Essays - Winter 2010

Seventy Years Later


The Second World War destroyed Adolf Hitler, but his legacy is showing disturbing signs of life

By John Lukacs

December 1, 2009


Somewhere, in the middle heart of Europe, in the black shadows of the Alpine mountains, in a small town along a cold, quick-flowing river, amid a gnarled and dark-browed people, with their minds less and less dependent on the tattered shroud of their Catholic religion or on their sense of loyalty to a once old-German but now tattered multinational monarchy, a lonely sullen boy came into this world, his heart bitten with rage and ambition, desperately alone as he grew more and more conscious of his destiny of being a German. And then discovering—relatively late, in his 30th year—that his bitterness and rage and hate were there in the hearts and minds of thousands of other people around him, too; that God (a God of history? or the God of Germandom?) had given him a power to speak, a talent to touch their minds and hearts, for the sake of something large and hard. And then this odd and uneasy young man, surer of his ideas than of himself, became the solitary leader of a small party. And then of a larger party. And then of a veritable movement. And then of the largest national party athwart Germany. By then he was convinced that he could—democratically, legally, and inevitably—step over all obstacles to become the chancellor of Germany. And then, when he was the unquestioned and unquestionable head of a great nation, largely united behind him, his Germany would become the strongest and greatest power in Europe, as he subdued and silenced each of his opponents, older men of an older world. And then, if necessary, he would force his will on them through wars that he and his Germans must win and would go on winning.

Ah! He was not one fortunate person riding atop a great wave; he was more than the figurehead of a nation; more even than a standard dictator. He was a strange phenomenon, breaking through myth and mist with hoarse cries, unfathomable by many of his enemies, matching them with the force of his hatreds, with his instincts that were powerful enough to make him a master of war and even a statesman of a kind, on occasion. And thus he and his Germans withstood the greatest empires of the world, the British and the Russian and the American empires, perhaps as many as 500 million people ranged against a Germany of 80 million—until the very end, here and there even for a few days and nights after his immolation of himself under the ruins of his capital city, Berlin.

He alone began the Second World War. It also ended with him, and not only in Europe. Had he not conquered Western Europe, there would have been no Japanese thrust against the French and Dutch in the Far East; had there been no Atlantic war between Germany and Britain, there would have been no Pacific war of Japan against the British Empire and the United States, surely not in 1941. Four years later the defeat of Japan was inevitably consequent to the disappearance of its great German ally. The Second World War was Hitler’s war.


The Second World War was the last of world wars, and with it ended an entire age of history. Yet interest in it goes on and on, more enduring than interest in the First (even though the First World War had led to the Second, and the origins and causes of the First are still discussed by historians here and there). This interest is evident, among other things, in the number of television programs and movies confected about the Second World War and in the large audience for books, journals, articles, and even plays relating to it.

What are the reasons for this persistent popular interest in events of that war even now, two or three generations afterward? One element of this curiosity is, I think, that many events of the Second World War were more dramatic than those of the First. Another element is the lamentable human inclination to be fascinated with what is horrible, with acts, records, and memories of brutalities: that therefore many people see something in the Second World War as if it had been a war against Evil—which is its simplified categorization. None of the wars and civil wars since 1945 inspires anything remotely like this interest in the Second World War.

There is a difference between history and law, between their evidences, and even between their purposes. Law, in most civilized nations, does not permit multiple jeopardy: an accused person may be tried only once. But history consists of an endless reconsideration of men and events of the past—of evidence of their acts but also of their thinking, evidence permissible in history but not in law. That is not only due to the rediscovery of “new” evidence—for history does not consist of documents alone; it is both the recorded and the remembered past. It is also due to the unavoidable condition that we see the past from an ever-moving and changing present. And there is the difference between the purpose of law and the purpose of history. The purpose of law is the establishment of justice and the elimination of injustice. The purpose of history is the pursuit of truth through the elimination of untruths. There are still many untruths current about the Second World War.

At least in Western Europe, Britain, America, and Russia, people consider it to have been a war that had to be fought. There is a general consensus among these peoples that the Second World War was “a good war.” (That very phrase, a good war, as well as the greatest generation, appeared in the United States some time after the 1960s, perhaps as a result of the popular unease with the Vietnam War and in contrast to that military struggle.) But there were (and still are) people—including later generations—who did not and do not see the Second World War and its outcome as “good.” Most of these people and their descendants were on the losing side of the Second World War. They include many of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe and also of Japan, where as late as 2006 the prime minister chose to pay tribute at the memorial honoring the nation’s Second World War leaders, including men who had been condemned as instigators of that war or as war criminals. That is regrettable, but—at least in some ways—understandable.

There is another, related, matter. Many national, political, ideological inclinations still hark back to the Second World War. One example of this is the inseparability of Zionism from the cultivation of the memories of the Holocaust, an understandable inclination. Yet these two concerns were not entirely identical during the Second World War. (Consider only that the very word Holocaust did not appear and become common until the late 1950s.) Many political and ideological divisions in many nations—including nations that did not end up as losers in 1945—divisions even now, more than 60 years later, relate to the Second World War. They are, at times, represented by political parties. We may—though not always and not accurately—ascertain their popular appeal from the percentages of their votes.

Here is one example. The postwar establishment of the independence of the state of Austria and the subsequent prosperity of its people were due to the Western Allies’ victory in 1945. Yet at least one-quarter of the Austrian people, dissatisfied with the sometimes uninspiring and at times corrupting monopoly of their two political parties, have a positive view of many of the accomplishments and memories of the Third Reich, regretting implicitly—and sometimes even explicitly—its defeat and disappearance. Jörg Haider, leader of a third, nationalist Austrian party, who collected nearly 30 percent of Austrian votes in the 2004 elections, on at least one occasion declared Winston Churchill to have been “a war criminal.” (In 1943 it was Churchill who, at the Tehran Conference, insisted on the independence of Austria and succeeded in declaring it a common aim of the wartime alliance.)

In Italy, neo-Fascist parties get about 12 percent of the national vote. Mussolini’s body, secretly recovered by some of his followers, now rests in a kind of mausoleum at his birthplace, Predappio, visited every day by throngs of his admirers, who bring flowers and inscriptions in his honor. Fresh flowers are placed almost every week on the grave of the parents of Adolf Hitler in Leonding, Austria, 64 years after his death. In France, six decades after its liberation, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front was able to gather 18 percent of the vote in 2002. The main appeal of Le Pen’s party (and also of nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe) is its understandable opposition to the accumulation of immigrants. But on innumerable occasions Le Pen has stated that the German occupation of France during the Second World War was not a national tragedy. Among other things, he has extolled Robert Brasillach as a French national martyr and hero—an extreme Nazified French intellectual, one of the few condemned to death in 1945 whom General De Gaulle refused to pardon. Without exception, the ideas of these so-called right-wing (more precisely: radically nationalist) parties rest on their views of the Second World War, views contrary to the accepted views of their governments and of other governments.

In the United States, too, there were and still are people who did or do not think that the Second World War was a good war. I am not referring to the customary small minority of idealist pacifists but to people who, on occasion, thought and said and wrote that America’s alliance with the Soviet Union—and, more telling, its support of Churchill’s Britain in 1940 and 1941—was wrong. At that time this was an “isolationist” (in reality, a nationalist and populist) minority, even though a considerable one, represented by such national figures as the former president Herbert Hoover, Senator Robert Taft, and the national hero Charles Lindbergh. But soon after the Second World War, they and their supporters became the core of the American “conservative” movement—worth noting, since three decades later “conservatives” became something like a majority among the American people, electing popular Republican presidents, of a party that had become nationalist and populist. It is true that by now not many American “conservatives” suggest or say that the Second World War was not a good cause; but some of them still do. One example: a book by Patrick Buchanan (once an adviser to and communications director for Ronald Reagan), excoriating Churchill and stating that the entire Second World War against Hitler’s Germany had been a mistake—on a best-seller list in 2008.

No war is truly a good war. It is only that the aims of one war may be better than those of another war. The Second World War was by and large a gigantic global struggle between three forces: Western and parliamentary democracy, represented and incarnated by the English-speaking peoples of the world and by other nations of Western Europe; Communism, represented and incarnated by the Soviet Union; and National Socialism, represented and incarnated by the German Third Reich. And the power of the last, stunningly, was such that it took an alliance of the three, America, Russia, and the British Empire, to defeat it: no one or even two of them sufficed to conquer Hitler’s Germany. In July 1941 in Moscow, Stalin told Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s confidant, that America must enter the war, because Germany’s power was so great that the Russian and the British empires together could not defeat it.

However, in the Pacific, American power sufficed to defeat Japan.


And now I must proceed to dismiss a widespread and untruthful view of the 20th century (historically speaking, a brief century, 75 years long, 1914 to 1989). This is the belief that this century was marked by the struggle of democracy against communism (or of freedom against totalitarianism). If so, then the Second World War, the war against Hitler’s National Socialist Germany, was but an unnatural episode, interrupting the greater “epic” confrontation of democracy against communism.

What nonsense this is. The two great world wars were the two mountain ranges that dominated the entire history of the 20th century. Communist rule in Russia was a result (and only one of the results) of the First World War. The so-called Cold War between democracy and communism (more precisely, between the United States and the Soviet Union) was a consequence of the Second World War, of Hitler’s war. (The dissolution of the great colonial empires, of the British, French, and Dutch, was also a consequence of the two world wars.) And then, hardly more than 40 years after Russia’s victory in 1945, the Soviet empire fell apart, one Communist government disappearing after another, the Russian empire reduced to a size smaller than it had been more than 300 years ago. Had Hitler’s Germany won the war in 1940 or 1941 (and it came very close), there is no reason to believe that the Third Reich, that Germany’s empire, would have collapsed by 1989 (exactly 100 years after Adolf Hitler was born).

Consider something else, too: that comparing the quantity of Stalin’s or Mao Zedong’s victims with that of Hitler’s results in a necessarily imprecise list of numbers—and it tells us nothing. Germany was in the heart, in the center, part and parcel of European and Western civilization, culture, traditions. Russia and of course China were not. Stalin had a predecessor, Ivan the Terrible. Hitler had none. German brutality under Hitler and National Socialism was unprecedented. Russian brutality was not.


Seventy years later we must understand, too, that Germany and National Socialism represented an intellectual and spiritual and ideological movement that for a while—throughout the 1930s and at least during the first part of the Second World War—was very powerful, surely in Europe. By and large this was a reaction against communism and, perhaps even more, against international capitalism, and against the liberal and democratic intellectual ideas and political practices of the 19th century. Such practices seemed antiquated and corrupt by the 1930s, at the latest. We must be careful with these words. A reaction, yes; but reactionary this inclination was not. The mistake of many conservatives across Europe (and especially and disastrously of German conservatives such as Franz von Papen and others) was their belief that the great change, including Hitler, was a natural swinging of the pendulum of history backward, away from the ideas and principles of 1789, of the French Revolution. They—like, alas, many “conservative” thinkers even now—did not see, or did not wish to see, that Hitler and National Socialism were populist and modern (and even democratic, in the narrow sense of that word, extolling popular sovereignty). Hitler’s contempt for the old and creaking aristocratic and monarchical states of the 18th century was deeper and stronger than his dismissal of 1789. (Thomas Carlyle, whom Hitler admired, would, had he lived into the 20th century, unquestionably have admired Hitler. Edmund Burke, who saw 1789 otherwise than Carlyle did, would have not.)

Here is a brief (and necessarily imperfect) list of significant writers, thinkers, and artists whose contempt for the liberal order or disorder (including, in many cases, their anti-Semitism) was such that they, on occasion, identified themselves with Hitler’s (or often with Mussolini’s) ideas, some of them sacrificing their careers and even their lives: the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun; the American Ezra Pound; in France, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Henry de Montherlant; in Germany, Gerhart Hauptmann, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger (the last two at least for a while); the Englishman Wyndham Lewis; Giovanni Papini in Italy; and many less-well-known figures, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, many Austrian, Slovak, Croatian, Hungarian, Romanian, and other writers and poets. Above and beyond them, on a higher level, take a glimpse at two, perhaps greatest and deepest, European thinkers and writers of that time: the Spanish José Ortega y Gasset, who chose to live in self-imposed exile in Argentina in 1939, and the French Catholic Georges Bernanos, a towering figure of Free France, who chose Brazil for his self-imposed exile in 1938. (Each returned to his native country before his death, after the war.) Both kept largely silent about the stunning phenomenon of Hitler, throughout and even after the war. In the nine large volumes of Ortega’s collected works (Obras completas) there is but one mention of Hitler (“a hypernationalist”). In his rare mentions of Hitler, Bernanos, this profound French patriot and prophetic seer, this apostle of resistance against Germany, wrote that Hitler’s rages rose from the depths of the tortured mind of a deeply “humiliated child.”


In 1945 the defeat of Hitler and his Germany was complete; and, except for a small number of embittered ideological fanatics, his movement did not survive the war. Yet one of his important convictions lives on: his recognition that a nation is more important than a state. This is one reason why the word totalitarian, meaning the total police rule of a state, is incorrect. Another reason: the rule of everyday life, even in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia, was never “total” or complete. Even though he often had to consider the interests of the German state not only above the interests of National Socialist ideology but also above those of German nationality, he believed and, on occasion, said that the state is a framework dictated by necessity, while the essence of history is the nation, Volk, whose existence both precedes and survives that of states. Now consider that nationalism—a populist phenomenon, and therefore distinguishable from an old-fashioned patriotism (nationalism is the illegitimate marriage of patriotism with a habitual inferiority complex)—is still the principal political factor even now, 70 years later, in many places of the world, including the United States. Consider, too, that less than six months after Hitler’s disappearance and defeat Juan Perón in Argentina rose to power as the leader of a new nationalist and socialist and populist movement: a minor example, but an example nonetheless.

At that time, too, Stalin’s Russian nationalism had become more and more evident. Here is a major example of the superior timeliness of nationalism over internationalism, or of National Socialism over Communism. Some time in the 1930s Stalin—entirely contrary to Marx and to Lenin—recognized the importance of the state over an internationalist ideology. There are myriad evidences of this. In this case, as in others, Stalin’s nationalism followed Hitler’s. And then, during the war, his rhetoric of a nationalist patriotism, his restoration of the prestige and of some of the powers of the Rus­sian Orthodox Church, his evocation of historic tsarist generals and other precedents were the results not of calculations but of his genuine inclinations. He would propagate and support Communism and Communists abroad, especially in the portion of Europe that fell under his sway, but employing them as secondary instruments of his statesmanship—ultimately to the Soviet Union’s demise. For it was nationalism, much more than economic malfunctionings or the almost complete disappearance of the attractions of an internationalist ideology, that brought about the end of Stalin’s once-great Russian-dominated empire in 1989.

At least in the Western world there are few people who choose to openly rehabilitate Hitler. Even those who respect or admire the Third Reich and National Socialism find it best to attack Hitler’s Second World War opponents rather than openly extol him. We have also seen that the portion of voters who in some countries reject liberalism or parliamentary democracy amounts to about 15 percent—if such electoral statistics are clear indications of national sentiments, which they are not. What we ought to recognize is that most if not all of these political and ideological preferences are rooted in what people, even now, keep thinking about the Second World War.


Was the Second World War inevitable? Was the division of Europe inevitable? Was Hitler inevitable? Was the making of atomic bombs inevitable? Was America’s war against Germany inevitable? Was the Cold War inevitable? I must briefly pursue the meaning of inevitability for the historian. (Inevitable, unavoidable, predestined do not have exactly the same meanings. But that is a linguistic and epistemological question.) Again, in a way—but only in a way—nothing in the history of a man, or of a nation, or of a war, or of an entire civilization is inevitable. But then, in a more mundane sense, this leads us to the sometimes posed question: “What if?” Recently some historians have been occupying themselves with speculations well beyond and beneath the proper province of their work, defining such speculative essays as “counterfactual.” That is an entirely false term. History does not consist of “facts” but of statements of them. “What if?” is a better term, allowing speculations of something not really “counter” but plausibly divergent from the actual result of past events. The proper words are plausible and, especially, actual, words more telling than definite, since every actuality—implicitly, or around its edges—also suggests potentiality. This corresponds to the most important recognition of quantum physics: that the actual existence of an atomic particle is inseparable from its potentiality—an important conjunction of physics and history. This or that event happened; and it could have happened otherwise. But that “otherwise” must include plausibility; it must have been possible and plausible. The great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once wrote: “The historian . . . must always maintain towards his subject an indeterminist point of view. He must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the human factors still seem to permit different outcomes. If he writes of Salamis, then it must be as if the Persians might still win.” Two decades ago I chose this passage to be the epigraph and motto of my book The Duel, dealing with the history of the 80 days between May 10 and July 31, 1940, since at that very time Hitler could have won his war. What if Hitler had subdued England in June 1940? This “What if?” is not a counterfactual question. It is admissible, because the success of Churchill’s and Britain’s defiance of Hitler was not inevitable.

Another great historian, Owen Chadwick, once wrote that there is a mystery in every historical event. That, I think, accords with the great (Portuguese) proverb “God writes straight with crooked lines.” So it was with many events of the Second World War—for example, that the Red Army was a most powerful element in a war that Hitler lost and the Western democracies won.

Let me now ask a painful question that I have often asked myself: Was the Holocaust inevitable? No. Let me put this reasonably: What if there had been no Holocaust?—more precisely, no planned and completed murder of six million Jews and other victims during the Second World War? What if Hitler and his minions had chosen to sequester and corral and deport Jews and other victims of Germany from much of Europe into miserable concentration camps, but not proceed to kill most of them—whereby most Jews and other victims in Europe and in the western Soviet Union would have survived the war? Hitler did think that Jews and his other dangerous opponents must be expelled; but by 1941 there was no way to gather and send them to some faraway place at the end of the world; they had to be liquidated: for what would they do if, God forbid, his Germany lost the war?  Well, there is one certain answer I think I can give to this—not at all implausible—potentiality. It is that, if so, after the war and surely now, 60 or more years later, the reputation of Hitler and of National Socialism would be much better than it is. So these hecatombs of the dead, these “crooked lines” have had at least one “straight” result. (Even those who deny or argue to diminish the extent of the Holocaust do not quite say that, yes, there was a war, and the Jews got what they deserved.)

A last remark. There are still millions of people in Europe, including Germany (and presumably on other continents, too), who admire Hitler. It is remarkable that their leaders and members are silent about Hitler. They do not invoke or even mention his name—presumably because of caution, or to avoid punitive or legal consequences. But their silence about Hitler does not mean his repudiation. And: Will there be a rehabilitation of Hitler in the future? I—we—cannot tell.

John Lukacs is the author of more than 30 books, including Five Days in London: May 1940. His most recent book is A Short History of the Twentieth Century.

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