A.N. Wilson, Adolf Hitler, Alan Bullock, Alois Hitler, Austria, Berchtesgaden, Berghof, D-Day, history, Holocaust, Ian Kershaw, Joseph Goebbels, Lateline, laziness, Martin Amis, Mein Kampf, Nazi Germany, Nazism, Third Reich, Tony Jones, Vienna, World War Two
“Adolf Hitler – remarkably, in a man whose father was the son of an illegitimate housemaid – had grown up with the middle-class confidence that he need never earn a living…
Had his father, a customs official in various border towns between Austria-Hungary and Germany, lived to see the publication of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle), he might well have asked, ‘What Struggle?’… Alois, whose early life had marked a real struggle to leave poverty behind, and to acquire respectability and savings through boring government service in customs offices, had urged young Adolf to find paid employment. The boy had preferred to lounge about, to wear dandified clothes, to attend the opera and to imagine that one day he would become a famous artist. Hitler never had any paid employment, so far as one can make out, except when manual work was forced upon him as a temporary necessity when he was living in men’s hostels and dosshouses on the outskirts of Vienna…
Hitler’s indolence was to remain one of his most mysterious characteristics. Many would assume that a man who, in his heyday, strutted about in uniforms, and who presided over a militaristic dictatorship, who expected not merely his intimates but everyone in the country to click their heels and salute at the mere mention of his name, would have been up in the morning early, taking cold baths and performing Swedish exercises. By contrast, like many depressives, he kept strange hours, and spent most of his days on this planet sitting around doing nothing much, dreaming his terrible dreams, and talking interminable nonsense. […]
By the time he became Chancellor, the pattern of life did not markedly change. He rose late, spent most of the day chatting, and would nearly always round off the evening with a film. Adjutants tried to find him a new film to watch every day. His earlier fondness for high culture began to diminish. He enjoyed ‘light entertainment’, and if women, such as his girlfriend Eva Braun, were present in the evenings, political conversation was banned – as was, of course, that cardinal sin, smoking.”
From A.N. Wilson’s three-hour read Hitler.
I’m on a World War Two kick. A few weeks ago, after putting down Martin Gilbert’s indescribable The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, I wanted to move on to something easier to both read and stomach. I like A. N. Wilson’s columns — and I wasn’t going to dive into Ian Kershaw’s two-part, two-thousand-page Hitler: A Biography — so I started on Wilson’s short life of the monster. At fewer than 200 pages, it’s a highly rewarding text, one in which all heavy historiographical lifting and dry research is filtered through Wilson’s very readable prose. I usually hate that descriptor — readable — as it’s so often just a lazy euphemism for what is lazy or facile writing. But Wilson’s work is polished, seamless, and never overworked: it’s readable in the best sense of that bad word. Ivory Tower egotists might still pick at his scholarship — Wilson is a newspaper columnist who doesn’t speak or read German — but this seems to me misplaced. There’s room for an almost infinite number of books on the shelf.
While I was reading Wilson’s book, I occasionally tracked along in Kershaw’s more extensive work, which sheds more light on the immeasurable extent of Hitler’s lethargy. Perhaps the best account of this comes in Kershaw’s account of the night of the D-Day invasion:
That evening, Hitler and his entourage viewed the latest newsreel. The discussion moved to films and the theatre. Eva Braun joined in with pointed criticism of some productions. ‘We sit then around the hearth until two o’clock at night,’ wrote Goebbels, ‘exchange reminiscences, take pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together. The Führer inquires about this and that. All in all, the mood is like the good old times.’ The heavens opened and a thunderstorm broke as Goebbels left the Berghof. It was four hours since the first news had started to trickle in that the invasion would begin that night. Goebbels had been disinclined to believe the tapping into enemy communications. But coming down the Obersalzberg to his quarters in Berchtesgaden, the news was all too plain; ‘the decisive day of the war had begun.’
Hitler went to bed not long after Goebbels had left, probably around 3 a.m. When Speer arrived next morning, seven hours later, Hitler had still not been wakened with the news of the invasion…
According to Speer, Hitler – who had earlier correctly envisaged that the landing would be on the Normandy coast – was still suspicious at the lunchtime military conference that it was a diversionary tactic put across by enemy intelligence. Only then did he agree… to deploy two panzer divisions held in reserve in the Paris area against the beachhead that was rapidly being established some 120 miles away. The delay was crucial. Had they moved by night, the panzer divisions might have made a difference.
- More from Wilson’s book: The Tragic Paradox at the Center of the Twentieth Century