on 29 October 2011
Are you tired of reading the same old stories about Adolf Hitler? Are you fed up with the fantasies people spin around him? Do you long for something new, but something that is historically sound?
Then how about this book? It breaks new ground and is mind-changing. I know the title sounds like a boring PhD thesis. But don't let that put you off. This is a highly readable book that will change the way you think about Hitler.
No, it's not revisionist. It doesn't deny the racism, or the holocaust. What it proves is that Hitler's interest in the arts was as intense as his racism and influenced the way he acted. The author notes that the first building Hitler erected after he became chancellor in 1933 was not a monument to his own triumph, but a massive art gallery in Munich. It still exists.
The historian Ian Kershaw claimed that Hitler was a 'non-person'... 'Outside politics,' he declared, 'his life was largely a void.'
This book suggests Kershaw was wrong. Hitler was much better informed and intelligent than critics allow - a satanic genius. He had a considerable hinterland and his interests extended far beyond politics. Spotts shows us how he used his artistic knowledge to enhance his political career and disguise his crimes. 'Hitler,' he says, 'was two persons - a man of hatred, violence and destruction yet also a man of quite remarkable aesthetic instincts who revered the arts above all else and wanted, after his wars and racial genocide had cleansed Europe, to create a culture-state in which the arts would reign supreme.'
As a young man Hitler never set out to become a dictator, or slaughter millions. He wanted to become a great artist - a laudable ambition. And he tried hard. For 18 years, from the age of 12, he struggled to become a successful painter. Spotts argues he was no different from millions of young people who want to live a creative, instead of a boring life. If we'd met the young Hitler up until his late 20s we would have encountered a badly-dressed bohemian - an eccentric figure - more interested in art than anything else. During the First World War he never rose above the level of lance corporal. When one of his officers was later asked at the Nuremberg trial why he hadn't promoted Hitler he said Hitler displayed no signs of leadership. The idea that he might change and become a mighty dictator, who brought catastrophe to the world, would have seemed absurd.
Such is the hostility to Hitler - deserved! - that some people give way to irrational emotion when discussing him. I once heard a person say, 'Hitler was the worst painter in the history of art - there has never been a worse painter.' As Spotts shows that critic knew little about Hitler, or the history of art. In fact he was a competent minor water-colourist. Unfortunately for him and for us he lacked the talent that would lift him into the major league in the art world and politics claimed him instead. He entered politics by accident. Politics sought him out, not the other way round. And there he displayed an appalling talent.
When I was young I was puzzled by Hitler's personality. Books about him, including Alan Bullock's "Hitler , A Study in Tyranny", left me dissatisfied. Something was missing. Hitler was an enigma. Why should anyone follow this monster? He seemed an obvious a villain.
But that's because I had the benefit of hindsight and superior knowledge. I could see the sum total of his disastrous reign. I got so used to horror stories and Allied propaganda I was incapable of seeing him as many Germans saw him when he first came to power and hadn't committed his crimes. Then he seemed a saviour. This is where Frederic Spotts's book comes in. He explains other sides of Hitler's character that historians and biographers have overlooked and makes him understandable. He goes a long way to solving the enigma. You can now understand why intelligent people such as Albert Speer found him attractive and were taken in. He seemed to offer hope and was interested in the arts and culture. Surely one could overlook his faults?
It's difficult to believe Hitler held power for only 12 years. It feels much longer. He turned the world upside down and we're still suffering from the consequences. How extraordinary that a nervous nobody with few friends should transform himself into an all-powerful and all-conquering dictator. As a young man Hitler was surprisingly timid. Spotts recalls how in 1911, when Hitler was a struggling artist, a friend arranged for him to meet a famous stage designer, Alfred Roller. Hitler went along to the theatre, but was so overcome with nerves that he ran away. He couldn't face meeting the man. Twice more this happened. Hitler went along to the theatre then ran away. Eventually, in 1934, Hitler did meet the designer. In just over 20 years he had become Reich Chancellor and leader of Germany.
As Spotts shows for the first 30 years of his life Hitler had nothing to do with politics. From the age of 12 he struggled for 18 years to become a successful painter. In this he failed. But the time wasn't wasted, as Kershaw suggests. Hitler read voraciously, which gave him ideas - often muddled - and made him fluent. He later used this skill to devastation effect in his speeches and persuading people in private. He was also painting thousands of water colours - developing an artistic sense he carried over into later life.
A musician once remarked that some composers spend a lifetime writing great operas and symphonies, but in the end are remembered for only a simple tune. They needed, however, to write all that music to produce one memorable piece.
You could say the same about Hitler's art. He painted thousands of pictures with little success, but the knowledge gained was never wasted. It surfaced elsewhere. For example, he had the flair to recognise that the swastika, which had been around for centuries, could be transformed into a powerful symbol. In "Mein Kampf" he explains how it took him 'innumerable attempts' to design the Nazi flag - to get the colours and proportions right - a flag with a red background, white disk and a black swastika in the middle. When it was first flown in the summer of 1920 Hitler was startled by the result. It was like 'a burning torch,' he said.
Hitler had produced one of the most potent and sinister symbols of the 20th century - a flag more powerful than the hammer and sickle, or stars and stripes, or any national flag. It was an early form of pop art, something you could get fast - recognize in a split second - and iconic. It was evil, but 18 years as a painter had led to a masterpiece of graphic art. Jasper Johns and other pop artists might shudder, but they would have understood what Hitler was about. Only the Austrian artist turned politician beat them to it by nearly 40 years.
The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper maintained that Hitler's ideas on culture were 'trivial, half-baked and disgusting.' Spotts challenges that view. In doing so he echoes views put forward in 1992 by Prof John Carey in his book "The Intellectuals and the Masses".
Carey argued that Hitler's 'inclinations were undeviatingly highbrow. He would bring home books by the kilo from the lending library on art history, architecture, religion and philosophy. Nietzsche was often on his lips, and he could quote Schopenhauer by the page. He admired the works of Cervantes, Defoe, Swift, Goethe and Carlyle. Among the musicians his heroes were Mozart, Bruckner, Hayden and Bach, and he idolized Wagner. In painting it was achievement of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt and Rubens, that he applauded.'
Hitler's ideas, Carey contends, were prevalent amongst many admired English intellectuals at the time. Some are still espoused today. He says, 'The superiority of "high" art, the eternal glory of Greek sculpture and architecture, the transcendent value of the old masters and of classical music, the supremacy of Shakespeare, Goethe and other authors acknowledged by intellectuals as great, the divine spark that animates all productions of genius and distinguished them from the low amusements of the mass - these were among Hitler's most dearly held beliefs ... The tragedy of "Mein Kampf" is that it was not, in many respects, a deviant work but one firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy.'
Spotts develops similar ideas at greater length in his book providing numerous examples to illustrate his arguments.
Once he entered politics Hitler moved with astonishing speed. His terrifying career was crammed into 25 years. Heaving himself up from nowhere he transformed himself into a dictator worshipped by the Germans. Once in power Hitler's interests ranged far beyond politics. He was forever sketching - ideas for art galleries, opera houses, triumphal arches, the shape of the Volkswagen car, furniture, weapons, stage designs. Spotts reproduces his drawings. Hitler's valet, Heinz Linge, said before the war Hitler's residences were crammed with plans and drawings. He got the impression his master was more interested in architecture than politics.
Then Hitler launched his wars and brought catastrophe to the world and himslf. By 56 he was dead. We're left with a terrible feeling of waste. If only this gifted man had shown restraint, curbed his racism and avoided invading other countries what might he have achieved. Instead, we think of the horrors and monstrous crimes. The man who loved art and beauty destroyed more than he created. Art never civilised him, or made him a better person, a sobering thought for those who think the arts are life-enhancing and make us more refined.
Why does Hitler fascinate so many people? I think it's not only because of the enormity of his crimes. It was his extraordinary power to get things done - terrible things people dream about only in their worst nightmares. And it's the Nazi style - the ceremonies, designer uniforms, buildings, cars, war machines. They seemed so modern and cool - even sexy. The Nazis built an electrifying fantasy world behind which lay something much more sinister. Someone once said, 'Hitler was a gangster, but a gangster with style.' Frederic Spotts proves it.
But enough ... Every student should read this book. For too long we've had to read the same old stuff about Hitler - rehash after rehash. This is different. And the book reinforces its arguments with scores of pictures. Here - at last - is something new. And it's properly documented, not weird fantasies from a sensation-seeking writer. No wonder it got good reviews when first published.