American writer John Toland’s 1976 biography of Adolf Hitler is the second book I’ve read about the Nazis/Third Reich (the first being Mein Kampf). As a biography it is comprehensive and accessible. It functions also, necessarily, as a chronology of events during Hitler’s lifetime. In that respect, too, the book successfully grounds and orients a reader unacquainted with this epoch. Events are related in adequate detail, and mostly chronologically – a monumental feat in itself, given that the roots of most of the trends and events during the Third Reich are decades or centuries deep. But what makes Adolf Hitler particularly valuable is the book’s tone: utterly dispassionate, and free of judgment.
What holds true of good fiction applies also to nonfiction – the writer’s job is to narrate events, show character, and leave the reader to judge for himself. I would argue that this holds particularly true for a figure like Adolf Hitler. When I read/hear a writer/expert interviewee flinging epithets at an historical figure, reminding me exactly what I must think, I feel put off, and perversely inclined to champion the opposite view. When I’m reading a biography, I want to know who a person was, what they did and why, how they justified their actions, what people around them thought and felt, and what the consequences of those actions were. These details Toland’s biography shows clearly and without comment. It is a crucial public service when a historical inquiry shows us who a problematic person is.
For contrast, I’m currently reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1969). This impressively-researched, monumental tome weakens its effect by abusing, at every opportunity, Hitler/other Nazis – as “homosexual perverts” (re: Rohm and some other S.A. leaders), as “disreputable” characters (the professions of some followers being butcher or nightclub bouncer or, in one instance, pornographer), or as “dull-witted” (re: Ribbentrop and some other top Nazi officials). Personal details may (dull-witted) or may not (homosexuality) be relevant to one’s political career. Either way, when a writer forces epithets to perform the work of narrative, he weakens its impact – turning it, unwittingly, into propaganda. Whenever a person wants you to believe what they believe, without showing you why – then, morally sound though their intentions may be, they’re engaged in propaganda. And propaganda is inimical to our duty to learn and to judge for ourselves. And that duty becomes paramount when we’re talking about Adolf Hitler.
Back to Toland. Adolf Hitler’s Foreword declares:
“My book has no thesis, and any conclusions to be found in it were reached only during the writing, perhaps the most meaningful being that Hitler was far more complex and contradictory than I had imagined. ‘The greatest saints,’ observes one of Graham Greene’s characters, ‘Have been men with a more than normal capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly evaded sanctity.’ Deprived of heaven, Adolf Hitler chose hell – if, indeed, he knew the difference between the two.”
Adolf Hitler honours this premise.
The Prologue is set in 1918. Hitler learns of Germany’s surrender in the Great War, and feels devastated. The stage for his political career is set. Toland then begins at the beginning. Character portraits of Hitler’s parents and of Hitler as a schoolboy lead quickly to Hitler’s late teens and early youth in Vienna. The formative period of Hitler’s childhood and youth are covered perhaps too quickly – Chapter 3 (of 31) finds us already in the Great War (when Hitler was aged 25-29), and Chapter 10 ends with Hitler becoming Chancellor.
But it’s understandable that Toland would dedicate the bulk of his 31 chapters to Hitler in power, i.e. Hitler the history-maker. Besides, reliable material on Hitler’s childhood is scarce: his father relocated frequently; young Adolf was a loner and a middling student; and Hitler himself, though opinionated and voluble after his rise to power, avoided speaking of his early years. (For readers interested in Hitler’s youth, there are other memoirs and histories, some of which I will be reviewing here.)
Chapter 31 ends with Hitler’s suicide. An Epilogue briefly addresses (a) the Nuremberg trials, and (b) myths that Hitler survived the war and escaped to Argentina.
Toland’s biography calls on considerable archival research as well as dozens of interviews with Third Reich survivors. Besides, the compendious archive of German state documents was made available to researchers after the regime collapsed. Drawing on this bulk of material, Toland paints careful, nuanced portraits, not only of Hitler himself – who, despite everything, still remains an enigma – but of the people around him.
Particularly insightful is a cameo portrait of SS boss Heinrich Himmler, engineer of a number of atrocities beginning with the Night of the Long Knives, through Kristallnacht, to the Holocaust. Toland describes Himmler as cold and calculating, indifferent to material pleasures, meticulous, scrupulous, and personally kind. He was a loving father, and a considerate employer; he occasionally intervened to save individual Jews, but on principle refrained from saving a relative accused of homosexuality. Toland offers similarly compelling cameos of other early Nazi and Third Reich leaders.
The reader will learn what Hitler’s closest associates thought about him. Some excerpts:
A NSDAP gauleiter offering behind-the-scenes views of Hitler’s speeches: “Hitler was not an intuitive speaker as many people believed. Entire sentences… which seemed spontaneous and improvised had in fact been written down. He built his speeches systematically: he knew what effect he wanted to achieve, and how to get it.” (Toland also describes Hitler revising his speeches for publication afterwards, slipping quickly from passionate demagogue to cool, self-critical redactor.)
Finance Minister Schwerin von Krosigk, himself a former Rhodes scholar: “In cabinet meetings, one could not but admire the qualities which gave [Hitler] mastery of all discussions: his infallible memory, which enabled him to answer, with the utmost precision, questions on the remotest problems under consideration; his presence of mind in discussions; the clarity with which he could reduce the most intricate question to a simple – sometimes too simple – formula; his skill in summing up concisely the results of a long debate; and his cleverness in discussing a well-known and long-discussed problem from a new angle.”
S.A. Chief, ex-army Major, Hitler’s friend and associate Ernst Rohm, analysing Hitler’s personality after their working relationship had begun to sour: “[Hitler] can’t act as logically as he can speak and think… Therefore he often creates situations that are intolerable and dangerous, and then he solves them only at the last minute… With his fits and heroics, he fools only himself and the worms around him.”
Toland often quotes Hitler himself. Hitler’s political pronouncements are unreliable: he was generally involved in selling foreign leaders one version of his plans, his public at home a second, all the while working secretly to accomplish something entirely different. But when Hitler speaks of other matters, he offers glimpses into his own psychological economy.
Embarrassed by the female attention he commanded, unable to exploit it, Hitler confided to his driver why he couldn’t betray his mistress Eva Braun and have a little fun on the side: “If you take a little side-trip, no rooster will crow about it. But with me the ladies advertise, and I can’t afford that. Women can’t keep their mouths shut. So I like them all.” (Meaning he is friendly to them all, and doesn’t take any of them to bed.)
Other explanations have been offered for why Hitler maintained a bachelor image: it maintained his appeal to all women, and German women played a significant and active role in Hitler’s success before and after he became Chancellor. At the same time, Hitler’s own explanation for his chastity ring true, too. He knew he needed to maintain a clean image. Every dictator does.
Adolf Hitler paints a portrait of a bright, ideological, intensely emotional young man abandoning his first ambition, seeking answers for his nation’s military loss and humiliation, finding his feet in politics, learning from every failure (learning after 1923 that, in Germany, a putsch would not work; cultivating relationships within the establishment he planned to topple; learning how to appeal in his speeches to factory-workers and factory-owners, often simultaneously in one audience; taking a series of high-stakes but measured risks to solidify German power and test the limits of the western allies’ tolerance; and finally descending – due to chronic ill health, a series of assassination attempts leading to paranoia, and the despair of impending defeat – into megalomania: intent, now, not only on eradicating all the peoples he blamed for his defeat; but also on punishing, for its failure to realise his fantastic plans, the country that he had loved.
It is a portrait filled, as the Foreword warns, with contradictions. Hitler could abuse his generals for hours on end, then be kind and paternal to his household staff and secretaries. On the eastern front, he encouraged a war conducted lawlessly and brutally, causing millions of civilian deaths – but he loved his dogs, enacted animal rights laws, offered rewards to anyone who became a vegetarian like himself, and mocked those of his associates who enjoyed hunting (notably party stalwart and later Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goring). He signed off on the Final Solution (never officially, but he definitely did) to eradicate millions of human beings – but he improved the lives of millions of unemployed and impoverished Germans with jobs and job security, better nutrition, programmes for physical education and hygiene, and an array of social security nets. His hatred for the Jews, the disabled, and the Slavs was monumental – but he instituted programmes for environmental protection, demanded that industry clean up its act, and had programmes afoot to make transportation and travel affordable to all Germans. (The Volkswagen was his brainchild, and the Reich sponsored shockingly low-cost cruises and holidays for the working class.) As a near-destitute teenager in Vienna, he sketched plans for sanitary living quarters for the city’s large population of homeless and destitute. In his final days, when his empire had shrunk to his underground bunker in Berlin, he was discussing plans for architecturally impossible, ego-driven monuments intended purely to impress and terrify.
For good and for bad, Hitler’s legacy still confronts us all. Toland’s biography confronts us with the complexity of this human being who used his considerable gifts, his superhuman resolve, his intense emotions and agile intelligence to wreak monumental evil.
Toland ends his biography fittingly, and with the restraint that characterises it throughout:
“[After his suicide] He was buried in the rubble of defeat… There should have been someone to recite the poem that Baldur von Schirach [head of the Hitler Youth] had made from Hitler’s own words:
“Could be that the columns which halt here,
That these endless brown rows of men,
Are scattered in the wind, split up and dispersed,
And will desert me. Could be. Could be…
But the flag will only fall when I fall
And will be a proud shroud covering my corpse.
“The flag fell where he fell, and when he died so did National Socialism and the Thousand-Year Reich. Because of him, his beloved Germany lay in ruins.”
If you want to read a biography of Adolf Hitler that presents you with the facts, draws impartially on multiple sources to paint a portrait of an enigmatic personality, neither excusing not accusing its subject – John Toland’s biography is the book for you.
Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier and more extensive, my reading therefore more mindful and critical. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing and dusty bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Win-win! Try switching to soft copy today. (Yes. This is propaganda. From someone experiencing every day multiple ill-effects of climate change, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution. Please have a thought for the earth.)