The ego chosen by fate

Hitler 1889-1936
December 11, 1998

As a subject for political biography, Adolf Hitler poses a unique challenge. The general fascination with Hitler remains enormous; the story is well known; numerous biographical studies already have been written; the impact of Hitler upon this, our century, is as great if not greater than that of any other individual; and yet, as Ian Kershaw observes in the preface of his new biography of the Nazi leader, "outside politics Hitler's life was largely a void".

Kershaw's focus therefore is not so much on the man himself, but on "the character of his power - the power of the Fuhrer". In order to explain Hitler's power, Kershaw not surprisingly reaches for Max Weber's concept of charismatic authority as a basis for political power. There have been few political figures whose authority rested so clearly on charismatic authority - on the authority of his person rather than on his position within a traditional or bureaucratic framework. This is what defined the way in which Hitler dominated first the Nazi Party and then the German government. There can be no doubt, and Kershaw documents this extremely well, that Hitler exerted a peculiar and intense personal authority, that people obeyed him because of his person rather than because of his office.

Kershaw then employs two key, interrelated concepts to describe the character of Hitler's power. First, there is the idea which Kershaw has elaborated in previous work, of "working towards the Fuhrer" - the widespread practice, in what passed as government and administration in the Third Reich, of officials acting as they thought the Fuhrer would have wanted them to act. This, Kershaw points out, "functioned as the underlying maxim of the regime from the outset". It helps explain how it was that Hitler himself needed to do relatively little to bring about the consolidation of his dictatorship in 1933, and how, once he had become Reich chancellor, his authority "opened doors to radical action previously closed". Radical and criminal policies were set in motion which Hitler no doubt wanted but which he needed neither to initiate nor to direct. The fact that "without direct transmission of orders, initiatives imagined to be in tune with Hitler's aims could be undertaken" explains much of what went on in the Third Reich and helps to reconcile the paradox of a dictator who could be in control generally without actually having to control events day by day.

Second, there is the notion of the "Hitler myth", which lies behind Kershaw's decision to divide the biography at the year 1936. While at first sight this choice may appear odd to those unfamiliar with the voluminous literature on Nazi Germany, it makes sense. In 1936, with the remilitarisation of the Rhineland (a step absolutely crucial if Germany was to go to war, and one which brought Hitler a measure of popular adulation that outstripped even that which had followed earlier political triumphs), not only had a huge step been taken from the consolidation of dictatorship at home to expansion abroad, but the Fuhrer had also come to believe that, ordained by "Providence", he could do anything.

To a considerable degree, therefore, Kershaw's mammoth biography fills out his excellent study, first published in German nearly two decades ago, of the "Hitler myth". It is not the man himself, but the image he cultivated, the attractions which the "Fuhrer cult" had for his followers, and how Hitler himself came to believe in the "Hitler myth", which really matter here. Certainly Kershaw's painstaking and thoroughly reliable account of the many complicated episodes of Hitler's political career will set the record straight, and this is thoroughly to be welcomed. But in essence, this massive biography fleshes out the work that Kershaw began many years ago.

Kershaw's is a cool, not a passionate book - an analytical text, based on impressive and solid scholarship, integrating the important new insights and research published in recent years; its judgements are reasoned and sober throughout. No doubt this is due to some extent to the nature of the biographer. However, it also reflects the peculiarities of the subject. In a biography of Adolf Hitler, overt passion is probably now superfluous.

This may seem a peculiar observation to make of a biography of one of the most loathed figures in modern history, a person responsible for the brutal murder of millions of human beings and who aroused passions as few other public figures have done before or since. However, by eschewing emotional language, Kershaw is able to drive the point home all the more effectively, and his picture of Hitler is all the more disturbing because it is presented so dispassionately.

Kershaw's subject seems almost inhuman: a man who probably never loved anyone after the death of his mother, who had no sense of fun, who was incapable of a reciprocal relationship with other human beings, whose "arrogance was breathtaking", a cynical and ruthless egomaniac who had a desperate drive to dominate those around him. The purpose in pointing this out is not to convince us that Hitler was an unpleasant person, but to help us understand him as a politician who came to exercise enormous power.

Of course, our interest in Hitler lies not simply with the source and exercise of political power. Another central theme is, and must be, Hitler's ideology and, especially, his anti-Semitism. After the enormous recent upsurge in research on the murder of Europe's Jews, the relative paucity of comment on Hitler's anti-Semitism in earlier biographical works now seems strange. Kershaw promises to correct this. Nevertheless, the origins of Hitler's anti-Semitism are less clear than the Nazi leader wanted people to think. As Kershaw notes, "in truth, we do not know for certain why, nor even when, Hitler turned into a manic anti-Semite".

It is here that the first world war and its immediate aftermath come in. Kershaw states bluntly, and rightly: "The first world war made Hitler possible." There can be little doubt that Hitler's experiences during the first world war were crucial in shaping the man who became the "Fuhrer". Not only did it give a purpose in life to the aimless failure and drop-out who had tumbled from a relatively secure middle-class household in Linz into the doss-houses of Vienna; it also provided formative emotional experiences, not least the way in which Hitler experienced defeat - lying in a hospital in Pasewalk temporarily blinded from a gas attack. Even more important was the world of right-wing military politics in postwar Munich, in which Hitler found a way to avoid returning to the aimless life he had led before the war, and a way into what became the Nazi Party. From the experiences of war and defeat, of revolution and the bloodshed of 1919 in Munich, Hitler emerged a radical rabid anti-Semite. As Kershaw makes clear, "the all-devouring manic obsession with the Jews to which all else is subordinated (was) not observable before 1919 (but was) never absent thereafter".

During the 1960s and 1970s it became common for historians to refer to longer-term structural factors - the consequences of the failure in 1848 to establish democratic government, the anti-democratic structures of the empire - to explain how Germany came to run off the rails in the 1930s with Hitler in the driving seat. By contrast, Kershaw reflects the trend of more recent scholarship, that stresses the importance of the first world war and German defeat.

As noted above, in his preface Kershaw refers to Weber's notion of charismatic authority to explain Hitler's power. This is illuminating, if hardly new. However, the theoretical tools are not applied explicitly when looking at how Hitler exerted his authority in specific situations. No doubt many people who pick up this book will be relieved that theoretical reflections do not intrude, that Kershaw gets on with a narrative which is admirably clear. Yet perhaps the book might have benefited from reflection on how Hitler's charismatic authority operated at specific turning points.

It also is worth reflecting on the peculiar kind of politics which Hitler purveyed and mastered. Hitler's politics were not about reaching compromises, taking difficult decisions about setting priorities. To Hitler, as Kershaw makes clear, "propaganda was the highest form of political authority". His politics were not about organisation or about negotiation, but about propaganda and mobilisation. They were the negation of what we normally think of as politics, and were to lead to the chaotic and destructive form of government that was the Third Reich. As Kershaw notes of the histrionics that had accompanied Hitler's assumption of dictatorial control over the Nazi Party in 1921: "It would always be the same: he only knew all or nothing arguments; there was nothing in between, no possibility for reaching a compromise. Always from a maximalist position, with no other way out, he would go for broke." This was not politics in the conventional sense, but its destruction - which no doubt will be a central theme of the second volume of Kershaw's biography, Nemesis.

Although it may be premature to come to a judgement about a book that constitutes half a biography, it seems clear that Ian Kershaw has written what promises to become the definitive account of Adolf Hitler. No doubt the commercial attractions of the subject will ensure that the flow of books does not diminish in future. However, once Kershaw has published the second half of his mammoth project we should have the standard biography of Hitler for many years to come.

Richard Bessel is professor of 20th-century history, University of York.

Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris

Author - Ian Kershaw
Editor - Allen Lane
ISBN - 0 713 99047 3
Publisher - The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 845

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