Hitler: What the Führer Means for Germans Today

The Economist, 19.12.2015
  • Seventy years after Adolf Hitler’s death, how Germans see him is changing


In Germany, as in the rest of Europe, copyright expires seven decades after the author’s year of death. That applies even when the author is Adolf Hitler and the work is “Mein Kampf”. Since 1945, the state of Bavaria has owned the book’s German-language rights and has refused to allow its republication. German libraries stock old copies, and they can be bought and sold. But from January 1st no permission will be needed to reprint it.

Those living outside Germany may not immediately grasp the significance of the moment. “Mein Kampf” has always been available in translation and is now just a click away online. But that is not the point. For Germans, the expiry of the copyright has caused hand-wringing and controversy. The question, as they ring in the new year, is not what to do about “Mein Kampf” as it enters the public domain. Rather, it is what Hitler means for Germany today.

“Mein Kampf” is a mix of autobiography and manifesto that Hitler began writing during a rather comfortable prison stay after his failed putsch of 1923. It was first published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926. The title means “My Struggle”, and Hitler certainly struggled with syntax, grammar and style. One contemporary reviewer ridiculed it as “Mein Krampf” (My Cramp). Much of it is dull or incomprehensible today. Some phrases demand parody: “Columbus’s eggs lie around by the hundreds of thousands, but Columbuses are met with less frequently.”

Woven into the prose are crude Social Darwinism and anti-Semitism that resonated even beyond Germany, as well as hints of the author’s murderous potential. Having been gassed by the British in the first world war, Hitler writes: if some of the “Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.”

It is not clear how many Germans read the tome. But after 1933, when Hitler seized power, it became a bestseller. From 1936 some municipalities gave it to newlyweds after their vows, and by the end of the second world war about 13m copies were in print.

After the war it fell to the Americans to decide what to do about the book, because Hitler’s last private address, in Munich, was in their sector. The Third Reich was gone and the Federal Republic of Germany would not be born until 1949. So the Americans transferred the rights to the government of Bavaria. It banned printing of the book.

This approach reflected the first post-war phase in the German treatment of Hitler’s legacy. The idea was to suppress anything that might tempt the Germans to fall back under his spell. The Allies and the new German government followed a policy of “de-nazification”, under which known Nazis were banned from important positions. But as the cold war unfolded, West Germany was needed as an ally. For lack of alternatives, ministries, courtrooms and schools employed former Nazis again.

In the late 1940s and 1950s Germans avoided discussing Hitler. Many men were returning from captivity. Many women had been raped. People had been displaced, orphaned or widowed. Germans had been both perpetrators and victims, and had no words for their state of mind. Many were traumatised and could not bear to talk about their experiences. They found it psychologically easier to dwell in the present and keep busy with the Wirtschaftswunder, the post-war “economic miracle”. Many still denied the full scale of the Holocaust. According to Thomas Sandkühler, author of “Adolf H.”, a recent biography, a poll in the 1950s found that almost half of West Germans thought Hitler would have been “one of the greatest German statesmen” if he had not started the war.

A new phase began in the 1960s, after the Israelis captured, tried and executed Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi. This made more details of the Holocaust public. Starting in 1963, 22 former SS men were prosecuted in Frankfurt for their crimes in Auschwitz. The Germans were glued to these cases: 20,000 people went to the Frankfurt courtroom during the sessions. For the first time Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coping with the past”) came to kitchen tables, where it split families.

Sons and daughters accused their parents and professors of complicity and rebelled at home and on campus. Their elders retreated into sanitised tales of what they had done or lived through. A husband-and-wife team of psychoanalysts, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, called this pathology “the inability to grieve” in a book of that title published in 1967. This mired the Germans in an ongoing moral and psychological crisis, they thought.

Official Germany found two responses. East Germany adopted the fiction that its righteous communists had resisted the “fascists” all along. In effect, it never reckoned with the past. But West Germany accepted its guilt and atoned publicly. It became a pacifist society, often called “post-heroic” in contrast to the Allies’ warrior cultures. It also became “post-national”: West Germans rarely flew their flag and barely whispered their anthem at sporting events. The young sought identity either sub-nationally (as Swabians or Bavarians, say) or supra-nationally, as good Europeans.

But starting in the 1970s a pent-up fascination with Hitler began to re-emerge. Two biographies and a documentary came out, and in 1979 Germany aired “Holocaust”, an American television series, which shocked Germans into a new round of soul-searching. Many changed their perceptions in a way that Richard von Weizsäcker, then West Germany’s president, expressed in a historic speech in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of Germany’s surrender. May 8th 1945 was not the date of Germany’s defeat and collapse, he said, but of its liberation.

After reunification in 1990—the formal end of the post-war era—the German public became ravenous for more research. Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine, featured Hitler on its cover 16 times during the 1990s. A book by an American historian, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, in which he argued that ordinary Germans were “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, became a hit. A museum exhibition about the Wehrmacht, Germany’s wartime army, argued that ordinary soldiers (rather than just the SS) had participated in the Holocaust. Germans queued around the block to see it.

But there was a parallel trend towards what Germans call “Hitler porn” and “Hitler kitsch”. The Führer became a marketing tool. It started in the 1980s when Stern, a magazine, published what it alleged was Hitler’s diary, a sensation that turned out to be fake. Since the 1990s the history channel on German television has aired almost nightly documentaries on Hitler’s women, henchmen, last days, ailments, table silver or German Shepherd dog (called Blondi). Any footage of the small man with the toothbrush moustache draws an audience. In that way, Hitler has become like sex and violence: bait to sell copies or to grab attention.

But this fascination also suggests a new distance. Most of the audience, after all, now have no personal recollection of Hitler. This explains another genre: satire. During his lifetime, it was Germany’s enemies who parodied Hitler, as in Charlie Chaplin’s film of 1940, “The Great Dictator”. But in 1998 Walter Moers became the first German satirist to score a hit with a comic strip, “Adolf, die Nazi-Sau” (“Adolf, the Nazi pig”). Its producer called the character “the greatest pop star we’ve ever created”.

The latest bestseller is “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes, translated into English this year. Hitler wakes up in today’s Berlin near his old bunker. Disoriented at first, he so amuses everybody he meets, including his Turkish dry-cleaner, that he is launched on a meteoric career as a comedian. His hip colleagues are convinced that he is a consummate “messed ekta” (Berlinish-English for method actor) offering a subtle critique of modern media culture.

For young Germans the Führer has thus receded far enough into the past to seem outlandish and weird rather than potentially seductive. In “Look Who’s Back”, he regurgitates inane phrases from “Mein Kampf”, such as: “The titmouse seeks the titmouse, the finch the finch, the stork the stork, the field mouse the field mouse…” But the words and the diction, with its famously rolled “r”, have no effect other than hilarity.

For the football World Cup in 2006 the black-red-and-gold came out everywhere

One by one, post-war taboos connected to Hitler are vanishing. Flag-waving is one. A breakthrough occurred in 2006, when Germany hosted the football World Cup. For the first time since the war the black-red-and-gold came out everywhere, draping balconies, prams, cars and bikinis. But so did the flags of the visiting countries, and Germany turned into one big street party. Hosts and visitors perceived it as nothing but fun.

In a poll by YouGov this year, Germans were asked what person or thing they associate with Germany. They named Volkswagen first (awkwardly, given subsequent revelations of its cheating). Then came Goethe and Angela Merkel, the chancellor, next the anthem, the national football team and Willy Brandt, a former chancellor. Hitler ranked a distant seventh at 25%. In the same poll 70% of Germans said they were proud of their country. About as many thought that Germany was a model of tolerance and democracy, and that it was time to stop feeling guilt and shame.

Forever abnormal

And yet 75% also said that Hitler’s crimes mean Germany still cannot be a “normal” country and must play a “special international role”. This means that many Germans somehow combine both pride and penance. Attempts to resolve this inner conflict shape much of German culture today, even when the subject ostensibly has nothing to do with Hitler.

Start with Germany’s political discourse. In contrast to the French, British and Americans, Germans worry a lot about surveillance by governments, whether foreign or German. The anxiety stems from memories of Hitler’s Gestapo (and more recently the East German Stasi). There is also a wide consensus that Germany has a special responsibility towards Israel. Pacifism runs through all mainstream political parties.

Indeed Germany is discomfited by power generally, especially its own. At home and abroad it advocates right over might. Hence its apparent obsession with rules, even to the exasperation of its partners (in the euro crisis, for example). Hence also its reluctance to act like a “hegemon”, as its allies often demand. Asked whether Mrs Merkel is “the most powerful leader in the European Union”, her spokesman replies indignantly: “Those are not the categories in which we think.”

In political style, too, Germany seems to want constantly to prove that it has moved on from Hitler. Germans flocked to Barack Obama when he visited Berlin as a candidate in 2008 in part for his soaring oratory. But they would never accept such rhetoric in their own politicians, for it would remind them of Hitler’s demagogic charisma. Led by Mrs Merkel, “the entire German political class uses a kind of sanitised Lego language, snapping together prefabricated phrases made of hollow plastic”, says Timothy Garton Ash, a British Germanophile at Oxford University. “Because of Hitler, the palette of contemporary German political rhetoric is deliberately narrow, cautious and boring.”

Domestic life is governed by Germany’s post-war constitution, which was adopted in 1949 as a direct rejoinder to Hitler’s worldview and has become a source of patriotism today. Its first article stipulates that “human dignity shall be inviolable”. This translates into police practices that would count as touchy-feely in America, prisons that resemble low-budget hotels, and one of Europe’s most welcoming policies towards asylum-seekers, despite all the strain that this has imposed during the current refugee crisis.

But because of Hitler, the Germans “no longer dare to develop grand visions”, argues Stephan Grünewald, a German psychologist and author of “Germany on the Couch”. They resist getting excited about big ideas lest they succumb again to some obsession. Instead, Germans publicly don a “cool indifference” in an atmosphere of stultifying political correctness. They are willing to back big reforms—as in the country’s energy transition to renewables—only when there is no moral ambiguity. Part of them, says Mr Grünewald, still yearns to graduate from the “historical position of world destroyer to that of world saviour”.

This does not mean that Hitler made today’s Germans boring. Official Germany still displays virtues the world considers German, such as punctuality and reliability. But behind this “protective shield”, say psychologists at Rheingold Salon, a market-research firm in Cologne, many Germans adopt highly idiosyncratic lifestyles in everything from hobbies to sex. Contrary to stereotype, Germans are often secret eccentrics.

The hidden Schmerz and Angst

There is, however, an even more intimate domain in which Hitler continues to torment older and middle-aged Germans: their minds. One generation, defined roughly as those born between 1928 and 1947, is called the Kriegskinder (“war children”). The other, born between 1955 and 1970 or so, consists of their children and is called the Kriegsenkel (“war grandchildren”). These terms come from Helmut Radebold, a psychotherapist who is now 80 years old. As a war child he was evacuated from Berlin when it was bombed and then “overrun by the Russians”. At night his mother dug a hole in haystacks, curled up inside and made little Helmut lie on top of her to avoid being found and raped.

In the 1980s Mr Radebold was treating men of his generation for various psychological ailments. Gradually, he saw connections to the war, because these Kriegskinder had “never been allowed to grieve”. “I myself became depressed and often cried,” Mr Radebold recalls. “My own history caught up with me.” He began writing books about the phenomenon.

Much of what seems strange today about some older Germans has roots in these repressed memories, he says. Why do these people squirrel away food amid plenty? Why are they scared of fireworks or sirens? Why do some women in nursing homes wail uncontrollably when male carers come to change their nappies at night? As the Kriegskinder age, he says, old traumas resurface.

Their children, the Kriegsenkel, have different problems. As they grew up, their parents were often emotionally frozen. The elders came out of the war in a sedated or numb state from which they never fully emerged, says Sabine Bode, another writer on the topic. This impaired relations with their children, who, by intuiting what must never be said or what was omitted with a sigh, inherited their parents’s trauma. Later, as adults, they asked—as Mr Radebold’s daughter did—questions such as: Why were you never interested in our little problems? And why do we have nightmares about your firebombings?

In recent years support groups have formed for the grandchildren of the war. Only about 40% of middle-aged Germans share such “transgenerational” trauma, says Mr Radebold. But much of the stereotypical German angst and yearning for order and stability originates here. Mrs Bode thinks that many of the Kriegsenkel today have “lower life energy”.

As “Mein Kampf” loses its copyright, German society is more complex than ever. One in five Germans today has immigrant roots and thus no family link to Hitler’s time. Many of the young know little history and find Hitler alien and fascinating. A few—somewhat more in what used to be East Germany—shout Sieg heil at neo-Nazi rock concerts because they are drawn to Hitler’s ability to shock the establishment. Other Germans have complex cocktails of emotions. They are extra-keen to do good—by helping refugees, for example. Yet they remain afraid of themselves and their compatriots.

And so Germany remains vigilant, if not quite paranoid. Most federal states ban licence plates with certain combinations (such as HH 88, code for “Heil Hitler”). An effort is under way to ban a neo-Nazi party called NPD, even though it won a mere 1% in the European elections of 2014.

Releasing “Mein Kampf” into the public domain was thus never going to be easy. In 2012 Bavaria convened Jewish and Roma representatives in Nuremberg for a discussion. They agreed that Bavaria should fund a scholarly edition to drive new right-wing publications out of the market and demystify the book. The state parliament approved the plan unanimously. A research institute was selected and got to work. But later that year Bavaria’s premier, Horst Seehofer, visited Israel, where some victims’ groups opposed the plan.

Faced with these conflicting attitudes, Bavarian officialdom took fright. In 2013 the state pulled out of the scholarly effort, which now proceeds without official backing. Meanwhile, the justice ministers of the 16 federal states have said that they will continue to prosecute anybody hawking the book for “incitement of the people”.

If a country can ever be said to be good, Germany today can. And yet Germans know that whenever others are angry with them, they will paint a Hitler moustache on posters of their chancellor. Many Germans are fed up with this—with being “blackmailed”, as Bild, the leading tabloid, complained this spring, when Greece unexpectedly brought war reparations into negotiations about bail-outs in the euro crisis. Other Germans, mainly on the left, fret about a new “post-post-nationalism”, as Germany tentatively articulates its self-interest abroad. For most countries, this would count as normal. For Germany, it remains complicated.

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