Saturday, 18 April 2015

Hitler and I, Otto Strasser

This is an intimate account of Adolf Hitler from a dissident member of the Nazi Party.  Otto Strasser was a journalist and former army officer who was forced out of the party in 1930 and wound up living in exile in Canada.  The book was published in 1940.

Strasser first met the future Fuehrer in 1920.  At that time, he was an unimpressive figure - a pallid young man who was still in the shadow of General Erich Ludendorff, a more senior extreme-rightist.  Yet he was already expressing radically antisemitic sentiments and talking about war.  He was also scarily power-mad.  This was one of Strasser's first conversations with him:
"Power!" screamed Adolf. "We must have power!" 
"Before we gain it," I replied firmly, "let us decide what we propose to do with it.  Our programme is too vague; we must construct something solid and enduring."
Hitler, who even then could hardly bear contradiction, thumped the table and barked:
"Power first.  Afterwards we can act as circumstances dictate."
Strasser gives a good account of the instabilities of the Weimar Republic and the 1923 Beerhall Putsch.  He reports that even senior Nazis like Goering and Goebbels didn't bother to read Mein Kampf.  The general picture of Hitler that emerges from the book is a not unfamiliar one - that of a misanthropic megalomaniac who was preoccupied with racial nonsense.  He was a gifted orator, but he couldn't be trusted for a moment.

Strasser discloses an interesting and revealing piece of trivia.  Hitler didn't know what the phrase "Third Reich" meant.  The phrase was invented by the right-wing intellectual Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in the early 1920s.  Moeller understood the first two Reichs to be the Holy Roman Empire and the united Germany of Bismarck - conservative Christian states which were governed by monarchs on a federal model.  The future Third Reich was seen as being in the same mould - a traditionalist monarchic union.  In Hitler's mind, however, this essentially conservative idea became a totalitarian one:
The First Reich was that of Bismarck, the second that of the [Weimar] Republic, and the third is myself.
Historians mostly remember Strasser as one of the leading representatives of the left wing of the Nazi Party.  He attacks Hitler for aligning himself with the "reactionary" elements in German society and provides some insight into Hitler's conception of socialism.  Hitler was prepared to allow the state to interfere with private enterprise in the interests of the workers or the nation, but he drew the line at worker control of industry.  He told Strasser:
Democracy has laid the world in ruins, and nevertheless you want to extend it to the economic sphere.  It would be the end of [the] German economy.  You would wipe out all human progress, which has only been achieved by the individual efforts of great scholars and great inventors.
The book is unashamedly self-serving.  Strasser is at pains to distance himself from Hitler, and he insists that he never supported totalitarianism or war.  Much of what he says, however, has the ring of truth.  Overall, it is a unique and absorbing document.