I think that, as a child — at least, one in the United States — the general consensus is that the worst, most despicable person to have ever lived is Adolf Hitler. I suppose then, I would agree this might’ve made him the “bogeyman” in our minds, an idea of “pure evil” we’ve always known.
Really, though, I think that the reason we are so intrigued by Hitler is because we believe him to be so different from us. Perhaps it is a bit like the incessant questions we had about Donald Trump when he first ran for President in 2016 — why would a filthy rich television star run for President? did he really think he would win? why did he win? how cunning is he really? and how bad could it possibly be?
Maybe, in a similar way, Hitler’s thoughts, his motivations, seem untouchable to us. We wonder what caused him to be so evil, how human was he really, or if, even, we could have the capabilities to commit the crimes he did, had we grown up under different circumstances.
Before these readings, I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Hitler’s life specifically, just the economic and political situations at the time that facilitated the rise of the Third Reich. But I think that these articles and sites have been rather interesting reads, and I have several questions and observations in response to them.
Janet Flanner’s “Profiles: Führer,” was quite detailed and rather analytical. It opens describing his everyday habits and general background, and while I was initially wary that this series would be too empathetic or humanizing (I’ve heard before of some directors who would refuse to make a biographical movie on him for precisely this reason), I think that Flanner writes in a way where she presents his character as it is, keeping away from inserting her opinions in the first person, and not apologizing for him. I think Flanner’s piece was intriguing in several ways, one being her description of his relationship with women. My impression of women in Nazi Germany was that they were mostly meant to act as passive wives for men in the Party. Reading Flanner’s article was surprising as I learned that “upperclass women were among his first sympathizers” (I, p 21), and that several of his female friends like Frau Victoria von Dirksen and Frau Wagner raised funds for him (I, p 22). I wonder how or why Hitler was able to establish such friendships with these women, or with anyone in general, as Flanner repeatedly described Hitler as unsociable, also writing that, “being a man with no talent for friendship, Hitler’s gift for disloyalty has been developed by the dramas of his career” (I, p 24). I also wonder if these depictions of his relationships, or of aspects of his character in general, would have been any different if it had not been a woman writing these.
Besides his socializing habits, another part of Flanner’s writings which I found interesting was his almost immediate fanaticism for his country. Him becoming a “Pan-Germanist” at the mere age of twelve, as well as his subscription to a nationalist party which was, frankly, quite pitiful at the time by Flanner’s description (“composed of six poor members”), compounded how set he was on this idea of Germany’s glory, how it seemed to override all other essential aspects of life (II, p 28). I wonder if he weren’t so isolated or unsuccessful in other professional pursuits during “post-bellum German demoralization,” as Flanner described it, whether he would’ve fixated so hard on Germany’s “honor.” Though, maybe he would’ve been just as zealous and dangerous, considering he was followed by 60 million Germans, each and every one of them living and thinking individuals. That idea of glorifying a race as a method of “purifying” a nation, though it seemed so incomprehensible to me at first, now makes me realize how often we see bigotry now, especially in our own country, where the cry to “Make America Great Again” was really meant as an assertion of white supremacy. What is interesting about Hitler, is how could he have been a young reader and aspiring artist (II, p 27), yet, remain so personally uninfluenced by the perspectives of those different from him? I suppose it could’ve been the fact that he believed that there “‘is no such thing as Chinese or Egyptian art… that there exists no art except Nordic-Grecian’” (III, p 22), or that he fitted Nietzsche’s powerful words to his cause (II, p 27), which might have prevented him from becoming more well-rounded and open-minded, as art and literature sometimes can help with in a person. I truly wonder what Hitler meant by his words that only Nordic-Grecian art exists — if he believed only individuals from Nordic-Grecian cultures were capable of producing art, or if art produced by people from Asia or Africa was just intrinsically unappealing for him. It has been said, too, how Nietzsche has been misappropriated by the alt-right, and that he was much against antisemitism, so I wonder how Hitler could have drawn such inspiration from him, according to Flanner’s words. I would hesitate to say that anyone could pursue art and literature and do it “wrong,” but if it is possible, then I believe it’d apply here, in Hitler’s case.
I suppose the last part I will bring up about Flanner’s writing is that, since reading this, I have wondered how Hitler views himself. Today, it is widely accepted that Hitler was a narcissist, something I think, too, can be gathered from Flanner’s article when she writes in detail how much he enjoyed making speeches to people, as he said: “‘What I do and say are matters of history’” (III, p 26). Though, I suppose that part turned out true. However, I am a bit confused about Hitler’s way of thinking as, if he sees himself so important, why is it that Flanner has reported he “swallows gruel for breakfast,” “chooses a second-rate tailor,” and “still stops at the second-rate Deutscher Hof” (I, p 20-21). Yet, Ignatius Phayre’s 1938 article, “Hitler’s Mountain Home,” seems to suggest some kind of lavish lifestyle or standards, with “elaborate dishes like Caneton à la presse and truite saumoné à la Monseigneur” and “fine wines and liqueurs of von Ribbentrop’s expert choosing” served, and his “pedigree pets” of “magnificent Alsatians” he bred. I wonder what distinctions this narcissist made in his standards, how those compared or related to the standards he had for Germany.
I think that, all in all, I’ve learned quite a bit about Hitler’s background. I think I’ve been able to see how his narcissism, rejection for socializing, excessive nationalism, and stubborn close-mindedness have maybe been fundamental parts of his character and shaped his later actions. If the question of understanding him means that I empathize or would excuse him and his actions in any way, however, I would firmly say that I don’t, and these readings haven’t changed that. I think that if trying to understand him meant finding ways to claim that Hitler’s behaviors were normal or excusable under his circumstances, that he bears less responsibility, then no, it is not a worthwhile pursuit. I would agree with Ian Kershaw, in his interview by Gene Santoro, that there should be no reason to make apologies for him, or for the Nazis committing these atrocious crimes too. I do think that these writings and studies on Hitler, by Janet Flanner and many other historians I’m sure, are productive though in that they are informative works detailing significant events and figures in history. I think it helps answer questions about how Hitler and the Nazi Party rose, without sympathizing with their abhorrent crimes against humanity. However, I do acknowledge that while an article like Flanner’s doesn’t make him more excusable or relatable for me personally, that it might be different for another reader, and it is understandable if they find this type of writing disturbing and uncomfortable.
The final point I will touch upon is this issue of liability, which I have somewhat mentioned already. I think Hitler’s relationship with his followers is interesting, especially with Kershaw’s words: “‘... the Nazi system could function without Hitler having to shout out streams of diktats. People second-guessed or anticipated what he wanted.’” Kershaw also seems to say that Hitler adopted more of a hands off approach, as he would be the person to stand for an objective, while others organized ways to implement it. They all seemed to want to please him, in a weird way where he is like a celebrity, as Flanner even wrote how he couldn’t “go into a shop without its being mobbed by his Nazi admirers” (I, p 20). It is clear that he was idolized, but perhaps through the emotional appeal he made to the Germans, rather than a structure or plan he had. He validated their beliefs that they deserved a better life and country, then resolutely claimed it was their Jewish population who was robbing them of that. In that way, as Kershaw described, the Nazis pushed along radicalisation by committing everyday exploitations, taking advantage of the excuses made to marginalize many different population groups. This also reminds me of a point brought up in our virtual field trip, that Nazis were given just parts of the work which would all add up towards the extermination of the Jews, allowing them to feel that their role was so small, they weren’t actually liable for the genocide. I think this all relates to a “takeaway” I had from these readings, that both Hitler and the Nazis were very much responsible for the Holocaust. I don’t think there is any excuse to be made that the Nazis were just following the people around them and brainwashed by Hitler, because it is clear that they understood the Jews were suffering and that they continued their actions because they profited from it, actively bringing about this genocide. Likewise, I don't think that there is an excuse to be made that Hitler was being normal, or in any way not responsible for the genocide, because he had dehumanized everyone around him who was different from him, favoring his own pride and bigotry which actively brought incomprehensible suffering to so many people, and he left them with no dignity or sympathy in his preachings (just because Trump didn't storm the U.S. Capitol, does not mean he was not responsible for its invasion, would be my analogy here).
It is important, while reading all this about Hitler, to realize what has not changed. Hitler is not a past phenomenon — reading Flanner’s article and other texts, we can see how the bigotry, human rights violations, excessive nationalism, eugenics, and other forms of hatred which existed in Nazi Germany, fit into our society today. We need to understand, as Rena Finder emphasized, how to reject “othering,” to show kindness and be open minded. Reading these texts, it becomes clear to me how dangerous it is to isolate yourself from different viewpoints, how that leads to the dehumanization of others. We need to be able to see these structures of bigotry in our society, especially ones we don’t think affect us, and to care to stop them instead of falling into the pattern of bystanderism.