Hitler: A Biography

By Ian Kershaw. 1,056 pp. Norton, 2008. $39.95.

Magisterial, sweeping, compellingly written, incisively analytical, rooted in extensive research—this authoritative two-volume biography is now cunningly condensed into a single hefty tome.

Kershaw puts the führer’s life, times, and actions into myriad perspectives, cutting revealingly from overviews to close-ups while spanning from fin-desiècle empire to the bunker. Spoiled Linz child; egoistic Viennese tourist-art hustler; Austrian draft-dodger; World War I Iron Cross–winner; Reichswehr informant; opportunistic Munich loudmouth spouting recycled pan-German and antiSemitic rot—Hitler’s key characteristics emerge as he stumbles into political life, another speck of flotsam in Weimar Germany’s fragile, competing tide pools. “I can speak,” Hitler said then, as if dazed by the crucial self-discovery—and all else flowed from that moment. He honed his emotive speechifying and propaganda skills, then drew the attention and grudging support of right-wing industrialists and military leaders who wanted democratic Weimar destroyed.

They routinely underestimated him, as foreign leaders would also do: they assumed they were using him, but he adeptly used them to become führer. For as Kershaw shrewdly notes, Hitler’s path to near-absolute power caromed around a series of mind-boggling historical accidents; it was far from inevitable.

He rightly casts Hitler and his Nazis more as political thugs than systematic organizers. They disdained order, fed on fear, and lusted for power. Their internal disarray, pervasive if inchoate ideologies, and anarchic scramble to try out whatever thousands of petty officials hoped would “work towards the führer” was mirrored in the Reich’s overlapping bureaucratic tangles; subservience to the whims of Hitler; and utter disregard for law, accountability, strategic planning, or procedures. Kershaw calls it “a most extraordinary phenomenon: a highly modern, advanced state without any central coordinating body and with a head of government largely disengaged from the machinery of government.”

Penetrating and rewarding, Hitler is a remarkable panoramic portrait. It is also an enduring warning about what happens to democracy when power is divorced from the rule of law and subverted by personality and ideology.

 

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here