, the psychologist and philosopher William James. In Gay's brief account of James his tone becomes effusive. He calls James the noblest exemplar of the Victorians' spiritual needs and states that James takes pride of place in these pages. Second, and more important, Gay focuses on the part of James's career that bears an affinity with his own project: James's will to believe. Just as James worked his way through modern doubt to a considered religious faith, Gay seems to be attempting to achieve a kind of erudite belief in the bourgeois world of yesterday, and in its transformation of the world. Gay adverts to many of Victorian society's horrific moments--like ritual-murder trials and cheering at executions. But he resolutely underlines what he sees as its humane successes, such as labor and voting reforms and the spread of cultural literacy. Indeed, although Gay does not sketch the development of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture, he leaves us with images of progress. For example, a section of Schnitzler's Century that begins by enumerating the casualties of capitalism ends with the sentence: "More than ever before, the middle classes could spend money and time in pursuits more elevated than chasing wealth and make room in their daily schedules for listening to music, looking at art, and attending the theatre." Gay thinks, or rather, has decided to think, that things got better.

    This generally sanguine attitude plays a greater role here than it did in the various volumes of The Bourgeois Experience, which, notwithstanding its much larger size, deals more narrowly with the question of bourgeois sexuality. In fact, Schnitzler's Century might connect more profoundly with My German Question, the memoir that Gay wrote several years ago, than it does with its explicit antecedents. My German Question defends the bourgeois Berlin milieu in which Gay grew up. It was, Gay insists, a vital culture, whose demise was far from inevitable. And by professing his belief in the overall value of Victorian culture and its possibilities, Gay extends this defense. Read My German Question and Schnitzler's Century together, and Schnitzler's Century will read that much more like a vastly learned existential reckoning. This is what makes it a powerful book, not its pummeling of tired ideas about middle-class prissiness.

    Still, Schnitzler's Century would be stronger if Gay had taken on more formidable opponents. He could have found them among his fellow refugees from Nazi Germany. Consider just a few examples. During the West Coast stage of their exile, in the mid-1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno traced the rise of Nazism to blind spots in Enlightenment rationality. Years later Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann's neat, bureaucratic countenance, rather than Hitler's psychotic gaze, as the real face of fascism. Meanwhile, Marcuse had been exploring the connections between the libidinal demands of bourgeois culture and the orgy of Nazi violence that almost destroyed it. And with his studies on the interplay of bourgeois sexuality and nationalism, George Mosse did more than anyone else to perpetuate this kind of analysis.

    In doing more than anyone else to defend bourgeois culture, Gay attacks the sort of criticisms that Steven Marcus raised in his famous study The Other Victorians. Leaning on a small body of sources, Marcus made far-reaching claims about the tortured character of Victorian sexuality. Gay easily piles up texts and facts that militate against them. He rejects Freud's arguments about bourgeois repression on the same grounds: insufficient evidence. But for the most part Freud articulates these views in essays on culture, theoretical speculations that he did not try to prove empirically. Needless to say, elsewhere Gay does not hold Freud to the same positivistic standard.

    Furthermore, Gay ignores the rich literature on the cultural construction of sexuality, much of which is inspired by Foucault's unfinished History of Sexuality. Such works--Thomas Laqueur's well-researched book Making Sex is a persuasive example--challenge Gay's basic assumption about sexuality: that it exists, more or less as we understand it, beyond our invented world of concepts. After all, Gay presupposes as much in asking whether the Victorians gave their sexuality room to breathe. The more critical approach to sexuality, which has led to readings of Victorian society that differ dramatically from Gay's, should have received at least some attention. And the same goes for the writings of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Obviously, Gay could not have taken into account every influential antibourgeois utterance. But engaging with such vigorous arguments would have given his own historiographical inversion just the sort of resistance it lacks--or would need in order to be satisfying. On numerous other levels, however, Schnitzler's Century remains impressive. Anyone interested in Victorian culture should appreciate the colorful sources Gay has gathered together; anyone interested in the writing of history should appreciate the elegance with which he arranges them. Writing about one of Schnitzler's early plays, a Viennese reviewer exclaimed, "How well everything is set up! How gracefully the characters are handled!" He could have been describing Schnitzler's Century.

    Paul Reitter

  • Politics December 7, 2001

    Holocaust Imponderables

    Paul Reitter reviews Essays on Hitler's Europe, by István Deák.

    Paul Reitter

  • Politics July 12, 2001

    Gender Unbender

    Pierre Bourdieu's newsworthiness has become news. The profile of him in the New York Times deals more with how bright his star is than with its substance, and quite a bit of the attention Bourdieu receives from the French press has to do with the attention he receives from the French press. What set this cycle into motion? In France, where academics play a much larger role in public life than they do here, academic visibility is neither rare nor strange. So why did Bourdieu's particular brand of it become a media spectacle?

    There are a number of reasons, some of which are obvious--for example, volume. Bourdieu gives televised addresses on the ills of television. He speaks about charged political issues, such as labor and immigration laws, at large demonstrations. He writes incendiary Op-Ed essays in major newspapers. Of course, in order to be taken seriously as a scholar while you do much more than your colleagues in the public arena, much more volubly, you must also maintain enormous intellectual credibility. Bourdieu does. He is professor of sociology at the Collège de France, the apex of French academe, as well as director of studies at the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. And Bourdieu very clearly worked his way to the top. In roughly forty years he has produced approximately thirty books, many of which are regarded by sociologists as major accomplishments. Indeed, the International Sociological Association put his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) on its list of the ten most important works of sociology written in the twentieth century.

    The book examines how aesthetic taste builds and reinforces social hierarchies. It is a typical theme for Bourdieu, who seeks in all his research to lay bare hidden mechanisms of power. When he writes bestselling essays in an activist key, Bourdieu can claim to be drawing directly on his expertise. In this regard, as is often pointed out, he stands in close proximity to another postwar maître penseur, Sartre.

    Bourdieu belongs to a different generation, of course, but not necessarily his own. In the early 1960s--before Foucault and Derrida--Bourdieu reoriented structuralism, which was then fashionable among French social scientists, and created a kind of poststructuralist theory. Bourdieu still uses structuralist code-cracking techniques; he sees culture as a series of "fields," each of which is organized according to its own deep grammar. But he dismisses the structuralist principle that you can explain the internal logic of a social system--language, for example--without reference to external factors. Throughout his career, Bourdieu's goal has been to trace shifts in the most autonomous fields, such as the evolution of aesthetic taste and the intensifying opacity of academic discourse, back to the struggle for social or "symbolic" power.

    This mode of cultural analysis is quite unlike the other great French poststructuralisms, even the one to which it is most similar, Foucault's. Bourdieu may be interested in something he calls symbolic power; Foucault may have written a history of the prison. Yet the operations of power are much more concrete for Bourdieu than they are for Foucault, who often seems primarily concerned with highly abstract "discursive regimes" that have us by the seat of our subjecthood. And so Bourdieu sees more possibility for getting his hands on, and altering, the power structure: "We must work to universalize the conditions of access to the universal." You will not find a sentence like that in Foucault's writings.

    At the same time, Bourdieu hardly exudes optimism. His worldview is dark, but not quite in the way critics generally make it out to be. What they tend to find most striking is the ubiquity of competition--how, for him, the grubby struggle to get ahead, to accumulate "symbolic capital," pervades all areas of culture, even the most refined. Yet something else weighs more heavily on Bourdieu: the unconscious complicity of the oppressed. Bourdieu's world is Kafkaesque rather than Brechtian. For hidden, complicated reasons, those who are "dominated" cede authority to an "established order" that is manifestly absurd. This, Bourdieu claims, is the great "paradox of doxa." Its prime example is masculine domination.

    Bourdieu, accordingly, takes up the topic of gender inequality in most of his studies on symbolic power. In fact, his earliest research--on familial organization in North Africa's Kabyle society--figures prominently in his new book, as do ideas worked out in The Logic of Practice (1990). But Masculine Domination is neither a rehashing of old material nor a collection of thematically cohesive essays. Rather, it is itself an essay, the form of which may have been influenced by Virginia Woolf, whom Bourdieu repeatedly invokes as the guiding spirit of his project. For although he states that his deepest affinities are with To the Lighthouse, and not with Woolf's "endlessly quoted" feminist essays, Masculine Domination bears similarities to them in structure (its pointed argument is sustained over about 100 pages and divided into three sections), if not in style.

    Following Woolf, Bourdieu wants to "suspend...'the hypnotic power of domination.'" With him, as with her, this means challenging readers to take a new approach to the problem, which in turn means exposing the inadequacy of existing approaches. Bourdieu believes that we produce gender identity. It is a function of our worldview, not a simple anatomical fact around which we form our worldview. For this reason he attacks "differentialist" feminists. By celebrating certain patterns of behavior as natural female strengths, they bolster the false consciousness on which masculine domination relies: the fallacy that what we consider to be male and female characteristics are essential properties. Bourdieu's attitude toward the most dynamic alternative to this feminism, constructivist gender theory, is more complex. He agrees with its main premise: that gender identity is a linguistic construct, right down to its most intimate parts. But he questions its practical value and argues that while constructivism probes forcefully, it does not probe far enough. It is insufficiently radical.

    Here Bourdieu's position is refreshingly counterintuitive. For constructivist gender theory, which has been influential in France and the United States since the late 1980s and is itself refreshingly counterintuitive, appears to be nothing if not radical. Indeed, Monique Wittig, a well-known French constructivist, avers that she has no vagina. This claim may sound strange. But its basis is a rational response to a series of reasonable questions: What is the real significance of the term "vagina"? What is its referent? And what is its social function? The point is that "vagina" is not a neutral, innocent label that we give to a self-evidently discrete body part. Rather, as for Bourdieu, it is a concept that imposes an artificial order on the body and regulates our perception of it. When such concepts feel natural to us, when we see what they refer to as organic objects, we are confusing linguistic objects, objects we construct by "inscribing" names and borders onto the world, with diffuse physical reality.

    Most of us accept as organically given a vast matrix of constructs, starting with our own bodies. According to critics like Wittig and Bourdieu, this leaves us blind to a very important fact: Power interests always guide our articulation of the world. Concepts not only designate objects, they carry meanings, meanings that generally will be advantageous to some of us. For example, the word "vagina" does not simply refer to a female anatomical feature. In our culture it connotes the defining feature of the female body, the locus of gender identity. And classifying people according to their reproductive organs reflects and institutionalizes a heterosexual bias.

    One implication of all this is that when we use everyday language we reinforce meanings and structures of perception that support our gender norms, even where our utterances contain annihilating invectives against our gender norms. Since these meanings and structures depend on reinforcement from the very people who suffer under them, refusing to acknowledge words like "vagina," or playing with them subversively, counts, at least for some constructivists, as resistance. So does constructing identities that openly challenge "normal," heterosexual assumptions about the stability of gender and the natural function of certain body parts.

    Bourdieu thinks otherwise. In his preface he declines, rather peremptorily, even to consider the idea that "parodic performances" of identity might loosen masculine domination. He calls instead for "political mobilization, which would open for women the possibility of a collective action of resistance." And in the body of his book Bourdieu writes, "Symbolic power cannot be exercised without the contribution of those who undergo it and who only undergo it because they construct it as such. But instead of stopping at this statement (as constructivism in its idealist, ethnomethodological or other forms does) one has also to take note of and explain the social construction of the cognitive structures which organize acts of construction of the world and its powers." In order to deconstruct patriarchy, it is not enough to speak in abstract terms about how gender identity is constructed. You need to know, in some detail, how gender identity has been constructed historically.

    This is not exactly a novel proposition. Much research has been done over the past two decades on the historical construction of gender identity. In fact, Bourdieu draws freely on this research in his own book. What such works--he cites the second volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality as an example--have not done is grab the problem of masculine domination by its roots. They may go back to the ancient Greeks, as is the case with Foucault, but they discuss only famous interpretations of gender constructs (for instance, Plato's), not the ur-constructs that continue to undergird "masculine sociodicy." For Bourdieu it is crucial to penetrate to this level. If we do not, we will go on thinking in circles, laying down a Faustian injunction that is oppressive to both men and women: Become what you already are. Or, as Bourdieu puts it, "The particular strength of the masculine sociodicy comes from the fact that it combines and condenses two operations: it legitimates a relationship of domination by embedding it in a biological nature that is itself a naturalized social construction." Gender identity starts as a social construction, only to become biological. Because "it is brought about and culminates in profound and durable transformations of bodies (and minds)," masculine domination is its own justification. A relationship of domination produces the very biological differences that, when treated as ahistorical and organic, legitimize that relationship.

    The way to break out of such "circular causality" is to "reconstruct the history of the labour of dehistoricization." And the way to do this is, again, to begin at the beginning, at the very beginning: with an archetype. In Kabyle society in North Africa there exists, according to Bourdieu, "a paradigmatic form of the 'phallonarcissistic' vision and the androcentric cosmology which are common to all Mediterranean societies." We can see, in Kabyle society, the foundation of Western patriarchal ideology being poured. By bringing to light similarities between it and us, Bourdieu hopes to show us that our most basic premises about gender rest upon an originary, arbitrary social construction and, therefore, cannot be timeless or natural.

    Bourdieu analyzes Kabyle society for a second reason. He often asserts that symbolic power works only when the dominated come to see the world from the perspective of the dominant. The process through which this happens, "symbolic violence," is "gentle," "invisible" and "unconscious." It creates cognitive structures so deep and so durable that superficial enlightenment as to the constructedness of gender norms does not suffice to dismantle their coercive power. For as we all know, people who know better behave in accordance with pejorative gender norms, "despite themselves," all the time. More is necessary to break the hypnotic spell of masculine domination: the shock of seeing yourself, or a "paradigmatic" version of yourself, under hypnosis, and eerily unaware of it. Bourdieu thinks that by confronting us with gender relations in Kabyle society he will present us with our own "cultural unconscious," making visible the invisible workings of symbolic violence.

    And so he takes us on a "detour through an exotic tradition" in his attempt to develop a forcefully historicizing, psychologically plausible and, therefore, practically effective gender theory. This plan is very compelling. Unfortunately, the detour turns out to be little more than a bleak frontage road. For Bourdieu simply points out a series of damning parallels between modern and Kabyle gender discrimination. He does not go into the latter in detail; the invisible process of symbolic violence never becomes visible--a visible target for critical analysis. Thus his argument does not quite reach its goal. Yet this small book contains many original insights and therefore great promise. Indeed, if Bourdieu decides to write a more comprehensive study of masculine domination, a study on the scale of The Logic of Practice or Distinction, he will produce a theoretical breakthrough in an important field. And that, of course, would be big news.

    Paul Reitter


  • Biography January 5, 2001

    The Führer Furor

    Chaplinesque Rapscallion New Leader of Germany's National Socialist Party
          --The Onion

    "I have nothing to say about Hitler." With this line Karl Kraus, turn-of-the-century Vienna's most famous journalist, began his 300-page anti-Hitler invective, The Third Walpurgis Night. Kraus's fate has been shared widely. Hitler tickles and tortures the authorial imagination like no other twentieth-century figure. At first as a hero, for the most part, then as a villain, also for the most part, Hitler has been a fantastically popular subject among all kinds of writers since his postputsch courtroom antics transformed him into something much larger than a right-wing rabblerouser. Indeed, between 1923 and 1995, more than 120,000 essays and monographs on Hitler were published. Attenuation seems unlikely. For if it has changed at all, our fascination with Hitler appears to have grown even stronger in the past five years.

    And so we should not be surprised by the fact that a lot of books about Hitler have been published recently. Yet there is a twist here; it has to do with quality rather than quantity. We expected more books about Hitler. What we did not expect is that the most prominent of them would be so good. This remark is less cynical than it sounds. Over the years able scholars have produced a very substantial body of excellent research on Hitler. Of course, it would be absurd to regard as unexpected everything that adds to it.

    Furthermore, we had reason to hope for significant new contributions. Ideology does not play quite the same role in Hitler studies that it did fifteen years ago. Historians in East Germany tended to treat Hitler as an effect of capitalism, while historians in the West often viewed him in narrowly personal terms, as a deranged, gigantic individual crushing a fragile democratic experiment. But scholars in the West, and especially in West Germany, were not exactly of one opinion with regard both to Hitler's causes and his effects. In the mid-1980s, a new revisionist conservatism led to a new contentiousness. At issue was a series of incendiary questions--even the question of whether it was appropriate to ask them: Was Hitler a revolutionary? Which of his policies were rational? Ernst Nolte, who had been drifting steadily away from the trenchant analysis of Nazism he advanced in the early 1960s, went so far as to call Hitler's worldview an understandable reaction to a perceived Bolshevik threat. Just a few months ago, Nolte received one of Germany's most prestigious awards for cultural achievement, which simply confirms what we already knew: Hitler remains an intensely politicized field of inquiry. However, in general, the intellectual atmosphere in this area has improved. It is more open, as are archives in Moscow. And material discovered there--for example, Hitler's skull and a complete copy of Goebbels's diary--has helped to answer old questions.

    But discovering new sources will only get you so far. It certainly will not explain a phenomenon as complex as Hitler. Nor will sheer intellectual openness. The great majority of the thousands of open-minded books about Hitler have little interpretive value. In fact, until recently there were only two truly formidable biographies of him: Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952, revised 1962) and Joachim Fest's Hitler: A Biography (1973). We now have a third major biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw's two-volume masterpiece Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000). It is the best of the three, by far.

    Improvements in biographical research do not always imply a general shift in the significance of the subject. Yet that is likely to be the case here. For, again, the publication of Kershaw's biography was accompanied by a procession of incisive and well-researched books: The Hitler of History (1997), John Lukacs's useful survey of, and critical engagement with, historical scholarship on Hitler; Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (1999), Fritz Redlich's illuminating "psychography" of Hitler (this should not be confused with "psychohistory": Redlich, who is a psychiatrist, works carefully with relevant sources and examines Hitler's mental condition at every stage of his life, minutely charting the changes, and he does not seek to "solve" the enigma of Hitler's psychopathic behavior by focusing on childhood trauma or a particular psychic disturbance); Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), Ron Rosenbaum's extensive collection of interviews with scholars, intellectuals and artists who, in some form or other, have tried to "explain Hitler"; and Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999, German original 1996), Brigitte Hamann's scrupulously researched and intelligently argued account of Hitler's early years in Vienna (1906-13) and of their influence on his later development.

    Every one of these books represents an attempt at sustained, comprehensive critical reckoning with Hitler. In the past, the most compelling works on him were often of a very different character. (Consider Eberhard Jäckel's and Sebastian Haffner's shorter, much more synthetic books on Hitler's Weltanschauung, which were published in 1969 and 1978.) But if there has been a structural change, what has caused it? Kershaw himself offers an insightful answer. "Reflecting" on Hitler's historical significance in the preface to Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, he writes: "Hitler's dictatorship has the quality of a paradigm for the twentieth century." Kershaw also claims that "Hitler's mark on the century" has been "deeper" than anyone's. The implication is clear. Taking leave of the twentieth century means trying to settle our accounts with Hitler, its paradigmatic problem, which, in turn, means engaging in sustained, comprehensive critical analysis. Certainly something close to this seems to be at stake in Rosenbaum's work, and in Hamann's. She suggestively tracks the full extent of Hitler's debt to "twentieth-century culture" by examining his encounter with one of its paradigms: fin de siècle Vienna. Kershaw has given us a twenty-first-century biography of Hitler that could have been written only at the end of the twentieth century.

    Kershaw's biography is a true "social biography," to use a phrase the great film theorist Siegfried Kracauer coined, in exile, as he wrote about the culture that Hitler's Germany had begun to annihilate. Without a trace of moralism, and without losing himself in quotidian minutiae and psychological speculation, Kershaw nonetheless shadows Hitler the way a conscience might have. He examines Hitler's daily life, as well as his emotional and political development, in vivid detail. At the same time, he situates Hitler's personal narrative within its social context, charting their reciprocal influence and pointing out how Hitler's experiences and attitudes were emblematic of large social trends. And he does so with impressive erudition. The result is a kind of interpretive balance, which is very difficult to bring off in Hitler's case. With him, moving back and forth between the microlevel of personal narrative and the macrolevel of social context entails entering into not so much a hermeneutic circle as a dizzying spiral. For, at a certain point, Hitler's narrative begins to reshape--as few, if any, personal narratives have--the social context that shaped it, only, of course, to be shaped again itself by the context it reshaped.

    Neither Bullock nor Fest came close to producing a real social biography, as both of their books focus on the personal narrative. They offer well-informed, penetrating answers to one crucial question: Why did Hitler commit the terrible crimes for which he will be remembered? But neither one makes a serious attempt to shed light on Hitler's path to the chancellorship or to understand how he remained in power for twelve years while executing policies of mass destruction and mass self-destruction. They do not tell us how Hitler became Hitler.

    Kershaw's book works so well as social biography because his approach proceeds from a transitional concept: charisma. Elaborating on the argument he developed in The "Hitler Myth" (1987), Kershaw invokes charisma as a sociological category. Here charisma is a modern, postliberal structure of authority, one that became possible in Weimar Germany for a number of impersonal reasons. These include the "ignominy of Versailles," the concomitant collective longing for national redemption and the inability of the democratic government to appeal to a strong democratic tradition in Germany.

    Charisma is also a psychological category. It can therefore function as a way to mediate between the levels of biographical analysis. And, indeed, Kershaw makes his overriding concern the fateful match between Hitler's personal charisma and Germany's impersonal readiness for charismatic rule. Summing it all up, Kershaw writes, "The Germany which had produced Adolf Hitler had seen its future in his vision, had so readily served him, and had shared in his hubris, had also to share in his nemesis." Germany followed the charismatic leader it "produced" because he envisioned, in just the right way, at just the right time, the Germany it wanted to see.

    In Hubris, Kershaw explains how Hitler's idiosyncratic "vision" for a "better" future and Germany's receptiveness to it took shape. In Nemesis, he tracks the bloody business of implementation. We might expect the second volume of a two-volume Hitler biography to begin in 1933. But Kershaw divides Hitler's life into pre- and post-1936 stages, because 1936 marks "the culminating point of the first phase of the dictatorship." Kershaw wants Nemesis to begin with the beginning of the end, with the onset of the "ceaseless radicalization" that persisted until 1945. Both volumes are well written and come equipped with helpful maps and eerie photographs. And because Kershaw keeps his debates with other scholars, as well as his extensive remarks about primary sources, neatly contained in his footnotes, Hubris and Nemesis read smoothly, remarkably so, given their factual girth and cognitive intricacy. Some chapters are structured as accounts of Hitler's life stages, such as his "dropout" years in Vienna, while others are organized around seminal events, for example, Germany's strategic "miscalculation" during the 1939 Poland crisis. Kershaw puts personal narrative into the foreground when it seems to be of decisive importance. And he does the same with social context. Tellingly, all the chapter headings in Nemesis refer to large historical developments, starting, again, with the Nazis' "ceaseless radicalization."

    In 1936, according to Kershaw, Hitler was at once more delusional than ever and cannily realistic. His early diplomatic and economic successes had fed his surging megalomania. Both Hitler and the nation that, at the time, overwhelmingly supported him believed that he could achieve whatever he wanted to. Yet Hitler also astutely recognized that his authority could not rest on a foundation of rationally organized domestic prosperity. It would last only as long as he was associated with a "project of national salvation." The pressure to expand, "to radicalize" unremittingly, came from outside as well as from inside his circle.

    Kershaw's most original, most provocative claims have to do with the place of Nazi Party leaders in this constellation of causal forces. He insists that even as they used the most cynical images and slogans to manufacture Hitler's charisma, men like Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler and especially Joseph Goebbels remained fanatically in Hitler's thrall. As Kershaw puts it, they "combined pure belief and impure propaganda." Working closely with Goebbels's complete diary, which proves to be a key new source (Hitler's bond with Goebbels was the closest thing he had to a friendship), Kershaw draws out the full, chilling extent of this belief. He also shows that well into the war, and until the very end, defeat did nothing to shake it. For in taking huge risks and losing, Hitler remained true to the principles that had won him such loyal disciples.

    Perhaps even more chilling is Kershaw's account of how these same party leaders influenced the Final Solution. Here again Goebbels's diary is crucially important. More lucidly than other sources, it reveals that Hitler had to be prodded into instituting not only the policy of mass deportations but even the compulsory-identification measure (the yellow Star of David) for Jews living in Germany. Party leaders had urged Hitler to take this latter step in the wake of Kristallnacht (November 1938). He resisted it until August 1941, when Goebbels finally "convinced" him to act. And in the summer of 1941, he repeatedly "rejected" Reinhard Heydrich's proposals to make the destruction of Eastern Jewry more systematic. Why? Certainly moral compunction cannot be the answer. According to Kershaw, Goebbels expressed a certain dismay at the inconsistency between Hitler's behavior and his stated principles on the "Jewish Question," yet he never suggested that Hitler had softened his attitude toward the Jews. During this time Hitler continued to cite his own prewar "prophecy," according to which the Jews would be destroyed if they started another world war, and to provide various justifications for large-scale murder. Kershaw speculates that Hitler may have been acting, or not acting, out of denial. For to devise a "Final Solution" before winning the war in the East was to acknowledge that the war could not be won anytime soon. As long as the fiction of imminent victory could be sustained, it made more "sense" to wait for the acquisition of vast new territories. After all, the Nazis were trying to figure out how to dispose of millions of people and had not yet begun to think seriously about gas and ovens.

    The problem, for Kershaw, is that Hitler had given up this illusion by the fall of 1941, and yet he remained reluctant to authorize mass deportations and overtly genocidal policies. Hitler did not enumerate his reservations, at least not on records available to us. And so we are left wondering. What is clear is that the solicitations of Heydrich, Himmler and Goebbels had the desired effect--Hitler eventually did license extermination. Yet, as Kershaw stresses, he did so only in the most general terms. Pushing his claim, Kershaw goes so far as to contend, "Whatever the reasons, [Hitler] could never have delivered the sort of speech which, notoriously, Himmler would give in Posen two years later [1943] when he described what it was like to see 1,000 corpses lying side by side and spoke openly of the 'extermination' (Ausrottung) of the Jewish people as a 'glorious page in our history....' Even in his inner circle Hitler could never bring himself to speak with outright frankness about the killing of the Jews." Hitler "could not bring himself" to discuss the Holocaust directly, apparently not even with Goebbels. This is an unsettling idea. Indeed, David Irving, the British historian and notorious Hitler apologist, rushes from Hitler's silence to the conclusion that he did not know about the death camps. What Kershaw does is very different. With unrivaled precision and without polemicism, he circumscribes Hitler's unwillingness to speak about the Holocaust, ultimately treating it as a question. Far from exculpating Hitler, Kershaw's move invites further inquiry. Nemesis does more than inform exhaustively and explain brilliantly: It points to what remains to be said about Hitler.

    Paul Reitter

  • Non-fiction July 22, 1999

    Hitler’s Viennese Waltz

    "Austria had many geniuses, and that was probably its undoing."
        --Robert Musil

    Paul Reitter