Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant By Ben Novak

Here are some excerpts from this 2014 book:

* The question that initiated this study was a simple question that mystified Adolf Hitler’s contemporaries and has subsequently baffled historians and biographers: Why was Hitler successful in his rise to power? Initially, this seems to be a straightforward question, answered by simply describing: (1) who this man was; (2) what he did; and (3) how he did it. However, most biographers and historians have answered only one of these three questions, namely, what he did. As for the other two questions, they have proved unable to arrive at consensus or provide satisfactory answers.

H. R. Trevor-Roper was the first post–World War II historian to recognize the mystery constituted constituted by Hitler’s rise to power and to identify these two unanswered questions as the essential elements of the continuing mystery of Hitler. Trevor-Roper raised these in a lengthy essay published in 1953, entitled “The Mind of Adolf Hitler,”[1] which begins with the stark question: “Who Was Hitler?” He then goes on to castigate his fellow historians for failing to answer that question, as well as for failing to answer the second question constituting the mystery: “How did he do it?” Indeed, Trevor-Roper accused historians of “evading” these questions. It is worth quoting him more fully, for he minces no words:

“Who was Hitler? The history of his political career is abundantly documented and we cannot escape from its terrible effects. And yet, . . . how elusive his character remains! What he did is clear; every detail of his political activity is now—thanks to a seizure of documents unparalleled in history—historically established; his daily life and personal behavior have been examined and exposed. But still, when asked not what he did but how he did it, or rather how he was able to do it, historians evade the question, sliding away behind implausible answers.[2]”

In the intervening half century, despite an overwhelming amount of scholarship devoted to these two questions (Robert G. L. Waite has opined, “It seems likely that more will be written about Adolf Hitler than anyone else in history with the exception of Jesus Christ.”)[3], no advance has been made in answering them or solving the mystery.

Eberhard Jaeckel pronounces the question “How could Hitler have come to power?” to be “the seminal question of the twentieth century.” century.”[4] James M. Rhodes writes that “The rise of the German Workers’ Party (Hitler Movement)” is a phenomenon that has “never been adequately explained.”[5] Biographer Robert Payne candidly admits at the beginning of his biography, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, that “the rise of Adolf Hitler to supreme power is one of those events in world history which are almost totally inexplicable in any rational terms;”[6] while Joachim Fest, the author of one of the most respected biographies of Hitler,[7] acknowledges thirteen years after publication that “Hitler and National Socialism, despite years of study and reflection about them, have remained more myth than history.”[8] Robert Nelken pithily summarizes the mystery: “Hitler has puzzled generations of investigators.”

The present status of this mystery, especially regarding the two unanswered questions identified by Trevor-Roper, is well reflected in three major works published as the twentieth century was ending. In 1997, John Lukacs published The Hitler of History, a survey of the major historical scholarship and research relating to Hitler. Lukacs was motivated to conduct his study because he felt that the same two questions that Trevor-Roper had identified in 1953 were still unanswered: “There is no disagreement about this among historians,” writes Lukacs, “What they ask from the record—and from themselves—are two questions: How could Hitler have come to such power? And: What kind of a man was he?”[10] In his conclusion, Lukacs reiterates the judgment of Percy Ernst Schramm that “by virtue of his personality, his ideas, and the fact that he misled millions, Hitler poses an historical problem of the first magnitude.”[11] Lukacs himself summarizes the mystery posed by Hitler in almost Biblical terms, capitalizing each word: “And Hitler Was, Is and Remains a Problem.”[12]

The following year a second work appeared demonstrating the continuing mystery of Hitler. In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist who sensed a significant story in the failure of historians to solve the mystery of Hitler, published Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origin of His Evil. The story that Rosenbaum reports is the almost-scandal among historians that Hitler remains unexplained. For his book, Rosenbaum interviewed many of the most prominent Hitler scholars, recording his surprise—and their frustration—that the most fundamental historical and moral questions about this man remain unanswered. Rosenbaum identifies these two yet unanswered questions as (1) “The real search for Hitler—the search for who he was,” and (2) “the question of his advent and success.”[13] Rosenbaum then records in eloquent language the layman’s amazement at the failure of historians to find any coherent or consensus answers to these questions:

“Is it conceivable, more than half a century after Hitler’s death, after all that has been written and said, that we are still wandering in this trackless wilderness, this garden of forking paths, with no sight of our quarry? Or, rather, alas, with too many quarries: the search for Hitler has apprehended not one coherent, consensus image of Hitler, but rather many different Hitlers, competing embodiments of competing visions, Hitlers who might not recognize each other well enough to say “Heil!” if they came face to face in Hell.”

* “No comprehensive study of all aspects of Hitler’s language exists.”[36] So far, no rhetorician has conducted a study of Hitler’s rhetoric that would explain his phenomenal political success.[37] If Hitler’s demagogy—his speechmaking, oratory, and rhetoric—were so important in explaining Hitler’s success, why has no one seen fit to study it in order to explain the principles of its effectiveness?

* The most essential conclusions that I have drawn from my review of the literature are as follows: Scholars have already applied every known theory of the social sciences and humanities to explain Hitler, but so far the mystery has not been solved. Almost all previous historical and biographical studies of Hitler have attempted to explain his power in terms of why people responded to him, rather than studying precisely what he did to elicit that response. Other previous studies—biographical and historical—that have applied familiar labels, or employed familiar concepts, have been unsuccessful at explaining his success. The failure to discover a satisfactory explanation for Hitler’s success is an embarrassment to the historical profession and poses a danger in regard to the place of Hitler in myth and legend. Most important of all, there seems to be no doubt that the central issues in Hitler studies, both historical and biographical, arise from the inability of scholars to discover the relationship between what is known about Hitler the man and what is known about Hitler the politician. This suggests that the proper focus of any new study or investigation designed to solve the mystery of Hitler must focus on Hitler himself.

After reviewing the approaches of previous scholars I find that there is one question that has not been investigated by any post–World War II scholar. That question may be set out this way: What personality or character trait: talent, skill or ability (natural or acquired); genius, or method, did Hitler possess, whose identification and explication would meet the following five requirements: distinguish Hitler from other politicians; explain what it was that gave Hitler the advantage over other politicians; explain why Hitler was so often underestimated; explain why he was so much more successful than other men of seemingly seemingly better education, experience, and background, who seemed to possess more talents and abilities, more connections, and more resources; and, finally, would connect Hitler’s youth and young manhood prior to his entry into politics with his life after 1919, when he entered politics. Among all of the scholars and biographers who have studied Hitler’s life and career, I find only one who had specifically asked this last question, and he had done so not only before World War II, but even before Hitler came into power. That scholar was Konrad Heiden, who in the early 1930s asked: “What natural gifts determined Hitler’s fate?”[77] In answer, Heiden argues that the secret to Hitler’s success lay in a peculiar form of logic. “His strength is utterly in his logic,” writes Heiden. This is a surprising and unexpected explanation of Hitler. However, Heiden personally knew and observed Hitler for a longer time and at closer quarters than any other journalist, opponent, or scholar. Strangely, no one has ever before investigated Heiden’s explanation of Hitler’s success. METHOD Frankly, Heiden’s claim that Hitler’s strength was utterly in his logic puzzled me for a long time. How could strength in logic be attributed to Hitler, who is generally described as irrational and emotional in his approach to politics? Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the fact that, on the one hand, all previous theories have failed to explain Hitler, and on the other, that this seems to be the only hypothesis left. In such a situation, the guidance of one skilled in solving mysteries ought to be sought.

* As Friedlander writes, as to Hitler: “Historical inquiry seems to strike at an irreducible anomaly. The emotional hold Hitler and his movement maintained on many Germans . . . defies all customary interpretation and can never be explained coherently within the framework of a historiography in which political, social, or economic explanations predominate. . . . The manifest presence of this unknown determinant has changed nothing about the routine of research. It is true that psychohistorical investigation of Nazism has become a discipline—which seems to answer the objection. But it must be admitted that this approach has proved disappointing because of an excessively schematic application of concepts both too general and too worn out. At best it seems artificial.”

* Thus the essence of abductive logic is to recognize the strangeness in a set of facts, to reason backward to a hypothesis that will remove the strangeness and explain the strange conjunction of facts, so that they appear natural; that is, “explained.”

* Abductive logic, because it occurs at the initial stage of inquiry, is immune from both refutation and normal logical objections… While future testing will theoretically prove or disprove the hypothesis, until that testing has occurred, the hypothesis cannot be refuted by inductive logic. Similarly, deductive logic cannot prove a hypothesis wrong.

* This is a characteristic of abductive logic that proved particularly useful to Hitler. Hitler explained that the successive defeats, humiliations, crises, and traumas that beset the German people were all caused by a Communist-Socialist-Liberal-Pacifist-Jewish conspiracy that aimed to destroy the German nation. Insofar as Hitler’s theory appeared to explain and account for the known facts, it was a logical and valid hypothesis—no matter how improbable or distasteful. This placed Hitler’s critics and opponents in a logically difficult position. In order to refute Hitler’s argument, they had only three logical alternatives: (1) to accept Hitler’s conspiracy and race theory as a valid hypothesis suitable for testing; (2) to present a better explanation; or (3) to put Hitler in power and let him try out his theories in practice. To Hitler’s opponents and critics, the first alternative was completely unacceptable and impractical for two very obvious reasons. First, to acknowledge Hitler’s theories as valid hypotheses would have been to give Hitler’s “nonsense” legitimacy. His opponents would have had to acknowledge the logical possibility that his theories might be true. To have acknowledged Hitler’s theories as valid hypotheses might have been the best thing to do if it had been possible to quickly prove Hitler’s theories false. However, the only means of proving them false would have been to turn them over to historians, geneticists, sociologists, etc., who might have taken decades (beginning in the 1920s) to arrive at a significant enough consensus to prove Hitler wrong. Meanwhile, his opponents would have dignified Hitler’s hypotheses until that consensus evolved. It might further be noted, as a matter of fact, that by the time Hitler emerged as a significant force in German politics, on September 14, 1930, a large proportion of the students and faculty at German universities was National Socialist.[1] Thus, any effort to submit Hitler’s race theory and historical explanations to the scientific examination of university scholars capable of evaluating them would likely have been disastrous, given the confused and politicized state of German universities at the time.

The second alternative to refute an abductive hypothesis is to present a better hypothesis. The major parties and political leaders presented little in the way of an explanation for the successive crises of Germany. They were progressive, practical, and forward-looking in attempting to solve problems, and not often amenable to making historical digressions in order to explain why or how the problems arose. Only the Communists (and to a lesser extent the Socialists) boldly proclaimed that they had a better explanation than the Nazis, i.e., the Marxist interpretation of history.

The third method of refuting Hitler was the method eventually adopted in 1933. That was to put Hitler in power and let him try his theories out in practice.

* Adolf Hitler followed a strategy based upon the logic of abduction, and opponents and critics reacted to that strategy in ways that, though disastrous, followed the logical course Hitler plotted, based upon the characteristics of abductive logic. Thus, Hitler and the Nazis were often accused of being illogical and irrational precisely because their arguments and theories were irrefutable by the normal arguments of inductive and deductive logic. However, this immunity did not arise from irrationality or illogicality. Rather, it arose from the nature of the logic in which Hitler presented his theories. It is one of the characteristics of abductive logic that a well-formed hypothesis is irrefutable by normal methods of logical arguments, unless enough time is available to prove it wrong by scientific testing or scholarship.

* Abduction is not only the first stage of inquiry for the scientist to make discoveries that will benefit mankind, but it is also the stock-in trade of the liar, the cheat, the fraud, and the criminal; for the essence of abduction is the invention of explanations.

* Hitler was able to get away with a lie because no one attacked the form of his logic. This would have required the following logical form: “Yes, it is agreed that there are many events which appear to be inexplicable, and which call out for explanation. But the theory that a Jewish conspiracy is the cause of these effects is not the only possible cause of these effects. Nor is it the best hypothesis to explain those effects. Therefore, we should ignore the explanation of a Jewish conspiracy and calmly investigate what appear to be better explanations to explain these effects.”

* In the previous chapter of Mein Kampf, “The Causes of the Collapse” (chapter 10), Hitler describes every “symptom” of the illnesses that beset German society. It is a catalog of every imaginable indication of the presence of a disease. Chapter 11 provides the theory of how the “infection” is contracted; the course of the “disease”; a description of the “symptoms”; an explanation of why and how the “parasite” causes those specific symptoms; and the stages of the disease. Thus, Hitler presented himself not simply as a layman who could speak the obvious, e.g., “You are sick. You have a certain disease.” Rather, he presented himself as a doctor and medical expert who not only could identify the disease, but also could explain everything about the disease.

* Once a simple diagnosis—e.g., the Jews are to blame for everything—is amplified into a larger theory that links and explains many apparently unrelated symptoms into a single theory, and further explains how other apparently independent symptoms are linked to a single, deeper cause, one has a much stronger logical position.

* [Hitler] opposed intellectualism because it “removes people from the instinct of nature.”[34] The entire difference between the Aryan and the Jew, he argued, was based solely on a difference in their instincts.

* Joachim Fest also saw an opposition between instinct and reason. Fest writes of Hitler: “He grasped what was happening in the world more by instinct than by reason.”[37] But Hitler’s appeal to instinct is not opposed to reason and is entirely proper in one of the three forms of logic.

* Charles Sanders Peirce describes the “abductive faculty” as that faculty “whereby we divine the secrets of nature.”[38] It has also been described both as a “sort of divinatory power,”[39] and as “a means of communication between man and his Creator, a ‘Divine privilege’ which must be cultivated.”[40] In “On the Method of Zadig,” Thomas Henry Huxley calls it a form of “prophecy” and of “divination,” which he likens to the powers of a medium or a clairvoyant.[41] Peirce argues that there “are mysterious agencies in ideas.”[42] Pragmatism, he states, is “nothing else than the logic of abduction.”[43] It is a process whereby one aligns one’s mind with the logic of nature and allows one’s instinct to lead to the correct answer to a problem. One who has such an ability to reach the “divine secrets” and explain them to others is the true thinker who “communes with the Creator.”

* When people go to a medium or clairvoyant, they expect to be told why apparently inexplicable things are happening to them. The medium may tell them of evil forces or spirits. The person who seeks the aid of the medium is grateful to have the strange occurrences in his or her life explained. Science and medicine perform similar functions. The patient suffering from an illness he does not understand goes to a doctor who explains it. In terms of the logic, these two processes are identical. Each imagines or “divines” a cause sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

* Early in his career, Adolf Hitler gave an example of how he imported precisely the same logic into politics. In discussions held with Dietrich Eckart, he was explaining to Eckart how such logic could be brought from science to describe the workings of politics. “We are on the wrong track,” Hitler exclaimed. “Astronomers do things differently. Take, for example, an astronomer who has been observing a cluster of stars for a long time—heaven knows how long he has been looking at them. Suddenly he observes, dammit, that something has gone wrong. Previously they were arranged in a certain way, but now they are arranged differently. Some secret force has been exerted on them. So he makes endless calculations, and determines the exact location of a planet which an eye has never seen, but one fine day people discover that it really exists.”

“Well, what do historians do? They explain the regular movements of society by appealing to the society itself, the behavior of its prominent politicians. It does not occur to them that there may somewhere be a secret force which exerts its influence on everything and directs everything. Well, this force has existed since the beginning of history.”

This is precisely the form of the medium, the clairvoyant, the conspiracy theorist, and the scientific discoverer—it is the divining of active forces that cannot be seen. Its essence is abduction. Hitler’s conclusion was to identify the hidden forces acting in German history: “You know its name—the Jew.”

* He insisted, like Marx, that he had peered into the forces of history and was able to explain them—as well as to explain how these invisible forces were affecting the present. He based his political future on his abductive ability, similar to that of a medium, to predict the future based on his special knowledge of the activities of these unseen forces in history. “I have never told you” he claimed in 1922, “that such and such things may come true, but always that they will come, because they must come and it cannot be otherwise. And what we foresaw has now come to pass.”

* Hitler was always careful to present himself as the seer who divined the causes, or as the scientist who explained them, or as the doctor who diagnosed them.

* The third unique—and perhaps most important—characteristic of abduction is the strange power it has over the minds of ordinary people by which it forces them not only to accept a hypothetical explanation and act upon it, but also to follow through in acting out all the inferences of the hypothesis. Abductive logic has the capacity to impose a “straitjacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power.

* No other form of logic has the power over men’s minds that abductive logic has. This is all the more remarkable because abduction is only the first stage of scientific inquiry, and its goal is only to provide hypotheses for subsequent testing. However, the nature of the human mind—outside the laboratory—has such a need for explanation, and such a need to make the world rational, that improvised hypotheses are readily accepted.

Joseph Cotto writes:

Even astute researchers might be surprised to discover that, while a youngster, Hitler was enamored of Saxony-born novelist Karl May, best remembered for volumes depicting the Old American West. It was from May’s writings, Novak relates, that Hitler originally learned about abductive logic — despite May being a Christian humanitarian who was no enemy of Jews or non-Aryans. The manner through which Hitler transformed a realm of adventurous fantasy into a living nightmare inflicted upon millions and millions consumes the bulk of Novak’s work.

Understanding how a poorly educated, emotionally volatile, and psychologically disturbed nobody from the hinterlands became a global public enemy for the ages is quite an ordeal. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this is discovering that Hitler, through sheer force of his own will (itself fueled by a desire to overcome too many personal insecurities to mention here), twisted a plot pattern from pedestrian fiction to fashion a methodology for mass murder, astounding theft of property and real estate, as well as intended enforcement of totalitarian governance for over 1000 years.

Novak, in tracing Hitler’s childhood and rise to power as an adult, more than ably disseminates a story of how the lowest depths of humanity were reached. From Hitler — an unremarkable, unsuccessful farm boy gone to the big city — channeling his deep personal rage into political power to the ease with which throngs of voters rallied to his cause to how he attained stomach-wrenching domestic order primed to liquidate not only those within but abroad, nary a stone is left unturned.

Especially astounding is that, for all of the power he attained, Hitler never delivered typical campaign promises, like pragmatic solutions to pressing popular concerns. Instead, he cast such a spell over those around him that Nazi supporters were willing to pay admission so they could be present at their party’s gatherings.

A friend says:

I don’t think Cotto’s description is quite correct. He says, “Abduction is unlike both deduction, which proceeds from a universal rule to a specific case and then to a conclusion, and induction, which moves in the opposite direction. Abduction begins with the odd or inexplicable.” In a deductive inference, the conclusion *logically* follows from the premises, and doesn’t have to go from a “universal rule” to a specific cases. All mathematics is deduction. (a) If Smith has a hat the hat is black, (b) Smith has a hat, (c) Smith has a black hat” is deduction. People use “induction” kind of loosely, but it basically refers to statistical inferences. Statistics is the science of induction. Abduction means inference to the best explanation. All thinking people and animals employ abduction, but scientists supposedly do it on a higher level. The premises that are the basis of an abductive inference don’t have to be “odd or inexplicable”–it’s just normal everyday reasoning.

I think usually people don’t call it abductive *logic*, since it’s not exactly logic. Traditionally the main goal of philosophy of science was to explain how abduction/inference to the best explanation works, but so far it’s been a failure. People have distinguished lots of categories of induction/abduction.

I think the best way to understand scientific theories is as “research programs.” A research program posits a body of core explanatory principles to explain some evidence. All theories face empirical difficulties/counterexamples, so they must be supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses to explain away the counterexamples. Successful research programs produce auxiliary hypotheses that make successful new predictions, whereas unsuccessful programs require more and more rescuing hypotheses to explain counterexamples without making new predictions.

Maybe Hitler was good at coming up with narratives? I think the psychology of how narratives appeal to people should receive a lot more attention. It’s discussed a little in moral psychology, but it’s not a major issue.

Another friend says:

Abductive logic is just “inference to the best explanation” as far as I know. (I think I agree with what your anonymous friend said about this.) I mean, Hitler did use this mode of reasoning but then so does everyone. His anti-semitic “conspiracy theory” may have been largely based on abduction but it’s not clear to me why this would have been especially important in explaining his political successes (and there would seem to be all kinds of more straightforward and plausible explanations).

The claim that abduction is “immune from both refutation and normal logical objections” seems definitely false. In order to refute an argument of this kind you just need to come up with some better or equally good explanation for the fact in question. There might be room for debate about how exactly the quality of competing explanations should be gauged, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have reasonable objections to abductive reasoning. (Some alternative hypothesis might be equally simple and consistent with other known facts, etc.) There could also be “normal logical objections” to such reasoning. For example, it could be that the proposed hypothesis (i.e. the conclusion of the abductive argument) is internally inconsistent.

As for whether it would be considered a kind of logic, the answer is probably “Yes and no”. Because the word “logic” has been given different meanings. It’s not _formal_ logic because it can’t (so far) be reduced to mathematical or machine-checkable axioms and rules. (Formal logic deals with systems of reasoning where it’s possible to prove things given merely the structure or grammar or logical “form” of statements–in other words, regardless of meaning or content, context or psychology, etc.) On the other hand, philosophers often discuss “informal logic” as well. Basically, if “logic” refers to something specific and technical such as mathematical logic or truth-functional logic or modal logic, then abductive reasoning isn’t logic; but if “logic” just refers to all the different forms of reasoning then abductive reasoning is a kind of logic. At least I think this is what would be the mainstream opinion in philosophy.

Here is an entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that might be useful. At least it will have lots of references to academic philosophical discussions of the topic.

From the German Studies Review:

Ben Novak—whose interdisciplinary PhD combines history, philosophy, and political science—wrestles with questions that he believes historians have not successfully answered: who was Hitler and why did he succeed in taking power over others who were better educated, more experienced, and better connected? Whereas numerous biographers of Hitler, the most recent being Ian Kershaw (1998, 2000), see Hitler as an impenetrable mystery, Novak seeks to make sense of him. Following Konrad Heiden (A History of National Socialism, 1971), who called attention to Hitler’s “natural gifts” (61), and the nineteenth-century American logician Charles Samuel [End Page 190] Pierce, Novak argues that the key to Hitler’s success was his mastery of a third form of logic besides deduction and induction known as “abduction” (20–21).

Abduction is unlike both deduction, which proceeds from a universal rule to a specific case and then to a conclusion, and induction, which moves in the opposite direction. Abduction begins with the odd or inexplicable. Proceeding from instinct and imagination, the observer reasons backwards from a puzzling occurrence to create a story out of what appear to be insignificant clues. In Hitler’s hands, abduction led to a simple but comprehensive explanation for seemingly incomprehensible events: the lost war, the punitive peace settlement, hyperinflation, and then the Depression. Only a criminal plot—an international conspiracy of communists, socialists, liberals, pacifists, and especially Jews—could explain the multiple traumas of interwar Germany. As Novak argues, abduction can provide a fruitful way to produce a working hypothesis in circumstances where no universal rules or foundational principles can be assumed. Hitler thus provided a compelling story that other Weimar politicians could not produce. His conspiratorial hypothesis was not open to refutation.

According to the author, abductive logic is as old as the “first caveman” (29), but its emergence in the popular literature of the late nineteenth century, such as Sherlock Holmes detective stories and Karl May’s westerns, was central to Hitler’s maturation. To make his case, Novak himself uses abductive logic to explain Hitler’s transformation from a socially well-adjusted, model student into a loner with little passion for school who angrily rejected his father’s desire that Adolf follow him into the Austro-Hungarian civil service. Rather than reject out of hand Hitler’s own testimony in Mein Kampf, which most historians consider too dubious to be credible, Novak takes it seriously as a point of departure, linking Hitler’s testimony with the other fragmentary evidence. Most scholars recognize that, by the age of eleven, Hitler had become a pathological mystery. Yet Novak argues that this change can be explained. His attraction to Karl May’s hero “Old Shatterhand” (first appearing in Winnetou in 1893), who abductively discovered truths about the world and his own existence, justified his rebelliousness and his growing belief in his own uniqueness. Hitler saw himself as extraordinary, too special to conform to the “department store” (161) world of bourgeois careerism that guided his early youth and his father’s expectations. Hence Hitler decided to become an artist, a profession with the freedom to allow his genius to thrive. After World War I, politics provided a different but equally creative path.

Novak’s contribution lies in his detailing the rationality of Hitler’s thinking. Neither sociopathic, irrational, opportunistic, nor mediumistic, Hitler was eminently logical. In his brief concluding chapter, Novak describes how the Führer seamlessly combined messianism with formidable business skills to assure his and his party’s success. By charging admission to party rallies, Hitler created a self-financing political entity while simultaneously enhancing Nazism’s revivalist novelty. By limiting photographs of himself, Hitler enhanced his personal magnetism and thus enticed even more people [End Page 191] to see him in person. According to Novak, Hitler’s riveting oratory was less significant to the growth of the Nazi Party than the creativity and solidity of his management.

Professor Steven Jefferson writes for Journal of Contemporary European Studies:

According to Ben Novak, three events that ‘set [Adolf Hitler] on the road to becoming Der Fuehrer (sic)’ were his distinct rejection of the idea of ordinary work and an ordinary life [ … ] at the age of eight; [the] formation of a personal identification with an abstract idea of the German people [ … ] at age nine; and [his] discovery of Karl May [ … ] at the age of eleven. (121)

It was during his extended engagement with May’s oeuvre, Novak explains, that Hitler internalised abductive logic, a mode of thought employed by the great detectives of literature and, crucially for Novak’s thesis, by some of May’s fictional protagonists.

Novak’s claim that something in Karl May’s books can explain the Holocaust, is based on a statement made by Hitler’s headmaster, Dr Eduard Huemer, in relation to Hitler’s post-Putsch arrest in 1923. Huemer testified that ‘Hitler seems to have been led astray by the stories of Karl May and tales of Red Indians’ (182). Novak focuses on Huemer’s specific choice of words: ‘led astray’ rather than ‘wasted time reading’. However, to assess the merits of Huemer’s statement, one would need to consider the original German, which Novak fails to provide. Nor does he provide a reference to the German source; a serious omission given the importance of this point to his thesis. Even without the translation, the claims Novak makes for this statement are unsupportable. Not only does Huemer mention ‘stories by Karl May’ but he also refers specifically to ‘and tales of Red Indians’. However, these could have been written by any number of authors, notably James Fenimore Cooper whose novels, Novak assures us, Hitler had also read (184). Huemer states that Hitler was ‘led astray’ both by Karl May stories and by ‘tales of Red Indians’. Yet, Novak asserts that this constitutes supporting evidence for the claim that Hitler was specifically ‘led astray’ by something he discovered in May’s stories. Huemer goes on to state that ‘no doubt an over-indulgence in such reading combined with the time wasted on drifting back and forth from home and school which was some distance apart, was mostly responsible for [Hitler’s] failure’ (182). This statement leaves little doubt that the headmaster attributed Hitler’s lacklustre school performance to his wasting time on reading per se and trekking long distances instead of studying for exams.

Turning to the substance of Novak’s core thesis, his assertion that Hitler was highly influenced by Karl May is unoriginal. In 1940, Klaus Mann attacked May’s oeuvre as the product of ‘a morbid and infantile brain’, which he claimed, without citing sources, had demonstrably influenced Hitler. According to Mann, ‘[a] whole generation in Germany grew brutish and ran wild—partly through
the evil influence of Karl May’ (Mann 1940a). He goes on to make the preposterous and outrageous claim that ‘[t]he Third Reich is Karl May’s ultimate triumph’ (Mann 1940b).

Mann’s claim is preposterous for a number of reasons. First, there is no difference between May’s Westerns and those of non-German authors such as Captain Mayne Reid. Why then did not a whole generation in England or America grow brutish and run wild after reading the very books that may well have inspired May’s own oeuvre? Second, Karl May is one of the most translated authors ever: why then was the supposedly evil potential of his novels only realised in Germany? Third, far from being a cultural chauvinist or warmonger, May was a pacifist who faced down a whole generation of sabre-rattling militarists in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion by publishing and defending such programmatically ideological tracts as Et in terra pax (1901) later republished and expanded as Und Friede auf Erden (1904) (Ku¨rschner 1901; May 1958[1904]; Sudhoff et al. 2001). May’s pacifistic utterances were met with unbridled fury from the public and the Catholic Church. In 1938, by which time May had been dead for 20 years, Hitler’s NSDAP demanded drastic alterations to the text before approving the publication of an updated edition. Karl May, author, rogue, plagiarist and pacifist, may well have caught the young Hitler’s attention as he has fired the imaginations of tens of millions of
youngsters around the world for over 150 years. But to associate him and his oeuvre with this ‘genius’ of death is one of the greatest factual distortions that I have ever encountered.

Novak’s scholarship remains underdeveloped. His ability to unfold a cogent argument based on verifiable evidence and reasonable assumptions is woefully inadequate. His decision to take the perpetrator of the greatest crime in recorded history to task, not for the role he played in the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and the destruction of the European order, but for his boyhood dalliance with the oeuvre of a competent, if at times uninspired, certainly harmless, author, goes beyond bad taste and poor judgement. In summary, this book exemplifies the free-for-all attitude towards Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust that many Anglophone authors, incredibly, seem to feel is appropriate—but which is not!

According to his self-description found at StateCollege.com:

Ben Novak is a retired attorney, writer and teacher.

He graduated from Penn State in 1965 with a BA in economics. In 1968 he received a J.D. degree from Georgetown University. Later, in 1999, he earned a Ph.D. at Penn State in the interdisciplinary doctoral studies program. His dissertation, entitled Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant, was published by Lexington Books in 2014.

After serving in the U.S. Army (1968-1970), including a year in Viet Nam, he practiced law in Centre County for more than three decades (1970-2001). From 1984 to 1987 he published the first regular (bi-weekly) column on beer appreciation; his columns were collected and published in 2013 as The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

He founded and was the first president of both the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and the Lion Fraternity Alumni Association. He served four three-year terms on Penn State’s Board of Trustees as an Alumni Elected Trustee (1988-2000). In 2001, he retired to live and teach in Slovakia, the land of his ancestors in Europe, for seven years.

He now resides in Ave Maria, Florida, where he thanks God every day for the warm, sunny weather.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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