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  March 19, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Explaining Hitler

Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis
by Ian Kershaw
1,168 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)
published by Norton

The historian and Hitler biographer Allan Bullock once wrote of his subject, "the more I learn about Hitler, the less I can explain it." To say the least, Hitler presents a challenge for any biographer. According to one of those who famously accepted the challenge, Joachim Fest, Hilter was an "unperson," whose demonic energy and sheer force of will nearly destroyed an entire civilization. In contrast to the darkly romantic overtones of Fest's interpretation, Bullock viewed Hitler as merely a craven mediocrity, "an opportunist entirely without principle," as he wrote in his 1952 biography, tellingly subtitled "a study in tyranny."

There is no end to the historiographical battles over the Third Reich and the phenomenon of Adolph Hitler. There is, it seems, no "getting him right." It is no surprise, then, that Hitler is one of the most written about figures in human history. But oddly enough, until the appearance of Ian Kershaw's now complete two volume life(Hitler 1889-1936:Hubris, Hitler:1936-1945:Nemesis, both Norton), it has been several decades since the last full-scale biography. The recent publication of Kerhshaw's second volume occasioned much acclaim for the British historian, who was lauded as the rightful successor to Fest and Bullock. Indeed, it was pointed out that neither Fest nor Bullock tried to explain Hitler as the product of a unique interaction between the Furher and the German people, as does Kershaw; their narratives focused on his personal traits and habit of mind. For Kershaw, Hitler "was a social product--a creation of social expectations and motivations vested in Hitler by his followers."

Gordon Craig, one the most prominent historians of modern Germany, praised Kershaw's efforts in the New York Review of Books: "In the telling of his lamentable story, Kershaw keep his temper, and his tone is level, analytical, and judicious." Similarly, Omer Bartov, in The New Republic, thought very highly of Kershaw¹s method, calling his account "massive, extensively researched, extraordinarily balanced, and remarkably judicious..." He added that Kershaw's work "is likely to remain the definitive biography for a long time to come. It is also a highly readable, often exciting book, even for those who already read as much as they thought they would ever want to about this 'Scourge of God'"

By far the best political biography of Adolf Hilter published in recent years is that of Ian Kershaw's," exulted Milton Rosenberg in the Chicago Tribune. "Compared to many others that came earlier, even the important and illuminating works by Allan Bullock and Joachim Fest. Kershaw's large scale study is more probing, more judicious, more authoritative its rich detail and more commanding in its mastery of the horrific narrative." In The Nation, historian Paul Reitter concurred with Rosenberg, saying of the three biographies, Kershaw's " is by far." Reitter contrasts Kershaw's approach to Bullock and Fest's, "neither of whom came close to producing a real social biography, as both of their books focus on the personal narrative. They offer well-informed, penetrating answers to one crucial question: why did Hitler commit the terrible crimes for which he will be remembered? But neither one makes a serious attempt to shed light on Hitler's path to the chancellorship or to understand how he remained in power for twelve years while executing policies of mass destruction and mass self-destruction. They do not tell us how Hitler became Hitler."

However, Commentary's Jacob Heilbrunn sounded one jarringly discordant note from the chorus of praise. "In conceiving of Hitler's power as Œa social product'—a product that was itself the 'creation of social expectations and motivations vested in Hitler buy his followers'—Kershaw not only fails to bring Hitler's personality to life but never satisfactorily comes to grips with his fundamental motivations and demonic qualities. Indeed, Kershaw regards talk of Hitler's uniquely evil character as mostly humbug, an (unintended) artifact of Nazi propaganda that portrayed the Fuhrer as superhuman." Still, Heilbrunn himself conceded that Kershaws' "massive two volume work is... something of an event."

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
Omar Bartov, The New Republic,
Gordon Craig, New York Review of Books
Jacob Heilbrunn, Commentary
Paul Reitter, The Nation
Milton Rosenberg, The Chicago Tribune

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