In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Adolf Hitler out.
I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully. Partly, this is prurient – they are fascinating. But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.
But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them. Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to understand them.
Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility. Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions, but he remains a cipher. Why did he do the things he did? Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the right place at the right time? Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him? How are we to understand his contradictions?
The question which has always most troubled me is: did Hitler understand that any of his actions were wrong? Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did he understand that most people would think that was evil? He employed euphemisms, which implies that he did.
What, then, did he make of that? Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth? Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him (i.e. that the world would be better without Jews) and that only he had the courage to admit it? Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?
As I’ve said before, I don’t usually trouble myself too much with these questions, since I believe that they are essentially unanswerable. We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.
But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question. Speer was Hitler’s architect and then his Minister of Armaments. He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:
“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail. If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history. If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.” (p. 101)
Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious. He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable. He saw that he needed to remake the world in order to make himself righteous.
I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’. Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemed. His use of it suggests that he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil. And, to be frank, I sort of quail in front of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.
Even if this quote offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, maybe it’s better not to peer too hard after it. Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs. Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was ultimately correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.
The title of this post is a quote from Hitler, from a speech before the Reichstag in Berlin in January, 1939 – it is not the opinion of the author.
Featured image from biography.com