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Thursday, August 9, 2012

What if...?

The only known self-portrait by
Adolph Hitler (detail), painted in
1910, it is famous for its lack
 of nose or mouth.
Some historians love to play "What If?"  What if England had put down the revolt in their American colonies? What if the South had won the Civil War? What if  JFK had ducked? What if Al Gore had become president? In writing yesterday on the art of Winston Churchill I also came across references to the fact that his nemesis in Germany had an affinity for painting. Thus, being something of a historian, I began to wonder, "What if Adolph Hitler had been a better artist?" Twice he flunked the entrance exam for the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (1907 and 1908). What if he'd passed and been accepted? What if he'd found even a modestly profitable living as a Viennese painter? What if he'd not fled into German right-wing politics as a refuge from his failure as a artist?

This signature today on a painting
brings well into five figures.
Would World War II have happened without Hitler? Of course, there's no definitive answer to any "what if" question regarding history, only guesses. Okay, if I had to guess, I'd say yes. Hitler was a key figure in the war and the history of that war would probably been different, less horrifying perhaps. The Holocaust might not have happened, but most historians agree, the "peace" settlement which ended WW I set the stage for the inevitability of WW II. The road traveled between the two is long and tortuously crooked, but even without Hitler behind the wheel, the German Juggernaut would have crashed headlong into European forces and their American ally. Pearl Harbor would still have happened. Despite what we sometimes think, Hitler was not the real cause of WW II, only the facilitating madman directing it.

Rural Houses and Trees, 1908-14. Adolph Hitler
What kind of artist was this madman? The word "dull" comes to mind in viewing his work. As a draughtsman, he was okay--better than average. He seemed to have had a talent for drawing and painting buildings as well as urban scenes. A sympathetic instructor at the Vienna academy suggested he apply to the school of architecture. However that would have meant going back to high school, which was a hurdle the man chose not to cross. Instead, he spent the next five years selling hand-tinted postcards. He also sold a few paintings Strangely enough, most of his buyers were Jewish. Perhaps, in the wake of  his wartime atrocities, many critics have classed his painting skills as limited. Whether from lack of skill or  some psychological block he seldom painted people. Others, in seeing his work, have concluded he had a modicum of talent. Another critic has termed his work "grim." In any case, WW I intervened. Hitler painted a few watercolors of war-torn buildings he saw on the front, but for the most part, they were the last paintings he ever created.

The war years, 1914-1918, were
Hitler's last gasp as an artist.
The war changed Hitler. The benign. nere-do-well artist became a politician in the worst sense of the word. He joined the German Workers Party (precursor to the Nazi Party) in 1919 and by 1921 was its leader. A failed coup attempt landed him in prison where he tried his hand at writing--Mein Kampf. Released from prison in 1924, nine years later he was appointed chancellor of Germany,  converting the old Wiemar Republic into the Third Reich. The rest, as they say, is history. One could argue that had this failed, would-be artist stuck to his chosen vocation like so many others of his era, he might eventually have succeeded and the world would have been spared one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Perhaps, but as the German Workers Party gained power and popularity during the devastating social and political upheavals of the 1930s, it was populated by dozens, even hundreds of other disillusioned young men vying for leadership. Had there been no Hitler, there would still have been a Goring, a Goebbels, a Himmler, and others who have left their black mark on history.

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