Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny by R. H. S. Stolfi. Prometheus Books, 2011, 475 pp., $27.00.
The tranquil city of Linz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the 20th century was home to Adolf Hitler during his formative teenage years. He also lived amidst the imperial glory of Vienna prior to the outbreak of World War I. Both of these culturally rich regions made a profound and lasting imprint on Hitler’s personality and subsequent career. Austro-Hungarian society was unable to cope with the rapidly advancing political changes of the early 20th century, yet was still a prime mover in the artistic and scientific worlds exemplified by the likes of Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud. The impressionable young Adolph Hitler was thrust into this convoluted society, and his subsequent political and cultural impact on Germany, Europe, and the world is directly related to his experiences in that declining empire.
R. H. S. Stolfi, professor emeritus at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and a retired colonel in the US Marine Corps Reserve, is also author of German Panzers on the Offensive: Russia–North Africa, 1941–1942; Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted; and NATO under Attack. Professor Stolfi’s meticulous research and broad intellectual purity are clearly evident in his new biography of Adolph Hitler. He has left no stone unturned in his research and has produced a work of unparalleled objectivity, in contrast to previous Hitler biographies that feel the need to condemn the man and therefore his legacy in toto. This characteristic is even acknowledged by none other than Thomas Mann, who in describing Hitler opined, “one begins to fear lest one be pusillanimous enough to fall short in the hatred which is the only right reaction from those to whom our civilization is anyhow dear.” In other words hatred trumps objectivity. Dr. Stolfi does not fall into this trap; he keeps the focus on the facts.
Stolfi is no apologist; he clearly and emphatically states that Hitler was directly responsible for a policy resulting in the deaths of six million European Jews, an act he describes as “a monument to evil” which Hitler calculatingly carried out after he became convinced that it was part of his messianic mission to cleanse Europe of what he judged to be the Jews’ corrupting influence. In another passage Stolfi states, “the devil was loose in Europe from 1914–1945.” The work of the devil took many forms, including the policy condoned by Churchill which was responsible for expelling (“cleansing”) 14+ million ethnic Germans from the former German territories in the East after WWII, of whom two million died during the process. Hitler was, among other things, a product of his times.
Yet this biography does not dwell on the commonly perceived shortcomings of Hitler, or Hitler’s Germany; the focus remains on the man.. Stolfi has given us a remarkable portrait of one of history’s unique personalities. Hitler was on occasion, a Caesar, a messiah, a prophet, a charismatic orator, a Metternich, and on any given day he played these individual roles to perfection, but he was always 100 percent Hitler.
We also are exposed to a Hitler who brought opera and art to the masses, who pioneered the modern interstate highway concept, who—following Henry Ford’s lead—brought the Volkswagen to Germany, and who—according to Liddell-Hart—fostered the development of the most efficient armed forces in history.
In the course of his work, Stolfi debunks a few myths: Hitler was a “failed” artist; well as a failed artist, he did support himself during the pre-WWI Munich period by selling his paintings. Hitler was a frustrated architect; as related by Albert Speer, “He perpetually drew sketches of his own: They were casually tossed off but accurate in perspective; he drew outline, cross sections, and renderings to scale. An architect could not have done better.”
Another part of the Hitler legacy uncovered by Stolfi relates to the German-French relationship. In the spring of 1936 Hitler offered the French a 25-year nonaggression pact which included the French being assured of the boundaries of Alsace-Lorraine, and as compensation, Germany would be allowed to expand to the east to reduce its population density. This proposal speaks volumes about Hitler’s vision of a long-term, economically sufficient Greater Germany with a land focus to the east. Hitler wanted accommodation with his western European neighbors such that he had a free hand in the east; the land of the “less-cultured Slavs.”
Hitler’s military accomplishments are a more complex matter. Clearly his initial politico-military successes may have tainted his receptivity to the counsel of the professional military class. Nonetheless, the unparalleled success of his bold reoccupation of the Rhineland, Anchluss with Austria, incorporation of the Sudetenland, the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union, and the blitz campaigns against Poland, Norway, and France all led to a euphoria and subsequently transitioned to hubris.
To view this in a summer of 1941 context—after the initial, enormously successful invasion of the Soviet Union—it was impossible for the professional German military to convince Hitler of the critical inadvisability of diverting the thrust of the invasion of the USSR away from Moscow toward the economically advantageous Ukraine. How could the generals argue with Hitler after his proven track record of success over the previous seven years? Hitler’s vision was economic, the generals’ military. As Stolfi so perceptively points out, after the political decision in July 1941 to shift the focus of the military campaign from Moscow to the Ukraine, the German army was fighting a two-front war: one against the military enemy and the other against Hitler’s interference in military operations. From this point onward the war was lost. As Field Marshal Erich von Manstein so succinctly stated, “Erst der Sieg macht den Weg zum Erreichen politischer und wirtschaftlicher Ziele frei” (The military victory opens the way to the attainment of political and economic goals). Hitler had the sequence of events out of order.
This biography not only contains many newly uncovered historical gems, it also allows us to see Hitler for what he was and not for what previous biographers would have us believe of him in an ethical context. The research and documentation of Professor Stolfi’s work is untainted by personal or societal bias, it is intellectually pristine, and it will be the standard by which all serious future Hitler biographies are judged.
Col Lonnie O. Ratley III, USAF, Retired
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