Book Reviews

Saturday on the Couch: What if Hitler had shown greater artistic talent?

How, in part at least, rejection created the worst tyrant in history – Adolf Hitler.

I had a cousin – the late Robert Haupt, journalist, newspaper editor, overseas correspondent, author, raconteur – whose great appetite was for paradox. “You can no more feign fascination with paradox than laugh convincingly at a pun when you loathe punning,” he wrote.  I know Robert would have valued the following for at least that very reason, although I never got to discuss it with him.

One of life’s all-time great paradoxes relates to a character central to World War Two, the massive conflagration that engulfed the entire planet and led to the deaths of perhaps 60 million people (with some estimates going as high as 80 million). Enigmatically, the war may never have happened, at least in the form it took, had its main protagonist been accepted into the world in which he saw his future: Art.


Mary and Jesus, 1913

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The fact is, an 18-year old Adolf Hitler lived a somewhat Bohemian existence. He was an intelligent but feckless youth living with the financial support of a doting mother, having grand ideas that he would espouse to anyone with the time or the interest, but had little liking for work. His time was generally taken up attending opera (he loved Wagner) with its dramatised view on life, while he dreamt of becoming a great artist.

In late 1907, Hitler attempted to enter the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts but failed because his presentation, although technically correct and the work of a fair draughtsman, “…lacked talent for artistic painting.” So it was that, despite praise for his art through his school years, it never developed sufficiently for him now to pass the two-day entrance exam. As the Academy explained, his work exhibited “…a notable lack of appreciation of the human form”.


Munich Opera House, 1914 (A postcard)

His mother dying and the inheritance from his deceased father dwindling, Hitler and a friend eked out a living by painting and selling postcards of Vienna, but it would never be enough. War was coming and he initially evaded conscription in the Austro-Hungarian army but later enlisted in the German army. He served time as a dispatch runner.

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Ardoye in France, 1917

Always a nationalist, after the war Hitler became more and more involved in the NSDAP (the Nazi party) pushing for a stronger German identity. No matter he wasn’t even German; he always had the gift of the gab and developed an almost mesmeric persona when speaking in public. This brought him to the notice of the party hierarchy.  His more radical ideas gained traction with the publication of the book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), dictated to Rudolf Hess as they served jail time for an attempted coup. They had taken part in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, an early Nazi attempt to seize control of the government. Its failure led to the understanding that brute strength alone would not bring down the Weimar Republic; that would have to be done through the ballot box.

After the elections in 1933, the elderly German President Paul von Hindenberg appointed Hitler Chancellor. The rest, of course, is dreadful history. Perhaps the best that can be said for the Third Reich – the Thousand Year Reich – was its overestimation by 988 years.


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In the bunker, 1945

A further paradox exists in the form of a picture that, to me, is a perfect summary of how evil seems to have a way of revisiting those who impose it on others. (Some, I know, would attempt to call it karma.) There is a photo of Hitler who also believed himself an architect, in his Berlin bunker just weeks before his death. He sits, a tired, dilated figure, old beyond his years, perusing a model of his pet redesign for post-war Linz, his home city. It, like his dream of world domination, is only weeks away from its inevitable end.

Interpretation of Hitler and art creates many another paradox. For example, two  people in the New York art’s world use similar words but in different context to make a point: Deborah Rothschild, at an exhibition of Hitler art, said, “The union of malevolence and beauty can occur; we must remain vigilant against its seductive power,” to be answered by Peter Schejldahl, “I disagree. We must remain vigilant against malevolence, and we should regard beauty as the fundamentally amoral phenomenon that it is.


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