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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

“Hitler's Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man”, by Brigitte Hamann

496 pages, Tauris Parke Paperback, ISBN-13: 978-1848852778

Brigitte Hamann has done a remarkable thing with this book. By examining Vienna during Hitler's formative years, she has unlocked a lot of mystery surrounding the great man himself. While it is true that she uncovered discrepancies in Hitler's description of those years in Mein Kampf, her real contribution is in helping the reader to understand what Hitler was talking about, and why he said the things he said.

This book takes a look not only at Hitler but at the Vienna political landscape that is increasingly becoming familiar to Americans, a multicultural society where ethnic groups formed factions, parties and their own newspapers and came to hate each other based on ethnicity alone. The difference was of course extreme poverty, so the masses were angry and hostile to each other. This portrait of Hitler shows an unemployed, pig-headed, stubborn, but politically astute orator practicing his speeches on his fellow hospice cohorts. Without money and barely a roof over his head, in rags, he preferred devouring newspapers and debating political issues. He resisted joining any of the radical parties, including anti-Semitic ones, because none of them suited his needs. What we see is the development of a charismatic leader, one less interested in being a member of a party, but only in leading others. He was not particularly anti-Semitic; he hated the Slavs far more. But he honed his skills in debate in oratory. The culmination of this man leading Germany in a drive for unification, his only real passion, overshadows any other aspects of his life. Not a decisive dictator like Stalin, he waited for events to happen and then made decisions. Absence is any causal reason or history that would suggest he ever wanted to annihilate the Jews. The final solution, whether it was even Hitler's plan in the first place, only came to fruition from the war and the influx of massive numbers of Jews from occupied lands.

Particularly useful is Hamann's analysis of the prominent politicians of the day. She first described these leaders and their political ups and downs. Then, with the testimony of the witnesses who knew Hitler during those years, she deftly draws a picture of the formative influences that helped shape the mature dictator. Hitler was obsessed with politics and he learned what worked and what did not work during those early years in Vienna. Many of his later policies first saw the light of day in the Vienna of his youth. There is a chilling passage about the problem of gypsy pickpockets expected for the 60 Anniversary Parade in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1908. One solution, seriously presented in Parliament at the time, was to tattoo a number on the forearm of every gypsy.

Hitler's Europe was frightful and real. Was Hitler the incarnation of evil? Hamann is trying to let us all know that a desperate young man created a role for himself and then became its prisoner. The monster. A monster is very powerful. There are lots of wannabe's, and that's the real trouble. Worse, lots of people try to create scary roles for themselves; that's why this book is so valuable. It may set your teeth on edge to read that as a boy Adolf Hitler was frail, gentle and had Jewish friends. He was so poor he had to borrow shoes to go to a lecture about his fictional hero, an American Indian. He was devoted to his mother – and she to him – and they often went hungry. His way out was acting, which involved self-consciously hypnotic gestures and diction. And catch-phrases. Of course that's not the image the world now has – the super-fiend born directly from hell. But we would all be better off with the truth.

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