the hitler of history - Dr. Dr. Rainer Zitelmann

the hitler of history - Dr. Dr. Rainer Zitelmann

THE HITLER OF HISTORY JOHN LUKACS 36 THE HITLER OF HISTORY survived the sudden unification of Germany in 1989. (Incidentally, that was something t...

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survived the sudden unification of Germany in 1989. (Incidentally, that was something that none of the historians of the Historikerstreit had foreseen; indeed, they had deemed it to be impossible in any foreseeable future.) What remained constant was the tendency to separate the history of the Third Reich (and, indirectly, the German people) from Hitler. Then, in 1987, there appeared an important study of Hitler by Rainer Zitelmann (1957- ):* a significant contribution to and at least a partial revision of the portrait of Hitler after many years. As early as 1982, at the age of twenty-four, this brilliant young historian had already published a most competent bibliographical essay about Hitler studies: Hitlers Eifolg: Erklärungsversuche in der Hit/erForschung (Hitler's Success: Explanatory Attempts in Hitler Research), t the very title of which suggested the thrust of Zitelmann's forthcoming works: Why-and how-was Hitler successful? In ziTI A, Zitelmann made at least two, if not three, undeniable contributions.:j: First, that Hitler was truly a revolutionary, and that, consequently, his aspirations and visions were modern (no matter how deeply rooted in some traditional German attitudes); and so were his ideas and plans about the remaking of German society (an argument seldom proposed cogently before Zitelmann, except by the American historian David Schoenbaum). This also meant that, contrary to accepted opinion, Hitler was neitl1er ignorant of nor indifferent to economics. All of this was illustrated and buttressed by Zitelmann's extensive reading of papers and other documents, many of them of the 1928-32 period, during which-again contrary to generally accepted views-Hitler not only spoke but wrote and dictated much. Perhaps the only shortcoming of zrr/ A was the brevity of the space that Zitelmann devoted to Hitler's statesmanship. There again, he emphasized Hitler's revolutionary character, but

*zn/ A, unfortunately, was not translated and published in Britain or the United States. tin NPL (r982), pp. 47-69, citing, among others,Jäckel: "the confusing multiplicity of serious explanations." Zitelmann: "One could easily fill a book with their Iist." +An excellent and praiseworthy summary of Zitelmann's theses was made by Jost Dülffer in FAZ, 7 July 1987.

Historiowaphical Problems


perhaps without sufficiently recognizing Hitler's conscious duality (his different and sometimes entirely Contradietory views and expressions concerning foreign statesmen and political forces). Two years after the publication of ZITIA, this young historian published a no less remarkable shorter book about Hitler.* No less remarkable for our purposes, because while ZITIA was principally an analytical study of Hitler's ideas, ZITIB was a biography. In his preface, Zitelmann posed the question: Why yet another biography, when Bullock, Fest, and Toland exist? "Some of these biographies," he wrote, "were excellent for their time, but today they must be seen as superseded in many ways."t In his research, Zitelmann depended much on the finally completed edition of the Goebbels diaries as weil as on a few until then largely unexplored sources, including a new series of notes of Hitler's wartime table conversations. But the significance of Zitelmann's Hitler biography lay not so much in its author's research as in his determined convictions. Here is his own summation of his achievement: "The picture drawn here of Hitler differs from [others] very substantially. He appears here as a politician, whose thinking and actions were essentially much more rational than hitherto accepted." Also: "... in some fields research about National Socialism is still in its beginnings .... In the end the picture ofHitler appears as essentially more complex, differentiated, and uncertain." A strong, perhaps exaggerated, Statement by a young historian, but not without substance. "Soberness is also needed in the language. That is far from the truth in all of the biographies ofHitler [including Fest's]."f *Rainer Zitelmann, Adolf Hit/er: Eine politische Biog;raphie, Göttingen, 1989 (hereafter: ziTIB). tziTIB, p. 7· Also p. 8: "Biographies such as Joachim Fest's, whose study was undoubtedly a milestone in the understanding of a dictator, have used questionable or falsified sources uncritically." :j:zJTIB, pp. 9-11. His repeated and nervous exhortation for "soberness": "Perhaps 15 years ago, when Fest's pioneering work was published, it was not yet possible to write a Hitler biography differently." (Why not?) At the conclusion of his preface, Zitelmann voices a renewed insistence on "soberness of language" in order "to understand, rather than to evaluate." (Fair enough; but can "understanding" be separated from "evaluation"? Allow me to repeat: The choice of every word is not only a technical or stylistic but a moral choice.)