Two Hitler biographies draw eerie parallels to contemporary politics

Peter Longerich and Brendan Simms each shed light on the dictator’s role in not only Germany but also on the world stage. 

Courtesy of Oxford University Press and Hachette Book Group
“Hitler: A Biography” by Peter Longerich, Oxford University Press, 1324 pp; and “Hitler: A Global Biography” by Brendan Simms, Basic Books, 668 pp.

It is clear from today’s headlines that biographies of Adolf Hitler are horrifying relevant. The currents of instability and anger that flowed through Germany in the 1930s feel more immediate, as nationalism gains a beachhead in Europe and white supremacy rears its head in the United States. 

When Peter Longerich, one of the world’s foremost historians of Nazi Germany, wrote his enormous biography of Adolf Hitler back in 2015, it might have been possible for some people to imagine that the darkest lessons of Nazism had been learned. 

But a study of the dictator has always been relevant. The whole Hitler-biography industry has tended to take one of two broad approaches to parsing that relevance: Either Hitler was a sui generis figure who warped the course of German history almost entirely through his own personal actions, or he was merely or mostly a handy cog in a state machinery that would have worked along much the same lines with or without him. Hitler’s assault on that state machinery, what Longerich refers to in “Hitler: A Biography” as the “fragmentation of the traditional state apparatus of power,” took the form of an intense melding of psychopath and institutional structures. 

“These structures were indissolubly linked to him personally, and indeed in general his dictatorship represented an extraordinary example of personalized power,” Longerich writes. “The regime’s ‘structures’ are inconceivable without Hitler and Hitler is nothing without his offices.” It’s a note he sounds throughout his book, with Hitler “consistently evading any collective or formalized decision-making process” and instead aiming to “personalize the political process to an extreme degree.”

Longerich’s account follows the dolorously familiar arc of Hitler’s life and the ruinous course of World War II, and the English-language translation, a herculean feat accomplished by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe, never flags, always smartly conveying Longerich’s peculiarly magisterial readability. It would be entirely understandable if even the hardiest readers blanched a bit at spending nearly 1,400 pages with Adolf Hitler, but Longerich, Noakes, and Sharpe have done as much as humanly possible to make the prospect enticing. (Alongside Daniel Steuer’s edition of Wolfram Siemann’s biography of Prince Metternich, this is the most impressive translated biography of the year.)

“Hitler: A Global Biography,” the season’s other major Hitler book, is half the length of Longerich’s, but what it lacks in length it makes up in scrappy contentiousness. On some levels, Simms argues, “Hitler’s biography, and perhaps the history of the Third Reich more generally, need to be fundamentally rethought.”

Simms’ revisionism doesn’t primarily involve either of those two broad approaches to looking at Hitler and the structures of power, but rather attempts to get at the heart of the man’s thinking; not the Hitler Germans voted for, as Simms puts it, but the Hitler they got. According to the author, Hitler’s motivations have been largely misunderstood: He was far more obsessed with rivaling the British and Americans in the world than he was with, for instance, attacking Bolshevism. “He sought not world domination, but world power status, that is parity, or at least a recognized sphere of influence,” Simms writes. “The Führer did not really expect to defeat Anglo-America, only to outlast it: militarily, economically, and mentally.”

In the rarefied world of Nazi scholarship, an author claiming that Hitler didn’t seek world domination qualifies as incendiary, and Simms comes back repeatedly to that aspect of his narrative, his version of a Hitler who was in revolt against what Simms refers to as the “Anglo-American capitalist world order” and cared about that world order more than anything – including his signature obsession. “The root of his Jew-hatred, therefore, was primarily to be found in his hostility to global high finance rather than his hatred of the radical left,” Simms writes. “Those who do not want to speak about Hitler’s anti-capitalism should remain silent on his anti-Semitism.”

More than a few readers of that last line will respond with a quick “Says who?” Simms is clearly expecting to raise some hackles, and this makes his book a different reading experience from Longerich’s. It’s unlikely that many readers will soldier through both books, but unfortunately, the times may warrant it.

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