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Hitler

by Joachim C Fest     (first published in 1973)

Joachim Clemens Fest (1926 – 2006) was a German historian, journalist, critic, and editor. His father had been a staunch anti-Nazi schoolteacher dismissed from his post when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and Fest was consistently hostile to Hitler and his party.

I read this book in the mid-1970s and am enjoying a re-read in 2018. Fest describes character and motives with subtlety and clarity (motives a difficult subject for historians).

Wikipendia describes Fest's view of Hitler:

Fest explained Hitler’s success in terms of what he termed the "great fear" that had overcome the German middle classes, as a result not only of Bolshevism and First World War dislocation, but also more broadly in response to rapid modernisation, which had led to a romantic longing for a lost past. This led to resentment of other groups — especially Jews — seen as agents of modernity. It also made many Germans susceptible to a figure such as Hitler who could articulate their mood. “He was never only their leader, he was always their voice ... the people, as if electrified, recognised themselves in him."

In his first chapter, Fest addresses the question of whether Hitler's father was the illegitimate son of a Jew named Frankenberger, in whose home (in Graz Austria) his grandmother was a maid. Fest writes that this "rustic intrigue" may have been set in motion by Hitler's father, who may have "felt the need to provide himself with security and a firm footing by obtaining an 'honorable' name." A good historian, Fest doesn't give us a conclusion on a matter that lacks evidence. A good historian, Fest is not a sensationalist. It matters only in Hitler's sense of insecurity about his own biological heritage might have made him more intensely devoted to what he considered racial purity.

There were other influences. Fest writes of the tobacco shop in Hitler's neighborhood in Vienna where periodicals were on display "including one highly popular magazine devoted to racial anthropology. Its title page carried the headlines: 'Are you blond? Then you are a creator and preserver of civilisation. Are you blond? Then you are threatened by perils."

Hitler had been in Vienna since May 1905, age 16. His father had died when he was 13. His mother died of cancer in December 1907 (in Urfahr, Austria) after expressing concern about Adolf's well being. Adolf was grief-stricken.

Hitler disliked Vienna, the center of the Habsburg empire, populated by people with various ethnic or national identities: Magyars, Poles, Jews, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and those who saw themselves as Hitler did, as German. He had come to Vienna with the hope of studying art but failed acceptance to an art academy. After his mother's death he was living on a small income from sale of the family home and an orphan's pension. He worked for awhile in construction while seeing himself above the common worker. He didn't want to be considered a common worker, a fear of proletarianization common to the insecure lower middleclass in industrialized Europe. Fest describes his pride in his father having been a government official and he writes of Hitler wanting to be considered a Herr, a gentleman, "that it did not matter that his life was narrow and gloomy as long as he could claim his distinction." Hitler was hostile toward the Marxism that he found among his fellow construction workers. Fest quotes Hitler's description of his disdain of his fellow workers (written years later):

They rejected everything: the nation as an invention of the 'capitalistic' ... classes; the Fatherland as an instrument of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of the working class; the authority of the law as a means for repression the proletariat; ...There was absolutely nothing at all that was not dragged through the mire of horrible depths.

Hitler's work in construction was temporary. He moved into a home for derelict men, a doss-house. He sold sketches and "was in a constant state of perturbation... He was obsessed by fears of Jews and Slavs, hated the House of Habsburg and the Social Democratic Party, and envisioned the doom of Germanism." Fest writes that "His fellows in the home for men did not share his paranoid emotions," and that Hitler's "hate-filled mind pushed everything to extremes [and] magnified events of minor importance into metaphysical catastrophes.

Hitler had a Social Darwinist view of that was in harmony with the kind of ideas "current in the newspapers he found in cheap cafes, in the books and pamphlet on newstands." He described himself as an eccentric and was moved by the music of Richard Wagner (whom Marx had scornfully described as a government bandleader).

On May 24, 1913, age 24, he fled Vienna and moved to the capital of Bavaria, Munich, by then associated with the German Empire (Reich) centered in Berlin. Fest describes Munich as having a reputation as a "city of Muses, a charming, humanely sensual, lighthearted center of art and science." He describes Hitler as "a despondent young man who gazed out upon an uncomprehending world with a mixture of yearning and bitterness."

Then on 1 August 1914 the world changed. The Germans people sensed peril as mobilized Russian troops were marching toward the fatherland. Germany declared war on Russia that day. Germany was mobilizing its military to defend itself. The supreme command of the Bavarian field army was passed to the German Emperor, Wilhelm II (the Kaiser). A history of military victories gave the German people confidence, and they welcomed the Russian challenge.

Fest writes of the outbreak of the Great War as an opportunity "to escape the miseries of normality." For Hitler it was more. Nothing brings people together more than their sharing a catastrophe. For Hitler it was the end of his imagined separation from his fellow Germans. In Mein Kampf Hitler was to write:

To me those hours [on August 1st] seemed like a release from the painful feelings of my youth. Even today I am not ashamed to say that, overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart.

Hitler had found an opportunity to save and to serve the German people and their fatherland. He survived horrendous battles and was decorated for his courage. (images) He could not imagine the various reasons for the German army not emerging victorious, and following its defeat in November 1918 he would find blame with Jews and Social Democrats (Marxists) who had stabbed the German army in the back.

Fest's biography of Hitler extends to Hitler's death in 1945 — 750 pages. Fest concluded:

[The] great demagogue left behind him not so much as a memorable phrase, an impressive formula. Similarly, he who wanted to be the greatest builder of all time left not a single building to the present. Nothing survived even of those grandiose structures that were completed... The people whose loyalty and admiration he had won never followed a vision, but only a force. In retrospect his life seems like a steady unfolding of tremendous energy. It effects were vast, the terror it spread enormous; but when it was over there was little left for memory to hold.

In my opinion there was memory enough – exercised selectively – for a few in the early 21st century to imagine glory accruing a from a demagogic great leader.


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