All biographers of Adolf Hitler face the conundrum of explaining how this social and psychological misfit was able to achieve political success beyond the dreams of the wildest political fantasist. In 1919, war service apart, the 30-year-old Hitler could only look back on a life of failure, but through a dramatic change in fortune he went on to mould a modern political party in his image, secure constitutional leadership of the German state, before subverting its institutions in pursuit of a perverted, megalomaniac ideal that led to deaths of millions and the virtual destruction of Europe.
The other great monsters of 20th-century tyranny – Stalin and Mao – were brutally stunted individuals but they were at least personalities of a sort. Hitler, once away from the trappings of power, remained a nonentity: an unrelenting bore haranguing his unfortunate listeners with tedious stories and soap-box fantasies, right from his days in Hapsburg Linz and Vienna all the way to the Bunker in 1945.
Ian Kershaw has answered this question as best anyone can. Years of research into Nazi Germany produced a critically acclaimed two-volume history of the German dictator: Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000). This book is an abridged version; some narrative text has been cut although the main sacrifice has been the loss of 450 pages of notes. But at over a 1000 pages, no potential reader should feel short-changed by this present, magnificent biography.
As a man with a desperately circumscribed private life – watching Tarzan films, reading ersatz cowboy books, eating cream cakes, fooling around with his dogs and Eva Braun – Hitler lived his real life in the public, political sphere; in his case there was no man behind the mask. Accordingly, this is a study of Hitler’s pursuit, capture, maintenance and eventual loss of power.
While acknowledging Hitler's political skills, Kershaw considers the immediate aftermath of World War I to have been pivotal to his success: a breakdown of German society provided a messianic outsider with a hell-sent opportunity to make his mark. Refusing to accept some of the more recherché explanations of Hitler’s rise to power, Kershaw develops the concept suggested by 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber of ‘charismatic authority’ – in which a people in crisis ascribe heroic qualities to a leader, regardless of his actual worth.
Lacking the traditional signs of a hero (although he was no coward), Hitler’s mesmeric oratory, subsequently supported by a thoroughly modern political party machine, was sufficient to ignite a beacon of hope within Germany. Traumatised by the 1914-18 war, humiliated by the Versailles settlement and cast adrift in the economic and political maelstrom of the Weimar Republic, it is possible to see why so many Germans were prepared to set aside individual responsibility in favour of Hitler's seductive yet spurious promise of collective national salvation.
Once in power, the Nazis introduced the policy of Gleichschaltung (forcible coordination), in which the traditional agencies of the German government were directed by the Nazi party as a first stage in transforming the nation into a Nazi state. But while making use of the undoubted efficiency of the German bureaucracy, from the Army downwards, Hitler and his associates never attempted to form a government in the usual sense of the word.
Hitler seemed content to issue general directives that his subordinates interpreted as they saw fit, typically combining brutal repression with personal gain. In this sphere, Kershaw has utilised the phrase suggested by a minor functionary of the time: ‘working towards the Führer’. Here, Hitler’s underlings could be sure in the knowledge that their master would look favourably upon any radical initiative, which had the effect of increasing the momentum towards mass destruction and mass murder. Yet such was the anarchic Nazi system that imposed its malignant New Order across Europe.
This edition is adorned with reviewers’ praises from the two-volume biography, and they include most of the standard adjectives for a major work of history: ‘magisterial’, ‘definitive’, ‘masterful’, ‘mesmerising’. While no one would dispute the truth of any of these descriptions, a consideration of this book should also include those of ‘thoughtfulness’, ‘clarity’ and ‘balance’. Kershaw is not a historian who uses rhetorical devices or controversial posturing to make a point, and in a biography of such a deranged individual these are solid virtues which add to our understanding of this great disaster in modern history.
Penguin, 1072 pages, £12.99 (p/b)
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