By Chris Addison, the author of Cautionary Tales for Grown-Ups (THE TIMES, 11/08/07):
The famous dictator and Nazi regalia enthusiast Adolf Hitler has been in the news again, which just goes to show that everlasting memories of horrendous genocide are almost as effective as being snapped alighting knickerless from a taxi semi weekly as a way of keeping you in the public eye. This time the excuse for trotting out more pictures of Hitler looking as if his milliner’s measuring tape might be a little off is the “discovery” of his record collection. and within it the works of a number of Russian composers and Jewish musicians. There among the Bayreuth Live! recordings and – I’m only guessing here, you understand – self-help tapes, including Seven Habits of Highly Mistaken Lunatics and Polish for Beginners, were recordings of works by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and others whom he accused of creating “sub-human” music.
First, let’s be fair: we’ve all got embarrassing things in our record collections. In my younger days I had a copy of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody on seven-inch, before it occurred to me that I was a boy in the late stages of adolescence and not a mid-forties divorcée. I’m entirely certain that dinner parties that I’ve hosted in the hope of converting new acquaintances into full-blown friends have ended early when guests’ eyes have alighted on that old cassette of Boney M’s seminal Nightflight to Venus album so beloved of my seven-year-old self. Show me a man with a culturally faultless CD pile and I’ll show you a man with a loft.
But what those who have written up this story seem to want us to learn from it is that Hitler was a hypocrite. I know, I know, and he seemed so nice.
I can’t help wondering what we’re supposed to do with this information. Is it supposed to make us feel less well disposed towards Hitler than we previously were? If so, how? Is it possible that there are people for whom someone being a practitioner of genocide but not a hypocrite is significantly preferable to a practitioner of genocide who is also a proven humbug? Are there perhaps even those for whom this record collection revelation could just act as the final tip of the balance in favour of the Hitler-Was-Not-a-Nice-Man school of thought? Let us assume for the sake of our optimism about the world that there are not such people (and in order to keep that assumption viable, let’s not go on the internet for a while).
Perhaps, these being 24-hour-news-cycle, goldfish-minded times, the ladies and gentlemen of the press are concerned that some of the old things we didn’t like about Hitler have become rather overfamiliar to us and stale, so that we need constant, fresh things to dislike about him: yeah, yeah, he plunged the world into the grisliest conflict in history’s bloody stagger through the 20th century – heard it; sure, sure, he exterminated millions off the back of catastrophic misreadings of Nietzsche and Darwin – tell us something we don’t know. He what? He used to turn his underpants inside out so he could wear them for two days, you say? Ooh, that Hitler.
You have to hope not. In truth, it’s most likely that this story has been reported to satisfy the peculiar appetite most of us have for knowledge of the peccadillos and smaller-scale misdoings of humanity’s blackest sheep. You can sit in school for terms on end exploring the finer points of the Munich beer hall putsch and Kristallnacht, but there is nothing you are more likely to remember in a pub quiz 15 years down the line than the details of Hitler’s alleged unconventional marrying of Saturday night bedtime naughties with the principle function of the human bowel.
You may imagine that we enjoy such items because they give us a key to understanding the inner workings of inconceivably warped minds, but I suspect that what truly lies behind our never ending interest in despot minutiae is, odd as it sounds, that it helps us to feel superior. Clearly, that is insane. As a rule of thumb, unless you have had an irate phone call from the UN confirming otherwise, you can, with absolute certainty, feel that you are better than Hitler.
Still, the story has done it’s job; we’ve all got to feel a bit cross and a bit superior without any of it really impinging on the time we’d set aside for DIY or feeling sorry for Amy Winehouse. And if we’re feeling a bit down again next week, the press can always run that story about Mussolini fiddling his Premium Bonds.