History and Historiography

The Hitler of Legend

In 1997, John Lukacs published The Hitler of History, a book that presents a provocative but also reasonable argument: Contrary to the standard view of historians, Hitler was not a conservative who embodied the values of the pre-World War I German ruling class. He was in fact a radical revolutionary who felt nothing but contempt for the political and social order of Imperial Germany and who rejoiced at its abolition after Germany’s defeat in 1918. According to Lukacs, Hitler was not a German patriot or old-fashioned monarchist but an expansionist nationalist who appealed to the masses directly, over the heads of traditional German elites.

Lukacs’s perspective challenged what has been known as the “continuity thesis,” dominant among postwar historians. English historian A.J.P. Taylor previewed the continuity thesis in his World War II propaganda tract, The Course of German History (1945). According to Taylor’s brief, which I heard restated ad nauseam as a graduate student, German history exhibits a reactionary, antidemocratic pattern that inescapably culminated in Hitler’s dictatorship and its ensuing catastrophes. Particularly since the “antiliberal” unification of Germany in the 19th century, Taylor saw Germany’s journey toward a reactionary abyss as preordained.

Lukacs’s reinterpretation of Hitler as a revolutionary, not a German reactionary, was entirely correct. It is a reading that receives exhaustive treatment in the books of German historian Rainer Zitelmann, whom Lukacs consulted in doing his research. Zitelmann provides striking quotations—from Hitler’s speeches, correspondence, and “Table Talk” remarks recorded by his subordinates—that prove how radically anti-traditional Hitler really was. Zitelmann also produced works documenting the palpably anti-traditional nature of Hitler’s iconoclastic worldview, including statements in which Hitler deplored the fact that the overthrow of the last Kaiser in November 1918 did not go far enough in revolutionizing Germany.

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