Was Hitler rational?
I have taken various courses in history over the years but sitting and listening to someone lecturing on a given historical period is in my view at best merely an introduction to that period. I like to do what all historians are supposed to do -- go back to the original documents and actually read them. And by doing that I often come to conclusions which are well outside what is popularly believed.
For instance, I have remarked at times on this blog that both the American Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta are quite different to how they are popularly conceived and that the generally unknown content is in fact very enlightening and gives us a different view of the times.
And the same goes for an understanding of Hitler. It is quite clear to me that many historians of the period have not read Mein Kampf. Yet that is where Hitler explains himself at great length. Is how he himself saw the world of no interest when we want to explain what he did? Reading Mein Kampf certainly kicks the legs out from under the usual tale about Hitler and the Vienna art school -- and that tale still seems to be the most usual account of Hitler's motivations.
But my reading in the history of the Nazi period rather pales into insignificance compared with the massive reading that psychohistorian Richard Koenigsberg has undertaken. I have put up some of his articles here. And Koenigsberg comes to some clear conclusions that are well supported in Nazi writings. Like the earlier American Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century, Hitler was much seized with the analogy between a nation and a human body. He saw Germany as a living body that had been infected by a dangerous Jewish parasite that had to be removed for the sake of the nation's health.
Koenigsberg goes further, however. He says that Hitler had no rational objectives as they would normally be conceived. I think I need to quote him at some length here:
In spite of Hitler’s nearly psychotic anti-Semitism, historians often write about his decision to go to war as if it grew out of "rational" considerations. Questions are posed regarding Hitler’s strategies and tactics: Why did he attack the Soviet Union in the midst of Germany’s struggle to defeat Great Britain? Why were British forces allowed to escape at Dunkirk? Why did Hitler gratuitously declare war against the United States? Why did Hitler launch the Final Solution in the midst of war—causing massive diversion of human and material resources?
These kinds of questions grow out of the assumption that Hitler more-or-less knew what he was doing. He sought to achieve certain objectives, but made "mistakes" along the way that prevented him from reaching his goals. In my view, the assumption that Hitler understood why he wished to wage war—and knew what he expected to accomplish by doing so—is unfounded.
Hitler’s words and thoughts on warfare bear an eerie resemblance to the words and thoughts of Saddam Hussein. Like Hussein, Hitler rarely spoke of warfare in terms of winning or "victory." Rather, Hitler’s thinking about war revolved around the idea that individuals are obligated to sacrifice their lives for their nation.
Hitler asserted that any man who loves his people proves it solely by the "sacrifices which he is prepared to make for it." To be "national," Hitler said, was to be willing to act with a "boundless and all-embracing love for the people" and if necessary "to die for it." Giving one’s life for one’s country, Hitler believed, constituted the "crown of sacrifice."
Hitler declared war on September 1, 1939. Speaking before the Reichstag as German planes and troops crossed the Polish borders in a devastating Blitzkrieg, he said:
As a National Socialist and a German soldier, I enter upon this fight with a stout heart! My whole life has been but one continuous struggle for my people, and that whole struggle has been inspired by one single conviction: Faith in my people! I ask of every German what I myself am prepared to do at any moment: to be ready to lay down his life for his people and for his country. If anyone thinks that he can evade this national duty directly or indirectly, he will perish.
Hitler does not begin the Second World War by telling the German people that he is embarking on a quest to conquer the world. Rather, insisting that his fight is inspired by "faith in his people," he asks every German to be willing to: "lay down his life" for his people and country. Hitler goes on to say that if anyone tries to evade this national duty (to lay down one’s life), this person would "perish."
In his declaration of war, Hitler tells everyone what he is going to do—what will happen. What he said he was going to do—eventually is what did happen. The Second World War provided the occasion for the German people to sacrifice their lives for Germany. What’s more, Hitler acted to bring about the death of anyone whom he imagined refused to embrace the sacrificial imperative. The essence of Hitler’s ideology was: die for Germany—or we will kill you.
Hitler’s concept of self-sacrifice for Germany does not differ substantially from the Islamic concept of martyrdom for Allah. Willingness to forfeit one’s life—in each instance—is understood as a way of demonstrating the depth of one’s faith in and devotion to a sacred object. The individual gives witness to the sincerity of his belief by virtue of his willingness to make the "supreme sacrifice."
People become attached to ideologies conceived as absolutes. These ideologies or symbolic objects have names such as "Communism," or "Germany," or "Allah." Collective forms of violence— warfare, genocide and terrorism—come into being when a group (inspired by a leader) seeks to demonstrate its devotion to the ideology or symbolic object with which the group identifies. By killing and dying in the name of a sacred ideology, the group "gives witness" to the significance of its ideology.
So all Hitler was trying to do was to assert the rightness of a belief system. I would put it slightly differently by saying that Hitler was trying to prove that Germany was lovable, or at least respect-worthy. And as a response to the shame of defeat in WWI that is understandable. The obvious retort to that, however, is that Hitler sure had a strange way of getting Germany loved and respected! But, don't forget, Leftists often achieve the opposite of what they appear to want. So Hitler can be seen as just a typical muddle-headed socialist.
One cannot dispute Koenigsberg's reading. Hitler did say the things that Koeingsberg says he said. But Koenigsberg is Left-leaning so we also have to look at the other things that Hitler said to get a balanced picture. And Hitler's Drang nach Osten (push Eastwards) is justified by him quite lucidly -- in a way that every Greenie would understand. He saw that Germany's population was growing while resources were fairly static so thought that famine loomed for Germany. To this day, Greenies are still screeching about how we are about to run out of various resources. Hitler was a good Greenie.
So Hitler was in fact quite clear about his war objectives. He was a shallow thinker but not an irrational one. He wanted to get Lebensraum (Living space, agricultural land, food resources) for Germany by taking it off Poland and Russia. And it was of course his attack on Poland that caused the reluctant Neville Chamberlain and others to declare war on Germany.
I have shown elsewhere that Hitler was not insane but I think it is clear that he was not particularly irrational either. Sane people can do irrational things at times and perhaps Hitler did too, but his going to war was not irrational.
I think that Koenigsberg has to a degree been misled by Hitler's propaganda. Hitler justified his demands in various ways and many of them were emotional appeals rather than anything that stood up to rational analysis. He pulled every trick out of the hat that he could in order to get Germans to go along with him. He was even a great preacher of "peace", for instance, and antisemitism was popular worldwide at the time. And he succeeded brilliantly, to our everlasting horror. And Leftism IS very emotional and in slight touch with reality. Remember the ecstasy of Obama's first Presidential campaign? "We are the ones we have been waiting for". Very Hitlerite.
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).