Chaplinesque Rapscallion New Leader of Germany’s National Socialist Party
“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.