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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