Sebastian Haffner is a veteran journalist for distinguished British and German newspapers and magazines. His short analysis of Hitler’s life and significance after 1930 is carefully reasoned, powerfully written, and sprinkled with good insights, but it adds little to what has been painstakingly documented and analyzed in the recent massive works of Joachim Fest and Robert G. L. Waite. The value of The Meaning of Hitler lies in its effectively summarizing and clearly restating some of the observations on Hitler produced by recent scholarship.
The book begins by pointing out that the first thirty years of Hitler’s life were a failure. In this period, 1889 to 1919, Hitler’s existence was totally shaped by outside forces. Hitler, however, completely altered the course of history in the next twenty-six years, from 1930 to 1945. Unfortunately, for the most part Haffner passes over the formative years of Hitler’s life in Austria. The author is willing to assume that Hitler’s single-minded world views and plans were developed by 1930, but he does not discuss how these crucial aspects of the future Chancellor and Führer were shaped by Austrian and German history. It is simply not possible to understand fully the meaning of Hitler in the context of German history without an understanding of the first half of Hitler’s life.
Haffner initially attempts to underscore the uniqueness of Hitler by showing how Hitler’s life lacked the “normality” of an education, occupation, friendship, love, marriage, and family. For the author, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Otto von Bismarck, and Mao Tse-tung emerge as more “human” than Hitler because they meet the above prerequisites of “normality.” Such superficial value judgments lead to problems: Haffner fails to mention that Hitler’s contemporary, the Russian Dictator Joseph Stalin, trained for a profession, married, and produced a family. Does that necessarily make him more “human,” despite his complete lack of trust in people, and lack of warmth, pity, and mercy? As Geoffrey Barraclough has remarked, it was really Hitler’s rootlessness and indispensability both to the masses and elites of Germany that made him unique.
Haffner is on more solid ground when he adds that behind Hitler’s political and ideological uniqueness lay a fanatical drive to realize his consuming hatreds; his ideas and resentments were those of a megalomaniac. Throughout his life Hitler lacked a capacity for self-criticism and a realistic appreciation of the forces of the world outside Germany.
Some of Haffner’s judgments, however, are too facile and simplistic. This is sometimes a price to be paid in a sketchy work that is held together by generalizations and is lacking in needed documentation and illustrative detail. For example, most historians would agree with the author that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was a primary element of his psychological and ideological makeup, but they might question Haffner’s characterization of Hitler’s anti-Semitism as an “East European plant.” Hitler’s view of Jews was rooted in an extensive tradition of German and Austrian thought. This alone would make Hitler much less an anomaly of German history than Haffner would have us believe. Some of Haffner’s historical analogies are not quite valid. Haffner shows how Hitler’s introduction into politics was a result of the abortive German Revolution of 1918-1919, just as Napoleon had been the successful product of the French Revolution of 1789. Yet the comparison is not altogether valid: Hitler was the product and perpetrator of a sterile counterrevolution, while Napoleon never abolished many of the successful gains of the French Revolution. Haffner does well to point out that Hitler later acted as if the Revolution of 1918-1919 had never ended. The future Führer set out after 1919 to resume World War I, uproot liberalism and Marxism, and exterminate the Jews he blamed for the disasters of Germany.
Perhaps the most valuable guiding observation of this book is the point that Hitler set out to achieve the above goals completely within the confines of his own life span, since he was convinced of his own irreplaceability; in effect, he subordinated the course of German history to his own biography. As Ernst Nolte has already pointed out, Nazism lived and died with Hitler. The result was a radical break with the most elementary, rational goals of statesmanship.
Haffner’s evaluation of Hitler’s achievements contains little that is new. The gradual introduction of the Nazi dictatorship, the restoration of full employment, and successful rearmament based upon Hitler’s desire for mobile armored divisions—all have long been acknowledged as sources of Hitler’s popularity before World War II. The social changes accomplished by Hitler were no less important. The Nazis lowered...
(The entire section is 1995 words.)