Hitler Revised: Just Goin’ With the Flow

9 Mar

Bad boy Charlie Sheen’s ravings are strange, even frightening, but nowhere close to the evil rants of Adolf Hitler, the benchmark for public madmen in modern history. Or so I had thought. But it seems that 70-plus years after the start of World War II, historians are updating the common wisdom about the all-powerful German dictator.

Recent revisionist tracts, such as the diplomatic history 1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy, tell us that Hitler didn’t want to start a world war and had no plans to conquer all of Europe let alone the globe. He merely wanted to make Germany the dominant nation in the middle of the continent. You know, just a little extra room for the German people to stretch out. Nothing to fight about.

On the military and economic history front, Joe Maiolo’s Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941 reveals that Hitler was only keeping pace with the arms buildup among other nations. England has tanks and bombers and warships; France has tanks and bombers and warships; the Soviet Union has tanks and bombers and warships, so, this logic goes, the Third Reich better damn well have tanks and bombers and warships, too. Hitler was simply following the crowd.

The Nazi leader, these tomes argue, was just a victim of his circumstances. Even without him the Second World War would likely have been inevitable. So, you see, Uncle Adolf was just playing out his role in the relentless march of history.

And speaking of Hitler playing his role, it’s now much in vogue to play Hitler in a role on the big screen. Comedies mocking the man tend to be popular among filmmakers, if not audiences, such as the 2007 flop My Fuehrer: The Really Total Truth About Adolph Hitler and this year’s Mein Kampf. (Of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers opened the door for these iffy movies.) But dramas have also emerged, including the riveting 2004 Downfall, about which critics worried that by showing the monster Hitler as merely a man who loves dogs and is kind to secretaries would subvert his place as the worst person in history.

But our firm faith that Hitler was the primary force behind the death and destruction of World War II is not built on ideas from movies. It comes from reading history. A history that some, apparently, want to alter.

Historical determinists like Overy and Maiolo eschew the “great men theory” of history. That is, whether you’re a Hitler or a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a Stalin, you are merely a bigger piece of flotsam in the relentless river of history, but flotsam all the same. No matter who you are, determinists reason, history will carry you along, you cannot make history happen. History is bigger than any single individual. Even a Hitler.

That’s nonsense. Men and women make history by their choices. When George W. Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, all the evidence in the world refuting Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 or his collection of WMDs could not stop his single-mindedness. He could have said stop at any moment. But he didn’t. He chose to make history by starting a war. As I write this the Libyan people have joined the surge for freedom in the Arabic world, but one man, the nation’s dictator, is using his will and power to thwart the movement in the region. It’s his choice to battle against democratic urges among his people. And he may prevail.

Naturally, people are molded and influenced by their environment, their times, their family, friends, colleagues, and more. Ultimately, though, they make their own decisions. Others may choose to follow along or not, that’s their decision. This obvious truth is why the lame excuse among Germans at Dachau or Americans at Abu Ghraib that they were “just following orders” rings so hollow. People are responsible for their own actions.

It probably won’t take revisionists 70 years to explain and rationalize Charlie Sheen’s antics as being something beyond his control. He’s just another poor victim of circumstance. You know, like that Hitler guy.

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