Professor of History
California State Univ., Stanislaus
[This essay first appeared in Books and Culture: A Christian Review (Mar./Apr. 2001): 18-21]
What shaped the life of the man who today is the symbol of evil and brutality, but who in the 1930s was cheered by millions of Germans, most of whom claimed to be Christians? What lay at the roots of Hitler's character and world view? This question has intrigued millions, and oceans of ink have been spilled to provide explanations, but still there are no simple answers.
My own research into the impact of Darwinian ethics on German thought in the pre-Nazi era and its ultimate influence on Hitler's ideology led me in the summer of 1999 to the resort Herrsching on beautiful Ammersee, just a 44-minute train trip from Munich, Hitler's early headquarters, where he began his drive to power in early 1919 when he joined the fledgling German Workers' Party, soon renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party and nicknamed the Nazi Party. (About the same distance from Munich in a different direction is Dachau, site of the Nazi's first concentration camp, which I likewise visited). Herrsching was the home of the physician Alfred Ploetz, the founding father of the race hygiene or eugenics movement in Germany, whose goal was to improve human heredity by rationally controlling reproduction. When I visited Herrsching, Ploetz's 87-year old son, Wilfried Ploetz, was still living in the medieval manor house bought by his father, who conducted scientific experiments on heredity there. Ploetz was no Hitler, of course. He experimented on rabbits, not on humans.
On a gray day in June I arrived in Herrsching to examine the correspondence and papers of Alfred Ploetz. After Herr Ploetz graciously picked me up at the train station, I cautiously asked harmless questions about his father. Uncertain about how he viewed his father and the movement he led, especially because of Nazi connections, I proceeded gingerly. However, Herr Ploetz unabashedly introduced the topic of Nazism, relating to me several stories about the Nazi period involving his father or him. While admitting that his father made some mistakes, he clearly tried to distance his father and other leading eugenicists--many of whom he knew personally from their frequent visits with his father--from the Nazis and Nazi racism.
Probably neither Ploetz nor most other German eugenicists would have perpetrated the evil deeds we associate with Hitler, especially the Holocaust. Ploetz even opposed the Nazis before they came to power, according to his son, and based on what I know from other sources, this is credible. However, ideas have consequences, and Ploetz's ideas, blended with those of other eugenicists and racists into a coherent Nazi program, had disastrous consequences once they were implemented by a strong-willed leader with both the political power and a cadre of like-minded assistants to carry them out.
The Nazi eugenics program began in earnest in January 1934 when a law requiring sterilization for persons with congenital illnesses went into effect. Since this promised to fulfill the goals for which Ploetz had struggled and sacrificed, it wooed Ploetz away from his disapproval of Nazism. However, compulsory sterilization was only the first step for the Nazis. Later they would implement more radical eugenics measures in their "euthanasia" program, murdering about 70,000 mentally and physically handicapped people in 1939-41. And "euthanasia" was once again only a preliminary step toward the ultimate program of racist eugenics--the Holocaust. This was the slippery slope with a vengeance.
Because of his evil deeds, it's not surprising that in the 1940s some viewed Hitler as the Antichrist. Daniel's prophecy seemed fulfilled: "A king shall arise, having fierce features, who understands sinister schemes. His power shall be mighty, but not by his own power; he shall destroy fearfully, and shall prosper and thrive; he shall destroy the mighty and also the holy people [the Jews]. Through his cunning he shall cause deceit to prosper under his rule; and he shall exalt himself in his heart. He shall destroy many in their prosperity." (Daniel 8:23-24). Of course, Hitler wasn't THE Antichrist, but the evil he perpetrated was born out of an anti-Christian world view.
Those wanting to know how Hitler became so evil should place at the top of their reading list Brigitte Hamann's Hitler's Vienna and Ian Kershaw's magisterial two-volume biography, Hitler. These two excellent new works on Hitler poignantly provide insight into the background, ideas, and context that made Hitler possible. Both provide a detailed portrait of Hitler's political, social, and intellectual milieu.
Since she focuses primarily on Hitler's formative years as an 18 to 24 year old in Vienna (1908-1913), Hamann's work examines how and to what extent the Viennese environment shaped Hitler's world view and political program. She deftly weaves together Hitler's biography with a history of Vienna during his stay there, but always with an eye on the city as Hitler experienced it. The Vienna she portrays is quite different from the modernist Fin-de-Siecle Vienna described in Carl Schorske's path-breaking cultural history. Hamann is fully aware of the importance of modernism in Viennese culture, but she rightly argues from the outset that this was not Hitler's milieu. Hitler wasn't moved--except maybe to disgust--at the work of Freud or modernist artists. But he did eagerly follow the political developments in the Viennese press, and Hamann's work provides considerable insight into the way Hitler perceived the political process and parties in Vienna.
One gains, for instance, considerable insight into Hitler's contempt for the parliamentary system from Hamann's engaging description of the Austrian parliament, which Hitler visited repeatedly during his first year or two in Vienna. The Austrian parliament was often paralyzed by ethnic rivalries, which regularly produced filibusters (in a variety of languages from the multi-ethnic empire, but with no translators), as well as raucous and outrageous use of noisemakers to kill debate on contentious bills. All too often ethnic hostilities spilled over into fisticuffs on the floor of parliament.
Hamann and Kershaw both argue that Hitler had a consistent--albeit pernicious--world view. At the center of that world view was the notion that history consists of a Darwinian struggle for existence between races, and the Aryan (i.e., Germanic) race has been and still is of supreme importance as the highest race, the only race capable of creating advanced culture. For Hitler human progress depended on two factors: 1) strengthening the Aryan race through eugenics measures; and 2) winning the struggle against the non-Aryan races (necessitating a strong military). Hamann astutely observes that for Hitler, "the individual has no value other than being part of a people and a race and to help secure their survival in the battle against other peoples and races." (p. 235)
Hamann provides numerous examples to show how pervasive Aryan racism and eugenics were in the Viennese press. Because it was so widespread it's impossible to point to any one racial thinker, such as Adolf Lanz von Liebenfels, as The Man Who Gave Hitler His Ideas, as Wilfried Daim has argued. Hamann's approach is commonsensical, admitting that Hitler likely read Lanz's periodical, Ostara, but asserting that Hitler's Aryan racism bears even more the stamp of Guido von List, the mystical writer who first introduced the swastika into Aryan racist circles. The leader of the intensely nationalistic Pan-German movement in Austria, Georg von Schonerer, also strongly influenced Hitler, who adopted the Heil greeting from him. Schonerer not only embraced racial anti-Semitism, but also promoted eugenics.
Hitler usually adopted his ideas from journalists and popularizers, some of them rather crass or even hare-brained. However, I question Hamann's assertion that the theories Hitler preferred were "not in agreement with academic science but were the products of the idiosyncratic thought processes of private scholars who were full of contempt for established scientists." (233) This is only partly true. List, Lanz, and Schonerer, to be sure, were outsiders to academe. However, bizarre as it may seem, many of Hitler's racial ideas weren't at all foreign to academic scientific discourse, even if they weren't accepted universally. Biology, anthropology, and medicine in German-speaking lands were saturated with eugenics and racism, sometimes even anti-Semitic Aryan racism very similar to Hitler's.
Hitler's world view was diametrically opposed to Christianity, for which Hitler had nothing but contempt. Hitler never attended church in Vienna, and some sources note that his greatest enemy--besides Marxists--was the Jesuits. One anonymous eyewitness reported that "Hitler said [c. 1912] the biggest evil for the German people was accepting Christian humility." (p. 250) Even though in Mein Kampf Hitler criticized Schonerer's anti-Catholic Los-von-Rom (Free from Rome) movement, during his time in Vienna Hitler was sympathetic to it. Hitler recognized that Schonerer's position had been a public relations fiasco, and thus a political blunder, so later he always shied away from publicly criticizing the Christian churches, despite his personal antipathy toward them.
Neither Hamann nor Kershaw pay any attention to occult influence on Hitler, and with good cause. Despite the mystical inclinations of some of the Viennese anti-Semites who influenced him (List and Liebenfels) and the neo-pagan tendencies of some of his entourage (Himmler, for instance), Hitler had little or no interest in mystical and supernatural teachings or experiences. Privately he was contemptuous of Himmler's attempts to revive ancient German pagan rites. Alan Bullock, in one of the best scholarly Hitler biographies to precede Kershaw's, is probably close to the truth in labeling Hitler a materialist who spurned belief in anything supernatural, despite his occasional vague rhetoric about Providence.
Hamann helps clear up a number of myths about Hitler's early development, but the only really significant revelation concerns Hitler's anti-Semitism during his time in Vienna. Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf that he became devoted to anti-Semitism while in Vienna, and although historians are incredulous about Hitler's "reminiscences," most have accepted this, since it seems so plausible. Vienna was a cesspool of anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century. The incredibly popular mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, used anti-Semitic propaganda to further his political career, the Pan-German press (which Hitler read) was spewing forth anti-Semitism, and Vienna had a much larger and more visible Jewish population than any major German city. Interestingly, however, only one source from his Vienna days reports that Hitler was anti-Semitic at all and several vociferously deny it.
Hamann takes the side of the deniers, especially in light of the amicable relationship Hitler had with several Jews during his stay in Vienna. She admits that Hitler studied anti-Semitism in Vienna, but she argues that anti-Semitism did not become an integral part of his world view until later (by 1919 at latest, when we have his first recorded anti-Semitic utterance). Whether Hitler converted to anti-Semitism during or after his Vienna years, there can be little doubt that Viennese anti-Semitism was a crucial factor influencing him in that direction.
Reconstructing Hitler's years in Vienna is a daunting task, as the sources are few and some are questionable or worse. Hamann shows considerable skill in analyzing the main eyewitness sources we have, for she doesn't take any of them at face value, but assiduously tests them against each other and against a wealth of knowledge she has gleaned from other sources. She points out mistakes even in the ones she considers basically reliable (like Hitler's roommate August Kubizek), while dismissing some as totally worthless (such as Josef Greiner). Her analysis of the sources is itself a major contribution to historiography on Hitler, and her work will be indispensable to future biographers and historians.
I only hope that if a new edition comes out it will be edited better than this one. There are numerous troublesome errors, some in translation (usually minor, like Double Alliance instead of Dual Alliance), some in footnote numbering (esp. ch. 7), and more substantively the repeated confusion of Joseph II and Franz Joseph II on pp. 112-13. Kershaw's biography is likewise a major contribution to historiography, and it will probably become the standard biography of Hitler for many years to come. Kershaw's many years of research on Hitler and the Nazi era bear rich fruit in this masterful portrayal of Germany's Fuhrer. For Kershaw, unlike Hamann, Hitler's environment is not merely a source for his political and social views during his formative years. Rather Kershaw is convinced that political and social structures remained important influences on Hitler's actions throughout his entire life. It's rather ironic that someone who forthrightly argues against the force of personality in history would so painstakingly analyze one man. Kershaw admits his discomfort with the genre of biography, but that hasn't deterred him from producing a first-rate biographical study.
Kershaw continually reminds us that Hitler was being acted upon just as much or more than he was acting. Hitler's ascent to power wasn't through a triumph of the will, but was rather a product of political and economic forces over which Hitler had little control. Even after coming to power, most concrete programs were undertaken without his initiative and often without his knowledge by underlings trying to "work towards the Fuhrer"--which Kershaw sees as the key to understanding Nazi rule. However, if Germans during Nazi rule were "working towards the Fuhrer," then Hitler's views were ultimately decisive, whether or not he made all the specific decisions. It seems to me there is sometimes tension between Kershaw's description of Hitler and his interpretation of that description. Kershaw is aware of that tension, asserting in his preface that Hitler "is one of the few individuals of whom it can be said with absolute certainty: without him, the course of history would have been different." (xx) Later in the preface, however, Kershaw balances this by claiming, "To explain his power, therefore, we must look in the first instance to others, not to Hitler himself." (xxvi) Kershaw's juggling act between these two poles may confuse some readers, but I found it stimulating and believe it makes his account more true to historical reality. When Kershaw explains particular important events in Hitler's life, he emphasizes Hitler's lack of control over events. For example, the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 was driven not so much by Hitler as by developments in the Bavarian government, in Hitler's co-conspirators on the nationalist Right, and pressure from his own stormtroopers (SA). As so often in Hitler's life, he resisted making decisions until he had to, but once his hand was forced, he acted ruthlessly. Kershaw sees this pattern repeated again and again in Hitler's life--pressed by outward circumstances, crises, and his own party, he would finally act after long hesitation. All too often, he would act on misinformation provided him by his Nazi colleagues. One blatant example was his ruthless executions without trial of SA leader Ernst Rohm and others in late June and early July 1934, when Hitler was convinced they were conspiring against him. No such conspiracy was underway, but Rohm's rivals in the Nazi Party--principally Goebbels and Himmler--manufactured evidence to get rid of the troublesome SA leader.
So what produced Hitler and gave him the impetus to become dictator of Germany? Kershaw sees World War I and its aftermath as being decisive in shaping both Hitler and the German people so they would be receptive to Hitler. He agrees with Hamann that, despite the influence of Vienna, Hitler's world view was still forming after leaving Vienna. In addition to lacking evidence of his anti-Semitism in Vienna, Kershaw points out that his army comrades also had no idea he was anti-Semitic. A few aspects of his world view, such as the importance of living space in the east, were added in the early 1920s.
Kershaw believes defeat and revolutionary turbulence in Germany (especially Munich) between November 1918 and May 1919 were decisive in preparing the ground for Hitler. To offset leftist influence in German politics and society, the German army set up propaganda units to indoctrinate the troops. Hitler became a star performer in one of these units and thus found his niche as a political speaker. His army propaganda unit sent Hitler to attend a beer-hall meeting of the tiny German Workers' Party, which he transformed into a party devoted to him. Without the war and subsequent defeat, Hitler would likely have remained a loner, an unemployed wannabe artist wandering aimlessly through Munich's crowded streets.
Without the disastrous defeat of World War I the German people would not have listened to the ravings of Hitler, either. But his intense nationalism, anti-Bolshevism, and anti-Semitism found fertile soil in a nation feeling oppressed by the Versailles Treaty and reparations. His pledge to make Germany great again resonated especially with the nationalist Right. Not everyone on the Right liked Hitler; some even despised him. But in the final analysis, it was the nationalist Right who brought Hitler to power in two ways. First of all, Hitler drew away most of the nationalist voters from other parties during the Great Depression in 1930-32. But Hitler's popularity with the masses, which never won him more than about a third of the votes, was insufficient to catapult him to power. Right-wing nationalist politicians, such as Franz von Papen, who had already partly subverted the Weimar constitution, wanted to use Hitler's clout in parliament to replace the Weimar constitution with a right-wing authoritarian regime. They thought they could manipulate Hitler and keep control for themselves, but Hitler outmaneuvered them and dominated the new regime.
Kershaw ends the first volume of his biography with Hitler riding the crest of popularity from his remilitarization campaign. In a dramatic move to shore up his sagging popularity in Germany he flouted the Versailles Treaty in March 1936 by remilitarizing the Rhineland region. With each success Hitler's self-confidence was growing, and Kershaw believes that by this point Hitler considered himself infallible. Those warning him against his risky foreign policy ventures had proven themselves timid, and his foreign opponents were spineless.
Very few in 1936 had an inkling of the misery that would come to Germany and indeed the entire world through Hitler, which Kershaw thoroughly describes in the second volume, when he covers World War II and the Holocaust. Why did so few heed the warnings of Hitler's opponents? Even General Ludendorff, who had earlier joined forces with Hitler for the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, vainly warned President Hindenburg in 1933: "I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done." (I, 427) Except for some leftists and Jews, however, most Germans ignored the warning signs. Their willingness to tolerate Hitler's initial program of political oppression, because it was directed primarily against leftists, made them defenseless once the oppression widened to include Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, and even Christian clergy.
If Hitler had died in 1938, Kershaw claims, he would probably have gone down in history as a great German leader. No moral opprobrium would be attached to his name. Germans might have regarded him as another Bismarck. The full malevolent potential of Hitler's regime would only manifest itself with the outbreak of World War II, especially in 1941 when he launched his war of annihilation against what he considered the twin evils of the world--Bolshevism and the Jews.
Germans made Hitler possible, but they were not privy to his ultimate plans. Both at home and abroad many misread his intentions, supposing that he was merely trying to throw off the shackles of the Versailles Treaty and return Germany to its pre-World War I status. They did not take into account the fanatical devotion of Hitler to his world view, which "saw racial struggle and the survival of the fittest as the key determinants in human history." (II, xxvii) Again and again during the war, Hitler justified his aggression--especially against the Soviet Union--with Social Darwinist arguments, claiming that the war was a struggle for existence that would decide the fate of the Aryan race. They must either triumph or perish.
Since he considered Jews the archenemy of Aryans, often describing them as disease-causing bacillus, they were the special targets of his wrath. His irrational fixation on Jews and their alleged conspiracy to dominate the world conjured up in his mind the most bizarre associations. Not only were Jewish communists masterminding the Bolshevik takeover of Europe, but Jewish capitalists were the driving force behind Churchill and Roosevelt. His fear of a fifth column of Jews in Germany and German-occupied territories, together with his desire to open up more living space (Lebensraum) for Germans in Eastern Europe, helped accelerate plans to exterminate the Jews.
Kershaw argues, however, that although Hitler's ultimate goal was extermination of the Jews, he did not have concrete plans for it even after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Indeed, Hitler never really planned it at all. The death camps came about more spontaneously, driven by events and by lower-level Nazi leaders. But Kershaw by no means exonerates Hitler; he clearly argues that without Hitler there would have been no genocide. His underlings were "working towards the Fuhrer," knowing that he approved of their genocidal policies. Kershaw probably minimizes Hitler's role in the planning and direction of the Holocaust too much, and I'm even less convinced by his downplaying of Himmler's role in its planning.
So, to return to our original question, what accounts for the intensity of evil in Hitler and his Nazi regime? Is it a manifestation of human depravity lurking inside us all, or perhaps an outburst of the human lust for power that we all share? I don't deny that these factors played an important role, and in fact, I wonder if we are often too quick to distance ourselves from Hitler, Stalin, and other ogres of their ilk, as though WE would never--even with unlimited power at our disposal--oppress or harm a fellow human being. Many "ordinary Germans" (and even many foreigners) assisted Hitler, after all, in carrying out his atrocities. He didn't act alone, as Kershaw continually reminds us. But there are, of course, other factors to consider in explaining Hitler's evil. First of all, Hitler embraced a world view that denied any personal God or transcendent moral standards. Rather the cosmos and human history were products of an impersonal Fate, Providence or Destiny, which were synonymous with natural laws. The emptiness of the cosmos was reflected in his personal life, for Kershaw points out that Hitler had no real friendships or close relationships with anyone, not even his mistress Eva Braun. He refused to marry (until the day before he committed suicide) because of his devotion to the German people, but for him the German people was always an abstraction. Even during the war, he never visited hospitals or injured troops or bombed cities. He lacked all empathy with real people, and he even criticized those who allowed sympathy to influence their political decisions.
Secondly, since Hitler believed that nothing exists beyond nature, he tried to find his purpose in life in obeying the iron laws of nature. Darwinian biology was especially significant in this regard, as he tried to apply its lessons to politics and society. Darwinism--especially forms of it often disparagingly called Social Darwinism today--taught him that life is a constant struggle for existence leading to biological progress. Hitler embraced eugenics and racial extermination of allegedly inferior races as means to improve the human species and foster progress.
Finally, while spurning traditional moral standards, Hitler exalted evolution itself to the status of a moral absolute--everything that advances evolution is morally good and everything that hinders it is immoral. Since he viewed the Aryan race as the most advanced race on the earth, indeed the only race capable of creating civilization and a higher culture, this came to mean that whatever promotes the expansion of the Aryan race was good and whatever hindered their expansion was evil. Hitler sincerely believed that his policies and decisions were good and beneficial. His pursuit of a "noble ideal" to benefit abstract humanity in a universe without God, without morality, and without human rights, produced intense suffering, horror, and destruction for real people.
As the war that he launched--allegedly to benefit his people--turned into defeat, Hitler never came to grips with reality. He persisted almost to the end to believe that somehow the war could be won, that through his strength of will he could turn back the combined strength of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the British Empire arrayed against him. Any general telling him otherwise or advocating retreat he sacked. To the bitter end he refused to admit any fault, fuming that Germany's defeat had been brought on by the treachery, betrayal, and incompetence of his army staff. It's almost incomprehensible, but true, that throughout his career and even in his final testament Hitler expected to go down in the pages of history as a great hero. Such is the delusion of wickedness.
For further discussion of this topic, see my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004).
This webpage last revised by Richard Weikart on 4 September 2004.