There was a stage when I thought I was interested in politics, so I picked up a copy of Mein Kampf. Despite wanting to explore the enigma of how an Austrian corporal wound up as the dictator of Germany, I could never read more than a chapter or two before losing interest. Based on that past experience it took me a while before I got around to reading van Creveld’s Hitler in Hell, but quickly discovered how this unique “autobiography’ of Hitler’s made for both enjoyable reading and a more accessible means of gaining insights than Hitler’s turgid prose in Mein Kampf.
For those not interested in the political story, van Creveld has Hitler discuss/rationalize his decisions during the war and, of course, devote a lot of his effort into explaining the reasoning behind the Holocaust. The key is to remember that van Creveld is seeking the truth behind the man based on his years of research and his Hitler is always in character. The risk van Creveld takes is that some will miss the point. One reviewer stated he had to stop reading what he thought was an apologetic biography and had to be reminded that the author is Jewish and not trying to justify Hitler’s actions. Others are disappointed that Hitler isn’t being tormented in the afterlife. One aspect of Hitler in Hell I find very interesting is trying to sort out when Hitler is lying and making excuses or when he is actually correct when pointing out some of his biographers mistakes.
Hitler in Hell is available on Kindle and can be read for free if you have Kindle Unlimited. If not, the cost is only $4.99 for a wealth of historical insight. There’s also talk of a hardcover release but I do not have details at this time.
I should have posted this last week, but I’ll blame Martin van Creveld’s As I Please blog. When reading his blog to research this post I kept getting sidetracked by his take on a wide variety of historical and contemporary subjects. For example, go to his web site and run a search for “Hitler” and explore the variety of results. There’s an essay on Enoch Powell, nuclear deterrence, a book review concerning Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany and their attempts to explain how it came about, and an intriguing post called Soft Boiled Eggs in which van Creveld tackles the question: “Why is the West always being defeated?”
One last item before the interview. I did not have the space to expand the interview and discuss van Creveld’s highly influential books on military theory but I want to point out to Castalia House blog readers that despite his stated desire to take a break after a 45-year career, he does leave open the possibility he will listen to Castalia reader’s suggestions for a future book.
Scott Cole: Please elaborate on your vision of the hell in which Hitler finds himself. You mention professor Avihu Zakai helped with the concept, but I cannot find much on what influenced this concept. My take is that this hell is one of the damned person’s own making as there is no overt punishment, no “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Maybe, the punishment is eternal self-justification with increasing irrelevance.
Martin van Creveld: In imagining hell, my problem was to present the reader with a version of it that would do two contradictory things. First, it had to punish AH for all the terrible crimes he committed while he was still living his life among us here on earth. Second, it could not be allowed to interfere with his ability to study and think and write.
These requirements prevented me from following the traditional descriptions of hell with its fire, brimstone, howling inmates, and so on. No devils to crush him, pull his body apart, or saw him in half! Nor could I follow Sartre’s idea that “Hell is Other People.” Instead I had to present it as providing a fairly sane environment to a fairly sane man. My solution was to turn him into a living corpse, neither dead nor alive, one doomed to exist forever in a place so event-less, so monotonous, that it does not even know the difference between day and night. Prof. Zakai, who has written extensively about eschatological time, helped me in doing so.
SC: Did Prof. Zakai find any theological traditions that aligned with Hitler’s hell?
MvC: Not that I remember. But we certainly discussed the difference between earthly and divine time as well as the idea of eternity.
SC: Hitler is constantly complaining about his biographers. Does he have a case? Which authors do you recommend that come closest to historical accuracy for this most controversial figure?
MvC: If I did not think Hitler had good grounds for complaining about at least some of his biographers I would hardly have written the book! His complaints, I think, would have focused on several points.
First, many of the biographies in question are too pedantic, taking it for granted that he was always lying, lying, they are constantly trying to pick holes in his story. As, for example, by questioning just when he became an anti-Semite, when he decided to become a politician, and so on. As if this kind of thing happens all at once, and as if it mattered! Not only were they too pedantic, but the older ones among them often gave their imagination free rein. As, for example, in claiming that he had watched his parents having intercourse. And in taking over what his enemies said and wrote about his sexual perversions.
Second, those of them who wrote about the years of World War II were often too willing to accept the version put forward by his former generals. Almost to a man, they denounced his ability as a military commander, so as to side up to the victors and justify themselves, of course.
Third and most important, they keep saying that he was bad, bad, bad. Bad, of course, he was; there is no arguing with that fact. To a man, however, the point the biographers have missed is that he did not see himself as such. As my book, following the evidence, makes clear, he thought of himself of a good man. One who loved nature, animals and children. One who would order his driver to slow down rather than sprinkle mud on country-folk going to church while dressed in their Sunday best. If it had depended on him, he once said, he would not have hurt a fly.
Hitler was no cynic. Unlike Stalin, he never said “no man, no problem.” Unlike Napoleon, he never said that the death of a hundred thousand did not matter to him. To the contrary: he was always trying to excuse himself for launching the war in which so many Germans died. But providence, in putting him in charge of his people, left him with no choice but to become “eiskalt,” ice-cold. And this is just what made his crimes as terrible, as perverted, as they were; the fact that they were not in character.
No one who does not try to get inside his protagonist’s mind, even to the point of feeling a certain sneaking sympathy for him, will ever be able to produce a first class biography. It was my sudden realization, in the spring of 2015, of this cardinal point that made me write the book.
Personally the work I found most useful was David Irving’s Hitler’s War (1977). Not only is it superbly well written and documented but, as the author says, it tried to see the world in his eyes, from behind his desk. Pity that Irving, who early on was considered the Wunderkind of the profession, allowed himself to be pushed into the Holocaust debate in the way he was.
SC: Upon obtaining full power over the state, was he always predestined to pursue the quest for Lebensraum and a final solution, or have you identified key decision points that would have allowed for a different outcome?
MvC: I doubt it. As Mein Kampf shows, by 1923-24 the idea of expanding eastward at Russia’s expense had become firmly fixed in AH’s mind. Let’s not forget that this was shortly after World War I had brought Germany to the point of starvation. And long before offensive war was formally outlawed by the United Nations Charter. And before nuclear weapons proliferation put an end to some of the wilder expansionist dreams. And before post-1945 developments showed what wonders economic integration and trade could do for a people’s standard of living. As a result, AH’s geopolitical ideas seemed much more reasonable at the time than they do now.
SC: What about the Holocaust? Do you think events helped push him towards the Holocaust or his hatred was such that it was always in the offing once the opportunity presented itself?
MvC: There is no question but that Hitler hated the Jews and that he wanted to get rid of them all. As he said in Mein Kampf, he would not have shrunk from killing quite a few of them on the way. Still, the turning point came when he realized that his two most important political objectives, i.e. getting rid of the Jews on one hand and obtaining Lebensraum for Germany on the other, had started working at cross purposes. This led, first, to the Einsatzgruppen being sent in in June 1941. And second, in October of the same year, to the final decision to exterminate all the Jews throughout Europe.
SC: I always knew that Hitler had many female admirers but I was surprised when he mentioned that the National Socialist Party would never have been a contender without the female vote. Why do you think this was so?
MvC: This question is easy. Let me answer it by paraphrasing his own words. What women need and want above anything else is a strong man able and willing to protect them against all other men (I am, incidentally, going to have a post about that on my website on 2 November. He thought of himself as that man.
SC: On to military matters. During Barbarossa, do you believe he made the right choice in going south or should he have taken Halder’s advice and continued to press for Moscow?
MvC: Here is a curious story about it. When Halder realized Hitler’s intentions, he asked Guderian, a relatively low-ranking officer who did, however, have Hitler’s ear, to fly back to Hitler’s headquarters in order to try to make him change his mind. Guderian did so, and was given an audience. When he finished his talk Hitler uttered just one sentence: “My generals do not know anything about the economic side of the war.” Whereupon Guderian said yes my Fuehrer, clicked his heels, and left. Why? You may ask. Because he knew it was true. Halder, incidentally, never forgave Guderian.
SC: I have just read your blog post on counterfactual history along with its associated “what if?” Arab-Israeli War post. In that spirit, let’s say the Germans took Moscow in 1941. Based on your studies would that only be a repeat of 1812, or would this be the psychological and logistical blows that ended the Russian war effort?
MvC: There are three possible answers to this question.
First, some historians believe that the fall of Moscow would indeed have caused the USSR to crack.
Second, that might only have happened if the Germans had reached the Urals, hundreds of kilometers further to the east, where Soviet industry had been moved and where some of the most important railways met.
Third, it is possible that, even had the Red Army and Soviet state been smashed to the point where they could no longer put up an organized resistance, the outcome would have been a prolonged guerilla war. A sort of super Spain—remember the Spanish ulcer?—or super Algeria, or super Vietnam, or super Afghanistan. The more so because the Germans, with their limited manpower, were trying to hold down much of the rest of Europe as well. The destruction would have been enormous and the casualties, innumerable. However, in the end the Germans would have lost.
SC: You mentioned you gave up on writing Hitler’s biography as you didn’t have much to add, until you thought of writing his account in the first person. What would you say was the most important insight you gained in writing Hitler in Hell?
MvC: As so often happens, the most important insight only came to me after the book was written and published. It was provided by a reviewer on Amazon.com who wrote that, precisely because Hitler in Hell was not written in black and white and did not present its protagonist exclusively as a monster, it made coming to terms with him that much harder. This is the kind of review I appreciate. Indeed I feel proud of it.
SC: Do you mind telling the Castalia House Blog readers what you are currently working on?
MvC: Over the last 45 years I have published 33 books, not including quite a few false starts that never came to fruition. I think I deserve a rest now. However, if Castalia fans have any suggestions, I’d be happy to consider them.