Hailed as the most compelling biography of the German dictator yet written, Ian Kershaw's Hitler brings us closer than ever before to the heart of its subject's immense darkness.
From his illegitimate birth in a small Austrian village to his fiery death in a bunker under the Reich chancellery in Berlin, Adolf Hitler left a murky trail, strewn with contradictory tales and overgrown with self-created myths. One truth prevails: the sheer scale of the evils that he unleashed on the world has made him a demonic figure without equal in this century. Ian Kershaw's Hitler brings us closer than ever before to the character of the bizarre misfit in his thirty-year ascent from a Viennese shelter for the indigent to uncontested rule over the German nation that had tried and rejected democracy in the crippling aftermath of World War I.
With extraordinary vividness, Kershaw recreates the settings that made Hitler's rise possible: the virulent anti-Semitism of prewar Vienna, the crucible of a war with immense casualties, the toxic nationalism that gripped Bavaria in the 1920s, the undermining of the Weimar Republic by extremists of the Right and the Left, the hysteria that accompanied Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 and then mounted in brutal attacks by his storm troopers on Jews and others condemned as enemies of the Aryan race.
In an account drawing on many previously untapped sources, Hitler metamorphoses from an obscure fantasist, a "drummer" sounding an insistent beat of hatred in Munich beer halls, to the instigator of an infamous failed putsch and, ultimately, to the leadership of a ragtag alliance of right wing parties fused into a movement that enthralled the German people.
This volume, the first of two, ends with the promulgation of the infamous Nuremberg laws that pushed German Jews to the outer fringes of society, and with the march of the German army into the Rhineland, Hitler's initial move toward the abyss of war.
©1998 Ian Kershaw (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
Before reviewing this book it seems appropriate to mention that the author, Ian Kershaw, describes himself as a historical structuralist. He thus rejects the Great Man theory in which it is argued that history is created and shaped by the great personalities of history and instead believes that the structure of the society creates the environment which molds and creates the “great men”. Thus, in this argument, Hitler did not create the Third Reich and the associated Nazi tyranny so much as the structure of the German society at the time gave Hitler, as an opportunist, the chance to become dictator. But, if societal forces, rather than individuals, are responsible for great events there seems to be less need for biographies of those individuals and Mr Kershaw states as much at the start of the book. Thus this becomes a very different kind of biography, concerned with societal background as much as with Hitler and, as Mr Kershaw states, the blame for the human tragedy that was the Second World War comes to rest not on Hitler alone but has to be shared by the general intolerant and hateful society that existed in Germany during this period.
None of this means that the life and character of Hitler is ignored. I have read a great many books on the Second World War and the times leading up to The Third Reich and none of them have provided me with the wealth of information contained in this book. Here you will find details about Hitlers time in Landsberg Prison, the negotiation process that resulted in Hitler becoming Chancellor, the arguments involved in defining the German Racial Laws and much else, none of which I have seen in other books.
The book also does a wonderful job of describing Hitler’s early life, his years as a purposeless vagrant in Vienna, his change during his time in the German Army during World War I and how he was shaped and largely created by the years after the end of that war. The creation of the Nazi Party, the years during which it struggled, gained a niche in the German political scene and grew, the other people involved in the party development and their relationships with each other, are described in considerable detail.
While there is a thicket of information about people who do not normally get written into books like this (philosophers, writers, economists and so on), the book never loses the center of it’s attention. Hitler is always there, often being forced by circumstances to take actions, and the descriptions of societal forces never overshadow the subject of the book. It is hard to see how any other biography could be more interesting, more instructive or more compelling. This is a long book and only covers the period up to the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Still I found that it moved very quickly and frequently I had a hard time putting the book down. The narration is first class and a good match for the writing and the book is long enough to include information describing details normally left out of historic overviews. Rather than being a negative, the amount of detail clarified a lot of events and made me more interested in buying the second volume.
There is one negative. Sections of the book include considerable psychoanalysis of Hitler and his actions and sometimes they seem to degenerate into “psycho-babble”. With no live person to put on the psychoanalysis’s couch this seems like a futile and silly endeavor. It seems, at times, more than a bit annoying but the book is so complete and so well written and narrated that it seems worthy of at least 5 stars. I highly recommended for those with an interest in this period in history.
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