My title is intended to be quadruply functional: the four books raise four interpenetrating problems - and not one problem per book either. That Hitler himself remains an incurable problem is proved by our civilisation's continued, compulsive preoccupation with his personality - which a George Steiner even undertook to reinvent: his The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. has been reviewed in these pages, nor are Norman Stone, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes always less fanciful. And if Hitler's personality remains an unanswered question, so too, does the history of National Socialism - which a book like Robert Harbison's recent Deliberate Regression: The disastrous history of Romantic individualism in thought and art, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to 20th-century fascism (1980) interprets as dreamfully as Steiner recreates Hitler. The reason why I quote Harbison's enormous subtitle in full is that it is symptomatic of one of our intellectual age's grand delusions - of the belief that Hitler has a specific history in German Romanticism. It is a delusion which Peter Paret and especially William Vaughan are quite ready to take for reality, while Norman Stone's own dreams about 'the positive qualities of Hitler, his real achievements' (thus Professor J.H. Plumb's Introduction) aid and abet it: if Hitler was some sort of genius, he is part of the history of German, nationalistic genius. The whitewashing of Hitler goes together with the soiling of his past.
LRB 5 February 1981 | PDF Download