History

Hitler Was Greedy

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Sez here in Thursday's New York Times that Hitler loved money. Indeed, the paper reports—and this is on Page One—that the Fuehrer was greedy and "died rich." Reporter Steven Erlanger reveals that " Hitler liked money, both for the luxuries it bought him and the loyalties it ensured, and he amassed a lot of it."

What puts this story in the paper is a new documentary film, Hitler's Money, to be aired soon on German TV (what puts it on the front page is that it's deep August). Anyway, for those of you who wondered just how inhumanly evil Hitler was, well, now you know.

The story's not without its topical aspects, however. Hitler's wealth derived mostly from royalties on Mein Kampf. But Ingo Helm, the German filmmaker, theorizes that Hitler also received kickbacks from the sale of posed photos of himself taken by Heinrich Hoffman. Copyrights on such images originally expired after a decade, but to keep the money rolling in, "Hitler personally authorized an extension of copyright to 25 years" on Hoffmann's work, according to the story. Of course, powerful interests having their copyright limits extended is as much a Mickey Mouse arrangement now as it was in the Third Reich.

But the story has an inevitable Timesishness about it, too, especially a digression concerning Hitler and businessmen. Filmmaker Helm, for example, is quoted as saying that Hitler was "created by big business." That's a nice formulation, because it gets a lot of people off the hook: Hitler is made out to be a creature of evil businessmen, who shoved him down everybody's throat. Unspeakable brutality is thus foisted on the world through greed, that same greed being one of Hitler's own discovered characteristics. It's a neat rhetorical package, but is it accurate?

Not quite. Hitler certainly did get money and support from some businessmen, not only German but American, too. But if one is going to generalize about "German business," then one should note that, before Hitler achieved power, business interests appear to have given much more support to moderate political figures and parties than they did to the Nazis. Indeed, it would have been helpful if Berlin's vaunted cultural community had supported the Weimar republic in its own way as much as the business community did with its wallet. Instead, many artists rejected bourgeois Weimar outright and worked to reveal its corruption; they then went on to serve Stalin's interests all too willingly and supinely afterwards. (To be fair, the Times notes that most of the business money Hitler pocketed flowed to him after he came to power.)

Anyway, if Hitler's love of money rates front-page treatment in The New York Times, then I have a number of other Hitlerian characteristics I'd like to see identified just as prominently. Why should just greedy people wake up to find themselves sharing qualities with the Fuehrer, when such an experience can be so much more widely shared? Here are a few such potential page-one headlines, all of them accurate:

Hitler was a committed anti-smoker. The Fuehrer couldn't stand cigarettes, couldn't stand smoke, and couldn't stand smokers. According to Alain Jaubert, author of a 1986 history of photographic deception entitled Making People Disappear, Hitler ordered cigarettes airbrushed out of photos that appeared in Third Reich publications, much the way the U.S. Postal Service has been airbrushing cigarettes out of the mouths of such figures as bluesman Robert Johnson, composer Bernard Herrmann, author Thornton Wilder, and painter Jackson Pollack. Domestic Nazi propaganda noted that while fascist leaders Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were all non-smokers, their enemies Roosevelt and Churchill did smoke (as did Stalin). Smoking was banned by Nazis in many public places, and Hitler even found the time to intervene in support of German shopkeepers who adopted a pioneering policy of refusing service to smokers.

Hitler was a visionary environmentalist. Think a sensitivity to nature is necessarily progressive and benign? Think again. There's been no more environmentally sensitive state than the Third Reich, which took ecological concerns carefully into account whether preserving woodlands or planning autobahns. The Nazi "Blood and Soil" mystique drew heavily on anti-industrial work that started appearing in the 19th century, and turned it into public policy. As early as 1913, authors like Ludwig Klages (German link) were excoriating deforestation, consumerism, urban sprawl, tourism, species extinction, capitalism, the idea of progress, and even the slaughter of whales; the Nazis embraced such work. Radical thinkers like Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmeier have been among those attempting to protect contemporary environmentalist movements from their latent regressive tendencies, and it would be helpful to them if their work got big, splashy reviews in the Times.

Hitler exploited asceticism. Hitler was not an ascetic, but he played one on German media. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels portrayed a leader who was above the concerns of the material world, eschewing such pleasures as meat eating, alcohol, and the company of women. Part of this image has persisted; Hitler is still believed by many to have been a principled vegetarian. In fact, Hitler did avoid meat for long periods, but mostly because it gave him gas and made him belch. But the interesting angle here is the persistence of the belief that asceticism is necessarily a virtue, in just the way that the desire for wealth is a vice. Like environmentalism and much else, of course, asceticism has its regressive dimension. Indeed, it is often on display.

That should keep the Times busy for a while. When they've run the stories above, we can take up the matter of Hitler's alleged coprophilia.