This interview with Claus Hant was part of an article in the Guardian on 07-10-06 by Joel Rickett
What made you write this book?
When I lived in the US I was frequently confronted with questions about Hitler but I actually knew very little about the man, so I started researching him. In the beginning I only wanted to know for myself so I could answer the questions my friends had about that short [12 years] but tragic [55 million dead] episode in history which Hitler represents. That research lasted more than fifteen years.
What kept you intrigued for such a long time?
To my surprise, I found that there is still an enormous question mark among researchers concerning Hitler. Renowned experts agree that Hitler's personal life story is a puzzle - some call it an anomaly - which can't be satisfactorily explained. In the end, it was that mystery which kept me going for so long.
Are you referring to the enormous power that Hitler was given more than willingly by the ordinary people?
In modern times, no politician has ever commanded the power Hitler had. Just look at the Concise Dictionary of German Jurisprudence from 1937, which states: 'That which the Führer indicates of social norms as proper, or conversely as immoral, and therefore as right or wrong, is so, without the need for a formal law.' In other words, Hitler was not just above the law, he was the law. Literally. And it didn't stop there. He was the highest authority in every field he chose to be interested in. He had the last word on how entire cities were to be remodelled, he was the premier expert in the fine arts and he was the supreme strategic planner of the German army. To find an analogy for the power that Hitler commanded, one has to go as far back as the times of the Roman Emperors. Taking into account the technological, economical and military power Germany represented at the time, Hitler could be considered the mightiest ruler the world has ever known.
Now contrast that with his personal background. The only school Hitler ever finished was elementary school. He came from a lower-middleclass family and had no connections that could have got him anywhere - and no money either. For years, he lived as a bum on the streets and in the shelters of Vienna. And then, all of a sudden, this vagabond became a ruler with limitless power. Sounds more like something from wild imagination than factual history. Even if it were just fiction, a screenwriter would find it hard to sell to Hollywood. In all likelihood they would turn it down and tell him it was all a bit too "Alice in Wonderland".
What was it about Hitler's views that gave them such mass appeal?
Hitler's political views were not original in any way. There were 15 other right-wing parties in Munich at the time when Hitler started his political career, all peddling the same mix of prejudices and phobias.
What was the reason for his success then?
He had an unshakeable conviction which could be felt by those in his presence. It was a visceral experience, rather than an intellectual one. But in order to experience it, one had to be open to it, of course. The impression Hitler made had a lot to do with his audience's emotional state. Hitler and his audience are two sides of the same coin. While Hitler’s personal story is the main focus, my book also looks into the general situation in Germany. Conditions were extremely harsh after World War One. The Allies had insisted on a change of regime, which toppled the German Emperor and created a huge power vacuum. People were fighting in the streets, and thousands died. The economy was in tatters, Germany was being humiliated by the Allies and chaos and insecurity reigned. There was a tremendous yearning for someone with "an unshakeable conviction". This side of the coin is easily understood. It is the other side that baffles historians to this day: How and why did this drifter and starving artist, of all people, develop the unshakeable conviction needed to become Germany’s leader?
You tell Hitler's story in novel form. Why don't you write a non-fiction book?
I agree - why write a novel about Hitler? The reality that this man created far surpasses any fictional tale. Consequently my book is not a novel in the traditional sense. It’s a different animal – a “non-fiction novel”: a narrative form that adheres strictly to the scientifically verified facts while allowing me to use a novel-like strand to present the psychological, sociological, political, cultural, religious and historical facts within a coherent context. In other words, the non-fiction novel lets me tell a complex, fact-based story in a way that is still accessible to the reader. This narrative form has the additional advantage of not being encumbered by unnecessary information. Unlike a biography, in a non-fiction novel I can focus on the essentials.
Your book reads like a biography?
I would hope that it’s more compelling. My book doesn’t portray the events from a distanced perspective. The narrative allows you to follow young Hitler’s development first-hand. The reader can experience the atmosphere in Vienna and Munich at the turn of the last century, the horrific period when Hitler was at the front in the First World War and the desolate times in Munich after the war when a bizarre series of events leads to Hitler’s meteoric rise as a politician.
Does telling Hitler’s story not run the risk of repeating what has already been said?
Not in this case. My book looks very closely at the how and the why of Hitler’s transformation from inconsequential drifter to towering historical figure and traces this metamorphosis step by step. I haven’t come across this approach anywhere else. This may seem surprising but it’s actually no wonder, given the fact that all the mayor biographies disregard the first part of Hitler’s life. Ian Kershaw, the most recent biographer, is only one example among many. His biography has more than 2000 pages and he devotes a mere 165 pages to the crucial period during which Hitler grew into the man he was later on. Young Hitler focuses on exactly the period that the biographers neglect.
Just as any historian I wanted to follow Hitler's path as closely as possible. So the choice was obvious: Hitler's best friend.
Did Hitler really have a best friend?
Actually he had several close friends during the various periods of his early years. That may sound surprising because when we think of Hitler, we immediately think of the cartoonish monster that the media have created. But the young Hitler wasn't a monster; he was an aspiring artist, and a very ordinary man in many ways. The viewpoint of Hitler's friend helped me to arrange the researched data in a coherent way that is easy to follow. The reader can experience step-by-step what happened to the young Hitler and what caused him to become the tyrant and mass murderer he was later on. I also included an appendix where the reader can check the historical and other scientific evidence that my story is based on, and I listed the relevant references.
An appendix in a novel?
As I’ve pointed out earlier, the novel-like elements in my book only serve to convey the factual information. The appendix explains what research has uncovered about the important aspects in Hitler's development, while the narrative illustrates the connection between these aspects. When put together, the two parts of the book help to understand the development of the man, the era he lived in and the reasons why the public supported him.
What time period does the book cover?
There are references to childhood experiences as long as they are necessary to understand Hitler’s later development. The actual story starts in 1905 when he is 16 years old, and ends in 1920 when he is 31. During that time, Hitler became the man he later embodied. Everything that follows is just a logical progression from who he was when the story ends.
Did your approach lead you to insights that differ from what academic studies have found about Hitler?
The many academic studies about Hitler are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When I assembled this puzzle in order to tell a coherent story about Hitler’s crucial formative years, a picture emerged that indicates very clearly that we have to challenge certain fundamental assumptions. For decades an image of Hitler has been established that portrays him as a purely secular leader. On the other hand researchers have noted that in many aspects Nazism resembles more a quasi-religion than a political movement. But where did that “religiousness” originate from? According to the ruling doctrine it is based on the “Hitler myth” which in turn is considered an opportunistic staging used by Hitler merely to keep the masses in line. The current school of thought assumes that an artificial myth had “somehow” been created by Hitler which he then used as a clever propaganda tool. After having studied in depth the transformation of the young man into the Hitler we all know, I’ve come to a very different understanding.
And that is?
Hitler didn’t lie when he said things like: ‘I’ve been given an order by God.’ He truly believed it.
Are you saying his claim should be taken seriously?
Absolutely! It’s essential to examine what Hitler himself believed. His self-image is crucial. This is where his persuasiveness has its roots and it was his persuasiveness that ultimately made him so successful. Now this is also where it gets a bit tricky. The Nazi propaganda machine certainly did everything to foster the myth that formed around Hitler, and if others saw him as a saint-type figure, he let them. But when Hitler talked about himself he never claimed to be anything other than a secular politician. What we must understand is that this was only a tactical manoeuvre. It is not how he saw himself. So it’s not surprising that there are contradictions in what Hitler says when he speaks about himself. Sometimes his true self-image shines through in his speeches (and in Mein Kampf) and then he calls himself a “tool of providence”. The current school of thought assumes that these statements are lies helping him to promote his own myth. But my investigation reveals a different picture: when Hitler said these kinds of things, he was saying something about himself that he truly believed. However, the proponents of the ruling doctrine have fallen for Hitler’s self portrayal as a purely secular leader. This has not been acknowledged so far, and we have to first learn to understand what that means.
So what is your conclusion?
Hitler was not just the politician he claimed to be. In reality, he considered himself to be the founder of a religion.
Why didn’t he openly declare this?
Hitler did speak about his “religion”, but only in encoded ways. You have to listen very carefully when analysing what he says. Sometimes the terms he chooses are decidedly secular which has to do with the fact that his “religion” was a religion of reason – a “reason” that was of course subject to his interpretation. At other times Hitler used Christian phraseology to exploit the power of Christian faith. While it seemed that he was referring to the Christian God, he was in fact talking about “his” God, the God of evolution, an evolution based on the pseudo-Darwinian concepts of a racist philosophy. Hitler was a pretty shrewd man. When he fought for power in Germany he knew only too well how to act and what to say in order to be taken seriously in a secular world ruled by reason. Then, later on, when he had all that power, he was working towards war. And he knew that he couldn’t afford a conflict with the churches on top of a war. Had he won his war, this would have changed. Hitler repeatedly stated that his “ultimate task” was to come once the war was won.
Do you think Hitler believed in God?
Hitler did not just believe in God, he believed himself to be someone through whom God was revealing his existence. Consequently God was always present in the Third Reich, as can be seen by the inclusion of the words 'God with us' on the belt buckle of Hitler's soldiers. It is this aura of 'divinity' that made the Hitler cult of the Nazis so powerful and so dangerous. While portraying himself as a mere politician and without explicitly stating it Hitler let his audience know full well that he was more than an ordinary human being. He was in no doubt that he was the herald of a new, racist creed that would replace the Christian religions in the coming millennia. It is one of many misconceptions concerning Hitler to believe that he was an atheist. But most people don't really want to be confronted with this. They prefer to dismiss Hitler as a cartoon monster, which fails to explain how he was able to take such sweeping power. As is often said, those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. And a failure to understand Hitler means it could happen again, anywhere in the world – not just in Germany.