(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Lukacs surveys the most important works that have appeared in German and English concerning several aspects of the life and career of Adolf Hitler, offering critiques of the works and his own interpretations. A consistent theme that runs throughout the essay is a plea for the “historicization” of Hitler. By “historicization,” Lukacs refers to the tendency of many historians who have written about Hitler to demonize him, to portray him as something other than a man, as something completely outside human experience. The author calls for objective research into the life of Hitler, showing his virtues as well as his faults. Lukacs carefully points out that he is not calling for a “rehabilitation” of Hitler and that the essentially evil nature of the man and his regime must always be noted. (Here the author shows that he is not immune to the tendency of modern historians to make Hitler the scapegoat for most of the ills of the twentieth century.)

An introductory chapter examines most of the important biographies of Hitler as well as many monographs on aspects of his life and career. The authors of those works include German historians and journalists Martin Broszat, Joachim Fest, Sebastian Haffner, Helmut Heiber, Konrad Heiden, Andreas Hillgruber, Eberhard Jaeckel, Werner Maser, Ernst Nolte, Gerhard Schreiber, and Ranier Zitelmann; British historians and journalists Alan Bullock, William Carr, David Irving, Ian Kershaw, and Robert C. L. Waite; and American historians and journalists Harold Gordon, Jr., Bradley F. Smith, and John Toland. Lukacs finds nits to pick with all these authors but reserves his most critical remarks for British historian David Irving and American historian/journalist John Toland.

Lukacs accuses Irving of being a secret admirer of Hitler who tries to rehabilitate him through destroying the reputations of his three most implacable foes: Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin. Lukacs also casts serious doubts on Irving’s reliability as an historian, pointing out that many of Irving’s references are either misrepresented or non- existent. Lukacs dismisses Irving’s contention in Hitler’s War (1977) that Hitler did not order the mass murder of the Jews and did not learn of it until 1943-1944 as fantasy. Lukacs also indicts Toland as an admirer of Hitler, dismisses his research as the efforts of a “popular” historian, and insists that there exists no evidence for several of the anecdotes Toland relates about Hitler. Exactly why Lukacs concludes that Toland “admires” Hitler never becomes entirely clear.

The introductory chapter also notes a number of controversies in Hitler studies swirling at the time of the book’s publication, such as the so-called Historikerstreit (historians’ quarrel) in Germany. Exactly what the issues in the Historikerstreit are, Lukacs never makes entirely clear, which is not surprising given that many of the historians involved seem unsure of those issues. He also notes the “intentionalist”/“functionalist” debate (whether Hitler intended the murder of the Jews from the beginning of his assumption of power, or whether the murders were the result of the functioning of a huge bureaucracy run amok). He also examines the many problems associated with any attempt to get at the “real” Hitler, such as the dearth of written documents he left and the highly emotionalized and sensationalized accounts of most people who knew him.

Lukacs addresses a problem apparently dear to his own heart in chapter 2: whether Hitler’s ideas crystallized in Vienna (as Hitler himself said in Mein Kampf (1925-1927) and as most historians have uncritically accepted), or whether they actually solidified in Munich, as Lukacs believes. He examines all the relevant works in English and German to arrive at the conclusion that Hitler’sWeltanschauung (worldview) did not form fully until after he returned to Munich after World War I. The chapter also explores what Lukacs calls the turning points of Hitler’s life. The author again critiques most of the major biographies of Hitler to arrive at the conclusion that there were four, possibly five, such points: Hitler’s arrival in Vienna in 1908, his move to Munich in 1919, his release from prison in 1924, and his obsession with the idea that he did not have long to live that he developed in 1937-1938. Lukacs thinks that the fifth turning point may have been in November, 1941, when he...

(The entire section is 1824 words.)