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Explaining Hitler

is nothing if not consistent. Its certainly there in what is otherwise his most illuminating essay on Hitler, the one entitled The Mind of Adolf Hitler, which
appeared as the introduction to the so-called Secret Conversations, also known
as Hitlers Table Talk, the transcripts of his wartime pontifications.
You believe, I asked him, that the Hitler of the Table Talk is the real
Hitler, that hes not posing.
Oh, its the real Hitler. Oh, yes, oh, yes, no doubt about it, he told me
My response to the Table Talk is far more equivocal, that at best its the
real counterfeit Hitler: That even though the words are (for the most part) really
Hitlers, nonetheless its almost as false a creation as the Hitler Diaries. In a
sense, the Table Talk is Hitlers own Hitler-diary hoax.
First of all, while the Table Talk seems to be Hitlers words, the best that
can be said of it is that its an edited reconstruction of Hitlers speech. Its worth
recalling the way the process of reconstruction verged on fabrication. Beginning in mid-1941, when Hitler established his underground command post
for running the war on the eastern front, his nightly routine was highly consistent. After midnight, tea and cakes were served, and Hitler relaxed with his
personal staff, including several young secretaries, a couple of congenial aides,
and a guest or two from the outside world. Then, beginning around 2 a.m. and
sometimes continuing until dawn, when he finally went to sleep, Hitler would
hold forth to his captive audience for hour upon hour, pontificating upon the
world situation, history, art, philosophy, literature, opera, culture, and, above
all, his vision of the Brave New Aryan Future.
Prevailed upon by the flattery of his increasingly powerful aide, Martin
Bormann, to permit a stenographer to attend these sessions so that none of
the pearls of wisdom he dispensed would be lost, Hitler relished the idea that
he was speaking for history. Bormann would then take the transcripts from
the stenographer and knit together the raw flow of Hitlers words, editing, refining, polishing, constructing a testament to Hitlers thought processhis
stream of consciousness as he wanted history to see it.
Consider, for instance, the counterfeit of piety Hitler gives us in the entry
for October 24, 1941, when he piously declares, The Ten Commandments are
a code of living to which there is no refutation. These precepts correspond to
the irrefragable needs of the human soul; theyre inspired by the best religious
Is this a Hitler convinced of his own rectitude or a Hitler consciously,
deceitfully posing as someone convinced of his own rectitude, the charade
or counterfeit of the real thing? Perhaps the best answer to that comes in the
Table Talk entry for the very next evening, an extremely telling and revealing
discussion of the Final Solution that might be Hitlers consummate lie.

The Professor and the Mountebank


What makes this lie so astonishing is that it is delivered to the two men who
are in the best position to know what an enormous falsehood it isthe special
guests in the command post that night, the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, and
his chief accomplice in mass murder, Reinhard Heydrich. To them, Hitlers two
closest confederates in carrying out the Final Solution (which in the preceding months had accelerated to programmatic mass extermination), Hitler, in
an obviously staged performance, delivers himself of these chilling reflections:
From the rostrum of the Reichstag, I prophesied [in 1939] to Jewry
that, in the event of wars proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe. That race of criminals has on its conscience the
two million dead of the First World War and now already hundreds
of thousands more. Let nobody tell me that all the same we cant
park them in the marshy parts of Russia! Whos worrying about our
troops? Its not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumor attributes to
us a plan to exterminate the Jews. Terror is a salutary thing.
This is not the language of a man convinced of his own rectitude in
exterminating Jews. This is a man so convinced of his own criminality that
he must deny that the crime is happening (its only a rumor which, though
salutary, is not true); a man who must surround that backhanded denial
with disinformation (we are merely parking the Jews in the marshy parts of
conquered Russian territory, not murdering them en masse and burying them
in pits); a man who must preface that disinformation with a justification for
the act disingenuously denied (That race of criminals has on its conscience
the two million deadand therefore if the rumor was true, the killing
would be just). It is perhaps the supreme Hitlerian counterfeit.
One can imagine the glances that Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich must
have exchanged during the orchestration of this elaborate charade for the
stenographer, perhaps even the silent laughter. The three Holocaust perpetrators here become the first Holocaust deniers, establishing the pattern for the
Revisionists who followed: The Holocaust didnt happen, but if it did, the
Jews deserved it. If this is the real Hitler, as Trevor-Roper declares, the realness is to be found in his slippery, conniving falseness, not in the sincerity that
Trevor-Roper persists in finding in him.
But Trevor-Roper believes in the Table Talk and enjoys telling the tale of
intrigue entailed in bringing the Table Talk manuscripts to light. Its a cloakand-dagger document hunt that found him enmeshed with Nazi-sympathizing
mountebanks, one that in a way foreshadowed the Hitler-diary fiasco and
might have predisposed him to his initial disastrous misjudgment of those


Explaining Hitler

From his reconstruction of the last days in the bunker, Trevor-Roper was
familiar with Hitlers nightly habit of expounding to his flunkies for Bormanns
stenographic record. Hed assumed the transcripts of these sessions had been
lost or destroyed, and so he was intrigued whenafter the publication of The
Last Days of Hitlersuggestive-sounding excerpts from what appeared to be
Table Talk discourse surfaced in Germany.
Then I discovered that Bormanns whole text existed in the hands of a
rather curious Swiss citizen called Franois Genoud, a businessman, very secretive. I know him quite well; Genoud [who committed suicide in 1996] is a
Nazi sympathizer. He had a picture of Hitler in his house, and Genoud at the
end of the war came to the rescue of some of the Nazi leaders, and he made
bargains, and he bought Hitlers copyright, if it existed, which was very dubious, from Hitlers sister [Paula]. He also bought Bormanns copyright from
Frau Bormann. He also bought Goebbelss copyright from, I think, his sister.
And so Genoud has been sitting for nearly fifty years on these valuable copyrights. And whenever anyone attempts to publish anything by Hitler, Goebbels,
or Bormann, suddenly Genoud pops up and says, Hi, I own the copyright, and
he does. He has to be bought out.
Anyway, I discovered Genoud, and I went and saw him. And he showed
me the text [of the Table Talk]. He wouldnt part with the German text for good
reasons: There was always a question who owned Hitlers copyright. Hitlers
property was confiscated by the state. Was it owned by the Austrian state or
the German state? The sister was an Austrian. That was one question. Then
did confiscation of his assets include copyright? Thats another question. So
Genoud rushed out a French translation to establish a copyright. You can claim
copyright to a translation, but he wouldnt let the German text out.
What followed was more hugger-mugger, mountebanks galore. TrevorRopers publisher, Macmillan, was leery of the copyright problems. TrevorRoper enlisted George Weidenfeld, who hired a translator who, Trevor-Roper
believes, ended up collaborating with Genoud behind Trevor-Ropers back.
Instead of translating the German manuscript into English, he translated
the French translation of the German into English, a subterfuge Trevor-Roper
didnt twig to until he found a curious locution in the Table Talk in which
Hitler supposedly said, I feel quite confused about something.
Now, Hitler was never confused about anything, Trevor-Roper told me,
but he was subject to embarrassment and I realized [the translator] must have
mistranslated [the] French confuse, which is embarrassed, not confused.
And I looked up the German text, which by that time was a little more available, and I found that was true. He had only been allowed to use the French
I was impressed by Trevor-Ropers confidence in his grasp of Hitlers

The Professor and the Mountebank


thought-worldthat he could be certain Hitler was a man never confused but

sometimes subject to embarrassmentthat he was willing to credit Hitlers
profession of the latter sincere. I was impressed as well by his confidence that,
in a translation of a translation of a heavily edited transcription, Trevor-Roper
was sure hed found the real Hitler. Perhaps its the pride of discovery, of being the first to authenticateperhaps the same impulse that led him to his
own episode of confusion and embarrassment thirty years later when he pronounced the Hitler diaries genuinethis time confusing genuine forgeries
with the forged genuineness of the Table Talk.
Forged genuinenessthe way Hitler strains in the Table Talk to seem the
intellectual bon vivant, the generous dispenser of wide-ranging conversational gemtlichkeit, the grating graciousnessit rings false to me. But I believe that a close reading of the Table Talk does reveal something authentic,
something unacted, but something that emerges only inadvertently, in bits
and pieces, an awareness pushing itself up from beneath the surface of Hitlers
words: a growing, progressively alarmed apprehension beneath the surface of
denial that the tide of war has turned, that victory is slipping away, that the
architecture of the future, the cloud castles hes so grandiosely constructing
for the entertainment of his guests, are melting away.
If it could ever be said that one could derive pleasure from reading Hitler
and Im not sure pleasure is the right wordit is in seeing the way the bad
news about the war impinges on Hitlers self-serving monologues in the Table
Talk, which begin saturated with self-satisfaction and slowly become more
plaintive, more defiant, as he tries unsuccessfully to conceal the anger, bitterness, disappointment, the betrayal of his hopes that haunt him.
Still, Hitlers voice in the Table Talk never seems anything but an act.
And except for occasional flashes of abstract hostility toward the Jews, its
an act that is always concealing something beneath the bonhomie: the actual
slaughter hes presiding over.
Thats whats surprising about Trevor-Ropers faith that this is the real
Hitler, that what we hear in the Table Talk is the true unguarded Mind of
Adolf Hitler (as Trevor-Roper called his introductory essay preceding the Table
Talk) when its more liketo mix metaphors of tyrannya Potemkin village of
Hitlers mind, about as truthful to the reality within as the sign on the gates of
Auschwitz that proclaims Arbeit macht Frei (work will make you free).
Yes, one can weave together a coherent ideology from the self-infatuated
philosophical passages in the Table Talk. So brilliantly does Trevor-Roper do so
in his introductory essay that it has become the foundation document of an
entire school of Hitler explanation: the ideological school that gained popularity and had occasional impressive expositors (J. P. Stern in England, Eberhard
Jckel in Germany) in the 1970s. A school which emphasized the importance