Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris 
by Ian Kershaw.
Allen Lane, 845 pp., £20, September 1998, 0 7139 9047 3
Show More
Show More

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.

Hitler’s repeated attempts to enter the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts – the one objective he seems to have pursued with some perseverance as a young man – failed dismally, though he continued to dream of a career as an artist or an architect. He was, in fact, a drop-out living in extreme poverty, though he was unwilling to admit this even to himself, or to reveal it later in Mein Kampf. Resentment at his outcast status made him all the readier to adopt the rabidly nationalist and anti-semitic views then current in Vienna, where the Schönerer Movement was in its prime. His situation improved a little in 1913 when he moved to Munich and began selling his paintings of architectural sights. His modest income enabled him to spend his evenings in pubs or cafés, where he gradually discovered the one true gift he possessed – for agitation.

World War One rescued him from a miserable existence. The Army was his first experience of a regulated social life, in close contact with others, and also gave him recognition for his achievements as a soldier. The military defeat and the collapse of Imperial Germany was a personal catastrophe, and he continued in the Army for as long as he could after the Armistice. In the turbulent postwar atmosphere many of the units that were still on active service entered the political arena, agitating against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and its consequences for the Army. Hitler’s talent as a public speaker soon became apparent and within a few months he became the most popular nationalist agitator in Munich, capable of filling the latest halls. Eventually he emerged as the undisputed leader of the tiny National Socialist Party or NSDAP. Kershaw points out that his success was largely, if not exclusively, due to the fact that he always restated the prevailing extremist views in still more radical terms, so outdoing all his rivals. The process of ‘cumulative radicalisation’ which was one day to lead to the collapse of the Third Reich was already underway.

Hitler’s fame was further consolidated after the dismal failure of the march to the Feldherrnhalle on 9 November 1923, in part because he was careful not to join any of the feuding factions in what was, by now, a demoralised nationalist movement. His ideological position was decidedly nebulous. Early on, his vitriolic attacks on the ‘November criminals’, whether Jewish or not, had strong anti-capitalistic overtones; later, he changed his stance, arguing that the struggle against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ and the Marxist class struggle should be replaced by a new communitarianism – the so-called Volksgemeinschaft (‘folk community’), a line of reasoning that in the eyes of the Left, notably Gregor and Otto Strasser, and the radical young Goebbels, avoided the necessary attack on entrepreneurs. Kershaw shows convincingly, however, that Hitler’s ideologiocal position was largely a radicalised reflection of the views of his audiences, and thus constantly shifted, as time and circumstance required.

He made up for the lack of a clearly defined programme by establishing firm personal links with his entourage, symbolised by the familiar handshake. He lectured audiences and followers alike in the most general terms, with regular and violent polemic against the state of Weimar, against Marxism and Bolshevism, and against world Jewry. Not surprisingly, he always objected to any reformulation of the shoddy National Socialist Party programme of 1920. Indeed, Kershaw shows that the key to his success in these years was his ability to pose as the natural leader of the nationalist movement, by skilfully presenting himself as the embodiment of the political dreams and desires of the most diverse groups on the Right. The Führer cult was in many ways the creation of his followers, who badly needed such a figure. Its growth enhanced his self-confidence, however, and eventually turned him into a totally self-sufficient man indifferent to detail and the advice of his own entourage.

In the years following the disaster of the Feldherrnhalle, Hitler’s reluctance to make ideological commitments proved immensely helpful. It became a little more difficult to sustain, however, later in the Twenties and in the early Thirties, even though he succeeded with surprising ease in surviving the struggles between the Leftists and the bulk of the Party. Goebbels, for one, abandoned his earlier socialist inclinations and became a dedicated follower. And in the critical years of the Depression, his ability to be all things to all men paid off again. His decision to risk his and his followers’ fortunes by an inflexible ‘all or nothing’ strategy caused considerable resentment in the Party, but, here, too, he managed to outmanoeuvre his enemies.

The astonishing rise in the National Socialist vote at the Reichstag elections of September 1930 led to a groundswell of feeling among supporters that the Party should take power as soon as possible. The backlash of the November 1932 elections, which showed a sizable though not yet dramatic reduction in support for the Party, only confirmed this view: if it did not gain power very soon, the momentum might be lost, and decline set in. Hitler’s sturdy refusal to join a conservative Cabinet as junior partner under Franz von Papen was seen by many, and in particular Gregor Strasser, the prestigious organiser of the Party machine, as a fatal mistake. Party members, meanwhile, had become unruly; they were not prepared to put off participation in a Reich government for much longer.

Strasser considered joining a coalition government under Kurt von Schleicher without Hitler, but once again Hitler survived this crisis with apparent ease and the rebellion collapsed almost before it had begun, with Strasser handing over his Party functions and the Gauleiters renewing their promise of personal loyalty to Hitler. Not even Strasser, let alone the other Party faith-fill, including the otherwise very powerful Gauleiters, dared oppose him. His charisma was by now a source of power in itself, making rational calculations as to the Party’s future chances impossible. Any attempt to find compromise solutions, short of a complete takeover of power within the Party, were to founder on Hitler’s boundless self-assurance.

His skill, at this point, was to present himself in public as a responsible political leader who had no thought of achieving power by illegal means, while privately encouraging, or at any rate condoning, violence by the storm troopers and other Party elements against his opponents. He posed successfully as a reasonable man working hard to restrain a movement bent on achieving power by force.

By emphasising Hitler’s exceptional ability to mobilise mass support on purely personal grounds, Kershaw tends to underplay the role of the Wilhelmine élites in the events that culminated in his appointment as Chancellor. President Hindenburg, for one, rightly sensed the dangers of Hitler’s plebiscitary appeal to the masses and objected to his appointment almost up until the last moment. This was not true, however, of the old conservatives and their mouthpiece, von Papen, who were not going to miss a unique opportunity to finish off the hated Parliamentary republic once and for all, with Hitler’s assistance – both willing and unwilling. They were prepared to take calculated risks to further this aim and, without them, Hitler’s own gamble late in 1932 and in January 1933 to go for complete and immediate control, consolidated irrevocably by another plebiscite, might not have paid off. In the event, he came to power legally, with the active support of the élites and the reluctant connivance of the President.

To start with, Hitler’s power was not unrestricted, but he at once set to work to strengthen it by taking repressive action against the Communist and later the Socialist Party, often with the utmost brutality; by manipulating the Parliamentary machinery (with the support of his conservative partners); and by launching another gigantic propaganda effort in the Reichstag elections, which Goebbels was busy turning into a new popular plebiscite. Hitler’s popularity was at this stage immense: he was seen by many, far beyond the National Socialist Party itself, as the saviour of the fatherland, a view supported by a series of diplomatic victories, the most important of which was the reoccupation of the Rhineland – a demilitarised zone – in open violation of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler himself saw this as a high-risk decision; but the military bluff was successful.

He still had to reckon, however, with the Army and the Reichspräsident, and could not afford to let the radicals in the Party, and especially the storm troopers, do as they liked. The initial pogroms against German Jews and a whole series of opposition groups thus had to be stopped, or in some way regulated. The bloody elimination of the storm trooper leadership, notably Röhm, on the pretext that they had been planning a coup against him was the first move in this direction; the second was the takeover of the Presidency after Hindenburg’s death in 1934.

In the early days of power, Hitler continued to put propaganda first, trying to please as many different social groups as possible by promising energetic action against all those who allegedly stood in the way of the speedy restoration of the nation’s greatness. He continued, meanwhile, with his earlier strategy by allowing the various sections of the National Socialist Party, as Kershaw puts it, to ‘work towards the Fuührer’. Rather than initiating any substantial policies himself, he allowed his ministers or Party bosses to bring forward initiatives that they assumed were in line with his wishes. Hitler thus found himself in the position of arbiter in a government system that lacked any clear division of responsibilities – a state of affairs that strengthened his position still further. He deliberately allowed a polycracy of élites to emerge while the traditional apparatus of government, including the ministers themselves, was reduced to a secondary role. He then used this system not so much to implement his own policies as to remain aloof from day-today business (which he detested) and to set himself above what appeared to be mere sectional interests. Thus the gross wrongdoings of his followers were not directly attributed to him: he continued to pose as the responsible statesman who had again and again restrained his bloodthirsty supporters. In fact, the opposite was true. Even as he was appearing to take a more moderate course, especially where anti-Jewish policies were concerned, he let it be known that he sympathised with the most radical proposals put forward in the Party and encouraged intense competition among his subordinates to formulate ever more extreme policies. The process of ‘cumulative radicalisation’ was thus in place, and, though it had for the time being no serious consequences, it was bound to lead to disaster.

For the moment, it gave the impression that the new National Government was bent on getting things done as quickly as possible. The German public were not allowed to know that the economy was strained to the limit, that the scarcity of foreign currency was causing severe difficulties, that the rearmament programme had been launched regardless of the fact that it meant holding working-class wages at the low level of 1932. The successful reoccupation of the Rhineland enhanced Hitler’s prestige even further and by 1935 he was firmly in control, all the institutional forces which might still have endangered his position having either been destroyed or, as in the case of the Army, successfully won over.

The sense of his own greatness instilled in Hitler by his following had reached a new peak; as Kershaw sees it, he was following the path that he believed had been laid out for him by Providence with the confidence of a sleepwalker. The radicalisation of domestic policies was now unstoppable: Hitler’s power depended on the progressive disintegration of the traditional government apparatus and the ensuing struggle for a share of power among his subordinates.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences