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From the NS archive: On the death of Hitler, the largest of Little Men

12 May 1945: With the news of Hitler’s death, an unsigned editorial reflects unsparingly on how a figure lacking so much as a “shred of greatness” was allowed to come to power.

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As news of Hitler’s death on 30 April 1945 reached Britain and sunk in, an unsigned editorial in the New Statesman reflected on the man and his rise. In scorching terms the writer asked: “How did this sub-human, stunted product of the European slum” come to prominence and how did other “crude gangsters” of his ilk gain power in Italy, Spain and elsewhere? Even as Europe savoured victory, the editorial pointed the finger at politicians, apologists and enablers and called for a renewal of the checks that guarantee a civilised society.

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Reading the obituaries of Adolf Hitler which have appeared since his reported death, one sees that about him personally there is nothing to be said except that he was the modern Little Man, inflated into a world force and then apotheosised.

There is some quality of greatness which can be detected in all the “great men” of action who hitherto had left their mark on history, even though the mark was almost always a curse and the immense evil that they did lived after them and the little, if any, good was interred with their bones. But in the diseased, perverted egotism of the Führer's personality there was not a shred of greatness; there were only exaggerations of littleness, of meanness, vindictiveness, envy, malice, cunning and cruelty.

The dreary desert of Mein Kampf and the two volumes of Hitler’s speeches reveal a mind remarkable only for its colourless insignificance and its crazy fanaticism; ignorant, stupid and cunning, the author appears to be a kind of depersonalised caricature of all the most despicable qualities of the Little Man.

How did this sub-human, stunted product of the European slum obtain his enormous power in Germany and Europe and become an object of worship in his own country and of admiration and adulation elsewhere? That is one of the most important and puzzling questions which the end of the war and of Hitler raises, for, unless we can answer it correctly, we cannot know what is at the root of the breakdown in our civilisation.

To pretend that the answer is to be found in the obsessions of Vansittartism and a double dose of sin in all Germans is to shirk the issue and to comfort oneself with the illusion that, thank God, we are not as other sinners are. The inter-war years were years when dictators sprouted all over Europe, and they were all Little Men: caricatures of human silliness and viciousness.

There was the tawdry braggart Mussolini, flattered and courted by British Tory Ministers; there were a bunch of Balkan princelets or kinglets; there was the Greek Metaxas; and the rat-like Caudillo is still with us. They have all been worshipped and hated in their own countries, and their power bolstered up by their admirers in the old democracies.

Even in England we had the sinister spectacle of the posturing Mosley and his Blackshirt toughs finding followers among “respectable” people. The Germans are more thorough and carry the logic of stupidity and savagery farther than other European peoples, but the seeds of Hitlerism and its abominations were in the soil of every European nation, and in many besides Germany they flowered and set their poisonous fruit. The flower is the dictatorship of the Little Man and the gangster; the fruit is the rule of everything which is most vile in the slum ideals of capitalist society.

It is not Hitler who has made the bloody desert of our age: it is the desert of our age which made Hitler. If Adolf Hitler had not come to power in Germany, some other stunted Little Man or crude gangster would have seized power and provided the abominations. There are periods in history when power is so unstable, when the forces and beliefs in civilised society become so disorientated that the winds of chance and force may blow almost anyone, anyone who is ruthless and savage enough, into the dictatorship over a people or even over the world.

One side of civilisation consists in the communal control of power. The Roman Republic, when it disintegrated into the Roman Empire, failed to provide this control, and within a hundred years the civilisation of Julius Caesar and Virgil was disappearing in the anarchy and barbarism of the Caracallas and Galluses.

There was the same failure in the capitalist, middle-class civilisation of Europe in the nineteenth century. We failed to establish communal control of economic power, and that produced the anarchy of the capitalist gangster and the class war; we failed – and are failing once more at San Francisco – to establish communal control of national power, and that produced the international anarchy which made the world wars of 1914 and 1939 inevitable.

It is in these periods of anarchy that the Caracallas and Hitlers, the gangsters and the Little Men, find their opportunity and are transformed by the Legions or the Wehrmacht, by the Hugenbergs and Neville Chamberlains, into war lords and world rulers.

Another side of civilisation consists in civilised beliefs. In the economic class war of the 19th century and in the international war of 1914, beliefs and standards which form the basis of civilisation disintegrated. Democracy, liberty and equality, law, justice and humanity are not just words or “machinery”; they are the essential framework of civilised life. From 1914 onwards, the statesmen, writers and ruling classes in the democracies, upon whom depended the upholding of these standards, and therefore of civilisation, again and again betrayed them and compromised with barbarism. Religion and the Churches had long since done the same.

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that Hitler, the depersonalised Little Man, could use the machinery of modern democracy to appeal to the hatred, the envy, all the littlenesses of all the other thwarted Little Men. The result can be seen in Dachau and Buchenwald.

And on Thursday 3 May, 1945 (not 225 AD, but 1945 AD), The Times reported that Mr de Valera called on the German Minister in Dublin to express his condolence of Hitler's death. In the previous week, he must have seen the photographs of Dachau and Buchenwald. He is a Roman Catholic and the head of a State which purports to base its whole policy and actions upon the Christian religion and the Catholic Church. In Mr de Valera's condolences, we can see the degradation of civilised beliefs and standards which made Hitler and his Nazi regime possible.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)