- Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant by Ben Novak
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. By focusing on Hitler’s mode of thinking...