What is there new to say about Adolph Hitler? In a time when cable TV shows about Hitler can seem to populate whole channels, don’t we already know that story?
In “Hitler,” the caustic British historian A.N. Wilson argues that we don’t know enough. Hitler has become a symbol, an unreal manifestation of history. Wilson wants us to know the man — and what an unattractive man he was. Distilling his own career-long study into a tight, rapid-fire volume that is both portrait and warning, Wilson delivers a statement on Hitler that is insightful, if not as definitive as the unadorned title might suggest.
The book opens with a brisk few pages detailing Hitler’s birth in 1889 and youth, the brevity owing, no doubt, to Wilson’s sense that the leader’s upbringing already had been “endlessly studied for clues which would explain’’ his later self. Wilson really begins in earnest with World War I, the event that “made Hitler possible,’’ through the painful postwar years, “Mein Kampf,’’ rise to power, aggression, war, Holocaust, and, finally, the bunker.
In “Hitler,’’ Wilson draws two differing portraits. One is of an ordinary man. The other — well, the other, you know. It’s the charismatic leader who after the humilation and privation visited upon Germany after World War I, mined the emotions of the German people and set fire to the Western world.
But that ordinary man! What a schlub he was. “The peculiar mystery of the Hitler phenomenon,” Wilson calls it. “He had very little energy, a modest education, no obvious ‘leadership’ qualities, and in many respects almost no interest in politics.”
But Hitler was also a brilliant propagandist, who understood that while the written word was dangerous, the spoken word possessed even more power. Thus, speeches were broadcast, and books were burned.
For much of this work, we bounce between these two Hitlers, buying only with difficulty that they are the same person. Wilson is never quite able to connect the dots, to solve the mystery. But there remains reason to examine it again, so we remember what not to forget.
It is unknowable, Wilson writes, how much Hitler — who could exhibit “raving mania” — created his own intolerable behavior, or how much the behavior itself made the man. Hitler’s extreme hypochondria and paranoia mounted through the years. And his health was awful. He couldn’t sleep; he sometimes couldn’t wear boots because his eczema was so bad; he experienced stomach cramps, and, thanks partly to his vegetarian diet, uncontrollable flatulence.
This is the man, Wilson writes, that the Germans embraced as fuehrer, largely because he brought an end to the despised Weimar Republic, and for a series of “miraculous social and economic improvements” by the new Nazi regime. There was work again, and money to be had, under Hitler. Even abroad, Hitler was admired for his effective leadership, at least in the early years.
Fear was the dark side of the hope Hitler brought to Germany, his rise pummeled out of his own people by his brown-shirted thugs. And fear drove the foreign appeasers who allowed Hitler his early bites of Europe. The British and French who failed to confront Hitler, the Americans who may have uttered pious words over the oppression of the Jews, could not bear the prospect of another Great War.
Yet even as chancellor, Wilson writes, the architect of this fear was no workaholic. Hard as it is to picture, he indolently lounged with friends as he consolidated his political base, tightened an iron grip around opponents, mounted his campaign against the Jews, and conducted clever and sophisticated foreign relations.
In the end, Wilson willingly loses his own argument that the fuehrer was an “ordinary little man.” He shows us a Hitler who was life-size, but whose actions were monstrous.
Michael Warshaw can be reached at mwarshaw@globe