Who was Hitler? Searching for the truth

September 21, 1997|By Hans Knight | Hans Knight,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Hitler of History," by John Lukacs. Knopf. 320 pages. $26.

His name was Adolf Hitler, alias the Fuehrer, and they called him many things in his time. David Lloyd George, the white-maned former British prime minister, called him "the greatest German of the age ... a born leader who threatens nobody." Another prime minister named Winston Churchill, less afflicted with moral myopia, saw him as a "monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder ... the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrong shame."

Ever since this enormously complex man blew out his fevered brains in a Berlin bunker in 1945, historians have made a good living trying to assign him his rightful place in the turbulent tale of the 20th century. The book shelves groan under the weight of more than 100 Hitler biographies.But if there is room for one more of the genre, it should be occupied by John Lukacs' "The Hitler of History."

In essence this author of 19 books dealing with events past puts his literary colleagues on trial. How close do their portrayals of the man Lukacs considers the most extraordinary figure in the history of the 20th century come to ascertainable truth? Where, how and - especially - why have they failed? Playing the dual role of prosecutor and judge is a precarious balancing act, but Lukacs carries it off with the sure-footedness of a man who knows at least as much about the case as the suspects in the dock.

Some do gain the author's approval - notably the Austrian Catholic historian Friedrich Heer and interestingly, Hitler's armament minister Albert Speer.

The list of saints and sinners is too long to enumerate here. But some of the targets stand out. The most inviting is the British, indefatigably Fuehrer-friendly David Irving, who all but absolves Hitler of responsibility for the Holocaust because he did not exactly put the order to kill the Jews in writing.

Lukacs' deft puncturing of Irving's special pleadings is as delightful as it is devastating. American writer John Toland, not in the same low league, is faulted for his often sanguine depiction of Hitler's accession to power. Alan Bullock is rapped on the knuckles for being too simplistic in assessing Hitler's character. And even the widely respected German historian Joachim Fest, whom Lukacs generally admires, gets a few slaps on the wrists for some ambiguities. Lukacs' critical tour de force is not free of flaws. William Shirer deserves better than casual dismissal as a superficial Germanophobe. And is death camp survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel really an "eager publicist"?

The book spouts more footnotes than a podiatrist's manual, and they tend to impede the often brilliant narrative flow.

Wisely, Lukacs does not claim to have the final answers to the mystery of Adolf Hitler's mind and soul. He admits that their murky death may be unknowable. In the end, he seems to feel, this may not matter all that much. All too knowable are the deeds that mind and soul engendered. And on this, the jury is not out, if it ever was.

Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg Trials for the United States War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in the New York Times and The Sun among others.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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