Review: Hitler by Norman Stone

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There exists today a popular perception of the Nazis as highly effective evil geniuses. This reputation rests primarily on their ruthlessness, their propaganda, their stunning initial military successes and general notions of German efficiency. Accordingly, the average person is likely to see the Nazis as organised, capable and determined foes. Norman Stone’s Hitler thoroughly disabuses the reader of any such hollow notions. Instead of being financial wizards, the Nazis were economic illiterates who essentially sabotaged the German economy. Instead of being demonstrably capable, most members of the Nazi inner circle were eccentric, lethargic and inept. Though he has moments of brilliance, Stone’s Hitler mainly stays up late obsessing about how Stalingrad could have gone differently while his country collapses around home.

Stone takes little interest in Hitler’s private life – beyond addressing an incestuous fling Hitler had with his own half-niece and speculating that the Führer was attracted to men. In part, this may be because Hitler himself took little interest in his own private life; he was largely uninterested in relationships with either gender, and the only thing which inspired human emotion in Hitler was his dog. He spent most of his free time rambling about trivialities over tea and cake, or reading his vast collection of German westerns. His academic insights were on the level of “Jesus Christ’s father cannot have been a Jew, he was probably a soldier of the Roman garrison” and “the decline of the Dutch must have been to their interbreeding with the Malays.”

Similarly, members of Hitler’s inner circle can not even be considered mercurial talents; Goering was criminally lazy, spending most of his time designing glamorous uniforms and playing with an enormous toy train – though he did find time to visit the Air Ministry once a week. Himmler, the leader of the SS, only attended his post as head of Army Group Vistula at 10:30 a.m., once he had had his breakfast and daily massage. He quickly folded under the pressure, stepping down from military service not long after his appointment. Himmler instead preferred devoting his time to studying ancient mythology, mystic cults and medieval orders. As the Russians closed in on Berlin, Himmler remained in his bunker with his head in the clouds, pondering the similarities between Japanese kanji and Nordic runes.

Instead of being chosen based on their ability to work well with the other members of Nazi High Command, those in Hitler’s inner circle were deliberately selected by the Führer in the hope that they would hate and would be hated by their colleagues. While this did ensure it was almost impossible for any of them to attempt overthrowing him, it also meant the Third Reich was paralysed by a lack of cooperation, with every sector of the state creating enormously inefficient parallel bureaucracies to perform jobs already being performed. 

With his gang of failed writers, champagne salesmen and aspiring chicken farmers, Hitler drove the German war economy into ruin. A total lack of planning meant the Nazis were never able to establish massive assembly-lines (as Britain, America and the USSR did) of highly productive low-skilled workers, which could churn out tanks, planes and the other materials of a total war. Instead, German manufacturers used a few highly trained workers to quickly push out weapons when the government unexpectedly began demanding them. This dependence on artisans persisted throughout the war. Accordingly, aircraft production was massively slowed down by the time and expense needed to train workers to assemble an entire plan by themselves. In 1939, Germany produced 8,295 to Britain’s 7,940. Yet two years later, despite having acquired a European empire, the Reich manufactured a mere 11,786 planes. For reference, Britain produced 20,094 that same year.

Bizarrely, Nazi economic illiteracy meant the Third Reich never truly mustered itself for the war until the conflict came to its conclusion. Compared to the Spartan efforts made by the people of Britain and Russia, German citizens made very few sacrifices to their lifestyles to support the war effort. Goering’s rationale for this was that “if the workers could not spend their money on consumer goods, there would be inflation; and inflation would mean the end of everything.” This warped economic theory and baffling choice of priorities meant that in 1943, when the Wehrmacht could hardly muster a few hundred tanks, Germany was producing 12,000 tons of wallpaper and 4,800 tons of hair oil.

Equally puzzling was the tremendous booty and potential industrial power left untouched in the occupied countries. For all the Nazis’ desire to strip Europe clean, Germany’s bureaucratic jungle was so gigantic that even enthusiastic quislings were baffled as to how they should contribute to the war effort. Far from being systematic, the exploitation which did occur was haphazard, unplanned and random. Whenever Hitler wanted something done, he would appoint a Czar with sweeping powers. The new appointee would promptly find himself stuck in the bureaucratic traffic jam, achieve incremental success and only complicate matters further by joining the bloc of obstinate administrators slowing future progress. 

Instead of streamlining the state apparatus, the Nazi elite were more interested in departmental empire building. Himmler and Goering both headed private operations which did virtually the same thing. This grossly inefficient system led to an ever expanding administrative apparatus (the number of German bureaucrats rose by 800,000 between 1933 and 1939) and to a stymieing of production. The Nazi’s only ever harnessed a fraction of the potential industrial might they possessed; France had produced thousands of plane in the years before the war, but the entire nation manufactured a mere twelve-hundred in 1943.

Nor were the Nazis especially industrious in the years preceding the outbreak of war. Much has been made of German military rearmament as proof of the Third Reich’s abilities to marshal the resources of their nation; for decades, the consensus was that the Germans overwhelmed Britain and France in 1940 with a swarm of tanks and aircraft. This was simply untrue. At the start of the war, Germany had 2,582 tanks with which to face the Allies’ 4,204. While the Luftwaffe did enjoy an advantage over the Allied air forces, it was only a slight advantage.

Far from being a one-dimensional caricature of buffoonish incompetence, however, Stone’s Hitler is capable of flashes of brilliance. Indeed, his finest hour is during the showdown with France and Britain. German generals, constrained by orthodoxy and fear of the French army, had developed military plans that essentially called for a ponderous repeat of the First World War. Hitler tore these plans apart, and (rightly, it transpired) instead heeded his own intuitions, which called for a rapid and unpredictable assault.

I use the word ‘intuitions’ because Hitler had no formal training as an officer – indeed, he had virtually no formal training as anything. Ironically, at first this seems to have helped rather than hindered Hitler at first. Economic wisdom of the 1930s held that public spending should be curtailed due its impact on inflation, but the Führer dispensed with these traditionalist arithmeticians and ploughed money into public works. These economic projects largely succeeded, and today the wisdom of such Keynesian-style measures is widely accepted. Yet these flashes were the exceptions, and even these became increasingly rare as the war worsened. As the walls began closing in on him, the Führer descended intro true madness. As the war progressed, Hitler grew increasingly paranoid, at one point devoting half an hour to what he planned on doing to the families of those who had attempted to assassinate him. 

The final years of Nazi Germany reflected this inner insanity. Instead of attempting to mass-produce war equipment in a final attempt to save the Reich, Hitler devoted comically uneconomical amounts of resources to produce ‘wonder weapons’ – pet projects that rarely yielded tangible results. Instead of developing new military strategies, Hitler began plotting a repeat of the 1940 campaign, but by 1944, the Wehrmacht was exhausted, the Allies enjoyed total air supremacy and the Third Reich’s resources were drained. Where once audacity and daring had compensated for a lack of knowledge, the cumulative impact of years of incompetence and endless errors at the hands of Hitler and his gang meant defeat was all but inevitable. 

Indeed, a major theme of Hitler is the story of how the rot at the heart of the Third Reich, at first concealed when Nazi German was at its zenith, was laid bare for all to see as the thousand year empire crumbled into ruins. By the end of the war, Stone’s Hitler is a drug addled wreck of man, utterly detached from reality and reduced to ranting and raving at the world around him. 

It is difficult to make a substantive criticism of a book which giants such as A. J. P Taylor “endorse almost without any reservation.” The only major concern which readers should be aware of is its length – Stone can only pack so much into 221 pages, something readers seeking a more definitive picture of the Third Reich should be aware of. The Halder plot, for example, is summarised in a single paragraph, as opposed to the multiple pages Shirer devotes to it. Despite this, I can strongly recommend Hitler as an accurate, engaging and accessible account of one of the 20th Century’s most monstrously momentous men and the regime he dominated.