Ian Kershaw was a medievalist who, nearly 30 years ago, turned his interests to the history of the Third Reich. This is the second volume of his encyclopaedic biography of Hitler, and the best thing in it is his treatment of Hitler's effect on the German people. He intersperses his biography with evidence of German popular sentiment, fragmentary and yet telling. Many Germans (perhaps understandably) have tried to separate the history of Hitler from the history of the German people during the Third Reich, one historian going so far as to declare that there were no National Socialists, there was only Hitler.
This is nonsense, and Kershaw knows it very well. The great majority of the Germans followed Hitler until the very end. Kershaw's Hitler is more telling about the Third Reich than about the man himself. The result is a one-dimensional portrait, and not an illuminating one. This is a pity, because we shall see more and more studies of Hitler (including, I fear, more and more cleverly composed and carefully disguised apologies).
There is not one trace of defence or apology here, and Kershaw makes the much-needed and persuasive argument that even when no evidence of direct orders exists, there is no reason to think that his minions were committing their brutalities contrary to, or even without, Hitler's wishes. But Kershaw's portrait of Hitler is that of a single-minded fanatic with crazy ideas who was doomed to defeat. It was not as simple as that.
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Hitler was no fool, and his abilities as statesman and strategist derived from the same talents that had enabled him to become ruler of Germany. These talents were protean - for instance, his uncanny capacity to foretell what his enemies would not do. Kershaw does not see how close Hitler came to winning the war, not only in the summer of 1940 but in 1941. His knowledge does not extend sufficiently to Hitler's adversaries, or to foreign policy. After November-December 1941 Hitler could no longer win the second world war, but he could still prevail by not losing it.
Had he driven Stalin beyond the Volga, forcing an armistice of sorts, or thrown the Anglo-American armies into the sea in 1944, he would not have won the war, but one or other of his enemies would have been compelled to make some kind of arrangement with him. He knew that, and in December 1941 his entire strategy changed. He now faced a long war, and believed that sooner or later the uneasy and unnatural coalition of his enemies, capitalists and communists, would break apart. He was right; but, fortunately, too late for him. ) He also knew that this could not be achieved by diplomacy, but by striking a decisive blow against one of his enemies. At the same time he gave the command of German industry to Speer, turning it into an astonishingly successful and productive war economy. There is almost nothing in Kershaw's book about this momentous change in Hitler's strategy. Nor is there anything about Hitler's attempts to divide the Allies.
Kershaw begins the present volume by summing up his first one: in the 1930s Hitler "was a political outsider with few, if any, special talents beyond undoubted skills as a demagogue and propagandist". Yet in his foreign policy before 1939 "his sense of timing ha[d] been excellent, his combination of bluff and blackmail effective, his manipulation of propaganda to back his coups masterly". Another contradiction, within one page: "He was certainly alert to the dangers of a collapse in his popularity, and the likely domestic crisis which would then occur. Yet: "It is, in fact, doubtful whether he would have believed the accounts of poor morale, even if he had read them. " By 1936 Hitler "had thought himself infallible; his self-image had reached the stage of outright hubris". Yet in November 1936 Hitler said to Speer, after a long silence: "If I succeed, I will be one of the greatest men in history - if I fail, I will be condemned, rejected, and damned. " This volume is not well written: there are many errors of facts and dates, and strange words such as "devotalia", "actionism", "diplomatic outfall".
The other main shortcoming is Kershaw's extensive dependence on Hitler's statements as his primary source. The problem here is not only that Hitler, despite his loquacity, was a very secretive man (as he himself states on occasion); we must also keep in mind that he was a master of the spoken word (again, something which he often emphasised). The great turning point of his life came in 1919: his decision to enter politics was contemporaneous with his discovery that he was a very efficient speaker.
Thereafter, he always spoke with the purpose of influencing his hearers, not only in his public speeches but also in table conversations and talks with Goebbels, on whose diaries Kershaw sometimes unduly depends. Did Hitler always believe what he was saying? Kershaw writes as though he did, yet we have evidence to the contrary. This is especially so in the case of Russia. Kershaw writes that in the 1930s Hitler was "increasingly preoccupied with the looming threat, as he saw it, from Bolshevism".
Not at all: Hitler gave little thought to Soviet Russia until 1939, but he very ably used the threat of Bolshevism to impress conservatives in Germany and Britain. Several times during the war Hitler praised Stalin for having got rid of the influence of Jews. Yet in all his public statements, including the last ones in April 1945, he proclaimed the peril of "Jewish Bolshevism". It is the great merit of British writing to have married biography to history. In the 19th century, professional historians tended to eschew biography.
The English tradition was an exception, with enduring results during the 20th century, to the extent that the appetite of the public for serious biographies is now larger than ever before, and every serious biographer now follows the practices of historical research. Still, biography requires particular talents, including not only a certain degree of empathy with one's subject but an incisive understanding of human nature. Kershaw is a better historian than he is a biographer.
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