Monday, 2 November 2015

Book Review - Hitler by Werner Maser

Hitler by Werner Maser, translated by Peter and Betty Ross

London: Allen Lane, 1973                                                     ISBN 0713914739

Although this book is now over 40 years old, it's still worth reading. At the time it added important new information about Hitler to the public record, which we can attribute to Maser's dogged research. In some ways the research and thinking about the life of Hitler has moved on since this book was written, but there is still much in Maser's writing that is useful to the scholar of the period.

This book is a biography, but more than that,  it isan attempt to gain some insights into Hitler's character and the influences that formed him. Maser also made a concerted attempt to query many of the books and articles written about Hitler's early life, especially those written by people who knew him back then, who often had an axe to grind.

Maser begins his work with a detailed look at Hitler's family tree, which seems to conclusively show that Hitler was from peasant stock and didn't, as some sources state, have any Jewish ancestors. It seems that from an early age Hitler had firm opinions, and his marks at school reflected whether he thought that particular subject "interesting". One of his biggest influences at that time was a history teacher who had very strong Pan-German ideas.

His "wandering years" in Vienna are also investigated closely. although he did stay for a time in a men's rooming-house, he was far from destitute - his paintings earned him enough money to allow him to sign over his portion of the orphans pension to his sister. It also seems clear that he was engaging in at least some dealings with Jews on a personal basis during this time.

He moved to Munich partly to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, as by this time he was convinced that the Empire was a malignant entity and that Germans had no business in defending it. By the outbreak of WWI he was also a convinced anti-semite. While his long standing German nationalism pre-disposed Hitler to such views, the reason that this developed into such a radical exterminatory obsession is still shrouded in mystery that Maser does little to unravel.

Hitler spent much of his time during WWI at the front, where he became a runner for his regiment, which was a dangerous task - Hitler won the Iron Cross first and second class in recognition of his bravery. It seems that the beginnings of Hitler's demagoguery occurred in the trenches, where he discovered his gift for public speaking.

Both before and during the War Hitler was an avid reader when he got the chance. Like many poorly educated (and some more educated) men he tended to read to confirm his own thoughts, rather than to challenge them: this flaw in his nature became more and more noticeable during his life, to the point that he couldn't even listen to contradictory views.

Maser delved deeply into Hitler's medical record, and comes to the conclusion that he was not a well man. He had a bad attack of influenza in 1941, and it seems he was never the same since that time. The medicaments given to him by his doctor included several stimulants and a concoction containing strychnine. Maser posits that the combination of these drugs and potions affected Hitler's thought processes, and could in fact be to blame for many of his more outrageous statements. Maser of course is not a doctor, and to this reader he does seem to push this theory to its outer limits. However, Maser does show more convincingly that, from the late 1930s, Hitler was convinced that he didn't have much longer to live, and this feeling led him to move his timetable forward, and to attack Russia before he had defeated England.

In fact Hitler struggled with his war on England - it didn't fit his Continentally-based strategy, and Maser shows throughout this book that Hitler very rarely changed his ideas, or mind. He had prepared for war against Russia and France for many years in his mind, but had not done so when it came to England, and couldn't develop the mindset to do so. Hitler could never grasp that countries may act on principal, and so assumed that England would pull out of the war when France was defeated and leave the Continent to Hitler.

This rigidity in Hitler led to huge losses in the German armed forces, as he almost always categorically refused to allow retreat, even when it made sense to do so. Maser makes the point that while Hitler was a grand strategist, as a tactical commander he was flawed, partially because he could never let tactics diverge for a moment from his grander visions, and partly owing to his inability to make decisions on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis, an essential requirement for a tactical commander.

The supreme narcissist, Hitler brought the German people down with him into hell, and couldn't allow - until the last moments - himself to be shown to be wrong. That so many followed him for so long is a tragedy on a colossal scale.

Maser's book is intriguing, and an important part of the building of knowledge about Hitler, but has been surpassed by more recent texts.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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