Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: IAN KERSHAW'S HITLER (VOLUMES 1 AND 2)

IAN KERSHAW'S HITLER (VOLUMES 1 & 2) BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, April 6, 2005


This biography (actually two volumes, Hubris and Nemesis) is well worth reading. Kershaw is a sound, if not elegant, writer and tells a story you will want to finish, but the book has significant faults.

Historians still do not know exactly how to reckon with the phenomenon of Hitler. The man was like a gigantic cyclonic storm that suddenly welled up and unleashed death and misery on a colossal scale.

And for that reason he stands as the most influential man of the 20th century, not the greatest or the most gifted, but the most influential.

His existence brought to life such memorable opponents as Churchill, his defeat established forty years of Soviet dominance over much of Europe, and his bestial acts unquestionably led to the founding of modern Israel, setting off great difficulties in the Middle East for decades.

The ironic thing about Kershaw's book is that the author says he does not understand Hitler. Hitler remains a mystery to him, and Kershaw even says that in some ways his book is not a biography of the man but of the era in Germany. This is not satisfying to the reader wishing to understand better.

Kershaw's thesis of Hitler as a an almost compulsive gambler who struck it lucky for a while is weak. Hitler's rise to lead a great nation of Europe and his years of early diplomatic and military victories call for a more insightful explanation than a heavy run of luck. Kershaw gives credit to Hitler as an instinctive propagandist (in advertising terms, a talented marketer), but that is about as far as he goes to explaining this eye of the greatest storm in human history.

Historians, naturally enough, are reluctant to write anything that could be interpreted as admiration, but other historians have managed a better job of dealing with Hitler's talents and personality, notably Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, and William Shirer.

One new element that Kershaw brings is a focus on Hitler's being responsible for the Holocaust, not that any responsible historian ever has denied it, but naturally enough there is no paper trail. I think Shirer is better on the horrors Hitler inflicted. I also think a more insightful treatment of this kind of psychology is found in Gitta Sereny.

One of the great mysteries of Hitler's psychology is his anti-Semitism. There is just no accounting for its immensity, and Kershaw does little to enlighten us here.

Read this book and the other authors I have mentioned and decide whether you agree with me that the definitive biography of Hitler has yet to be written.

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