Sunday 18 February 2018

Review of R.H.S. Stolfi's "Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny" - Part 2

Macaulay disapproved of Napier's History of the Peninsular War because he disapproved of military history. He thought it immoral to divorce military strategy from history in the wider sense. 

He had a point. Someone said that military justice is to justice what military music is to music. Perhaps military history is in the same case. 

Russell Stolfi's unsentimental attitude to Hitler may derive from coming to him from studying German military strategy. He is an interesting military historian who sometimes admires Hitler as a strategist. Nevertheless he is sure that Hitler made many mistakes and, by ignoring the generals, lost the war on a single day.

I learnt from Stolfi that once Britain and France declared war Hitler was in a hurry to invade France, expecting every day to learn that the Allies had taken over Belgium without firing a shot. Would that they had!

Hitler marched into the Low Countries in 1940 with the aim of seizing Belgium. He ordered the advance to halt too soon, rescinded his order and his luck was that France fell. From then on he ceased 
"to consult the commanders-in-chief of the three armed forces on matters of grand strategy and ultimately made decisions based on his inspirations alone." 
Stolfi does not agree with Ian Kershaw that Germany could never have won the war, even had Hitler not invaded Russia, and that the invasion of Russia was doomed to failure. He thinks the Germans came close to knocking out the USSR in the summer of 1941. 

This does not surprise me. In 1939 British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax told the cabinet that Poland would be a militarily stronger ally than Russia. Since then the Germans had swiftly knocked out Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece, none of which victories had been expected to be swift.

The German army fully expected to defeat Russia quickly and it is difficult to believe that they were completely deluding themselves. Britain expected it too. 

All the war games played by the German army showed the Germans defeating the Soviet army but all were predicated on a German attack on Moscow in August 1941.

The failure to attack Moscow in August 1941 was the turning point of the war, not the invasion of the Soviet Union and not Stalingrad.

"Had the Germans taken Moscow in August 1941 they would have won the campaign and the war. Almost as surely,when Hitler delayed the final strike on Moscow until October the Germans had little chance of winning....Adolf Hitler, however, intruded on history to sign the Fuehrer Directive of August 21, the single most significant political-military document of the twentieth century. The directive and no action taken by the Red Army halted Army Group Center and diverted it for two months south into the Ukraine. Hitler’s decision as embodied in the brief, fiye-paragraph document marked Germany’s irretrievable loss of World War II, literally, on August 22, the day that OKH received the directive and began to execute it."
He quotes Ian Kershaw saying
“cynical though he was, Hitler’s cynicism stopped short of his own person; he came to believe that he was a man with a mission marked out by Providence and therefore exempt from the ordinary canons of human conduct.”
Stolfi seems to agree with Hitler that he was marked out or assisted by Providence. 
He was not only an artist but also a knowledgeable art historian and a prophetic visionary who would make new Germans linked especially by eternal values in painting. We are left with the uneasy feeling that an inscrutable destiny chose to write its will across the sky through the medium of an artist.
Hitler certainly could point to many strange incidents in his life that made him seem marked by providence. Stolfi tells us one.
In August 1934, he related in a conversation with an English correspondent, G. Ward Price, the following astonishing story: While in an area of intense combat near Arras in Picardy in autumn 1915, and under much psychological stress, he was eating dinner out of a tin can in a trench with several comrades. Then, he recounted, a voice came to him that said, move. It was so clear and so insistent that he obeyed mechanically as if it had been a military order. He walked about twenty yards along the trench, carrying his dinner, and sat down again, his “mind being once more at rest.” Moments later came a flash and a deafening report from the vicinity of the area he had vacated. A shell had burst, killing every man he had left behind.
There were many other things that seemed to Hitler to be providential in his life and they seem to Stolfi too to be the work of an inscrutable providence. I can offer no opinion except to say that successful politicians, great writers and great artists work by intuition and are close to their subconscious minds. As Bismarck said 
'The statesman's task is to hear God's footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.'
It was very likely that a right wing authoritarian regime would come to power in Germany and overturn the 1919 settlement. The only alternative, much worse and inherently unlikely, was a capture of the German state by the Communists. In either case, a Second World War was almost inevitable. 

The 1919 settlement was indefensible and France did not have the means to defend it. Austria Hungary, that had balanced Russia and Prussia/Germany had, tragically, ceased to exist and Russia had left the European political system of great powers. Germany, under a right-wing or left-wing dictatorship, would inevitably have tried to rule Central and Eastern Europe. 

Had a 'normal' nationalist dictatorship (nationalist in the way that Pilsudski and Antonescu were nationalists, rather than Nazi) come to power in Germany, without plans for annexing Ukraine and without Hitler's racial theories, it would probably have succeeded in dominating Eastern Europe - in fact Germany does so today. 

The E.U. exists to fill the gap left by Austria Hungary and allow Germany to dominate Europe within a framework of human rights and while allowing smaller countries to retain a degree of independence and democracy. 

Andrew Roberts closed his book Hitler and Churchill, which he published in 2004, by asking how Hitler will be regarded in two hundred years' time. 

His answer is that it depends on what happens between now and then. If Europe remains prosperous and democratic people will think of Hitler much as they do now. If Europe in 200 years is in decay and has been riven by wars Hitler might be seen as a cruel but effective leader.

I do not know what people will think of Hitler in 2200 but I know that the future of Europe looks much more gloomy than it did in 2004.

The first half of my review of "Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny" is here.


  1. Not sure why you never mention Liddel Hart - your own (probably best) British military historian. The German Generals Talk sheds some light into the constant frictions between the general corps and Hitler and how the generals constantly fought Hitler's absurd orders only to be replaced by more and more obedient and incompetent ones.
    The book is based on direct interviews with German generals held by the British after WW2.

    1. and how the generals constantly fought Hitler's absurd orders only to be replaced by more and more obedient and incompetent ones.

      The German generals in the immediate post-war period were very very anxious to shift the blame for absolutely everything onto Hitler's shoulders. Including their own mistakes.

  2. Hitler is not a product of the public school code. He has not been shaped by civilized principles. He is neither a Christian nor a gentleman. His education is small and leaky, and he relies upon no dynastic tradition. His story is that of an outcast who came back and seized the machinery of power at the right moment.

    Helton Godwin Baynes
    Germany Possessed

    Without affirming that those are wrong who compare the daring march of Germany to the march of the Gadarene swine...

    Henry Wickham Steed
    Hitler: Whence and Whither?

  3. In Fisher's Historian Fallacies, Fischer claims that a historical fallacy is to write history devoid of moral judgment. If moral judgment is not a part of history, how do we explain Nuremberg? Sure. We could say Hiroshima in principal was as bad as the Holocaust, but there was one significant difference between Hiroshima and the Holocaust: When Japan surrendered, violence against her citizens by Americans stopped. In the case of the Holocaust: When non-axis armies surrendered, the violence against civilians accelerated. There is also this absurd notion of “balanced history.” I am not quite sure what that means: If I say six “negative things” about Hitler, am I compelled to say six “positive things” about Hitler? Are there six “positive things” to say about Hitler? The logical conclusion to all this nonsense is to compare Hitler to Donald Trump. Hitler was a true genocidal racist; whereas, Donald Trump uses measured racist comments as “red meat” for his base to get votes with the long term goal of enriching himself.