Friday, 9 April 2010

Reader review: Hitler by Ian Kershaw

Continuing our series of reader reviews, Paul Doolan reviews Hitler, the latest paperback edition of Ian Kershaw’s two-part biography.

by Paul Doolan,

Ian Kershaw’s aim is to answer two questions: how could ‘a bizarre misfit ever have been in a position to take power in Germany’ and how could this ‘unsophisticated autodidact […] so swiftly dominate the established political elites and go on to draw Germany into a catastrophic high-risk gamble for European domination, with a terrible, unprecedented genocidal programme at its heart?’

The present volume is an abridgement of the massive two-volume study that Kershaw published in 1998 and 2000. Over 650 pages of text as well as references and notes have been cut. Nevertheless, it still weighs in with over 1,000 pages.

The author rightly insists that Hitler’s rule needs to be continually studied for it provides us with a warning on ‘how a modern, advanced, cultured society can so rapidly sink into barbarity’. He recognises that Hitler’s immense historical impact was achieved by a man who was ‘no more than an empty vessel outside his political life’, describing Hitler as a ‘black hole’, an ‘unperson’. Consequently, he does not focus on Hitler’s personality, but on the nature of his power and how this power worked on others. To this extent, Kershaw argues, Hitler’s charismatic leadership depended as much on others – Nazi fanatics, non-Nazi elites and ordinary Germans – as it did on any talents that Hitler himself might have had. Kershaw places Hitler at the centre of the story of the Nazi assault on civilisation, but claims that Hitler was not the sole or prime cause of this assault.

Kershaw argues that, until the First World War, Hitler’s life had been one of failure and indolence. However, 1919 saw him cast into the maelstrom of right-wing politics. He was trained by the army as an anti-Semitic, anti-communist instructor and was ordered by his superior to join the German Worker’s Party (the Nazi Party) – Kershaw thus claims that the army made Hitler. The failure of his 1923 putsch should have been the end of his career. Instead, he was allowed to become a national celebrity and was released from prison within 11 months. Thus, the judiciary was also responsible. The economic conditions of the early 1930s triggered Hitler’s quick rise, but the conservative right was responsible for putting him in power, while by 1933 the army, agricultural interests, big businesses and ordinary Germans had, according to Kershaw, destroyed democracy. Only organised labour and politicised Catholics still opposed him.

Once in power, Hitler was helped by the thousands of careerists who did their best ‘working towards the Fuhrer’, trying to anticipate his will and implement his wishes. Few criticised anti-Jewish legislation and doctors and nurses readily participated in the murder of thousands of the physically and mentally ill. When the government orchestrated a nationwide pogrom against Jews during ‘Kristalnacht’, ‘the leaders of the Christian Churches […] kept quiet’ and did not even issue a protest. By the end of the decade, Hitler had become the most popular politician of the 20th century, never surpassed.

Most Germans feared war, but were delighted with the early German victories. The war that was prosecuted against the Poles in 1939 was of extraordinary brutality. Hitler had provided a license for barbarism, but, in Kershaw’s words, there ‘was no shortage of ready hands to put it into practice’. Even worse was to come when, in 1941, Hitler unleashed upon the USSR the ‘most destructive and barbaric war in the history of mankind’, a war that led to genocide.

The author claims that many within the army leadership doubted the wisdom of this war; none, however, had the courage to make their doubts public. This is one of the important lessons that emerge from Kershaw’s work, one that anyone working in a hierarchical organisation should take to heart. Many in the army, party and civil service ‘worked towards the Fuhrer’, and feared being accused of defeatism; few openly opposed his unrealistic schemes and they thereby fed his destructive optimism.

Kershaw uses the word optimism/optimistic to describe Hitler no less than 23 times in the final quarter of the book – pages that describe the gradual destruction of Germany after Stalingrad. Pessimism was always regarded as defeatism. Hearing of Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 Hitler still had ‘a sudden shaft of optimism’, with the Russians just a few miles from his bunker. The criminal silence of those around him was symptomatic; the physical and moral ruination of Europe was not the work of one man alone, but ‘collectively’ German citizens had been prepared ‘to place their trust in the chiliastic vision of a self-professed political savior’. Many had helped to make Adolf Hitler.

There is much to be learned from Ian Kershaw’s Hitler. It makes for disturbing reading. And so it should.

Paul Doolan is Head of History at Zurich International School.

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