The Greatest Warlord

David Blackbourn

  • Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 1115 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9229 8

Every reader of Don DeLillo’s White Noise remembers the academic niche that the main character has carved out for himself. As Jack Gladney tells it, ‘when I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler’s life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success.’ Others were equally impressed by the Department of Hitler Studies. ‘You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler,’ says Gladney’s colleague Murray Siskind, visiting lecturer in living icons. ‘I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly pre-emptive. It’s what I want to do with Elvis.’ It’s also what the tabloid magazines once did, with their periodic reports of new Führer sightings. Like Elvis, the man had never died: he had only slipped away to Bolivia.

More disturbing than these droppings of popular culture was the German ‘Hitler wave’ of the 1970s. Historians warned of the dangers of trivialisation; the film-maker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg called the grubby Hitler industry ‘our Disneyland’. But Hitler, the great negative icon of modern times, will not go away. Serious writers seem unable to keep their hands off him, from Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf to George Steiner’s A.H., and the bibliography grows at a pace unmatched by Stalin or Mao. A survey five years ago counted 120,000 pieces of work on Hitler. We have had serious biographers, like Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, and we have had psycho-historians who put the Führer on the couch or seemed to think that there was some point in counting his testicles (the evidence suggests two). There have, in fact, been as many Hitlers as there are ways of explaining the 20th century: the puppet of German capital, the totalitarian, the demonic snake-charmer, the political bandit. Most recently, German historians have engaged in heated debate over how exactly we should view Hitler’s role within the Third Reich. Was he a man whose blueprint was translated into action by subordinates, or did he stand on top of a ‘polycracy’ of competing power-structures?

The argument between ‘intentionalists’ and ‘structuralists’ is where Ian Kershaw came in. Originally a historian of medieval England, he switched tracks in the 1970s to work on the pioneering Bavaria Project led by Martin Broszat, which examined the attitudes of ordinary Germans during the Third Reich. His 1983 book on popular opinion and political dissent in Bavaria reflected this interest. Four year later came ‘The Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, a masterpiece best described as a Hitler reception study, followed by a trenchant survey of The Nazi Dictatorship in which he placed himself in the camp of the ‘structuralists’. Even when he turned to writing directly about Hitler, in a slim 1991 contribution to a Profiles in Power series, his approach was, he wrote, ‘in some ways quite non-biographical’. As he noted wryly in the preface to Volume 1 of the present book, subtitled ‘Hubris’ and published in 1998, he arrived at writing his biography from the ‘wrong’ direction, as a sceptic about the genre. This only goes to show the advantages of the reluctant biographer, for Kershaw has succeeded wonderfully well in portraying an altogether believable Hitler while placing him within the political structures and social forces that explain his rise to power and how that power was exercised after 1933.

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