The Meaning of Hitler/ Anmerkungen zu Hitler – Sebastian Haffner (1978)

This little gem was first published in 1978 and dissects the Führer’s life in 7 thematic chapters, with simple titles as Life, Successes, Treason etc. Simple maybe, but it’s quite a special approach To start with, Sebastian Haffner (pseudonym for Raimund Pretzel) only needs 300 pages to describe the complex person of Hitler – which he does in an eloquent and convincing way. The ‘innovation’ that Haffner brought into the debate about Hitler was that the key to understanding Hitler’s political behaviour lies in the fact that he saw himself as the personification of the German Empire. He quotes Hitler saying “the destiny of the Reich depends on me alone’. It was all or nothing – the Third Reich had no constitution, Hitler didn’t plan for a successor and he, and he alone, held the chaotic country together. Him leaving – or dying – would make an end to it all.
The thematic approach not only gives a very pleasant birds eye view on the most important aspects of the dictator’s life and deeds, it also proved to be a good way of taking an almost unbiased look at the individual aspects, to be able to judge them on their own ‘merits’, without being overwhelmed by the ‘burden’ of the atrocious history. For instance, the chapter ‘Successes’ reveals quite some remarkable facts –new to me at least. His biggest domestic triumph in the thirties is to have created 6 million jobs (not only the result of rearmament of Germany), solving almost entirely Germany’s unemployment problem. Quite something I would say, and one of the pillars under his popularity.

The ascent of Hitler was made possible because there was a significant part of the political right that wouldn’t recognize the state and was willing to destroy parliamentary democracy – which of course paved the way for Hitler. Hitler’s view on the world evolved around two axes; the battle between nations for world domination and de battle between Jews and the rest. He, thus, combined superiority madness with extreme intolerance, pursuing his dual ambition, ‘Lebensraum’ in the East and the destruction of Jews, to the bitter end.
In Haffner’s view Hitler made a big error by focussing on the creation of more Lebensraum: since the Industrial Revolution one’s prosperity wasn’t determined by the size of your property but by the state of technology. Lebensraum only mattered for agricultural nations, which Germany wasn’t.  But his biggest gaffe was after having crushed France not to offer them peace – and instead offering it to England, that refused. He had always counted on convincing the Britons to side with him, or at least to talk them into a neutral position.

Hitler’s favourite words to describe his own character were ‘blitzschnell” and “eisskalt”, words that were put into practice the moment it became clear in 1942 that defeat couldn’t be averted; he decided that the German people should be destroyed. He showed no interest whatsoever to avoid defeat, politically nor military. He stayed in and hardly spoke in public. His last program was the annihilation of the German people. That was all to clear during the last 9 months, as he ignored all opportunities to stop the war; he launched an attack in November ’44 on the Western front and started to destroy Germany (not in the least with the Ardennes offensive). He would fight until ‘5 past midnight’.
And after December 1941, on becoming obvious that the goal of world domination wouldn’t be reached, he focusses on the last remaining goal: to exterminate all Jews. The Endlösung really took off. There were no more enemies that would take offense in mass murder, since all countries, and especially England, had sided against Germany. To make matters worse, as if he wanted to be sure to lose, he declared war on the US. The politician Hitler had stepped down and given way to mass murderer Hitler. It took the allies 3,5 years to stop him, almost enough time for the Führer to achieve his cruel goal.

No details on the killing of Jews, nor a description of Auschwitz in this book. Not because he finds them unimportant – quite the contrary – but because it had been described in other books. He does do an effort to assess the lasting geopolitical impact of Hitler on the world. Most notably: without Hitler no Israel and the UK lost its empire.

Despite the fact that Haffner leaves untouched the question why so many Germans were supportive of Hitler and his policies, based on social-Darwinism in its most vulgar form, the picture of Hitler as a vulture, with a infallible instinct for the weaknesses of his enemies – he among other things profited from the anger with ‘Versailles’, the weak French, the crumbling Weimar Republic, the half-hearted conservative revolution in the 30’s – is remarkable and holds a strong warning for our times.

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