Book Review: Hitler in Hell

 

“Hitler in Hell” by Martin van CreveldMartin van Creveld is an Israeli military theorist and historian, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of seventeen books of military history and strategy, including The Transformation of War, which has been hailed as one of the most significant recent works on strategy. In this volume he turns to fiction, penning the memoirs of the late, unlamented Adolf Hitler from his current domicile in Hell, “the place to which the victors assign their dead opponents.” In the interest of concision, in the following discussion I will use “Hitler” to mean the fictional Hitler in this work.

Hitler finds Hell more boring than hellish—“in some ways it reminds me of Landsberg Prison”. There is no torture or torment, just a never-changing artificial light and routine in which nothing ever happens. A great disappointment is that neither Eva Braun nor Blondi is there to accompany him. As to the latter, apparently all dogs go to heaven. Rudolf Hess is there, however, and with that 1941 contretemps over the flight to Scotland put behind them, has resumed helping Hitler with his research and writing as he did during the former’s 1924 imprisonment. Hell has broadband!—Hitler is even able to access the “Black Internetz” and read, listen to, and watch everything up to the present day. (That sounds pretty good—my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.)

Hitler tells the story of his life: from childhood, his days as a struggling artist in Vienna and Munich, the experience of the Great War, his political awakening in the postwar years, rise to power, implementation of his domestic and foreign policies, and the war and final collapse of Nazi Germany. These events, and the people involved in them, are often described from the viewpoint of the present day, with parallels drawn to more recent history and figures.

What makes this book work so well is that van Creveld’s Hitler makes plausible arguments supporting decisions which many historians argue were irrational or destructive: going to war over Poland, allowing the British evacuation from Dunkirk, attacking the Soviet Union while Britain remained undefeated in the West, declaring war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, forbidding an orderly retreat from Stalingrad, failing to commit armour to counter the Normandy landings, and fighting to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences to Germany and the German people. Each decision is justified with arguments which are plausible when viewed from what is known of Hitler’s world view, the information available to him at the time, and the constraints under which he was operating.

Much is made of those constraints. Although embracing totalitarianism (“My only regret is that, not having enough time, we did not make it more totalitarian still”), he sees himself surrounded by timid and tradition-bound military commanders and largely corrupt and self-serving senior political officials, yet compelled to try to act through them, as even a dictator can only dictate, then hope others implement his wishes. “Since then, I have often wondered whether, far from being too ruthless, I had been too soft and easygoing.” Many apparent blunders are attributed to lack of contemporary information, sometimes due to poor intelligence, but often simply by not having the historians’ advantage of omniscient hindsight.

This could have been a parody, but in the hands of a distinguished historian like the author, who has been thinking about Hitler for many years (he wrote his 1971 Ph.D. thesis on Hitler’s Balkan strategy in World War II), it provides a serious look at how Hitler’s policies and actions, far from being irrational or a madman’s delusions, may make perfect sense when one starts from the witches’ brew of bad ideas and ignorance which the real Hitler’s actual written and spoken words abundantly demonstrate. The fictional Hitler illustrates this in many passages, including this particularly chilling one where, after dismissing those who claim he was unaware of the extermination camps, says “I particularly needed to prevent the resurgence of Jewry by exterminating every last Jewish man, woman, and child I could. Do you say they were innocent? Bedbugs are innocent! They do what nature has destined them to, no more, no less. But is that any reason to spare them?” Looking backward, he observes that notwithstanding the utter defeat of the Third Reich, the liberal democracies that vanquished it have implemented many of his policies in the areas of government supervision of the economy, consumer protection, public health (including anti-smoking policies), environmentalism, shaping the public discourse (then, propaganda, now political correctness), and implementing a ubiquitous surveillance state of which the Gestapo never dreamed.

In an afterword, van Creveld explains that, after on several occasions having started to write a biography of Hitler and then set the project aside, concluding he had nothing to add to existing works, in 2015 it occurred to him that the one perspective which did not exist was Hitler’s own, and that the fictional device of a memoir from Hell, drawing parallels between historical and contemporary events, would provide a vehicle to explore the reasoning which led to the decisions Hitler made. The author concludes, “…my goal was not to set forth my own ideas. Instead, I tried to understand Hitler’s actions, views, and thoughts as I think he, observing the past and the present from Hell, would have explained them. So let the reader judge how whether I have succeeded in this objective.” In the opinion of this reader, he has succeeded, and brilliantly.

This book is presently available only in a Kindle edition; it is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers

van Creveld, Martin. Hitler in Hell. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2017. ASIN B0738YPW2M.

There are 32 comments.

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  1. Contributor

    Hell doesn’t seem all that hellish from your description. There’s no daily disembowelment or annual immolation?

    • #1
    • July 20, 2017 at 1:21 pm
    • 1 like
  2. Thatcher

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    • #2
    • July 20, 2017 at 1:23 pm
    • 6 likes
  3. Member

    My understanding was that Hitler as a young man, had Jewish friends, and only became a ferocious antisemite in the aftermath of Germany’s losing WWII, and suffering through an economic collapse. In such circumstances people tend to look for scapegoats. Does the book argue that those experiences explain his antisemitism?

    One of my worries is that if our huge and growing debt causes an economic collapse, the scapegoats will be big business, Wall St. and ‘the Jews.’

    • #3
    • July 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm
    • 3 likes
  4. Contributor

    Percival (View Comment):

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    Linkin Park. And Korn.

    • #4
    • July 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm
    • 1 like
  5. Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    Hell doesn’t seem all that hellish from your description. There’s no daily disembowelment or annual immolation?

    Yes, this appears to be a “kinder, gentler, Hell”. Hitler is silent on whether things used to be different in Dante’s day.

    For eight hours out of every twenty-four I am locked in my cell by guardian devils. They never—never—answer any questions, but they never do me any harm either. That is more than I can say for many people on Earth. At other times I can do much as I please. Who cares? I have no needs, I have no worries, and I have no one to fight. I suppose that accounts for my relatively mellow mood.

    This is from the prologue, and is about one quarter of the entire description of Hell. This benign Hell is simply a plot device to enable reflection upon Hitler’s life and career, informed by events since 1945. Denizens of Hell seem to be confined in small groups, isolated from other groups. Hence there is no opportunity to compare notes with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the rest of the crowd, although he does comment upon them in the conclusion.

    • #5
    • July 20, 2017 at 1:37 pm
    • 3 likes
  6. Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    TeamAmerica (View Comment):
    My understanding was that Hitler as a young man, had Jewish friends, and only became a ferocious antisemite in the aftermath of Germany’s losing WWII, and suffering through an economic collapse. In such circumstances people tend to look for scapegoats. Does the book argue that those experiences explain his antisemitism?

    According to the narrative in the book, it was in Vienna, in the years after his arrival in 1908 and prior to the Great War, that Hitler came to his anti-Semite, anti-democratic, and German nationalistic (opposed to the multi-cultural Austro-Hungarian Empire) views. This is consistent with Mein Kampf, where he writes that he had never thought much about these issues before being personally exposed to them in cosmopolitan Vienna.

    The fictional Hitler writes that being down and out in Vienna formed his view of economics and the condition of the working class, “I also learned that being a simple worker in a harshly competitive capitalist world is no fun.”

    • #6
    • July 20, 2017 at 2:10 pm
    • 4 likes
  7. Thatcher

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    Hell doesn’t seem all that hellish from your description. There’s no daily disembowelment or annual immolation?

    You didn’t see mine? I said Nickelback on the PA system. And every Christmas they put Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad on a loop.

    • #7
    • July 20, 2017 at 2:40 pm
    • 1 like
  8. Inactive

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    Hell doesn’t seem all that hellish from your description. There’s no daily disembowelment or annual immolation?

    It’s not unique to the author. Some (myself included) believe that Hell is more exile than torture. The torment comes from within, having to live with the knowledge that God wants nothing to do with you.

    AFAIK, the idea that sinners are sadistically tortured comes more from Dante than from the Bible.

    • #8
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm
    • 3 likes
  9. Member

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    Linkin Park. And Korn.

    Too soon

    • #9
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:03 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Contributor

    JamesAtkins (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    Linkin Park. And Korn.

    Too soon

    Right on time.

    • #10
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:03 pm
    • 1 like
  11. Member

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    JamesAtkins (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    Linkin Park. And Korn.

    Too soon

    Right on time.

    Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington has died aged 41

    • #11
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:09 pm
    • Like
  12. Contributor

    Umbra Fractus (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    Hell doesn’t seem all that hellish from your description. There’s no daily disembowelment or annual immolation?

    It’s not unique to the author. Some (myself included) believe that Hell is more exile than torture. The torment comes from within, having to live with the knowledge that God wants nothing to do with you.

    AFAIK, the idea that sinners are sadistically tortured comes more from Dante than from the Bible.

    If I’m not mistaken, Jesus discusses hellfire and eternal torment for sinners. Or was that Paul?

    • #12
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:09 pm
    • Like
  13. Member

    John Walker: my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    At 300 baud.

    • #13
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:11 pm
    • 5 likes
  14. Contributor

    JamesAtkins (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    JamesAtkins (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    Linkin Park. And Korn.

    Too soon

    Right on time.

    Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington has died aged 41

    It’s tragic. Or something.

    I’m sad he’s dead, but not that he won’t make any more “music.”

    • #14
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:12 pm
    • Like
  15. Member

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    JamesAtkins (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    JamesAtkins (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    John Walker: [My] own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    … and Vox. With Nickleback playing over the PA system.

    Linkin Park. And Korn.

    Too soon

    Right on time.

    Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington has died aged 41

    It’s tragic. Or something.

    I’m sad he’s dead, but not that he won’t make any more “music.”

    I never heard of the dude but “but not that he won’t make any more “music” is stone cold hearted

    • #15
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:15 pm
    • Like
  16. Contributor

    • #16
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:24 pm
    • 6 likes
  17. Coolidge

    Looks like an intriguing read. Thanks for the review.

    • #17
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:25 pm
    • Like
  18. Thatcher

    John Walker (View Comment):
    This is from the prologue, and is about one quarter of the entire description of Hell. This benign Hell is simply a plot device to enable reflection upon Hitler’s life and career, informed by events since 1945. Denizens of Hell seem to be confined in small groups, isolated from other groups. Hence there is no opportunity to compare notes with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the rest of the crowd, although he does comment upon them in the conclusion.

    John,

    From the point of view of a deeper understanding of Hitler, it is a viable plot device. However, theologically in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, Hell has a particular function. If recognition of sin and punishment for it are nowhere to be found in this book, then the author runs the risk of appearing brazen and amoral. If the author doesn’t care about that he can run & rerun the historical analysis as long as he likes. For this reason, even though the book may be a technical success, I think it would be an artistic failure.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #18
    • July 20, 2017 at 5:28 pm
    • 1 like
  19. Member

    Thanks, John Walker.

    • #19
    • July 20, 2017 at 6:28 pm
    • 1 like
  20. Member

    Harry Shearer (a writer for Spinal Tap among other things) had an NPR show called “Le Show”. One of the recurring bits was “Nixon in Heaven” which described Nixon in the afterlife.

    Sample bit ( from memory)

    Nixon: There they go again, praising the Big Guy.

    HR Haldeman: Well he deserves praise, doesn’t he?

    Nixon: Uh, of course He does. Of course He deserves praise. But uh, does he deserve ALL the praise? Can’t someone else have a little praise now and then?

    Nixon in Heaven is funny in a way Nixon in Hell could never be. Brilliant.

    • #20
    • July 20, 2017 at 7:11 pm
    • 1 like
  21. Member

    John Walker: (That sounds pretty good—my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.)

    And it allows you to edit Wikipedia pages, but always removes your edits.

    • #21
    • July 20, 2017 at 7:32 pm
    • 2 likes
  22. Member

    Isn’t the “Black Internetz” just another name for Twitter?

    • #22
    • July 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm
    • 4 likes
  23. Member

    The key to understanding Hitler is will – as in “triumph of the will.” He understood himself as personally embodying the destiny of the German nation and the Aryan race, and only through his will would Germany find that destiny. One reason he launched the war, despite his generals’ (and especially Donitz’s) protests that they were not ready for it, was that he was aware of his own mortality (he was aware of plots against himself and assumed he would eventually meet his end in an assassination), and since he alone possessed the requisite will to do what was necessary for Germany to fulfill its destiny, he had move to quickly.

    Only two outcomes were thinkable for Hitler: Either victory or annihilation. He had nothing but contempt for those of his generals (like von Paulus) who surrendered rather than committed suicide. They were not “all in” on the war like he was, in a cosmic sense. Closest to his thinking were the Goebbels family, who not only committed suicide, but poisoned their own children on the grounds that a world without National Socialism was not a world that could be lived in.

    The book seems to imagine Hitler in hell as something akin to the German generals after the war: Rehashing the war and strategy with old comrades and even old enemies. Hitler had nothing but contempt for such a future because in his mind it was cowardly: Someone who could imagine this future did not have the requisite will to triumph in the first place. The only thinkable future was victory, and the only bearable alternative was annihilation.

    According to Siegried Knappe in his book Soldat, the commander of the Berlin garrison shortly before the end invited Hitler to don a helmet and die fighting in the streets at the side of his soldiers. Hitler rejected the idea on the grounds that he would not die in the streets like a dog, and furthermore because the fate he most feared would be to be wounded and/or captured, to then be paraded in the streets of Moscow in a cage. If his will could not triumph, Hitler would express that will negatively in annihilation, to the point of having his corpse destroyed after he died.

    Imagine on dying that Hitler discovers that he is not annihilated, but in fact lives on in a metaphysical prison far more profound than any Moscow cage. The mere fact of his own existence would be torture to him, as it would be continuing proof of the failure of his will, the one thing unbearable to him. Eva Braun would be no consolation to him, as her existence would be further proof of that failure, since he tried to annihilate her as well. The last thing imaginable for him in such a circumstance is sitting around, smoking a pipe and discussing his failures. I think he would rage away at God and the world, like he did in the bunker, but for eternity.

    • #23
    • July 21, 2017 at 4:00 am
    • 6 likes
  24. Member

    I seem to remember , from my scant Presbyterian upbringing, that hell was being separated from and eternally denied access to God.

    Image result for hell the far side

    • #24
    • July 21, 2017 at 4:39 am
    • Like
  25. Member

    TeamAmerica (View Comment):
    My understanding was that Hitler as a young man, had Jewish friends, and only became a ferocious antisemite in the aftermath of Germany’s losing WWII, and suffering through an economic collapse. In such circumstances people tend to look for scapegoats. Does the book argue that those experiences explain his antisemitism?

    One of my worries is that if our huge and growing debt causes an economic collapse, the scapegoats will be big business, Wall St. and ‘the Jews.’

    History never repeats itself exactly. There will be other scapegoats.

    • #25
    • July 21, 2017 at 4:50 am
    • Like
  26. Inactive

    I look forward to O.J. Simpson In Hell.

    • #26
    • July 21, 2017 at 8:46 am
    • 1 like
  27. Member

    Johnny Dubya (View Comment):
    I look forward to O.J. Simpson In Hell.

    If you read his incredibly creepy book, If I Did It, you’ve gotten all the preview you’d ever want.

    • #27
    • July 21, 2017 at 8:48 am
    • 1 like
  28. Inactive

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    John Walker (View Comment):
    This is from the prologue, and is about one quarter of the entire description of Hell. This benign Hell is simply a plot device to enable reflection upon Hitler’s life and career, informed by events since 1945. Denizens of Hell seem to be confined in small groups, isolated from other groups. Hence there is no opportunity to compare notes with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the rest of the crowd, although he does comment upon them in the conclusion.

    John,

    From the point of view of a deeper understanding of Hitler, it is a viable plot device. However, theologically in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, Hell has a particular function. If recognition of sin and punishment for it are nowhere to be found in this book, then the author runs the risk of appearing brazen and amoral. If the author doesn’t care about that he can run & rerun the historical analysis as long as he likes. For this reason, even though the book may be a technical success, I think it would be an artistic failure.

    Regards,

    Jim

    “Hell” is a plot device the author’s using, and apparently he does so effectively. I’d have rolled my eyes the minute I read about a scaly red creature poking Hitler with a pitchfork.

    • #28
    • July 21, 2017 at 9:57 am
    • 3 likes
  29. Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    John Walker: my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.

    At 300 baud.

    Where someone picks up the phone at random intervals….

    • #29
    • July 21, 2017 at 10:29 am
    • 6 likes
  30. Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):
    Isn’t the “Black Internetz” just another name for Twitter?

    Heh. You’ll have no idea how large the Darknet and Dark Web are until you begin to peel the .onion.

    • #30
    • July 21, 2017 at 1:50 pm
    • 2 likes
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