Biographies & Memoirs

Glossary of Abbreviations


Bayerische Volkspartei (Bavarian People’s Party)


Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party)


Deutsche Demokratische Partei (German Democratic Party)


Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People’s Party)


Deutschsozialistische Partei (German-Socialist Party)


Deutschvölkische Freiheitsbewegung (German Folkish Freedom Movement)


Deutschvölkische Freiheitspartei (German Folkish Freedom Party)


Deutsche Volkspartei (German People’s Party)


Führer Hauptquartier (Führer Headquarters)


Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany)


Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party)


Nationalsozialistische Freiheitsbewegung (National Socialist Freedom Movement)


Nationalsozialistische Freiheitspartei (National Socialist Freedom Party)


Nationalsozialistische Handwerks-, Handels- und Gewerbe-organisation (Nazi Craft, Commerce, and Trade Organization)


Oberkommando des Heeres (High Command of the Army)


Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (armed services)


Organisation Todt


Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Head Office)


Sturmabteilung (Storm Troop)


Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service)


Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany)


Schutzstaffel (lit. Protection Squad)

Reflecting on Hitler

Hitler’s dictatorship has the quality of a paradigm for the twentieth century. In extreme and intense fashion it reflected, among other things, the total claim of the modern state, unforeseen levels of state repression and violence, previously unparalleled manipulation of the media to control and mobilize the masses, unprecedented cynicism in international relations, the acute dangers of ultra-nationalism, and the immensely destructive power of ideologies of racial superiority and ultimate consequences of racism, alongside the perverted usage of modern technology and ‘social engineering’. Above all, it lit a warning beacon that still burns brightly: it showed how a modern, advanced, cultured society can so rapidly sink into barbarity, culminating in ideological war, conquest of scarcely imaginable brutality and rapaciousness, and genocide such as the world had never previously witnessed. Hitler’s dictatorship amounted to the collapse of modern civilization – a form of nuclear blow-out within modern society. It showed what we are capable of.

The century which, in a sense, his name dominated gained much of its character by war and genocide – Hitler’s hallmarks. What happened under Hitler took place – in fact, could only have taken place – in the society of a modern, cultured, technologically advanced, and highly bureaucratic country. Within only a few years of Hitler becoming head of government, this sophisticated country in the heart of Europe was working towards what turned out to be an apocalyptic genocidal war that left Germany and Europe not just riven by an Iron Curtain and physically in ruins, but morally shattered. That still needs explaining. The combination of a leadership committed to an ideological mission of national regeneration and racial purification; a society with sufficient belief in its Leader to work towards the goals he appeared to strive for; and a skilled bureaucratic administration capable of planning and implementing policy, however inhumane, and keen to do so, offers a starting-point. How and why this society could be galvanized by Hitler requires, even so, detailed examination.

It would be convenient to look no further, for the cause of Germany’s and Europe’s calamity, than the person of Adolf Hitler himself, ruler of Germany from 1933 to 1945, whose philosophies of breathtaking inhumanity had been publicly advertised almost eight years before he became Reich Chancellor. But, for all Hitler’s prime moral responsibility for what took place under his authoritarian regime, a personalized explanation would be a gross short-circuiting of the truth. Hitler could be said to provide a classic illustration of Karl Marx’s dictum that ‘men do make their own history … but … under given and imposed conditions’. How far ‘given and imposed conditions’, impersonal developments beyond the control of any individual, however powerful, shaped Germany’s destiny; how much can be put down to contingency, even historical accident; what can be attributed to the actions and motivations of the extraordinary man ruling Germany at the time: all need investigation. All form part of the following inquiry. Simple answers are not possible.

Since he first entered the limelight in the 1920s, Hitler has been viewed in many different and varied fashions, often directly contrasting with each other. He has been seen, for example, as no more than ‘an opportunist entirely without principle’, ‘barren of all ideas save one – the further extension of his own power and that of the nation with which he had identified himself’, preoccupied solely with ‘domination, dressed up as the doctrine of race’, and consisting of nothing but ‘vindictive destructiveness’. In complete contrast, he has been portrayed as fanatically driving on a pre-planned and pre-ordained ideological programme. There have been attempts to see him as a type of political con-man, hypnotizing and bewitching the German people, leading them astray and into disaster, or to ‘demonize’ him – turning him into a mystical, inexplicable figure of Germany’s destiny. No less a figure than Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, then Armaments Minister, for much of the Third Reich as close to the Dictator as anyone, described him soon after the end of the war as a ‘demonic figure’, ‘one of those inexplicable historical phenomena which emerge at rare intervals among mankind’, whose ‘person determined the fate of the nation’. Such a view runs the risk of mystifying what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945, reducing the cause of Germany’s and Europe’s catastrophe to the arbitrary whim of a demonic personality. The genesis of the calamity finds no explanation outside the actions of an extraordinary individual. Complex developments become no more than an expression of Hitler’s will.

An absolutely contrary view – tenable only so long as it was part of a state ideology and consequently evaporating as soon as the Soviet bloc which had sustained it collapsed – rejected out of hand any significant role of personality, relegating Hitler to no more than the status of an agent of capitalism, a cypher for the interests of big business and its leaders who controlled him and pulled the strings of their marionette.

Some accounts of Hitler have scarcely recognized any problem at all of understanding, or have promptly ruled one out. Ridiculing Hitler has been one approach. Describing him simply as a ‘lunatic’ or ‘raving maniac’ obviates the need for an explanation – though it of course leaves open the key question: why a complex society would be prepared to follow someone who was mentally deranged, a ‘pathological’ case, into the abyss.

Far more sophisticated approaches have clashed on the extent to which Hitler was actually ‘master in the Third Reich’, or could even be described as ‘in some respects a weak dictator’. Did he in fact exercise total, unrestricted, and sole power? Or did his regime rest on a hydra-like ‘polycracy’ of power-structures, with Hitler, on account of his undeniable popularity and the cult that surrounded him, as its indispensable fulcrum but little else – remaining no more than the propagandist he had in essence always been, exploiting opportunities as they came along, though without programme, plan, or design?

Differing views about Hitler have never been purely a matter of arcane academic debate. They have wider currency than that – and more far-reaching implications. When Hitler was put forward as a sort of reverse copy of Lenin and Stalin, a leader whose paranoid fear of Bolshevik terror, of class genocide, motivated him to perpetrate race genocide, the implications were plain. Hitler was wicked, no doubt, but less wicked than Stalin. His was the copy, Stalin’s the original. The underlying cause of Nazi race genocide was Soviet class genocide. It also mattered when the spotlight was turned away from the crimes against humanity for which Hitler bears ultimate responsibility and on to his ruminations on the transformation of German society. This Hitler was interested in social mobility, better housing for workers, modernizing industry, erecting a welfare system, sweeping away the reactionary privileges of the past; in sum, building a better, more up-to-date, less class-ridden, German society, however brutal the methods. This Hitler was, despite his demonization of Jews and gamble for world power against mighty odds, ‘a politician whose thinking and actions were far more rational than up to now thought’. From such a perspective, Hitler could be seen as wicked, but with good intentions for German society – or at least intentions which could be viewed in a positive light.

Such revised interpretations were not meant to be apologetic. The comparison of Nazi and Stalinist crimes against humanity was intended, however distorted the approach, to shed light on the terrible ferocity of ideological conflict in inter-war Europe and the motive forces of the German genocide. The depiction of Hitler as a social-revolutionary was attempting to explain, perhaps in somewhat misconceived fashion, why he found such wide appeal in Germany in a time of social crisis. But it is not hard to see that both approaches contain, however unwittingly, the potential for a possible rehabilitation of Hitler which could begin to see him, despite the crimes against humanity associated with his name, as nevertheless a great leader of the twentieth century, one who, had he died before the war, would have had a high place in the pantheon of German heroes.

The question of ‘historical greatness’ was usually implicit in the writing of conventional biography – particularly so in the German tradition. The figure of Hitler, whose personal attributes – distinguished from his political aura and impact – were scarcely noble, elevating or enriching, posed self-evident problems for such a tradition. A way round it was to imply that Hitler possessed a form of ‘negative greatness’; that, while he lacked the nobility of character and other attributes taken to pertain to ‘greatness’ in historical figures, his impact on history was undeniably immense, even if catastrophic. Yet ‘negative greatness’ can also be taken to have tragic connotations – mighty endeavour and astounding achievements vitiated; national grandeur turned into national catastrophe.

It seems better to avoid altogether the issue of ‘greatness’ (other than seeking to understand why so many contemporaries saw ‘greatness’ in Hitler). It is a red-herring: misconstrued, pointless, irrelevant, and potentially apologetic. Misconstrued because, as ‘great men’ theories cannot escape doing, it personalizes the historical process in extreme fashion. Pointless because the whole notion of historical greatness is in the last resort futile. Based on a subjective set of moral and even aesthetic judgements, it is a philosophical-ethical concept which leads nowhere. Irrelevant because, whether we were to answer the question of Hitler’s alleged ‘greatness’ in the affirmative or the negative, it would in itself explain nothing whatsoever about the terrible history of the Third Reich. And potentially apologetic, because even to pose the question cannot conceal a certain admiration for Hitler, however grudging and whatever his faults; and because, to look for greatness in Hitler bears the almost automatic corollary of reducing in effect those who directly promoted his rule, those agencies which sustained it, and the German people themselves who gave it so much backing, to the role of mere supernumeraries to the ‘great man’.

Rather than the issue of ‘historical greatness’, we need to turn our attention to another question, one of far greater importance. How do we explain how someone with so few intellectual gifts and social attributes, someone no more than an empty vessel outside his political life, unapproachable and impenetrable even for those in his close company, incapable it seems of genuine friendship, without the background that bred high office, without even any experience of government before becoming Reich Chancellor, could nevertheless have such an immense historical impact, could make the entire world hold its breath?

Perhaps the question is, in part at least, falsely posed. For one thing, Hitler was certainly not unintelligent, and possessed a sharp mind which could draw on his formidably retentive memory. He was able to impress not only, as might be expected, his sycophantic entourage but also cool, critical, seasoned statesmen and diplomats with his rapid grasp of issues. His rhetorical talent was, of course, recognized even by his political enemies. And he is certainly not alone among twentieth-century state leaders in combining what we might see as deficiencies of character and shallowness of intellectual development with notable political skill and effectiveness. It is as well to avoid the trap, which most of his contemporaries fell into, of grossly underestimating his abilities.

Moreover, others beside Hitler have climbed from humble backgrounds to high office. But if his rise from utter anonymity is not entirely unique, the problem posed by Hitler remains. One reason is the emptiness of the private person. He was, as has frequently been said, tantamount to an ‘unperson’. There is, perhaps, an element of conde scension in this judgement, a readiness to look down on the vulgar, uneducated upstart lacking a rounded personality, the outsider with half-baked opinions on everything under the sun, the uncultured self-appointed adjudicator on culture. Partly, too, the black hole which represents the private individual derives from the fact that Hitler was highly secretive – not least about his personal life, his background, and his family. The secrecy and detachment were features of his character, applying also to his political behaviour; they were also politically important, components of the aura of ‘heroic’ leadership he had consciously allowed to be built up, intensifying the mystery about himself. Even so, when all qualifications are made, it remains the case that outside politics (and a blinkered passion for cultural grandeur and power in music, art and architecture) Hitler’s life was largely a void.

A biography of an ‘unperson’, one who has as good as no personal life or history outside that of the political events in which he is involved, imposes, naturally, its own limitations. But the drawbacks exist only as long as it is presumed that the private life is decisive for the public life. Such a presumption would be a mistake. There was no ‘private life’ for Hitler. Of course, he could enjoy his escapist films, his daily walk to the Tea House at the Berghof, his time in his alpine idyll far from government ministries in Berlin. But these were empty routines. There was no retreat to a sphere outside the political, to a deeper existence which conditioned his public reflexes. It was not that his ‘private life’ became part of his public persona. On the contrary: so secretive did it remain that the German people only learned of the existence of Eva Braun once the Third Reich had crumbled into ashes. Rather, Hitler ‘privatized’ the public sphere. ‘Private’ and ‘public’ merged completely and became inseparable. Hitler’s entire being came to be subsumed within the role he played to perfection: the role of ‘Führer’.

The task of the biographer at this point becomes clearer. It is a task which has to focus not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power – the power of the Führer.

That power derived only in part from Hitler himself. In greater measure, it was a social product – a creation of social expectations and motivations invested in Hitler by his followers. This does not mean that Hitler’s own actions, in the context of his expanding power, were not of the utmost importance at key moments. But the impact of his power has largely to be seen not in any specific attributes of ‘personality’, but in his role as Führer – a role made possible only through the underestimation, mistakes, weakness, and collaboration of others. To explain his power, therefore, we must look in the first instance to others, not to Hitler himself.

Hitler’s power was of an extraordinary kind. He did not base his claim to power (except in a most formal sense) on his position as a party leader, or on any functional position. He derived it from what he saw as his historic mission to save Germany. His power, in other words, was ‘charismatic’, not institutional. It depended upon the readiness of others to see ‘heroic’ qualities in him. And they did see those qualities – perhaps even before he himself came to believe in them.

As one of the most brilliant contemporary analysts of the Nazi phenomenon, Franz Neumann, noted: ‘Charismatic rule has long been neglected and ridiculed, but apparently it has deep roots and becomes a powerful stimulus once the proper psychological and social conditions are set. The Leader’s charismatic power is not a mere phantasm – none can doubt that millions believe in it.’ Hitler’s own contribution to the expansion of this power and to its consequences should not be underrated. A brief counter-factual reflection underlines the point. Is it likely, we might ask, that a terroristic police state such as that which developed under Himmler and the SS would have been erected without Hitler as head of government? Would Germany under a different leader, even an authoritarian one, have been engaged by the end of the 1930s in general European war? And would under a different head of state discrimination against Jews (which would almost certainly have taken place) have culminated in out-and-out genocide? The answer to each of these questions would surely be ‘no’; or, at the very least, ‘highly unlikely’. Whatever the external circumstances and impersonal determinants, Hitler was not interchangeable.

The highly personalized power which Hitler exercised conditioned even shrewd and intelligent individuals – churchmen, intellectuals, foreign diplomats, distinguished visitors – to be impressed by him. They would not for the most part have been captivated by the same sentiments expressed to a raucous crowd in a Munich beerhall. But with the authority of the Reich Chancellorship behind him, backed by adoring crowds, surrounded by the trappings of power, enveloped by the aura of great leadership trumpeted by propaganda, it was scarcely surprising that others beyond the completely naïve and gullible could find him impressive. Power was also the reason why his underlings – subordinate Nazi leaders, his personal retinue, provincial party bosses – hung on his every word, before, when that power was at an end in April 1945, fleeing like the proverbial rats from the sinking ship. The mystique of power surely explains, too, why so many women (especially those much younger than he was) saw him, the Hitler whose person seems to us the antithesis of sexuality, as a sex-symbol, several attempting suicide on his behalf.

A history of Hitler has to be, therefore, a history of his power – how he came to get it, what its character was, how he exercised it, why he was allowed to expand it to break all institutional barriers, why resistance to that power was so feeble. But these are questions to be directed at German society, not just at Hitler.

There is no necessity to play down the contribution to Hitler’s gaining and exercise of power that derived from the ingrained features of his character. Single-mindedness, inflexibility, ruthlessness in discarding all hindrances, cynical adroitness, the all-or-nothing gambler’s instinct for the highest stakes: each of these helped shape the nature of his power. These features of character came together in one overriding element in Hitler’s inner drive: his boundless egomania. Power was Hitler’s aphrodisiac. For one as narcissistic as he was, it offered purpose out of purposeless early years, compensation for all the deeply felt setbacks of the first half of his life – rejection as an artist, social bankruptcy taking him to a Viennese doss-house, the falling apart of his world in the defeat and revolution of 1918. Power was all-consuming for him. As one perceptive observer commented in 1940, even before the triumph over France: ‘Hitler is the potential suicide par excellence. He owns no ties outside his own “ego” … He is in the privileged position of one who loves nothing and no one but himself … So he can dare all to preserve or magnify his power … which alone stands between him and speedy death.’ The thirst for personalized power of such magnitude embraced an insatiable appetite for territorial conquest amounting to an almighty gamble – against extremely heavy odds – for a monopoly of power on the European continent and, later, world power. The relentless quest for ever greater expansion of power could contemplate no diminution, no confinement, no restriction. It was, moreover, dependent upon the continuance of what were taken to be ‘great achievements’. Lacking any capacity for limitation, the progressive megalomania inevitably contained the seeds of self-destruction for the regime Hitler led. The match with his own inbuilt suicidal tendencies was perfect.

All-consuming though power was for Hitler, it was not a matter of power for its own sake, devoid of content or meaning. Hitler was not just a propagandist, a manipulator, a mobilizer. He was all those. But he was also an ideologue of unshakeable convictions – the most radical of the radicals as exponent of an internally coherent (however repellent to us) ‘world-view’, acquiring its thrust and potency from its combination of a very few basic ideas – integrated by the notion of human history as the history of racial struggle. His ‘world-view’ gave him a rounded explanation of the ills of Germany and of the world, and how to remedy them. He held to his ‘world-view’ unwaveringly from the early 1920s down to his death in the bunker. It amounted to a utopian vision of national redemption, not a set of middle-range policies. But it was not only capable of incorporating within it all the different strands of Nazi philosophy; combined with Hitler’s rhetorical skills, it also meant that he soon became practically unchallengeable on any point of party doctrine.

Hitler’s ideological goals, his actions, and his personal input into the shaping of events need, then, to be accorded the most serious attention. But they explain far from everything. What Hitler did not do, did not instigate, but which was nevertheless set in train by the initiatives of others is as vital as the actions of the Dictator himself in understanding the fateful ‘cumulative radicalization’ of the regime.

An approach which looks to the expectations and motivations of German society (in all its complexity) more than to Hitler’s personality in explaining the Dictator’s immense impact offers the potential to explore the expansion of his power through the internal dynamics of the regime he headed and the forces he unleashed. The approach is encapsulated in the maxim enunciated by a Nazi functionary in 1934 – providing in a sense a leitmotiv for the work as a whole – that it was the duty of each person in the Third Reich ‘to work towards the Führer along the lines he would wish’ without awaiting instruction from above. This maxim, put into practice, was one of the driving-forces of the Third Reich, translating Hitler’s loosely framed ideological goals into reality through initiatives focused on working towards the fulfilment of the Dictator’s visionary aims. Hitler’s authority was, of course, decisive. But the initiatives which he sanctioned derived more often than not from others.

Hitler was no tyrant imposed on Germany. Though he never attained majority support in free elections, he was legally appointed to power as Reich Chancellor just like his predecessors had been, and became between 1933 and 1940 arguably the most popular head of state in the world. Understanding this demands reconciling the apparently irreconcilable: the personalized method of biography and the contrasting approaches to the history of society (including the structures of political domination). Hitler’s impact can only be grasped through the era which created him (and was destroyed by him). An interpretation must not only take full account of Hitler’s ideological goals, his actions, and his personal input into the shaping of events; it must at the same time locate these within the social forces and political structures which permitted, shaped, and promoted the growth of a system that came increasingly to hinge on personalized, absolute power – with the disastrous effects that flowed from it.

The Nazi assault on the roots of civilization was a defining feature of the twentieth century. Hitler was the epicentre of that assault. But he was its chief exponent, not its prime cause.



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!