The Hitler of History

The Hitler of History

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by John Lukacs

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In this brilliant, strikingly original book, historian John Lukacs delves to the core of Adolf Hitler's life and mind by examining him through the lenses of his surprisingly diverse biographers.

Since 1945 there have been more than one hundred biographies of Hitler, and countless other books on him and the Third Reich. What happens when so many people


In this brilliant, strikingly original book, historian John Lukacs delves to the core of Adolf Hitler's life and mind by examining him through the lenses of his surprisingly diverse biographers.

Since 1945 there have been more than one hundred biographies of Hitler, and countless other books on him and the Third Reich. What happens when so many people reinterpret the life of a single individual? Dangerously, the cumulative portrait that begins to emerge can suggest the face of a mythic antihero whose crimes and errors blur behind an aura of power and conquest. By reversing the process, by making Hitler's biographers--rather than Hitler himself--the subject of inquiry, Lukacs reveals the contradictions that take us back to the true Hitler of history.

Like an attorney, Lukacs puts the biographies on trial. He gives a masterly account of all the major works and of the personalities, methods, and careers of the biographers (one cannot separate the historian from his history, particularly in this arena); he looks at what is still not known (and probably never will be) about Hitler; he considers various crucial aspects of the real Hitler; and he shows how different biographers have either advanced our understanding or gone off track. By singling out those who have been involved in, or co-opted into, an implicit "rehabilitation  of Hitler," Lukacs draws powerful conclusions about Hitler's essential differences from other monsters of history, such as Napoleon, Mussolini, and Stalin, and--equally important--about Hitler's place in the history of this century and of the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

David Futrelle

We have not yet come to terms with Adolf Hitler, and perhaps we never will. It's not for want of trying. More than 100 biographies have attempted to make sense of the Nazi leader -- not counting Hitler's own unreliable autobiography, Mein Kampf -- and new ones are still hitting the shelves. As historian John Lukacs observes in his often suggestive The Hitler of History, we have not yet come to the crest of the "Hitler Wave" that German historians first noticed building nearly three decades ago.

Despite Hitler's inescapable presence in our popular consciousness, he remains difficult to pin down. We know everything about him -- except what it all means. In The Hitler of History, Lukacs attempts to make some sense of the debate. His book is not, as he hastens to point out, "a biography of Hitler, but a history of his history, and a history of his biographers." In a series of provocative chapters, Lukacs examines a number of key questions surrounding the Nazi leader: Exactly when and where did his ideology first crystallize? Was he a reactionary or a revolutionary? An ideologue or an opportunist? A beloved leader or a despot? Lukacs navigates this difficult historiographical terrain with considerable skill -- though, it must be admitted, he's much better at asking questions than answering them. (Suffice to say that his tentative answers to the above questions resist easy summary.)

Still, there are times when even those who agree with Lukacs will find themselves frustrated by this contentious book. Lukacs dismisses the work of certain historians with an impressively Olympian disdain -- and though many of his targets deserve this sort of dismissal (one thinks especially of the inexplicably popular Nazi-friendly historian David Irving), Lukacs would have done better to engage their arguments in more detail. (Unfortunately, when Lukacs does get into specifics, he tends to fall into a sort of debate-club pedantry, blasting away at minutiae in rambling footnotes that at times threaten to overwhelm the text itself. ) And there are curious omissions: Though Lukacs devotes a chapter to the question of Hitler's popularity with the German people, he manages to avoid discussing the often-vitriolic debate over Daniel Goldhagen's recent book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which (as its title suggests) argued that there were more than a few "good Germans" willing and able to carry out the dirty work of the Holocaust.

It's a pity Lukacs does not weigh in on this particular debate, for the question of ordinary German "willingness" to follow Hitler, as Lukacs himself acknowledges, is absolutely central to our understanding of the Holocaust itself. Hitler, as Lukacs reluctantly acknowledges, "may have been the most popular revolutionary leader in the history of the modern world ... He is not properly comparable to a Caesar, a Cromwell, a Napoleon. Utterly different from them, he was, more than any of them, able to energize the majority of a great people, in his lifetime the most educated in the world, convincing them to follow his leadership ... and making them believe that what they (and he) stood for was an antithesis of evil." We need to understand not just the "banality" but the strange respectability of Hitler's evil if we are to keep what happened in Germany from ever happening again. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Historian Lukacs has demonstrated in many of his 15 previous books that he is an original thinker. The concept of this new book is brilliant: the volume presents a history of the evolution of knowledge about Hitler by studying the biographies and biographers who have attempted to explain the hold he had on the German masses. In his preface, Lukacs is both clear and modest: clear in explaining that he is not yet another Hitler biographer but rather an historian producing a history of Hitler biographies; modest in conceding that there are so many biographies that "a pretense of completeness would be both mistaken and improper." Unfortunately, the brilliant concept is not brilliantly executed and neither the clarity nor the modesty of the preface prevail throughout the text. Hundreds of compound-complex sentences and much untranslated German make for laborious reading, and Lukacs too often dismisses biographers without offering the evidence that would support his own interpretation. Despite the flaws, the book is a worthy effort. Even the most obsessed amateur scholar is unlikely to have read even half the biographies Lukacs has read, partly because so many of them are in languages other than English. Furthermore, each of the episodes in Hitler's career that Lukacs has chosen to explicate is worth attention. Was Hitler a revolutionary or a reactionary? Was he a successful statesman and war strategist? What was Hitler's primary motive for murdering Jews? Is there any validity to the contemporary Hitler rehabilitation movement? These are just some of the questions with which Lukacs wrestles. History Book Club selection. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Since 1945 there have been over 100 biographies of Adolf Hitler. Depictions of the dictator have ranged from the anti-Christ to a man who really did nothing wrong, whose staff caused all the evils. The late noted historian Lukacs (e.g., Destinations Past, LJ 6/15/94) has not written a biography of Hitler but a history of the history of the knowledge we have of Hitler by examining his major biographers. Through the analysis of writers in Germany, England, and the United States, Lukacs wrestles with such problems as where Hitler's ideas were shaped, his racism, his obsession with Jews, and other problems facing anyone studying the leader of the Third Reich. Along the way, he discusses the admirers and defenders of Hitler and Hitler's place in history. This is an important book for anyone wishing to delve seriously into the literature of Hitler. While not an easy work to read, it should be in all academic and large public libraries.Dennis L. Noble, Sequim, Wa.
Kirkus Reviews
A unique study of Hitler through his many biographers.

Historians grapple with Hitler (as with any other historical topic) through the prism of their own experiences, culture, and prejudices, making the goal of objectivity elusive, if not impossible. Lukacs (The End of the Twentieth Century, 1993, etc.) has the command of languages and scholarship necessary for the ambitious undertaking of studying the expression of such biases in the myriad biographies of Hitler that have proliferated over the last 50 years. Most valuable for the nonspecialist is the first chapter, where he discusses general historiographical problems, attempts to explain the extraordinary popular interest in the Führer, and reviews how German historians, most of them unknown to an American audience, have treated the dictator (their views range from guarded apologies to rigid ideological or deterministic dissections). The following six chapters deal with such specific topics as whether Hitler was a reactionary or a revolutionary, the problem of racism and nationalism, and the tragedy of the Holocaust. Perhaps the most surprising point that emerges here is that many German historians treat Hitler in a highly nuanced manner, stressing his frequent reversals of policy, his uncertainty, the way in which other individuals could influence or manipulate him. Lukacs draws a rather pessimistic conclusion from this, suggesting that a downturn in Europe's fortunes might cause Hitler to be revived as an example of order and nationalism. Finally, Lukacs struggles with the problem of Hitler's place in history. Although scant attention is paid to the controversial "historian's debate" that erupted in the mid-1980s, when some German historians began to downplay the unique nature of the Holocaust, Lukacs is successful in offering a balanced portrayal—not of Hitler—but of his biographers.

A valuable contribution that will continue to remind us how central Hitler was to the history of the 20th century.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Meet the Author

John Lukacs was born in Hungary and came to the United States in 1946. Now emeritus, he has been a visiting professor at various universities. The recipient of the 1991 Ingersoll Prize, he is the author of eighteen other books. He and his wife live in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Hitler of History 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reese_Nordbye More than 1 year ago
"The Hitler of History" by John Lukacs, is a wonderfully written rethink of one of history's most studied characters. Lukacs uses simple common sense mixed with very intellectual logic and reasoning to break down decades of incorrect or misinterpreted facts and assumptions that have demonized one of histories' most famous villains. The book begins with addressing how the fascination and sheer volume of research and written works, has impacted the image we have of Hitler today, then begins to talk about more specific points such as Hitler's book, "Mein Kampf", and the effect each time period had on Hitler's image. Written from a historian's perspective, this book is set apart from others like it due to the matter-of-fact delivery style and moves well which I enjoyed. One problem I had with the book however was the obvious gap in intelligence between the author and myself. The word choice is of the highest intellect but the author compensated by being thorough in his explanations, making sure his point is conveyed. This book is a great read for anyone looking to gain a better picture of who Hitler really was, or anyone wanting a brain-stimulated read to sharpen the mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago