It's difficult to find a bookstore without a shelf dedicated to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. Leonid Mlechin's "The Fuehrer's Biggest Secret" is the latest addition. Mlechin, a renowned historian, author and TV host, discusses Hitler and why he remains such a puzzling and prominent historical figure decades after his death.
KP: Don't we already know all there is to know about Hitler?
Mlechin: In world history there are certain personalities responsible for such heinous crimes that they will always attract attention. I addressed many questions about Hitler in my book, but there's still much we will never fully understand. Of course, this is enchanting for any researcher. But honestly all too often this leads to false perceptions about the scale of these personalities.
Hitler loved to make appearances with his niece Geli Raubal
Essentially, Hitler was a nobody as an individual. But the scale of his misdeeds was so immense that his personality was magnified, as if under a lens. He is often attributed to bearing traits he didn't actually possess.
Q: Meaning, we haven't put together a final picture of Hitler?
A: All Germany's archives about the 13-year reign of Hitlerism were immediately opened after 1945. A huge collection of books were written as a result. However, even today books are constantly being published on the subject in Germany. I just read a thick scholarly work about Germany's economy under Nazism. For the first time in 60 years, detailed explanations were made about how the Third Reich was able to establish a powerful military machine with relatively low resources, and to threaten the entire world. This subject is simply inexhaustible.
Q: What was Hitler's biggest secret? Did you unravel it?
A: The fuehrer had many secrets beginning with his lineage – who his grandfather was. The question is unanswered today. Most probably there was an incident of incest in his family. His father married his own niece. Hitler hid this fact his whole life. He was terribly afraid the truth would be uncovered. The second secret is Hitler's relationship with both men and women – his suppressed homosexuality and fear of intimacy with the opposite sex. The result was a general discord with his being, and resentment against the entire world. It seems the only person Hitler experienced feelings for (including sexual) was his own niece Geli Raubal. Raubal committed suicide in 1931.
Hitler captured the consciousness of the nation to become fuehrer.
Hitler on vacation with Eva Braun in the mountains. Photo from www.dictatorofthemonth.com
Together these minute details were seminal in the formation of Hitler's character, his fate and the fate of his country. But the true secret is how Hitler subdued the whole German nation. He captured its mass consciousness so greatly the country dove with him head first into a whirlwind.
Q: Not long ago we were taught history quite differently – historical materialism, the battle of the classes, shifting social orders. Now it seems like individual personalities and their intimate lives can cardinally change world history.
A: Yes, I think the role of the personality in history is much more significant than we originally thought. It's colossal in fact. I'd be courageous enough to say that if Adolf Hitler had died on the front in 1917 or 1918, there wouldn't have been any Nazism. There would have been ultra right wing parties, and possibly something else, but 50 million people wouldn't have died. If he had been born 10 years earlier or later, everything else would have transpired differently. Hitler's existence coincided with national moods at a particular point in history, and the wave caught on.
Hitler during his school years. Photo from www2.dsu.nodak.edu
Q: You depicted the young Hitler as mediocre, weak and suffering from complexes. When did the fuehrer's metamorphosis occur?
A: There was a whole sequence of events. One version claims the pivotal moment was during World War I when Hitler ended up in a hospital after a gas attack. The doctor treating his blindness learned his impaired vision wasn't organic, but rather neurotic. The doctor helped Hitler to develop a strong belief in himself, likely with the aid of hypnosis.
The second influential moment was when Hitler began speaking at a meeting of a small Bavarian party. Such meetings were held at beerhouses. He immediately felt his gift as a demagogue while surrounded by insignificant marginal players. They applauded Hitler, and he felt great confidence.
Hitler as corporal of the Imperial Army, 1916. Photo from faculty.virginia.edu
There were many circumstances that came together to solidify Hitler's fate. In fact, Hitler shouldn't have come to power at all. If the Weimar Republic had held on for at least another few months, the Nazi movement would have failed. But the situation unfolded differently. A handful of politicians were also engaged in games of their own. By trying to drown each other, they opened the path for Hitler's rise to power.
Q: Did everything really happen so accidentally? At the time fascism already existed in Italy. Similar regimes had also taken over in other European countries.
A: This is true. At the time authoritarian regimes were in power in three-fourths of Europe’s nations.
But the situation in Germany was unique. After WWI, the Germans held tremendous resentment against the entire world. Erroneous resentment and a search for foreign enemies are dangerous things for any state.
Q: Today, Russia is witnessing a wave of skinheads who act out violently against national minorities. This is despite the fact that our nation suffered more than any other from fascism. How can such movements be explained?
A: It's no paradox. Germany needed two decades and immense pressure from the community to heal – particularly the intelligentsia from western Germany. This group wrote new textbooks, and created a new spiritual climate. The country learned its lesson. Even today's Chancellor Angela Merkel talks about the historical guilt of the German nation. But Merkel was born after WWII. One would think she would be free from feelings of responsibility for crimes committed under Hitlerism. But this isn't so. The price is great.
As strange as this may sound, Russia's Great Patriotic War wasn't against fascism. It was war protecting the Fatherland from foreign occupation. We didn't denounce fascism and its ideological roots. Stalin's regime was in many ways similar. The result is vividly apparent in the case of the USSR, and also the German Democratic Republic, where the horrors of fascism went unmasked. It's no coincidence that the ultra right wing parties in today's Germany compose mostly individuals from Germany's eastern territories. I hope unraveling Hitler's biggest secrets will get us closer to learning some important historical lessons.
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