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Informative, but Kershaw can do better than this
am 3. Februar 2000
This is the first biography of Hitler that I've read. Kershaw is a social historian who admits his bias against biography in the preface. His discomfort with biography shows, and this book suffers in comparison with his earlier book on "The 'Hitler Myth,'" a study of Nazi propaganda that is better written, more interesting, and mercifully shorter.
Even so, I could hardly read 600-odd pages on Hitler without absorbing much that was new. I learned how, during his unhappy childhood and his aimless wanderings through Vienna, Hitler was constantly exposed to anti-Semitism from the ravings of Schornerer and other extremist xenophobes. I understand better now why Hitler's ranting and raving about exterminating the Jews wasn't taken more seriously even by the unprejudiced; Jew-baiting was such a common rabble-rousing ploy that few realized until too late how serious Hitler was about it. The book shows how it was only after the disastrous Munich Putsch that Hitler began to conceive of himself (as opposed to Ludendorff or a player to be named later) as the one true "Fuehrer."
Kershaw also argues that Hitler's own anti-Semitism was not formed in Vienna, as he claimed in Mein Kampf, but was adopted rather opportunistically when he became a political officer after World War I. And I think (though Kershaw himself doesn't say this), that I understand better why Hitler preached divisive, anti-Semitic hatred even though most German Jews were patriotic, and even though it was anti-Marxism rather than anti-Semitism that was his prime selling point to his audiences. Since Hitler's ideology was socialist (even though his actual practice when he attained power contained few elements of socialism), anti-Semitism was the only way he could distinguish himself from the socialists of the more numerous SPD and KPD. By pretending that these parties were mere Jewish puppets, Hitler could offer his brand of socialism as the only form of socialism that would benefit the great majority of Germans, while claiming that his opponents' version worked for the sole benefit of some fantasized international Jewish conspiracy. Even when the Nazis abandoned their strategy of outcompeting the SPD for the urban labor vote in favor of rallying support in the rural middle class, they still couldn't afford to abandon urban laborers completely. The Nazis still needed some of them, if for no other reason than to swell the ranks of the SA.
Kershaw also clarifies just how eagerly most of German society cooperated with the Nazis' takeover of total power after Hitler was appointed chancellor. I was shocked to learn that the German military's personal oath of allegiance to Hitler was not the Nazis' idea, but originated with War Minister Blomberg and Reichswehr commander Fritsch, under the insane delusion that this would subordinate Hitler to the armed forces rather than vice versa!
Still, this book has many problems. The prose style is convoluted and confusing. Kershaw is disturbingly ready to reject theories out of hand because they don't match his preconceptions, rather than by pointing out any actual evidence against them or any superior evidence in favor of a competing theory. Kershaw's treatment of Hitler's treason trial after the failed putsch is X-Files conspiracy-mongering, positing an agreement by prosecution, tribunal, and an unnamed Bavarian "elite" to go easy on Hitler so Hitler wouldn't reveal the complicity of high Bavarian officials in the putsch. But Kershaw's own evidence suggests that the prosecution presented its case against Hitler vigorously and zealously, that the Bavarian officials Hitler could have implicated weren't really that complicit (their timely warning to the Reichswehr in fact helped crush the putsch), and were in any case promptly sacked after the trial, casting doubt on the theory that the Bavarian government cared about their fate. Hitler's absurdly light sentence is best explained not by any secret, sinister "elite" maneuvers, but by the simple fact that the chief judge was flagrantly, reprehensibly biased in favor of the putschists.
In similar style, Kershaw suggests that Hitler's absence in Landsberg proved him indispensable as the "unifying" force on the German nationalist fringe. But his evidence suggests the exact opposite: that Rosenberg tried to unite the banned Nazi party, still mostly a Bavarian party, with north German racist radicals, and Hitler opposed this. And it was through Hitler's influence that the coarse, boorish Streicher was allowed to dominate the party, who so alienated everybody else on the nationalist right that all hope of union was lost.
Kershaw also fails to explicitly present any explanation for why Hitler's anti-Marxist message was so popular. He briefly tells the story of the Ratesrepublik, the attempted Marxist revolution in Bavaria, but nowhere suggests that it might explain the Germans' widespread fear of Marxism. Nor is there even the most casual reference to the Russian Revolution and the subsequent murderous behavior of the Cheka, which could hardly have failed to impress the German populace. Presented in this way, the popularity of Hitler's anti-Marxist message is made to appear like a mere prejudice as irrational as anti-Semitism, rather than a well-founded fear that Hitler exploited with grisly and tragic results.
In all, Kershaw's biography is better than no biography, but I hope that there are other, better biographies available to help understand the single most disastrous figure of the 20th century.