“Masterful and domineering, but uncertain and hesitant; unwilling to take decisions, yet then prepared to take decisions bolder that anyone else could contemplate; and refusal, once made, to take back any decision: these are part of the puzzle of Hitler’s strange personality.”
-Ian Kershaw (Hitler)
After learning about the holocaust a few years back, I’d always wanted to learn more about the man, the regime and the times behind that atrocity. Having read and watched dozens of materials on the holocaust and stories about how the neighbors for decades turned onto their Jewish counterparts overnight, I was always intrigued by and wondered of the situations, systems and mindsets behind those times. Wars do foreshadow the extensive human, morale and materialistic loss but this holocaust wasn’t the consequence of war, it, apparently, was the cause, as per Hitler.
This curiosity was my primary motivation behind picking Ian Kershaw’s mammoth 1000-page biography called Hitler.
I will start off with the aspects that I loved about this book:
- Top-notch writing: If you fear that a 1000-page non-fiction can bore you off your mind, then you are in for a big surprise. Kershaw’s writing style and storytelling are primarily the factors that kept me hooked throughout my 3-month reading odyssey. Had the book lacked evocative and smooth storytelling, it could have been a real struggle for me to complete it.
- Extensive research: If you start keeping a note of hundreds of names, meetings, conversations, diary-entries referred to in the book, you will realize the amount of research that must have gone into this work, which, for me, also enhances the credibility of the content. This deep research reminded me of O Jerusalem! by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, which, in comparison, was a shorter work, but is definitely an excellent example of good-researched work.
- Titles of chapters: Now, this might not be an important factor for all the readers, but a good and apt title that sets the tone of a chapter, specifically in a non-fiction, speaks a lot about the writer’s talent for me. And Kershaw’s book just aces the chapters’ title game. Just a look at the index can picture a journey: rise of Hitler from nothingness to a great European power’s leader to the ultimate historic downfall.
This was about the book’s structure and writing, its technicalities so to say, but was it worth spending months on this biography, you may ask. And to that I’d unhesitatingly respond with an absolute yes!
Kershaw’s biography delivers what it promises. It starts with Adolf Hitler’s birth in Austria’s Linz and ends with his suicide in Germany’s Berlin. It’s not a hidden fact (or conclusion) that if not for Germany’s WWI defeat, if not for the gross humiliation that Germans wanted to avenge for, if not for the deep economic and moral crisis Germany was facing during the post-WWI period, if not for the breeding grounds that various German cities and towns had become for numerous fascist and radical ideas, Hitler and the Nazis would, most probably, have never been born, and even if they did, would have blended with unknown and, like many others, died unnoticed – this is what Kershaw’s biography’s premise is too and the inspiration of my post’s title.
Without National Socialist German Workers’ Party and WWII, Hitler’s significance evaporates in history. And that is what this biography’s significant portion covers: pre-WWI Hitler (for which there are various contradictory evidences and accounts and is thus, in comparison, the period based a lot on conjectures), his rise in German Workers’ Party that formed post-WWI (times when dozens of various fascist parties were forming throughout Germany to avenge for the undeserving humiliation they suffered post WWI), the failed beer hall putsch in 1923 that proved decisive in highlighting Hitler’s indispensability for the party and rendering him with dictatorial powers, rise of the Nazi party in Germany between 1920s and 1930s and eventual ascent to the power in 1933, discussions and gradual execution of numerous genocidal plans (not just of European Jews), various annexations and expansions from late 1930’s to early 1940’s, and the beginning and the end of WWII.
Hitler didn’t create any new wave or line of thought in Germany at the time. All he did was just fuel the world’s most potent and latent weapons – existing hatred and prejudices – and licensed every imaginable bold and brutal way of realizing the barbaric fantasies of Nazis.
Like many other hurt, angry and revengeful post-WWI Germans, Hitler could have stayed one in that mix. His being a WWI German soldier (dispatch runner), being sent to newly-formed political party gatherings post WWI to gather intelligence, getting recognized for and realizing his natural talent at being an effective orator and a stimulating demagogue, getting his megalomaniac figure fed with all the right ingredients and German people looking in him the savior of their fatherland, all lead to the creation of a radical, egomaniacal tyrant and his empire, with propaganda and image-building at their core.
Had it not for the conducive environment and circumstances of that time, even Hitler’s exceptional oratory skills and speeches, which reeked of passionate, pathological hatred and meant to evoke the same in others, would have meant nothing and history would have been different – in a better way or a worse, we’d never know.
“Hitler’s “mission” since he entered politics had been to undo the stain of defeat and humiliation in 1918 by destroying Germany’s enemies – internal and external – and restoring national greatness.”
-Ian Kershaw (Hitler)
For me, Germany’s 1920s and 1930s signify the dangers of making a man (or a woman) the nation and its law, and vulnerability and gullibility of human beings in hurt and pain. How soon humans turn to find scapegoats for their own loss and defeat, how humiliation and suffering can unite people and turn them against a common so-called enemy, how easily can distressed humans turn their emotions off for the “outsiders”, how readily can humans be social-engineered in times of crisis – does any of this seem relevant only of a bygone era? To me, all of it is as fitting to any situation today, be it political or otherwise, as it was during that period. Years may have progressed, but humans and their basic psyche are still the same, and that is what marks the global relevance and importance of this book for me.
It is extremely convenient to scrutinize the actions and beliefs of a country decades down the line. When we are in a situation, there are only a few people who can really see the situation for what it is. It is only in hindsight do you see the red flags and signs that rang no bell back then.
Before reading this book, I always found Hitler the only culprit of the holocaust, of early-mid 1900s melodrama. It served him right too considering his hatred for the conventional parliamentary system, which he hated primarily because of the absence of a single answerable authority. But after my read, it probably wouldn’t be wrong to say that as wrong as Hitler was in, all the ministers and officers that surrounded him and ran the Nazi regime, and German civilians that provided him the platform to launch himself, were equally in the same wrong side of the history.
If Hitler based his life’s mission of making Germany great again on highly racist, hyper-nationalistic, radical and all-or-nothing principles, the Nazi regime and Germany of the time did everything to provide him the support that could bring his vision to life. As the book rightly mentions that anybody who could, worked towards Führer. It wasn’t always the threat or fear, which I’m sure civilians at the time did face, that made people work towards Führer’s vision and his grandiose and unethical plans for Germany, but just the sheer faith that Führer is the messiah that Germany needed to rise and prosper post WWI’s humiliating defeat were enough to provide Nazis with the resources.
Having said that, there were various German civilians that protested (some openly like Georg Elser) against Hitler and his regime, and various Nazi officers and colonels who realized the ruins their own regime was leading Germany and the entire Europe to, and thus, took actions accordingly (Claus von Stauffenberg’s infamous July plot). There were various German Wehrmacht officers too, who tried, unsuccessfully, to contradict and dissuade Hitler from his barbaric or, sometimes, too bold/fatally flawed plans throughout the regime. Thus, Germany did try to save itself – most of those attempts could never be successfully carried out, some were too feeble to be impactful, some came too late, and some, never.
It wouldn’t be right to say that the biography answers all my questions, which only increased exponentially while reading this book, but it does leave me at a safe spot where I at least know my questions. And, honestly, after a certain point, like many other historical events, all that is left is an assortment of conjectures and opinions – neither of which help in establishing a fact that I may consider an answer. But, as I said, I do feel confident enough to know what, and if, I want to pursue further on this subject.
The only expectation from this biography that, I felt, could lead to disappointment is the search for deep psychological references and answers to the whys of Hitler’s, Nazi party’s and other Germans’ actions – which aren’t there. This book is heavily based on the factual, economic, political and logistical aspects of those times. And, thus, should be read with the expectation of exploring the same.
As I sign-off, I’d just like to keep you informed that this was my first extensive read on Hitler/Nazi regime/WWII and, by no means, I’d advertise this as the best book out there on the subject. But this definitely is an extremely well-researched, well-written and highly informational book, and certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the topic. There is just so much out there on Hitler and Nazi regime that once you start reading, you can pave your own path with the kind of sub-domains that you’d like to further dive into.
But after having read this book, I’d not shy away in recommending it to anyone and everyone regardless their nationality, race or age. This biography’s and subject’s relevance precedes any and all the social strands of societal structure, especially in today’s chaotic and complex system of lives, specifically the political ones, where not the dearth, but the overwhelming amount of information, makes us, humans, the most vulnerable we have ever been in history.
“The old Germany was gone with Hitler. The Germany which had produced Adolf Hitler, had seen its future in his vision, had so readily served him, and had shared in his hubris, had also to share his nemesis.”
-Ian Kershaw (Hitler)
Have you read this biography or any other book on the same subject? Or do you plan to read any in future? Do share your thoughts.
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3 Comments Add yours
Great summation, really enjoyed the read, will look forward to picking the book up. I went to Berlin a few years ago and went to a museum called The Topographie of Terror and I found it tough to travel through the building as the horror of the holocaust felt all the more real than the words of any book. It is a fascinating city to visit.
Wow, Aditi, this is one hell of a sum up – amazing! And great writing! Yes, I’ve read this book, you recommended it a while back now, I read it after Mein Kampfe and it was a perfect follow up putting Hitler’s own words into sharp perspective. I’m fascinated by this period too – how it all came about. I’m almost finished reading a novel I think you’d enjoy with this as a theme, set in present day but with the holocaust as background to two very different characters a personal memoir within plus much more. Jodi Picault’s The Storyteller, and she is a fantastic writer too. I haven’t been around the blogging world for a while either, but catching up with some favourites now. Hope all is good with you :>)
Pleasant surprise from you after a long hiatus. This being your first post of this year as I see.
Very impressive, informative and enlightening review of this massive piece of work. 1000 pages seems a huge task, however interesting it could be. People interested in subject will definitely gravitate to this book after going thru your review.
You haven’t lost your edge after such long sabbatical, considering your earlier frequency, rather you seem to have been sharpening you writing skills as is reflected in your this review. Which besides being a review, in itself is a beautiful piece of writing.
Your more frequent visits to the blogsphere will be highly welcomed and appreciated.
All the best for your future writings.
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