Stephen G. Fritz—
Life is normally characterized by irony, paradox, ambiguity, and ambivalence, but Adolf Hitler saw it with a startling (and frightening) clarity. Beginning early in his career as an orator and political rabble-rouser, he habitually used history as an explanation and justification for his actions. He had, indeed, read a great deal of history, and was as confident in treating his public audiences to lengthy expositions as he was in repeatedly invoking historical analogies in talks with his generals. In many respects, then, his ideas and actions were largely derivative and rarely original. He often acted (or tried to act) as others had, but more often than not failed to consider the respective historical contexts. To a considerable extent, based as it was on his “reading” of history, he valued his own understanding of Germany’s historical destiny more than the stability and economic well-being of the country. Moreover, he had the ability to discern what many Germans wanted, to describe a vision of the future that was his but persuade them it was theirs as well. Although certainly stylized, he also created an image of himself – one he came to believe was real – as a leader with a historic mission, one consumed by the task of restoring the broken body of Germany. Like Napoleon, he had a sense that he was acting out history in deciding the fate of his people.
His reading of past events had convinced Hitler that Germany had been cheated by history. The horribly destructive Thirty Years War – fought in German lands but for largely non-German reasons by primarily non-German armies – had devastated the country and, Hitler believed, deprived it of its rightful dominant position in Europe and the world. This role had then been usurped by France and Britain, which proceeded over the following centuries to keep Germany weak and divided. The First World War, to Hitler, had been an attempt to redress this mistake, but Germany failed because its leaders lacked a clear notion of what they were trying to achieve. Ideas matter, and, for good or (mostly) ill, Hitler then developed a set of ideas based on his own (and Germany’s) ordeal of the Great War. The experience of national humiliation in 1918, in particular, was deeply ingrained in the minds of Hitler and the German people. He was not alone in believing that their past had been taken from them, that their struggle and sacrifices had been rendered meaningless. If nothing of value had been achieved by the enormous loss of life in the Great War, then what had been the point? This nihilistic thought tormented Hitler in the days and months following Germany’s defeat. In his early speeches, and then in his later actions, he moved to restore meaning to a national life he thought scarred by the haunting fear that it had all been in vain. His goal was thus not merely to revise the Versailles settlement, but to expunge the national shame, and this required war.
Once in power, Hitler set about implementing his ideas and, within his frame of reference, made decisions that were logical and rational (or at least not irrational), in the sense that they were taken with a calculated consideration of external circumstances and behind them there existed a logically coherent pattern. It is also critical to understand the importance, for Hitler, of hatred, as well as his obsessive need for revenge against those groups and countries that had ruined Germany. Although there would have to be another war, this was not to be just any war, but a conflict that would punish those held responsible for Germany’s humiliation, as well as ensure that such a national disgrace did not happen again in the future. The Second World War, then, would be a radically transformative war, the next, and final, attempt to set things right; not for nothing did Hitler think and speak in apocalyptic terms. Germany, he insisted, faced one of two options: world power or destruction. To Hitler, it would be nothing less than a war for survival, one in which Germany’s mortal enemies had to be defeated and the nation given the means to exist. He chronically thought in terms of grand schemes, but this vision was a sort of “apocalyptic utopianism” in which everything was black and white. He saw himself and his nation as being in a struggle for its very survival, and he was certain that defeat meant the end of Germany. The searing experience of the Allied “hunger blockade” of the First World War had convinced him of that. He had, he thought, drawn the proper lesson: in the next war, it would be others who starved, a “lesson” that eventually doomed millions to death. His was an all-or-nothing, social Darwinist view, but it was also fueled by his reading of history. After all, he believed the Roman Empire had expanded, survived, and thrived because it had annihilated those who opposed it.
In the liberal imagination evil is a failure of reason, so the tendency is to see Hitler as irrational. Hitler, though, tended to think and operate according to his own logic, instinct, and intuition, his very dynamism and pernicious creative mind fashioning a compelling narrative from history that was difficult to refute. The problem, then, lies in the failure to understand that “reason,” as such, is not necessarily the key focus of political loyalty or action, and that it provides scant emotional comfort in times of crisis. Far more than an appeal to reason, nationalism or group or ethnic loyalties have allowed states to mobilize and demand sacrifices from citizens, and then to construct stirring accounts of suffering and martyrdom. Sacrifice, in particular, entails a shared, sacred experience that provides collective meaning, something that the notion of progress struggles to comprehend. Hitler’s lack of humanity thus might be seen as being driven by his “larger” historical concerns: avenging the alleged insults done to Germany and pursuing its proper hegemonic status in order to restore meaning to history. Hitler thus raised his political-ideological goal to one of existential significance.
From The First Soldier by Stephen G. Fritz. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Stephen G. Fritz is professor at East Tennessee State University. His books include Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II and Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East.