Working towards the Führer

Wolfgang Mommsen

  • Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 845 pp, £20.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9047 3

To write a satisfactory biography of Adolf Hitler is perhaps the greatest challenge a historian can face. Hitler was a demagogue and a skilful manipulator rather than a statesman, someone guided by a crude ideology which made up for its total lack of intellectual substance by a self-affirming radicalism. His worldview was simplistic and devoid of coherence, let alone plausibility. He attributed all the evils of his time to the sinister operations of world Jewry and Bolshevism, which he saw as closely intertwined, and bent on destroying not only the German people but all of Western culture. Even today it is difficult to see how a man with such absurd and insubstantial views could ever have taken charge of a major European nation with a sophisticated culture and a firmly established legal order.

Ian Kershaw has set out in his biography to solve this puzzle and is well equipped to do so: he is thoroughly at home with the new research that has been going on since the opening of the East European archives and, more important, was a member of the late Martin Broszat’s group in Munich which inquired into the attitude of ordinary Germans to National Socialism during the Hitler years. This has given him a clearer insight into the causes of Hitler’s meteoric rise to power, and of the emergence of the ‘Führer cult’ that made his position unassailable.

As a social historian, Kershaw does not restrict his analysis to Hitler’s personality – given the scarcity of personal documents and the shallowness of Hitler’s own pronouncements about himself, this would not have been a very rewarding approach. Indeed, right from the start, Hitler talked in ideological clichés, even in intimate discussions. Later on, emphatic invocations of comradeship and of the personal loyalty he expected from his followers papered over the hollowness of much of what he had to say. Both in private and in public he almost invariably spoke in long monologues designed to attract unconditional support by appealing to the emotions of his following or Gefolgschaft. Rational argument and deliberation counted for little. According to Max Weber, the charismatic leader has a right to expect people to follow him purely on personal grounds and this model was largely borne out by Hitler’s style of leadership.

He did not direct affairs in a straightforward manner. In crises he was often hesitant and refused to take the lead, or to issue precise orders from the start. His arcanum imperii was propaganda, not decision-making, and he seldom cared about details. As a rule he preferred to let Party officials push ahead, often in divergent directions, then to wait and see how things developed. When procrastination was no longer possible, he would come down on one side or the other with the utmost vigour, generally opting for the more radical course. He did not hesitate to disown his followers on tactical grounds, however. Hitler was exceedingly skilful in turning unexpected situations to his own advantage without letting ideological convictions get in the way; he was in this sense a Machiavellian politician of exceptional talent, always instinctively reacting rather than following a predetermined plan.

Kershaw goes carefully into the origins and social circumstances of Hitler’s family, but abstains mercifully from deriving psychological explanations from them, something which has been done again and again, always with disappointing results. There was nothing unusual about Hitler’s early life, except that he was unwilling to enter a profession or take a permanent job, preferring the life of a drone and sustaining himself on the meagre funds he was able to elicit from relatives after the death of his parents. Yet his infatuation with the theatre, and with Wagner in particular, shows that even early on he tended to confuse the miseen-scène of a past grandeur with the grim reality around him.

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