'Hitler': The Lasting Effect Of An Infamous Figure
In the new biography Hitler, A.N. Wilson describes the Nazi dictator as the "Demon King of history" — who instigated the Holocaust and forced the world into a second world war — but also as an ordinary, even boring man.
"We like to distance ourselves from anything to do with him because he was an essentially evil character," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But actually, many of the ideas that he had and expressed were very ordinary ideas, and they were ideas that more or less everybody had at that time."
Wilson argues that many of the modern attitudes toward racism, homophobia and political correctness in the Western world are a direct response to who Hitler was and what he represented. Wilson talks with Conan about the ways Hitler's role in history is mythologized and misunderstood.
On Hitler as an ordinary man
"Almost everybody at that time was a racist of one kind or another. Anti-Semitism is extremely common. The belief that science had solved everything and that, in order to be modern, all you had to do was to believe in science in some dreamy kind of way — these are all the things which Hitler believed. ... If you went into any bar, more or less, anywhere in the Western world at that time, they are all things which, I'm afraid, a lot of the old bulls sitting on the bar stools would've believed, too."
On describing Hitler as a lazy man
"If you read about Mussolini or Stalin or some of these other great monsters of history, they were at it all the time, that they were getting up in the morning very early. They were physically very active. They didn't eat lunch. They didn't waste their time, and you would assume that Hitler was the same type of person.
"He wasn't. ... He stayed up all hours during the night talking and playing music and watching films. He got up very, very late. It was unusual for him to have stirred before 12 o'clock midday. He lazed about and he'd actually, most of his days, even when he was the chancellor of Germany, he did very, very little.
"Even some of the great ideas which we think are essentially Nazi, like wishing to eliminate children who were born with defects of one kind or another, he didn't dream that up. The doctors came to him and suggested this and he said, 'OK, why not go ahead with it?' "
On Hitler's ability to justify his political views
"Any intelligent person who has read The Origin of Species would realize that there was a broad area of truth in what Darwin was saying. ...
"If you read the 'Table Talk' of Hitler, it's very chilling to see the way in which he says it's part of the natural order of things that the strong should defeat the weak, that the strong monkeys are the ones who defeat and eat the weak monkeys and, therefore, it's absolutely appropriate to be able to march your way through other people's countries and to send disabled and maladjusted people to their death. ... So he manages to justify his horrible political views in terms of science, and I think that's a very modern thing about Hitler."
On German perceptions of Hitler during the 1930s
"I think one of the very frightening things about the regime of the National Socialists is that it made people happy. I remember an old person to whom I was speaking 20 or 30 years ago, who had visited the Soviet Union many times in the days of Stalin, told me that when you went to Stalin's Russia, you never saw a happy face. People were oppressed. People were frightened. And there was an air of absolute misery. But when you crossed over into Germany between the period of 1933 and, let's say, '38, people were happy. They believed in this monster.
"They believed in him because he brought full employment. He was building marvelous roads. He was promising every German family a motorcar. And they didn't think there was going to be war. And they turned a blind eye to the horrible things he was doing to the Jews, of course."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
In his new biography, A.N. Wilson describes Adolf Hitler as, at the same time, utterly extraordinary, the wizard Hitler, he calls him, and utterly ordinary, even boring. Wilson goes on to ask whether we ask the right questions about those normal and ordinary beliefs. Because we regard him as the demon king of history, his unmentioned memory underlies our attitudes towards racism, homophobia and political correctness.
So what are the right questions to ask about the legacy of Adolf Hitler? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Novelist, biographer and journalist A.N. Wilson joins us from the BBC studios at Western House in London. His new book is titled "Hitler." Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
A.N. WILSON: Nice to meet you, Neal.
CONAN: You could come up with a lot of words to describe Adolf Hitler's ideas. People might be surprised by ordinary and even boring.
WILSON: Well, I mean, the thing about Hitler, we like to distance ourselves from anything to do with him because he was an essentially evil character. I don't think there's any doubt about the evil character of his regime. But actually, many of the ideas that he had and expressed were very ordinary ideas, and they were ideas that more or less everybody had at that time. Almost everybody at that time was a racist of one kind or another. Anti-Semitism is extremely common, the belief that science had solved everything and that, in order to be modern, all you had to do was to believe in science in some dreamy kind of way.
These are all the things which Hitler believed, but they - if you went into any bar, more or less, anywhere in the Western world at that time, they are all things which - I'm afraid a lot of the old bulls sitting on the bar stools would've believed too. That's all I'm saying.
CONAN: No, I understand. But there's certainly a difference of scale, and no one these days will defend the horrors of Jim Crow. But it's a long way from the South of the 1930s in the United States to the industrialized death machine of Auschwitz.
WILSON: Well, it is. And I mean, I think the industrialized and organized quality of the Third Reich is one of the things which makes it so chilling, of course.
CONAN: Those modern ideas, we do forget, as you pointed out, that Germans were happy with Adolf Hitler, that he was bringing all sorts of modern ideas to a German state which seem to be rather fusty in a lot of ways. And again, none of this is to draw anything away from the fact that, of course, he was a monster as well.
WILSON: I know. No, I mean, I think one of the very frightening things about the regime of the National Socialists is that it made people happy. I remember an old person to whom I was speaking 20 or 30 years ago, who had visited the Soviet Union many times in the days of Stalin, told me that when you went to Stalin's Russia, you never saw a happy face. People were oppressed. People were frightened. And there was an air of absolute misery. But when you crossed over into Germany between the period of 1933 and, let's say, '38, people were happy. They believed in this monster.
They believed in him because he brought full employment. He was building marvelous roads. He was promising every German family a motorcar. And they didn't think there was going to be war. And they turned a blind eye to the horrible things he was doing to the Jews, of course.
CONAN: Even down to the detail of revising the typeface used for printing German books.
WILSON: I know. Well, I mean, as I'm sure all your listeners will remember, I mean, in the old days, there was this rather beautiful old gothic script that the old German books were printed in. And because Germany was becoming a modern nation in tune with the United States and Britain and France and everywhere else, he modernized this and he did away with the old gothic typeface. And he did away with a lot of the old German traditions, of course.
CONAN: The ideas of social Darwinism, it's one of the scientific ideas that you talk about, survival of the fittest appropriated from the difference of finches on the Galapagos Island to entire groups of people. Well, that was not an idea that was uncommon in the 1930s. But again, questions of scale, Hitler took it to an entirely differently level.
WILSON: Well, this is what I mean by suggesting that actually a lot of his ideas were those that any ordinary person and, indeed, quite a lot of intelligent people from this day would unthinkingly assent to. I'm not saying I don't believe in Charles Darwin. Any intelligent person who has read the "Origin of Species" would realize that there was a broad area of truth in what Darwin was saying.
But what Hitler did, to use the phrase you've just used, was to transfer this into social Darwinism, and to think this is applied to everything, and that it was the answer to all life's problems. If you read the "Table Talk" of Hitler, it's very chilling to see the way in which he says it's part of the natural order of things that the strong should defeat the weak, that the strong monkeys are the one who defeat and eat the weak monkeys and, therefore, it's absolutely appropriate to be able to march your way through other people's countries and to send disabled and maladjusted people to their death and so on and so forth. So he manages to justify his horrible political views in terms of science, and I think that's a very modern thing about Hitler.
CONAN: Your book has been criticized by some who say you argue that Hitler's regime was in some ways an extension of the Enlightenment. No, some critics say, this was clearly the counter-enlightenment of people who were opposed to ideas like democracy and individual rights.
WILSON: Well, I think it depends what you mean by enlightenment, of course, but I think that one of the things which makes one so sad when one reads the great Enlightenment writers like Rousseau and Voltaire is that they were optimists. They believed that when people have thrown over the oppression of kings and of priests, there would come a time of peace and plenty.
And after the American Revolution, there was every reason to believe that because horrible and bloody as the fight was between the American colonists and the German - largely German mercenaries that George III employed against the Americans, there was no essential violence in the American idea. So when the French Revolution broke out, it was perfectly reasonable to suppose that something broadly similar would happen in Paris. As we know, of course, the exact opposite occurred, and there was a terrible bloodbath from 1791 onto onwards across the whole of France in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
So what we mean by the Enlightenment can mean all the kind of things which I imagine the great majority of decent people in the Western world believe in: decency, reason, equality of the human race, men, women, whatever their race, whatever their religion, whatever their creed. It can also mean, however, the unleashing of a kind of freedom and anarchy which doesn't necessarily lead to peace and joy, and I think this is something that Hitler demonstrates very, very clearly actually.
CONAN: We're talking with A.N. Wilson whose new book is "Hitler." He's joining us from the BBC studios in London. What ideas of Adolf Hitler's might we want to reconsider given his ordinariness? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's see if we can begin with - this is Douglas(ph). Douglas with us from San Antonio.
DOUGLAS: Yes, I'm here. I am a college student. I'm a history education major planning on teaching high school. And the thing I find fascinating about Hitler and a lot of figures throughout history is that they aren't the one-dimensional figures that we're thought that they were. Hitler, as was mentioned earlier, made the country what it is today. He encouraged the production of the Volkswagen, the people's car, and a lot of people were very happy with him for what he did, and they ignored the bad things that he did.
CONAN: It's hard to argue that Hitler made the country what it is today. The country...
CONAN: ...when he left it, was in ashes.
DOUGLAS: I mean that he built it up. After World War II, there was a lot of problems from the reign of Wilhelm.
CONAN: After World War I, you mean?
DOUGLAS: Yes, that's what I said.
CONAN: No, you said World War II.
DOUGLAS: And Hitler stepped into that power vacuum that a lot of people were trying to fill.
CONAN: Well, certainly, the - A.N. Wilson, certainly the government that he took over and essentially toppled was poorly constructed, weak and had great deals of difficulty of getting anything organized.
WILSON: Well, I mean, there are all sort of things to say here. After the First World War, Germany became a communist country for a short while, and people were very naturally terrified of what was happening in what became the Soviet Union and Russia, what - by what the Communists could do and how, among other things, how murderous the Communist regime was, and they were terrified of a civil war breaking out in Germany. There then came a much more social democratic, gentle form of government, but it was chaotic, and it was always threatened by economic crisis during the period of what we call the Weimar Republic.
Incidentally, over the question that your last speaker mentioned over the Volkswagen. It's a very good example of how clever Hitler was at persuading people that he was bringing joy to every simple German family. He promised them this people's car, the Volkswagen. But as a matter of fact the Volkswagen factory was used for creating armaments, and it was only after the end of the war, when the British army moved into that factory, that those little beetle cars rolled off the production lines. A lot of Germans had paid up the two or 300 marks per family for a car, and they never got it until 1945.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Douglas.
DOUGLAS: I actually got a little off topic from where I wanted to go with this.
DOUGLAS: If I might continue?
WILSON: Where would you like to be though? Sorry.
DOUGLAS: What I...
WILSON: I'm very happy to carry on the conversation.
DOUGLAS: What I was going for was that, I believe in the past, your comments that you said that Hitler was both extraordinary and...
WILSON: And ordinary, yes. I mean, I think one of the things you got to bear in mind about Hitler, if you were an ordinary German - let's call it that for the sake of this simple discussion - you were somebody who hadn't had work throughout the late '20s and early '30s, and then suddenly, you found there was work, you suddenly found that your savings in the bank were beginning to be worth something again. You would obviously think, thank God. At last, we have a stable government. We don't particularly like all the rhetoric. We don't like what we believe he's saying about the Jews.
So at that stage, of course, the Jews are being beaten up, and they were being treated abominably, but they weren't being killed on the huge scale as they were to be later. So it was possible to turn your blind eye to what was going on in that direction, and it's perfectly possible to say, yes, I'm a German. I've got a job. I'm promised one of these nice little beetle cars, and this man is a genius. And many people believed that, of course they did.
CONAN: The book is "Hitler," the author, A.N. Wilson, is with us from London. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Dennis(ph). Dennis with us from St. Paul.
DENNIS: Oh, yes. Hi, Neal, your guest and everyone. Thanks. Yes. I've been wondering for a long time about this. You've been touching on it, I think, a fair amount here already. But what were the givens in the society psychologically and so forth that would allow Hitler to be who he ended up being and society kind of set back? I mean, we had - I'm kind of wondering, we had people here being supportive of building up his country. You know, Ford Motor Company kicked in some assembly line technology. Charles Lindbergh was saying we can avoid war here, what's - and all of these things. What were the givens that just allowed it to end up happening?
WILSON: I think that's certainly one of the deepest questions you can ask about Hitler because I think as in country, certainly any Western country, where the economy - we've all, in the last few years, lived through a terrifying rollercoaster experience with the economy appearing to collapse. Imagine if it's to drop 10 times worse than it did from 2008 onwards. Imagine if nobody's savings in the United States were worth anything. That's the kind of society you've got to imagine that created Adolf Hitler and his rise to power. People were terrified, and they were looking across to the east and seeing communism creating absolute mayhem and tyranny.
It was in that state where their jobs were worth nothing. Their money was worth nothing. Their houses were worth nothing. And then here comes along this party, which is a very nasty party, but it was patriotic. It claimed that it would be able to rescue Germany from the humiliations of 1918, 1919, and it would offer you a job. It would offer you economic stability, and it would offer you strength. And that was the setup in which Hitler could seem plausible to a great many perfectly intelligent people.
DENNIS: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Dennis, thanks for the call. Interestingly, you argue in this book - and it's interesting to read having read Ian Kershaw's monumental doorstop. It's a great book, but it's a big one.
WILSON: It's a big one.
CONAN: And you're rather short one - a pleasure to read a much shorter book, I'll tell you. But Kershaw's book is terrific, by the way.
WILSON: I would say it's a wonderful book.
CONAN: But one of the arguments in both is that Hitler was an essentially lazy man. We don't think of him...
WILSON: I know. That is so extraordinary because you would think - if you read about Mussolini or Stalin or some of these other great monsters of history, they were at it all the time. That they were getting up in the morning very early. They were physically very active. They didn't eat lunch. They didn't waste their time, and you would assume that Hitler was the same type of person. He wasn't. He was - he stayed up all hours during the night talking and playing music and watching films. He got up very, very late. It was unusual for him to have stirred before 12 o'clock midday. He lazed about and he'd actually - most of his days, even when he was the chancellor of Germany, he did very, very little.
And it was - I mean, even some of the great ideas which we think are essentially Nazi, like wishing to eliminate children who were born with defects of one kind or another, he didn't dream that up. The doctors came to him and suggested this and he said, OK, why not go ahead with it?
CONAN: That, and also that research has shown that one of the fundamental questions of his biography, his bravery as a soldier on the Western front during the First World War, maybe not.
WILSON: Well, I think that's very, very interesting because one of the things which Hitler always like to pretend - it goes without saying, of course, Hitler was one of the worst liars in history, and all the things that we've been talking about, the promises he made to the German people, were based on lies. But one of the things people really up to fairly recent times believed about him was at least when he was in the First World War, he was a brave soldier because he was awarded the Iron Cross. And he liked to put about to people that he'd had this very dangerous job of running with messages from the...
CONAN: One trench to another, yes.
WILSON: ...from high command right up into the trenches in the frontline. As a matter of fact, he was stuck working for staff offices miles away from the frontline. And one of the people who worked with him said to recent historical researcher that it was no more dangerous than working in the post office back home. And...
CONAN: The book is "Hitler." I'm afraid we're out of time. Forgive me.
CONAN: A.N. Wilson's new biography is "Hitler." You can read an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much for your time. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.