HITLER, WHO HAD FEW FRIENDS, but killed by the million and besotted millions more, enters the demonology of our times as a figure both awful and oddly familiar. He stands, of course, for what he and his accomplices did; the historical Hitler has become historic. But infamy so vile also supplies a personification of evil the 20th century didn't find in Franco, say, or even Stalin. Had Hitler never existed, we might not have dreamed him up; but, existing, he worked so much atrocity he seemed like Satan in the flesh, not a remote and smokey Gothic figment, but an ungovernable bloodsucker who lived 56 years among us and remains, a gruesome mnemonic for what is foul. Thirty-four years after his death, readers the world over reach for and compulsively buy -- in trances of fixated, near-pornographic aversion -- books bearing his face, his swastika or the twin zig-zag flashes worn by his SS. No one in recent history transcended himself more; the worst done by other dictators is already "Hitlerian"; and the Hitler industry goes full tilt, making us learn and choke and even, perhaps, form a vicarious taste for the infernal itself.

Sebastian Haffner's pithily colloquial essay, The meaning of Hitler, differs from such recent works as those by Joachim Fest and John Toland in being much less voluminous and spurning the chronological approach. An historical and intellectual book rather than a biographical one, a distillery rather than a reservoir, it reveals Hitler thematically in order to sum him up and lock him into a perspective which anecdotes cannot prettify or guesswork blur. The private life of the master-racist gets short shrift, therefore, not only because it was empty, as Haffner says, of "everything that normally lends weight, warmth and dignity to a human life: education, love and friendship, marriage, parenthood," but also because Hitler wanted it that way, intent on an almost wholly political destiny. Indeed, in everything but politics Hitler was a nonentity, and throughout his career he soothed himself with the thought of how swift his suicide would be: five minutes, he told Goebbels in 1932, but over the years the interval shrank to "seconds" and even "the fraction of a second." As Haffner says, it was a life "strangely lightweight" and, in the end, "lightly discarded." Only someone that impersonal could substitute politics for privacy and then take the giant step of substituting his own political mania for the public life of a nation. Hitler became, in his own eyes anyway, infallible and irreplaceable, obliged to match Germany's fate and lifespan to his own since he and it were inseparable.

The mental and moral morass into which this notion took him is staggering. The body politic he infested had, paradoxically, to die with him, and in the last months of World War II he did several things to bring that about. In December, 1944 he ordered the Ardennes offensive, removing armies from the East to blast the Allies in the West. The Russians then poured in all the way to the Oder, the Ardennes offensive failed, the transferred Nazi armies were pulverized, and the postwar zonal partition of Germany was a sure thing. But, as Haffner makes plain, Hitler really doomed Germany in March, 1945 when he issued the two "Fuehrer orders," thefirst commanding all Germans in the West to begin a death-march eastward, the second (the so-called "Nero order") requiring destruction of the means of life in both the interior and the East. Those marching eastward had nothing to march to. Germany had let its Fueherer down by not being Herrenvolk enough to win the war, or suicidal enough in defeat, so he punished it, having "his best horse," in Haffner's colorful image, "whipped to death because it proved unable to win the Derby."

What emerges from Haffner's book, steadily implied without being spelled out, is that Hitler was an insatiable romantic for whom murder was manna and the German nation a humanoid blow-up of himself which he could oratorically excite whenever he chose. Imagine, Haffner writes, "a man who had reason to regard himself as importent suddenly finding himself capable of performing miracles of potency." Imagine the effect on Hitler's private life of those sucessive physical unions with the regimented hordes at the Nuremberg rallies. He was Narcissus. He was Narcissus at the podium and, beyond that, Caligula, volunteering himself -- the nation-self he was -- for godhead. No wonder Sebastian Haffner sounds incredulous; the gruesome has no right to be so silly.

After chapters devoted to Hitler's life, achievements, successes and misconceptions, almost as if doing a report card about some feisty, pigheaded, aberrant youth, Haffner reviews the mistakes and the crimes, pointing out that Hitler's twin aims -- the domination of Europe, the extermination of theJews -- were unrelated and got in each other's way. Hitler could no more extract a compromise peace, once his war was lost, from nations who saw him as a psychopathic butcher, than he could make military use of SS units or railroad cars assigned to the so-called Jewish problem. What he really wanted was an ecstasy of death, the twilight of his godliness, and that is why, in the last three years of the war, with Germany surrounded and being squeezed, he "continued in his table talk at headquarters to reveal an often unimpaired self-satisfaction and at times even robust merriment."

The death-count of Jews kept going up, and he'd been able to wipe out millions of non-Jews as well: 100,000 German invalids ("useless enters"); half a million gypsies, and over a million members of the Polish intelligentisia. All this, says Haffner, was merely for Hitler's "personal gratifications," and it aligns him with "such killers as Crippen and Christie," except that "he accomplished on a conveyor belt basis what they did as craftsmen." Only Hitler legitimizes a compliment so sour.

Nonspecialist readers may find Haffner at times caught up in historical minutiae and a bit shy of arguing his themes right through (as distinct from sifting the casts that fit them from those that don't); but his essay adds up superbly after the halfway mark and he leaves no doubt that Hitler wanted to take Germany down with him. What we have here is the phenomenon of Hitler: both a valuable recap of what's been said and a tidy, ravaging sortie into things underplayed or hitherto unsaid; not a parade of mug shots, but a fiend's progress, and regress, laid bare.

Among the lieutenants and backroom confidants in Hitler's executive hierarchy, none was more baffling than Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German intelligence Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German intelligence and an accomplished polyglot spy himself. Like Hitler, he had little private life, although married with two daughters. Hitler and he respected the domestic aridity they felt in each other. They both kept on the move, if only to flee the paperwork they adhorred, and their women. They doted on dogs. And when they were closeted together they overlapped so much that they saw each other plain; when they finally did, Canaris saw the lethal cynic Hitler really was, and Hitler the dissembling plotter Canaris had become. On April 5, 1945, Hitler was shown Canaris' private diaries and had him hanged on the 9th, only three weeks before he shot himself. Weirdly enough, Hitler's passion for pointless bloodshed had its counterpart in Carnaris' passion for pointless intrigue, as if the boyish thrill of being the devious masterspy -- deceiving and entrapping everybody -- had never left him. Even more weirdly, when everybody else was after Canaris' blood, it was Himmeler of all people who stood by him because, to Himmler, Canaris personified the romance of espionage which the SS leaders first found in the stories of the Britishh secret service written by John Buchan.

Canaris was a Janus: he wanted power and influence and prestige, and as long as Hitler supplied them he played along; but he also thought Hitler would finish Germany off and so must be removed by a conspiracy of patriots. But his thinking was usually not so black and white: a mood, a dream, would deflect him; an exotic journey would lull mind; a chance to complicate something already complex lured him into baroque byways of intrigue for its own sake. Such is the view of him that Heinz Hohne presents in his big, immaculate and definitive biography, in which, against an avalanche of information about the Nazi period, Canaris the legendary master-spy who was also the pillar and patron of the German Resistance gives way to Canaris the stylish amateur who saved Jews and hired them, but also came up with the idea that German Jews should wear a Star of David. He was less of, or with, the Resistance than within its rhetorical vicinity, lending an ear (or a desk drawer) to his more heartily motivated colleagues, but sometimes not liftng a finger to help them when the Gestapo pulled them in. "I did it for show," he cried out during his trial in the laundry room at Flossenburg camp, and that is typical; he was such a hedonistic fatalist that he took no stand, other than than self-interest, until someone forced one from him. Hohne quotes one intelligence officer who said "Canaris had a pronounced sense of adventure, including the adventure of evil itself." Indeed, life with the Nazis struck Canaris as like getting involved with the gangsters in a competently written thriller. It sometimes seems that the whole Nazi bloodbath was a boyhood dream writ large and gone wrong, as befouled as therug on which Canaris' two dachshunds gamboled in his office.

Hohne's book is quite manificent, notmerely as a piece of sustained debunking with all the evidence pinned down, all the legwork and the library-checking turned into prose of steady narrative beat, but also as a refresher course in what happened between 1918 and Hitler's death. A work of social history shot through with harsh, cumulative suspense, it's also an exhilarating thriller, especially when Canaris' associates, Oster and Dohnanyi, and then Canaris himself, begin to sway and duck maneuver and slide, as the Gestapo tries to pick them off. Our documents, they protest, always mean the opposite of what they say; we're in espionage after all. We only pretended to play the Fueherer false.

Canaris' intimate life was thin, but its external texture has its charms. His ancestors came from a silk-spinning village on Lake Como. As a boy he played with invisible inks and assumed false names; as a young naval officer he excelled by setting up a supply system for U-boats in the Mediterranean and floated through Spain, France, and Italy using a Chilean passport and thename "Reed Rosas." His code name for espionage purposes were "Kika" and "Guillermo." In command of a submarine, he efficiently mined Allied sea routes in 1916 and then confirmed his deviousness by thwarting justice at the court-martial of the oficers involved in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Always accumulating informants and accomplices -- kings, businessmen, diplomats, rogues and financiers -- Canaris came to a halt in 1931 when the German press dug deep into the trial he'd rigged. Then he marked time until his appointment to Intelligence in 1934, as Head.

He comes through a bit forlorn, with three bronze monkeys on his desk to symbolize "see all, hear all, say nothing." White-haired, ruddy-faced, 5-feet 3-inches tall, speaking with lisp and looking nattily frail, he was a pill-popping hypochondriac, forever phoning from enormous distances to check on the bowel movements of his dogs. He slept inordinately. One officer thought he resembled "the impresario of a worldwide music-hall agency." In fact, he played croquet with Heydrich of the SS, cooked saddle of wild boar en croute for his guests, and had an Algerian butler named Mohammed. His picturesque ue side, which Hohne, doesn't waste, includes saluting a shepherd in Spain because "You can never tell if there's a senior officer underneath" and suggesting to a colleague that, after the war, the pair of them "open a little coffee shop in Piraeus harbor. I'll make the coffee and you can wait table." J. Maxwell Brownjohn's translation has flow and poise which make this long, long book feel shorter than it is. CAPTION: Illustration, Drawing Of Hitler, By David Levine. Reprinted with permission from The New York Review; Copyright (c) 1980 NYREV, Inc.