The Holocaust Historiography Project


Hitler as 'Enlightenment Intellectual': The Enduring Allure of Hitlerism

  • Hitler as Philosophe: Remnants of the Enlightenment in National Socialism, by Lawrence Birken. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995. Hardcover. 120 pages. Reference notes. Bibliography. Index. $45.00. 

Reviewed by Mark Weber

A specter is haunting the world — the specter of Hitlerism. That, in short, is the stern warning of this provocative book, written by an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University (Indiana), and published by Praeger, a leading US academic publisher.

In spite of decades of vehement vilification, says author Lawrence Birken, Hitler’s views have enduring and dangerous appeal — not because they are bizarre and alien, but precisely because they are rational and well grounded in Western thought. In particular, Birken stresses, Hitlerism is firmly rooted in the rationalist and scientific outlook of the 18th-century European Enlightenment. This is not meant as a compliment, however; the author is hostile to the West and its traditions. Rejecting the American and Western historical legacy, Prof. Birken openly calls for a new, racially homogenized America.

For more than half a century, Hitler and his views have been ceaselessly demonized in motion pictures, on television and in the print media. And yet, according to Birken, the appeal of Hitlerism remains so potent that it threatens the ideal of a racially “redefined” America of “higher unity.” As traditional standards and long-established cultural, racial and religious values come under ever greater attack, and as this country’s racial and cultural crisis becomes ever more acute, Birken fears that those who are unwilling to accept the “redefined” society that is developing in America and Europe will turn in ever greater numbers to Hitler’s alternative vision of society. Hitlerism, Birken says, will loom ever larger as a dangerously seductive “siren song.”

The author has no doubt made a sincere effort to provide an informed and objective look at Hitler and his views. But even if we overlook the numerous misspellings of proper names and titles, and the often polemical prose style, this is a badly flawed work. Birken’s understanding of what Hitler really thought and believed is both limited and skewed.

This is due in large part to the author’s exclusive reliance on English translations of Hitler’s writings and speeches (apparently he cannot read German), and a naive trust in unreliable secondary studies. These include Robert Waite’s The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (1977), a sensationalistic psychodramatization, and Hermann Rauschning’s Revolution of Nihilism (1939), a thoroughly discredited diatribe. (See “Rauschning’s Phony 'Conversations With Hitler': An Update,” Winter 1985 Journal, pp. 499-500.)

Birken also quotes repeatedly from The Testament of Adolf Hitler: The Hitler-Bormann Documents, supposedly a transcript of “table talk” remarks made by Hitler in February and April 1945. These “documents” are fake, says British historian David Irving, who reports that the late Swiss banker François Genoud admitted to him that he was the author.

'A Genuine Intellectual'

Reflecting the ideological perspective that prevails in the Western world today, scholars of Hitler and Third Reich Germany have tended to dismiss the German leader’s intellectual outlook as simplistic and crude — or even crazy. Many play down or simply deny Hitler’s place in Western culture “as a means of sanitizing that culture,” says Birken. “But if we are to read Hitler neither to condemn nor to praise but merely to understand, then we come away with a very different conclusion about his place in European history.”

Scholars and others have made a major mistake in failing to take Hitler seriously as a thinker, argues Birken, who believes that the German political leader “must be regarded as a genuine intellectual” on a par with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Birken’s assessment is not as startling as many might believe. As he notes, as early as 1953, British historian Hugh R. Trevor-Roper “evoked the image of Hitler as a kind of synthesis of Spengler and Napoleon, noting that of all world conquerors the German leader had been the most 'philosophical'…” More recently, German historian Rainer Zitelmann established in a study of impressive scholarship that Hitler’s outlook was rational, self-consistent and “modern.” (R. Zitelmann, Hitler: Selbtsverständnis eines Revolutionärs [second edition, 1989].)

Moreover, Hitler’s outlook was very much a part of the Western intellectual tradition. In his “combination of an almost religious faith with a revolutionary secularism,” writes Birken, “Hitler represented the continuation of an essentially Enlightenment style of thought… Nazism, and especially Hitler’s exposition of it, represented an attenuated and popularized form of the Enlightenment style of thought.”

Hitler had a gift for presenting his message in an attractive, accessible form. Writes Birken:

The most attractive feature of Hitler’s ideology was thus its optimism. It was not merely his mood but his message that carried an infectious excitement. He was a secular messiah proclaiming a Germanic version of the “good news.” The possibility of class reconciliation, the plans for a national revival, the identification of a universal enemy whose elimination would usher in the millennium, all stirred his audiences to the very depths. Hitler spoke the language of the [Enlightenment] philosophes, a language that had almost passed out of existence in the rarefied strata of the grand intelligentsia.

However, placing Hitler and Hitlerism in the intellectual tradition of the West, Birken continues, “should do less to raise our opinion” of Hitlerism, than to “lower our opinion” of “the intellectual history of the West.”

Economic Views

Hitler’s economic worldview, writes Birken, was likewise rational, self-consistent, progressive, and entirely in keeping with Western tradition. “Hitler’s economic ideas were also permeated by Enlightenment notions of progress,” and were “closer to Ricardo and Marx than to Machiavelli or Keynes.” Birken adds:

…A careful reading of his speeches and writings suggests that he was neither a mercantilist nor a Keynesian, neither a medievalist nor a marginalist. Rather… his economic ideas fit all too well into the classical-physiocratic style of thought.

Hitler believed that social and national considerations, not economic ones, should be paramount in society. The economic and political system must serve the nation, not the other way around. Thus, Birken points out, while “political economy played an important role in his thinking,” Hitler

did not restore the primacy of the state after all but, quite the contrary, subordinated the state itself to a dynamic of aggressive technological and cultural expansion. In doing this, Hitler also asserted himself against the last remnants of aristocratic civility at the same time that he opposed the emerging relativism of consumer culture.

As Birken explains, Hitler believed that “all growth could be traced to individual effort — but only at the service of the common good. He thus tempered what might be taken as a 'libertarian' definition of inventiveness with a somber collectivism.” Believing that socially useful creativity was “the product of individual geniuses of high personality value,” Hitler supported equal social opportunity for all, and opposed legal and social barriers to individual economic achievement and success. Governmental and social policies, he believed, should encourage merit-based social mobility.

Hitler was critical of both capitalism and Marxism — the first because it was “insufficiently democratic,” and the latter because it was “too democratic” or “leveling.” While supporting economic growth across national boundaries, “Hitler also took what he considered to be a conservative stand against the coming hyper-commercialism of an emerging global economy.”

Views on Race and Religion

Although he is endlessly castigated as “the most notorious racist of the twentieth century,” Hitler’s racial views were actually quite in harmony with mainstream 19th- and early 20th-century European thinking. “It should be obvious,” writes Birken, “that Hitler possessed a 'classical' theory of race which dovetailed nicely with his classical notions of political economy.”

Far from being aberrant or bizarre, his views on race were consistent with those of most prominent Westerners in the decades before the Second World War. And while Birken does not specifically mention it, Hitler’s racial views were comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill.

Contrary to popular belief, Hitler never supported notions of breeding a homogenous blond “hyper-Aryan” race. Accepting the reality that the German population consisted of several distinct sub-racial groups, he stressed the German people’s national and social unity. A certain degree of racial variety was desirable, he thought, and too much racial blending or homogeneity could be harmful because it would homogenize and thus eliminate superior as well as inferior genetic traits.

Hitler believed that “both conservative prudery and radical eroticism” harmed society, and he opposed birth control because it tended to lower the genetic quality of the society that practices it.

While he was critical of Christianity, Hitler was no atheist. “The religion of Hitlerism was thus essentially a kind of deism,” concludes Birken. Like Thomas Jefferson and other prominent early American leaders, Hitler equated God with “the dominion of natural laws throughout the whole universe.” Thus, “for Hitler, national socialism was natural socialism.”

Attitude Toward Jews

It is “of course, a great mistake to see anti-Semitism as a rejection of Enlightenment values,” writes Birken. “On the contrary, the Enlightenment simply secularized rather than destroyed traditional Judeophobia.” (No Western thinker was more outspokenly anti-Jewish than Voltaire, the great French philosophe, who regarded the Jews as “enemies of mankind.") The Enlightenment concept of social “fraternity,” Birken writes, demands social solidarity, which implies that Jews, as an alien and self-absorbed people, cannot fit in.

Hitler’s hostile attitude toward Jews, Birken writes, was neither irrational nor aberrant. He saw “Jews as the personification of a great lie": that is, while they pretended to be merely a religious community, in fact they constituted a self-selected national-ethnic group with international ambitions. Because he regarded the Jews as the enemies of all peoples, Hitler held that combatting Jewish power and influence should be the common duty of all nations — a view that Birken calls an expression of “Germanic universalism.”

The United States

Hitler’s attitude toward the United States was mixed. He saw much to admire in 18th- and 19th-century America, and as Birken notes, he praised this country’s pre-1940s pro-White racial policies, its restrictions on non-White immigration, and its pioneering adoption of eugenics measures.

But Hitler also saw ominous trends during the 1920s and 1930s. Echoing the views of American industrialist Henry Ford, he was dismayed by the spectacular growth of Jewish power and cultural influence, and regarded Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration as a virtual revolution in American life, through which Jews largely usurped the country’s traditional ruling class.

A Persistent Allure

The defeat of Germany in 1945, Birken rightly notes, “clearly marked a watershed” in world history, and especially for the West:

In a real sense, Hitler’s defeat implicitly became the defeat of the European nation-state and the Enlightenment values that underpinned it. Germany’s heirs, the United States and the Soviet Union, were both fundamentally transnational, multiracial empires whose territories were seemingly unlimited.

As a result, for half a century we have been living in what Birken calls a “consumer capitalist” world in which “the hierarchical order of sex and race which had originally sustained bourgeois nationalism has been disintegrating” and in which “the increasing relativization of values is encouraged by the ever greater globalization of the economy and consequent emergence of a multinational business elite.”

This new world order is less durable than it might appear, says Birken. The recent collapse of the multi-ethnic, multi-racial Soviet Union, he warns, portends similar problems for the American empire. Even a mere contraction of the economy could threaten “to dissolve the United States into several races.” In Birken’s view, racial nationalism threatens “the continued existence of the United States.” He warns:

What Hitler said in the thirties is thus what our racial nationalists are saying today: namely, that a genuinely inclusive multiracial nation violates the natural order of things. The United States must either be a white-dominated state or a collection of breakaway republics made up of this or that group.

In short: if Hitler was right, America is an increasingly unnatural and artificial construct that does not deserve to survive, and will not survive.

Birken fears that Hitlerism will become ever more attractive to those who reject today’s supra-national “consumer capitalism,” and who resist the rapidly emerging “genuinely inclusive multiracial” order. This alternative vision has appeal beyond America and Europe, Birken believes. As he notes, Hitler’s fight against the British empire — a war he actually never sought nor wanted — “won him [Hitler] the admiration of colonial peoples from Ireland to India …”

A New 'Cosmic' Nation

Birken concludes his book with a fervent call for “the gradual formation of an American race as a higher synthesis. Then the Americans will truly constitute a universal or 'cosmic' people.” In Birken’s view, the “race myth” and Hitlerism “will continue to tempt us” unless Americans “can be given a genuine metaphysical foundation.” This “metaphysical foundation” must be to “uncreate race” through massive racial mixing. Therefore, Birken writes, “we should not be afraid of that dirty little word, 'miscegenation'.” (Consistent with this vision, President Bill Clinton, in his much-discussed June 14, 1997, speech in San Diego on race relations, openly proclaimed the goal of making America “the world’s first truly multiracial democracy.")

Given the reluctance of many Americans, particularly conservative Whites, to warmly embrace this new “universal” nation, Birken says “we must have an education system that is able to instill this redefinition of American culture.”

“Before we try uniting the world,” Birken concludes, “let us try uniting ourselves. Until we do so, the siren song of Hitlerism will call to us.”

Stark Alternatives

To anyone who views the past with an open mind, history demonstrates the utterly fantastic nature of the goal laid out by Prof. Birken (and President Clinton) — a vision no less utopian than Marxian Communism. In any case, to meld the American population into a “universal” racial-cultural entity would require government repression on a scale unimaginable today.

Few Americans today are able or willing to fully grasp the enormous implications of the radical program that intellectuals such as Birken (and political leaders such as Clinton) are spelling out for our future. But once they do (and as Prof. Birken fears) many will likely turn to Hitlerism as an alternative to the official prevailing ideology. The decades-long campaign of vilification of Hitler and Third Reich Germany may actually contribute to this by convincing millions of Americans that Hitlerism is the antithesis of the Establishment’s ideology, and thus the only real alternative.

In spite of its defects, Hitler as Philosophe effectively dispels some widely-held misconceptions about Hitler and Hitlerism, acknowledges the critical importance of the race issue, and boldly spells out stark alternatives for the future of America and Europe. For this the author deserves credit.