Thursday, October 30, 2008

WW2: Hitler

    Angry Young Man - Adolf Hitler, 1920

There is a simmering controversy over how to think about Hitler.  When I was growing up, Hitler was a caricature, a bogyman to scare kids.  He was considered a unique phenomenon, an evil genius.  A freak of nature like a rogue wave.  Fundamentally unexplainable.  This notion has changed.  In the English speaking world, the change was due primarily to Ian Kershaw's brilliant biography.  Kershaw's breakthrough was to strip the myths that had built up around Hitler and go to the extensive record of what he said and did.  Obvious, one might think, but the accretions of propaganda that grew up before during and after the war had made this impossible before.  During the Cold War, he remained a powerful political totem.  Kershaw turned Hitler into a comprehensible human being.  For me at least, it was the first time I was able to see Hitler in the company of other ambitious men who exploited troubled times.  People like Caesar and Napoleon.  This humanization is crucial to understanding what happened.  The "Hitler was a freak of nature" hypothesis presents no defense against another Hitler.  Understanding exactly what happened and why is the only way to keep it from happening again.

So here is a photograph of Hitler in 1919 or 1920 at the age of 30.  As one can see, he is fully formed.  There is a transformation from the pre-war artist would-be intellectual, and the wartime easy-going army comrade.  That transformation, from the summer of 1918 to the fall of 1919 formed the Hitler of history.  Although the photo is often dated as 1919, I think it is probably from the spring of 1920 when he left the Army and became a full-time political agitator.  His ideas didn't set in stone until his release from prison in 1925 after the failed beer-hall putsch.  But the essential outlines were already there by the time of this photo.  They evolved until 1925, but didn't change.  After 1925, he hardly changed his mind about anything.

The man in this photo is palpably hungry and vulnerable.  He wants much, but hasn't got any of it yet.  This was a time of great uncertainty for Hitler.  He was lucky to keep an Army job after the war, especially as he was a foreigner.  This new political career was risky.  But he had discovered his gift.  He could move a crowd.  That, and his hunger for success, were enough to start.

Despite the obvious posing as a man of gravitas, the anger is genuine.  "I am not," he seems to say, "a man to be trifled with."  But he isn't quite there yet.  I see a man who wants to be taken seriously, and has the idea about how to do it, but doesn't yet have the skill to pull it off.  That skill would come in the very rough and tumble political world of Munich in the early '20s.  It took until 1930 before he had the skills for national politics, and by that time, his chance had come.

I think a lot about Hitler and the Nazis.  Where they came from, how they grew, their tactics, stratagems and of course, their war.  Their ideas were complete nonsense, of course.  You can't learn anything from them.  That makes it easier to study what happened.  There's no distracting ideology.  The Nazis were all about getting, keeping and using power.  Communism, by comparison, actually had a coherent philosophy and ideas you could discuss.  Things didn't work out very well, but the ideas were real.  National Socialism had no discussion.  There were no branches, offshoots, or forks.  There was no Trotsky.  There was only Hitler, and his word was law.  In this photo, you can see that man emerge for the first time.