Hitler's children - the spawn of the twentieth century

the devil still has the best tunes
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HAVING sat enthralled through the BBC2 Timewatch programme on Tuesday night about Operation Sealion, Hitler's abortive plan to invade Britain, I felt vaguely guilty. Wasn't I indulging in that supreme Blairite sin of Living In The Past, revelling in those grainy colour images of the Fuhrer pacing the terraces of his Alpine retreat, and the heroism of the RAF fighter pilots in the skies above Kent? Splendid stuff, indeed, but surely of about as much relevance to our cool and modern times as Julius Caesar's landing on these shores in 55 BC.

But release from guilt - and the realisation that our endless fascination with Hitler and the war he unleashed is entirely justified - came quickly, from the most unexpected quarter, Time magazine. Driven by that eternal American obsession with lists and league tables, Time has just published a selection of the 20 most influential leaders and revolutionaries of our century. Over the next year or so, the magazine will produce further lists, of scientists and thinkers, artists and entertainers, and sundry other "heroes and inspirations". By the end, there will be 100 names in all. From these will be chosen the man or woman who has had most impact on the 20th century. It is, of course, entirely possible the vote will go to the inventor of the hamburger, transistor or silicon chip, just as a reviewer of the 19th century might have chosen Thomas Edison or Karl Benz over Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln. But it is political leaders who have the most direct, coercive impact on the organisation and survival of human societies. And picking the winner, to use an American phrase, ought to be a no-brainer. Step forward Adolf Hitler.

I apologise for making this dispiriting assertion in Easter week, when Christendom celebrates the supreme triumph of good over evil and of life over death. But the case is overwhelming that the century's most influential figure is a man who was unarguably evil. Just fast-forward the camera from the Alps of summer 1940 to the world news stories of today. Hitler may have died 53 years ago, but his ghost lives on everywhere.

No one else on the list comes close. Not Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill, our two contributions to the list. Thatcher, admired far more in the US than here, changed her country, but not the world. Churchill caught America's imagination even more vividly, as a symbol of freedom and democracy - yet his main achievement was to hold out long enough to secure America's reluctant but decisive entry into the European conflict. Nor Gandhi, Mandela, Walesa, Martin Luther King or the student who stood alone against the tanks in Tiananmen Square, symbols of national independence and the struggle against racism and totalitarianism. Nor any of the rest of the American contingent, not Margaret Sanger, the early champion of birth control, not Ronald Reagan, nor Theodore, Eleanor, or even Franklin Roosevelt.

So, who are the runners-up to Hitler among Time's score of nominees? You could make a case for Mao, insofar as the world's most populous country remains, theoretically, Communist. But at the risk of being accused of Euro-centrism, I would nominate Lenin and the current Pope, who did more than anyone to destroy Communism, and who may yet prove to have unleashed a moral revolution of his own.

Alas, however, Antichrist carries the day. If war has replaced disease and famine as the contemporary scourge of humanity, then Hitler is wars made flesh. Not only did his war provoke the division of Europe, whose effects, indirectly, are still with us. It both inflated the power of the Soviet Union, and cemented the American Century, projecting the US to the superpowerdom it holds, alone, today. Had Hitler not provoked the Red Army to pursue him to the heart of Europe, Soviet Communism might never have emerged as a global force, and certainly nowhere near as quickly. As tiny Finland's resistance showed first, and then the ease with which Hitler initially swept to the gates of Moscow, Stalin's purges had left the country in no state to make great inroads westward. That, incidentally, may be why an oppressor and mass murderer to eclipse even Hitler, does not even make the top 20. Stalin may have killed his countrymen by the tens of million. But he was a tyrant who reacted to, rather than initiated, international events.

Israel's 50th birthday is almost with us. But without Hitler there would have been no Holocaust, no state of Israel, and no Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, nor the enduring friction with the Palestinians. Israel or no Israel, the Middle East, of course, still contains oil - but without the existence of a Jewish state, the politics of oil might have been less fraught, America's involvement in the region might have been less pivotal and, who knows, the handling of countries like Iran and Iraq would now be a simpler matter.

Hitler's legacy is not all bad. Only the war he started would end the Great Depression. Without the moral and financial toll from the conflict exacted of Britain, France and the other colonial powers, the break-up of the European empires in Asia and Africa might have been, if not prevented, at least long delayed. And in Europe itself, Hitler's ghost is almost benign. "Never again," vowed the continent he left in ruins in 1945. Thus, we now witness the most ambitious attempt in history to unify Europe - and, unprecedentedly, by mutual consent rather than the conqueror's sword.

Next month the starting line-up for the single currency will be finalised. Hitler's head will not adorn the Euro; but without him it might never have been dreamed of. So, in a sense, we are all Hitler's children. That makes me feel less bad about watching programmes about him. As for the Americans, they are eternal optimists as well as eternal list-makers. Time's more likely to go for Ronald Reagan.