Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin—four names so familiar that it may seem there is nothing more to be said about them. Here I want to try to overcome this mental numbness, to think again about what we ought to know about these four leaders in the Second World War and rescue them from the clichés that have obscured them.
Let’s start with Adolf Hitler, who was, in one sense, the greatest figure in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the word “greatest” carries at least some suggestion of admiration. So maybe it would be better to say “most extraordinary.” He ruled and directed 70 or 80 million Germans and Austrians in a world war. It took the three greatest empires of the world, six times larger than his own German empire, almost six long years to destroy him. He and his armies fought till the very end.
After the war his reputation went from seeming fearsome to seeming uniquely loathsome. The reason for this is obvious: the mass murder of those Hitler saw as actual or potential enemies—Communists, Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, but, above all, Jews. That record is well known, memorable, overwhelming. Hitler’s responsibility for this can never be denied.
Where and when did a preoccupation with the Jews crystallize in his mind? We know that it happened not in Vienna but in Munich, not before but after World War I—in 1919, when he was thirty. Anti-Semitism was less current in Munich than in Vienna, which had a larger Jewish population. It was the rise of Jewish wealth and influence in Vienna against which some of the more influential anti-Semites were reacting. “Anti-Semitism” was a relatively recent term, replacing the older “Judeophobia,” which may be a more accurate term in the case of Hitler, who after 1919 often referred to the Jews as a spiritual rather than a physical race.
There is not much reason to further research the origins of Hitler’s unspoken motives with respect to the Jews; some part of them will always remain unknowable. We can only speculate. But there remain at least two matters in Hitler’s life that are still worth further study. One we could call “exceptions”; the other is a history not of his motives but of his purposes.
Hitler had known some Jews in his early youth. Two in particular stood out. One was Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor whose kindness and solicitude for Hitler’s mother before her death left an indelible impression on Hitler. He referred to Dr. Bloch as an Edeljude, a noble Jew. When Germany occupied Austria in 1938, Hitler made sure Bloch was protected. In 1940 he facilitated Dr. and Mrs. Bloch’s departure from Vienna for the United States. The other Jew who had meant much to Hitler was the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger. Hitler said that Weininger “before his suicide realized that the Jew lives by the decomposition of other nations and peoples.”
There are a few other instances where Hitler’s hatred for Jews was not unconditional. In 1934, the year after he became Germany’s chancellor and Fuhrer he permitted his financial advisor, Schacht, to preside at a banquet honoring the Speyers, a German Jewish family of bankers, before the last of the Speyers left for England and the United States. Hitler was convinced that Germany must maintain good relations with England. He welcomed an exceptional relationship with the English press magnate Lord Rothermere. Their meetings in 1936 and 1937 were arranged by Rothermere’s mistress, the princess Stephanie Hohenlohe, who was half-Jewish. Hitler treated her with exceptional courtesy. When in November 1938 Kristallnacht saw the destruction of Jewish stores and businesses and the cruel beatings of Jewish persons, Hitler told the SS to halt these atrocities. In 1944 he permitted the German purchase of the large Manfred-Weiss-Csepel steel works in Hungary in exchange for letting the Weiss-Csepel family, thirty in number, move to Portugal. Later that year he allowed the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg to enter Hungary and put a considerable number of houses under Swedish “protection,” whereby thousands of Jewish men and women in the city of Pest survived the war. Such exceptions and partial exceptions may suggest how complicated Hitler was, but they do nothing to exonerate him.
As for his purposes, until late 1941 his intention was to promote the expulsion of Jews from Germany (and from much of Europe). They would have to abandon their possessions and flee to other continents. He gave no thought to what would happen to them after that. For a short time in 1940 he and his minions were considering deportation of most Jews to Madagascar. Then his invasion of Russia in June 1941 brought a change. The great majority of Eurasian Jews lived in the European portion of Russia, Poland, and the former Baltic states. What was to be done with them? In 1941 it was still possible for a few Jews to escape to America. But expulsion was no longer possible. So what about those remaining millions of Eastern European Jews? Most of them (in Poland, for example) had already been oppressed, imprisoned, tortured; many had been murdered, often by special German units. Should the surviving Jews be allowed to stay where they were? No. Hitler decided they had to be exterminated. And so they were, beginning in late 1941. Having made this momentous decision, Hitler did not wish to contemplate the Jewish problem any longer. In early 1943 a statistician of the SS, a man named Dr. Korherr, presented the Fuhrer with a paper that showed how many Jews had been disposed of. Hitler showed no interest.