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Angles on Hitler

HUGH’S BOOKSTALL can sometimes turn into a sort of club. You meet people there who are in the middle of writing a three-volume treatise on the politics of Byzantium. Recently I bumped into Dr. Michael Tanner, a fellow of Corpus Christi who was already one of the smartest minds in the philosophy faculty when I was an undergraduate. He told me that he was under strict instruction to bring no more books into his house, so he had to smuggle them in and hide them. Since I was under something like the same embargo myself, it was clearly time to sit down at a coffee bar and discuss the protocols and techniques of book-smuggling. Tanner is generally informed about the arts to a daunting level, but he is also very funny, and I soon had to tacitly concede that his imitation of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf teaching a master class was better than mine. (To illustrate her drawbacks as a teacher, you have to be able to evoke what her mouth looked like when she sang an umlaut: she looked as if she were trying to kiss the behind of a hummingbird in midflight.) Mention of the famous soprano’s early career in Nazi Berlin led us naturally to the eternal subject of Hitler’s interest in the arts. Tanner contended, in the nicest possible way, that Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, by Frederic Spotts, was an essential book on this subject. He had correctly guessed that I hadn’t read it. I wrote away for it and soon found this to be true. Spotts gives Hitler all the credit he could possibly have coming for a range of cultural interests that was wider than we tend to think. Certainly his passion for music, or anyway for opera, extended far beyond Wagner and Lehar: he also liked Puccini and Verdi, and could tell you about them as he could tell you about everything.

But I still feel that there is a danger of underestimating one of Hitler’s most demonic gifts: he had the con-man’s knack of making himself seem profoundly steeped in any subject just by the fluency with which he could learn a list of facts and reel them off to the susceptible ear of a worshiping disciple. There were Wehrmacht officers, some of them high up in the business of commissioning new weapons, who were amazed by how much Hitler knew about tanks. But what he knew about tanks was a pastiche of stuff he had picked up from random study, and to the extent that his policies on armaments were carried out, they ensured the loss of the war. It seems a logical inference that many of the artistic subjects he touched on in conversation he knew more fleetingly than he made it sound. I have always found it hard to believe Hitler’s claim, which Spotts unquestioningly repeats, that he carried the five volumes of Schopenhauer’s collected works in his knapsack throughout his time in the trenches. I have those five volumes on my shelves, and they make quite a weight even in a thin-paper edition. But there can be no doubt about Hitler’s aesthetic passion: Spotts is dead right about that. Hitler was up all night studying Speer’s scale model of a future Berlin while the actual Berlin was being pounded to pieces around his ears. As can so easily happen for a man in trouble, art was an escape route.

While Martin Amis was preparing the manuscript of his novel The Zone of Interest, he caught me out in correspondence when I had to confess that I had not read Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler. I bought it, read it at the table in my kitchen, and was suitably impressed. Rosenbaum does a good job of balancing up the central theses of the two main postwar interpreters of Hitler’s personality: Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock. Trevor-Roper, in his worldwide best seller The Last Days of Hitler, thought that Hitler did indeed possess a mysterious, charismatic secret: how else could he have still been obeyed when all his real power was gone? Bullock, in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, thought that Hitler was a mountebank. Later on, Bullock took a second position, calling Hitler an actor who believed in his own act. The two professors were both on the case early (in the German cities the Tümmerwelt, the world of ruins, was still being cleared away), but between them they caught the Hitler story better than the supposedly major studies did later on: I haven’t read Joachim Fest’s Hitler biography since it came out in 1974, but lately I have slogged my way through Ian Kershaw’s massive two-volume effort (he is a thorough writer without being an attractive one), and I couldn’t find much that Trevor-Roper and Bullock didn’t catch more than half a century back. I must read Trevor-Roper and Bullock again. When I first read them I was still in my teens, and they helped to form my view of life, but old men forget. Sometimes slightly younger men get things wrong, however: Rosenbaum was born in 1946, so perhaps he has not quite had time to pick up the odd item of seemingly incidental, but in fact vital, information. When he says that the prewar newsreels were “speeded up,” and that this “jerkiness” contributed to the robotized atmospherics of Nazi maneuvers, he is making a false point. At the time they were filmed, prewar newsreels didn’t look speeded up, because they were projected at the correct rate. Later on, the rate changed. As a general rule, writers should be wary about making technical points.