New Hitler bio is ‘worthy and accessible supplement’

A. N. Wilson

By Elaine K. Alexander , Special to the Jewish Light

On NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Neal Conan recently hosted the British writer A. N. Wilson, who has captured attention on both sides of “the pond” with “Hitler” (Basic Books, 215 pp., $24.99), a biography based on older ones, including the one which Conan referred to as a “[600 page] doorstop.” So, why another Adolf Hitler biography? Besides telling it shorter — in a plain-spoken overview of some 200 pages — Wilson had something he especially wanted to say about a select set of topics.

The enduring enigma for the author is that nothing about Hitler’s boyhood, adolescence, or early adulthood foreshadowed the “12 years [during which he and] his henchman…dominated Europe.” The Fuhrer (leader) started life as a timid, uneducated loner with no apparent talents. He had vague dreams about being a composer, an architect or an artist. But he failed the entrance exams for the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and his artistic output was limited to tepid, postcard-sized architectural studies. 

As a young man Hitler never had a job nor tried to find one. After running through his mother’s modest legacy, he became a “penniless layabout” and “draft dodger.” During World War I, he volunteered for the Bavarian army and was awarded an Iron Cross. But no grand bravery was involved. Hitler’s service was behind the front lines as a letter carrier in an army uniform. 

Wilson’s pet view is that Hitler was a modernist: the Demon King foresaw the “death” in the twentieth century of the printed word and — through film, newsreels, radio and loud-speakers — the ascendance of the spoken word.

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From the author’s perspective, Hitler was also a modernist with regard to God and faith. Wilson acknowledges that, like Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment), Hitler was raised as a Catholic. And Catholicism, Wilson believes, gave both men a foundation in centralized bureaucracy and dogma. Nevertheless, Wilson finds Hitler (unappealingly) progressive, because he rejected religion and professed faith in the science of evolution, using “survival of the fittest” as a basis for his concepts of racial superiority. This section is a disappointing aspect of an otherwise insightful book — probably influenced by Wilson’s return to Christianity after decades of publicly avowed atheism — because it was not science which the Nazis developed, it was a noxious pseudo-science convenient to their devastating programs.

And Wilson is uninformed and maybe provincial about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin himself did not coin the term “survival of the fittest” and it refers very little to the idea that individuals within a species are in competition for limited resources. Darwin’s hypothesis is actually about abundance and the dizzying number of adaptations living things make to the earth’s many kinds of ecosystems. Moreover, God and evolution are not necessarily mutually exclusive; an all-knowing deity and evolution are compatible concepts.

Wilson’s most compelling assertion is that neither Adolph Hitler, nor the Nazis in general, were unique in their anti-Semitism. As Chancellor, Hitler built roads, put people back to work, invigorated Germany with a youth movement and annexed a lot of territory without having to fire a single shot. This earned him the adulation of a grateful nation. Blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric and discriminatory policies were never a bar to appointment, power, nor popularity. Wilson argues: Although it is uncomfortable to acknowledge it in “a post-Auschwitz world…Hitler embodied the views of any popular newspaper [or] any bar-parlour bore…from England to Russia, from Finland to Sicily…during his lifetime.”

In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argued similarly in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” that responsibility for the Shoah cannot be attributed to one madman and his disciples; it was the work of a nation of anti-Semites. And Goldhagen was vilified. For instance, in a lecture at Washington University in February, 2011 about Christian-Jewish relations, Dr. Marc Saperstein seemed to become distraught at the mention of Goldhagen and objected to his ideas and “prosecutorial” tone. 

But in a commentary syndicated through the Jewish Telegraphic Association (JTA) and printed in the Jewish Light on June 9, Michael Berenbaum, who authored the “World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” holds that in discussions of the Holocaust, “perished” and “Nazis” are unwarranted euphemisms for “murdered” and “Germans.” Meanwhile, A. N. Wilson recently plugged his book as a guest of a national, radio broadcast. These are symptoms of a sea change in discussions of the Shoah and anti-Jewish sentiment.

Wilson’s bibliography includes a number of prior Hitler biographies. In my experience, Peter Cohen’s documentary film “The Architecture of Doom: The Nazi Philosophy of Beauty Through Violence” is without parallel in evoking the spookily misanthropic ideologies of the Nazi era. But A. N. Wilson’s “Hitler” is a worthy and accessible supplement to the Hitler story and striking proof that by new perspectives — the past can be changed.