Ian Kershaw’s Hitler Biography

Kershaw Hitler

 

Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.  And Hitler: 1936 – 1945, Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler has, in the last decade, come to stand as perhaps the definitive account of the Führer’s life.  This two-volume biography seeks to put Hitler in his appropriate historical context, and as such can also be seen as a history of the Third Reich rather than just a narrow biography of just Hitler himself.  Consequently, Kershaw humanizes Hitler, revealing a narcissistic man of quirks as opposed to the images of a mythical figure that have emerged, and indeed, that the Nazis themselves promulgated.

After very quickly outlining Hitler’s birth and early years, Volume 1 (1889-1936, Hubris) turns to Hitler’s time in Vienna.  He demonstrates that while Hitler retrospectively overemphasized how he had crystalized his worldview during those years, “there can be no doubting that the Vienna ‘schooling’ did indeed stamp its lasting imprint on his development” (30).  Of greater consequence was the impact on Hitler’s worldview of the First World War.  Kershaw then adds that the doctrine of Lebensraum wasn’t incorporated until years later, so that Hitler’s worldview can only be regarded as fully formed starting in the mid-1920s.

When dealing with the Nazi Machtergreifung (seizure of power), Kershaw attributes the National Socialists’ takeover more to the failure of others than to the Nazis’ own political maneuvering.  Democrats didn’t do enough to stop the eroding of the republic in the first place, and the conservatives who helped place Hitler in power seriously underestimated him.  In January 1933, Franz von Papen dismisses reservations over Hitler’s chancellorship, stating, “We’ve hired him” (421).  Such sentiments could not have been more wrong.

Kershaw’s account highlights the emergence of the Hitler cult and the impact that this adoration had on Hitler’s own self-image.  Seeing the widespread support from the German people, Kershaw argues, gave Hitler self-confidence.  But the Hitler cult was also largely self-fashioned through political theatrics.  “He was above all a consummate actor,” Kershaw writes (280).  The adoring crowds only saw the image of the Führer that Hitler and Goebbels wanted them to see.  The political successes of the early 1930s epitomized by the reoccupation of the German Rhineland in 1936 turned Hitler’s egomania into destructive hubris.

Volume 2 (1936-1945, Nemesis) focuses on the radicalization of the Nazi regime, especially during the war years.  Central to this volume is Hitler’s role in the Holocaust.  Nemesis – and indeed, both volumes as a whole – represents a middle ground in the “intentionalist” (the Holocaust was Hitler’s intention from the start) versus “functionalist” (the Holocaust was the result of a slow but steady radicalization of policies) debate.  Kershaw demonstrates that Hitler was indeed a powerful dictator who set the overall goals for the Nazis, including his “prophecy” of 1939 that if the Jews started another world war they would be annihilated.  But Kershaw also shows that the concept of “working towards the Führer” meant that Hitler’s subordinates did not need specific orders for how to carry out their leader’s vision.  Therefore, while the how may not have been planned from the beginning, Kershaw argues that genocide was “central, not peripheral, to what had been deliberately designed as a “war of annihilation”” (461).

In conclusion, the focus of Kershaw’s books is “not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power – the power of the Führer” (Vol. 1, xxvi).  In this light, he studies the structures that allowed Hitler to achieve such power.  But, this biography also shows that “without Hitler and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a program to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews in Europe would have been unthinkable” (Vol. 2, 495).

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews. 

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