Adolf Hitler's Suicide and Nazism’s Irrational Rationality

Seven decades ago, a man who personified Radical Evil committed suicide in Berlin.

hitlerSeven decades ago, on April 30, 1945, amid the irresistible offensive of the Red Army, the man who had imagined himself anointed by History to retrace the steps of such historical figures as Friedrich the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte committed suicide in Berlin together with his partner—who on the eve of their departure from this world became his wife—, Eva Braun. An age of apocalyptic delirium and ideological trance—whose effect was a universal carnage that culminated in the absolute crime of the Holocaust—was thus coming to an end. Hitler was not only the embodiment of the demonic principle in history, but above all the personification of what Hannah Arendt called Radical Evil. We offer here a few thoughts on Hitler and the National Socialist ideology. We do not claim to cover everything; our sole purpose here is to share with our readers some explanatory hypotheses, born of our own readings and analyses.

[1] One cannot comprehend Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) without a thorough knowledge of the Viennese environment that shaped him intellectually. If Stephen Toulmin and Allan Janik explored Wittgenstein’s Vienna (cosmopolitan, neurotic, and of dazzling modernity), Brigitte Hamann revealed the long forgotten and obscured resorts of the contacts and cultural influences which shaped young Hitler’s worldview (Weltanschauung). Hence, in contrast to the modernist Vienna, there existed another, impregnated with chauvinism, racism, tribalism, xenophobia, and, above all, anti-Semitism.

[2] For Adolf Hitler, the Habsburg Empire was one built on weakness, cowardice, and allegedly degenerate internationalism. In opposition to Kakania’s multiculturalism—to cite Robert Musil's term for Austria-Hungary—, Hitler’s mentors embraced Pan-Germanism, the exaltation of the Nordic race, of Valhalla, of blood purity and of atavistic roots. According to this point of view, the imaginary Jew was the simultaneous embodiment of decadence through money (plutocracy) and social subversion (Marxism).

[3] Hitler was not just a traditional nationalist, harboring militarist nostalgia of a conservative origin. His mental world was one in which the “superior race” was compelled to destroy any other community deemed pathogenic. Louis Pasteur’s view of bacteria was being hyperbolically mirrored by a purifying war meant to permanently eliminate the alleged vermin. As Zygmunt Bauman would later demonstrate, extermination camps were part of a “social gardening” program, namely plucking out all the weeds. The Nazis were not robots who acted mechanically, but had their own value system rooted in this grammar of extermination.

[4] Hitler’s political thought encoded social and ethnic resentment at a global scale. Hostile towards traditional religions, the Führer was the prophet of exclusive fanaticism, turned hatred into a virtue, and promised those who felt frustrated, humiliated, and degraded a kind of dignity that they had not even dared to dream about until he came along. Historian Fritz Stern writes the following on Hitler’s triumph: “In 1933 the Germans, deluded and self-deluded, surrendered to a false prophet and partial genius and in time his boundless hatred consumed his enemies and inflicted suffering on the very people who in supporting him had sought to escape suffering.”

[5] For Hitler, ideological coherence was insignificant; what mattered was consistency in supporting a force-idea, simple and simplifying, in short—a political proto-myth. From Mein Kampf to the will he dictated shortly before his suicide, his obsessions remain the same, defying with infinite hubris what one might call, drawing upon Freud’s ideas, the reality principle: anti-capitalism, anti-liberalism, anti-Marxism, anti-socialism (whatever it may be, excluding National Socialism), redemptive anti-Semitism (Saul Friedländer’s concept), racism, imperialism, expansionism, the exaltation of violence, the demonization of those constructed as irreducible enemies.

[6] Hitler was not, as Stalinist propaganda claimed, a counter-revolutionary, but a revolutionary no less hostile to bourgeois modernity than Lenin’s followers themselves. His Revolution was anti-capitalist and capitalism was defined in a mythopoetic manner, echoing Wagner, as the degenerative empire of the Jewish spirit. National Socialism attracted sophisticated intellectuals (from Gottfried Benn to Martin Heidegger) precisely by means of this radical insurrection against the alleged bourgeois mediocrity (the “Americanization of the world”).

[7] An essential difference between National Socialism and Bolshevism is related to the location of charisma. In the topography of Bolshevik sacredness, charisma was vested in the image of the Party (the “Modern Prince,” as Antonio Gramsci called it), while in the National Socialist mythological narrative charisma belonged to the Führer originally and definitively.

[8] The same as in the case of Bolshevism, Italian Fascism or Maoism, ideology is the starting point and final destination. When Magda Goebbels decides to poison her own children, an SS doctor asks her to give up on the horrifying idea. Her response encapsulates, we believe, all of Nazism’s irrational rationality: “I cannot picture them living in a world without National Socialism.” So it was not military defeat that Hitler regarded as the ultimate humiliation, but ideological downfall. The elimination of Goebbels’ children is as emblematic of the final catastrophe of the National Socialist promise as Adolf Hitler’s self-destruction. It is what Thomas Mann sensed when he wrote “Mario and the Magician.” The apostle of nihilism could only have ended by his own annihilation.

[9] Why do we discuss Hitler? Fritz Stern is again the one who provides the answer: “National Socialism needs to be remembered—and not only in scholarly monographs or trashy films, but in the moral consciousness of all of us. There is an epitaph suitable for it, as it is suitable for Stalinism, evoked by Nadezhda Mandelstam’s cry: 'Silence is the real crime against humanity.'”

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.” Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books and articles in Romanian, English, and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.