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Vol 3, No 25
10 September 2001
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Peter Wyden's The Hitler Virus The Hitler Virus
Peter Wyden
Arcade Books 2001
1559705329

Rob Stout

In 1950, appalled by the flood of books and articles on National Socialism, a German journalist wrote, "He has played a trick on us. This Hitler, I think he'll remain with us until the end of our lives."

Fifty years later, the situation has not changed. Hitler failed in his goal to go down in history as "the greatest German," but he is still one of its most popular subjects. In the overpopulated world of "Hitler Studies," historians, journalists and academics of every stripe continue to engage in a collective effort to explain his personality (one that lacked any real substantive ideology) as some sort of key to understanding political evil and racial hatred in our own time. And books that have very little in the way of new information continue to sell.

This fascination was shared by the late historian Peter Wyden. As a Berliner, he was forced to flee Nazi Germany with his family during the Kristallnacht in 1937. But he takes care to point out that The Hitler Virus is not "a collective indictment of a most complex people." Rather, it is "a highly personal investigation into a loose association of opinion-shapers, intellectuals, rank-and-file old-timers and younger neo-Nazis who hanker after their Führer and apparently cannot let his spirit die."

Early on, Wyden reminds the reader of Hitler's last testament, given on the day he died. "The consolidation of the Nazi state represents the work of centuries to come." Evidence of this "consolidation" was first noted by Wyden during several travels through Germany during the early 1990s, when he witnessed a number of public displays which were celebrative of Hitler's achievements or even accorded him a nearly divine status.

Such phenomena as German television documentaries on the holocaust, public praise for the "economic miracle" of the 1930s and the yearly mass pilgrimages to Berchtesgarden led Wyden to begin documenting these modern day manifestations of what he has termed the "Hitler virus."

From National Socialism to the New Right

As he continued his research, he found that other carriers of this virus went far beyond the far-right thuggery increasing throughout Europe. The "virus" that alarmed Wyden the most was one that had spread from the mass for which it was originally created to more elite circles. Here Wyden makes a particularly persuasive argument for the dangers of National Socialism as upheld by such figures as "New Right" historian Eric Nolte and Judge Rainer Orlet of the Mannheim State Court, well known for his lenient treatment of rightist elements.

A separate, equally convincing section is devoted to the slow political drift to the right in European politics with such colorful examples as Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Jörg Haider in Austria and Alessandra Mussolini. Although it is not spelled out, the reader is left with only a few dots to connect concerning the possible political shift in Europe should a sudden economic downturn occur.

Holocaust denial

Of equal importance is the right-wing intellectual climate best personified by famed Holocaust-denier David Irving. Irving, a charismatic British historian (yes, there is such a thing), has made it his life's mission to "de-demonize" Hitler through groundless revisionist history. Wyden's conversations with Irving in 1994, recounted in some detail in the text, add a new dimension to the label "far right." Unfortunately, Wyden did not live to see the January 2000 ruling against Irving in a British High Court which labeled him, among other things, an "anti-Semite" and a defender of Adolph Hitler—for which he was fined and is still facing bankruptcy.

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Wyden's history includes other details which add to his persuasive thesis, such as the farcical "Hitler Diaries," the market for Hitler memorabilia and the continuing interest in former Nazi military and political sites among many Germans. However, the text suffers from a stubborn disjointedness, due in large part to the author's death and the task of revising and updating the unfinished manuscript left to his editor, Richard Seaver.

Yet it is still an illuminating look into a misguided allegiance that has not only become more virulent over time, but more diverse in its following. This work is a reminder of how difficult it is to remember the past and form clear judgments of it. As such, other recently published books that exhibit fairly contemporary angles on Hitler and Nazi Germany, namely Hitler's Gift, by Jean Dedawar, Lying About Hitler, by Richard Evans and The Holocaust on Trial, by D D Guttenplan, make for perfect companions to Wyden's groundbreaking study.

Rob Stout, 10 September 2001

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