Historical News and Comment
By Mark Weber
One of the most widely quoted sources of information about Hitler’s personality and secret intentions is the supposed memoir of Hermann Rauschning, the National Socialist President of the Danzig Senate in 1933-1934 who was ousted from the Hitler movement a short time later and then made a new life for himself as a professional anti-Nazi.
In the book known in German as Conversations with Hitler (Gespräche mit Hitler) and first published in the U.S. in 1940 as The Voice of Destruction, Rauschning presents page after page of what are purported to be Hitler’s most intimate views and plans for the future, allegedly based on dozens of private conversations between 1932 and 1934. After the war the memoir was introduced as Allied prosecution exhibit USSR-378 at the main Nuremberg „war crimes“ trial.
Among the damning quotations attributed to Hitler by Rauschning are these memorable statements:
We must be brutal. We must regain a clear conscience about brutality. Only then can we drive out the tenderness from our people… Do I propose to exterminate entire nationalities? Yes, it will add up to that… I naturally have the right to destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin… Yes, we are barbarians. We want to be barbarians. It is an honorable title.
Hitler is also supposed to have confided to Rauschning, an almost unknown provincial official, fantastic plans for a German world empire that would include Africa, South America, Mexico and, eventually, the United States.
Many prestigious historians, including Leon Poliakov, Gerhard Weinberg, Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Nora Levin and Robert Payne, used choice quotations from Rauschning’s memoir in their works of history. Poliakov, one of the most prominent Holocaust writers, specifically praised Rauschning for his „exceptional accuracy, while Levin, another widely-read Holocaust historian, called him „one of the most penetrating analysts of the Nazi period.“
But not everyone has been so credulous. Swiss historian Wolfgang Haenel spent five years diligently investigating the memoir before announcing his findings in 1983 at a revisionist history conference in West Germany. The renowned Conversations with Hitler, he declared are a total fraud. The book has no value „except as a document of Allied war propaganda.“
Haenel was able to conclusively establish that Rausching’s claim to have met with Hitler „more than a hundred times is a lie. The two actually met only four times, and never alone. The words attributed to Hitler, he showed, were simply invented or lifted from many different sources, including writings by Juenger and Friedrich Nietzsche. An account of Hitler hearing voices, waking at night with convulsive shrieks and pointing in terror at an empty corner while shouting „There, there, in the corner!“ was taken from a short story by French writer Guy de Maupassant.
The phony memoir was designed to incite public opinion in democratic countries, especially in the United States, in favor of war against Germany. The project was the brainchild of the Hungarian-born journalist Emery Reves, who ran an influential anti-German press and propaganda agency in Paris during the 1930s. Haenel has also found evidence that a prominent British journalist named Henry Wickham-Steele helped to produce the memoir. Wickham-Steele was a right-hand man of Sir Robert Vansittart, perhaps the most vehemently anti-German figure in Britain.
A report about Haenel’s sensational findings appeared in the Fall 1983 issue of The Journal of Historical Review. More recently, West Germany’s most influential weekly periodicals, Die Zeit, and Der Spiegel (7 September 1985), have run lengthy articles about historical hoax. Der Spiegel concluded that Rauschning’s Conversations with Hitler „are a falsification, an historical distortion from the first to the last page… Haenel not only proves the falsification, he also shows how the impressive surrogate was quickly compiled and which ingredients were mixed together.“
There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the story of this sordid hoax, which took more than 40 years to finally unmask: It shows that even the most brazen historical fraud can have a tremendous impact if it serves important interests, that it’s easier to invent a great historical lie than to expose one and finally, that everyone should be extremely wary of even the „authoritative“ portrayals of the emotionally-charged Hitler era.
A footnote: Readers interested in an authentic record of Hitler’s personality and private views should look into the fascinating and wide-ranging memoir of Otto Wagener, published in August 1985 by Yale University Press under the title Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant. Wagener was the first Chief of Staff of the SA („Stormtroopers“) and Director of the Economic-Political Department of the National Socialist Party. He spent hundreds of hours with Hitler between 1929 and 1932, many of them alone.
– Mark Weber