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.

The portrait of the man offers few surprises but many memorable details, such as the Führer’s delight over Goebbels’s 1937 Christmas present of feature films and Mickey Mouse cartoons, cinema (like motorways, steam-heated greenhouses and ideas about racial hygiene) belonging to Hitler’s ‘modern’ enthusiasms. Kershaw’s Hitler is a cold, asexual, hollow personality, a self-absorbed man convinced of his own genius. He was capable of charm, but also touchy, suspicious and prone to sudden fits of anger. The Swedish industrialist Birger Dahlerus witnessed one of these when a letter from Lord Halifax was delivered to the Chancellery during the Polish crisis in August 1939. Hitler launched into a lengthy diatribe. He marched up and down throwing out facts and figures about German military might, then began to shout as if addressing a meeting, threatening to annihilate his enemies. Dahlerus had the impression of someone ‘completely abnormal’. In the subject index of this book the largest entry under the heading of Hitler’s personality is ‘rages’.

A lifelong hypochondriac, he also became increasingly preoccupied with his own mortality, which reinforced a reckless gambler’s instinct. Kershaw is very good, without being prurient, on Hitler’s declining health during the war, as chronic stomach and intestinal problems were joined by a worsening heart condition and the onset of Parkinson’s, against which the daily cocktail of pills and injections prescribed by Dr Morell had little effect. Even better are the periodic descriptions of Hitler’s daily life at the various places he called home: the Reich Chancellery with its private ‘Führer apartment’, the mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, the wartime Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, the temporary home that turned out to be not so temporary, short-term headquarters like ‘Werewolf’ in the Ukraine and, at the very end, the Bunker.

In good times and bad Hitler was sealed off from unpleasant realities, served by devoted secretaries and fawned on by the courtiers of the Party elite. A man who hated normal work routines, he talked late into the night and forced everyone else to stay up and listen. ‘It’s always Hitler who talks!’ complained Magda Goebbels to the Italian foreign minister Ciano. ‘He can be Führer as much as he likes, but he always repeats himself and bores his guests.’ Ciano himself, in a diary entry for April 1942, recorded simply, ‘Hitler talks, talks, talks, talks,’ on this occasion apparently for an hour and forty minutes non-stop, so that even the deferential Mussolini glanced surreptitiously at his watch and General Jodl, ‘after an epic struggle’, fell asleep on a sofa. Beneath the fantasising of the monologues can be seen the outlines of a fairly distinct Weltanschauung, one in which the words ‘struggle’, ‘enemies’, ‘Lebensraum’, ‘race’ and ‘extermination’ appeared with repulsive monotony.

Hitler fed off adulation, in his inner sanctum and on the political stage. Kershaw’s first volume showed how a cranky autodidact from the Austrian provinces, never promoted above corporal in the First World War because he lacked ‘leadership’ qualities, became Chancellor of Germany. This was far from being a matter just of spellbinding oratory. The Versailles Treaty, inflation and depression, the failings of the Weimar ‘system’, fear of the Left, miscalculations by the elites – all helped to bring Hitler to power in 1933. So did his own shrewdness as an organisation man who held the movement together in the lean years, then fended off the putschist hotheads. But the Hitler familiar from the newsreels, the demagogue, was decisively important. An embodiment of his Party’s dynamic appeal who came to be widely seen as a saviour, he could tap the resentments and aspirations of the German people even as he drew energy from them.

By 1936, when this second volume opens, the cult of the Führer had reached new heights, fuelled by the early successes of the regime – economic recovery, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the propaganda triumph of the 1936 Olympic Games. Hitler’s personal popularity was high even among those most resistant to the Nazi appeal, such as Catholics and workers. His near-deification by many was evident in the celebrations to mark his 50th birthday in April 1939. Hitler was ‘a great man, a genius, a person sent to us from heaven’, wrote one teenage girl. His image survived even unpopular economic or religious policies because of the Führer myth, the belief that Hitler remained ignorant of actions carried out by his underlings. ‘If only the Führer knew,’ ran the refrain, a variation on the idea of the ‘good king’, and Hitler consciously protected his own image by ducking hard or unpopular decisions. Security reports noted that people were still craving newsreel shots of him as wartime losses and privations mounted, until the mood shifted after the disaster of Stalingrad.

This is a subject on which Kershaw did original work in his earlier books, and it shows. He brings the same expertise to the task of explaining how the political system worked in the Third Reich – if ‘system’ is the right word for the administrative chaos that prevailed. Nazi Germany was no well-oiled totalitarian machine; nor did Hitler typically pass down formal orders that were implemented by subordinates. The reality was more messy, not least because of the role he chose to assume. Kershaw allies himself with the ‘structuralist’ historians, but rejects their most provocative claim: that Hitler was a ‘weak dictator’. His own position was set out in the brilliant final chapter of Volume 1, ‘Working towards the Führer’, a phrase (it was originally used by an obscure Prussian state secretary) that runs through the present book. He describes how even the most powerful underlings took their cue from Hitler, trying to divine his intentions and impress him with their zeal. Hitler himself, allergic to bureaucratic norms and wary of anything that might restrict his freedom of action, encouraged a proliferation of agencies and ‘special authorities’ like Goering’s Four-Year Plan Organisation, Ley’s housing commissariat, the Todt Organisation and Himmler’s SS. Awkwardly straddling party and state, these self-contained empires competed with the regular ministries and with each other for Hitler’s ear. And the Führer, unwilling to be drawn into or adjudicate conflicts, kept his distance and backed the winners.

There were two main results. One was an administrative free-for-all as rival fiefdoms vied for supremacy. This worsened during the war to the point that Reich governance was ‘slipping increasingly out of control’. At the same time, Hitler always preferred the most dynamic-sounding solution to a given ‘problem’, which resulted in a progressive radicalisation of policy. Kershaw’s account of working towards the Führer is chillingly persuasive, and his description of decision-making by nods, winks and verbal cues – or outbursts – in no way diminishes Hitler’s personal responsibility for the criminal barbarism of the Third Reich. He remained the linchpin, the touchstone, the fount of ideological legitimacy.

The wave of anti-Jewish violence in 1938 that culminated in the pogrom of 9-10 November, the so-called Kristallnacht, was a classic instance of working towards the Führer. Goebbels and lower-level Party activists made the running; Hitler stayed in the background but approved the campaign and gave his broad sanction. It was a pattern that was to recur repeatedly. Kershaw’s account of how the Holocaust eventually came about could hardly be improved on. The early parts of the book follow Volume 1 in outlining the step-by-step exclusion and hounding of Jewish citizens, the importance of anti-semitism for the Party rank and file, and Hitler’s own rabid but still undefined determination to rid Germany of Jews. He also notes the importance of the ‘euthanasia’ campaign, sanctioned by Hitler in October 1939 but underway months earlier, a crucial lowering of moral thresholds that saw the first use of mobile gas vans and marked a lurch into outright criminality.

The War in the East removed all remaining restraints against ‘licensed barbarism’, a phrase that exactly describes the treatment of Poles, Jews and Soviet POWs. ‘Asia begins in Poland,’ said Hitler. German and Austrian Jews were initially deported into the General Government, the part of Poland not annexed by Germany, to join Polish Jews in ghettoes where it was hoped they could be worked and starved to death. But complaints from local German administrators about their numbers led to the search for a new ‘solution’. Earlier plans to settle Jews in Madagascar or Siberia were dropped, and special SS squads, regular police battalions and army units began to engage in a series of localised mass killings carried out by clubbing and shooting. This was the policy of incremental genocide, stressful and inefficient from the standpoint of the perpetrators, which led via the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 to the industrialised killing of the camps. Hundreds of Soviet POWs had already been gassed at Auschwitz in September 1941 as an experiment in connection with the crematorium on order from the firm of J.A. Topf and Sons. Hitler was not present at Wannsee, may not even have known about it. But as Kershaw shows, he did not need to be there. He sanctioned every step of the descent into genocide; his talk was heavy with references to ‘extermination’ and ‘annihilation’, and he could tell SS leaders to come up with a ‘final solution to the Jewish question’, confident that they would interpret his wishes and fill in the details.

The Holocaust, like the self-destructive radicalisation and eventual collapse of the Third Reich, was a product of war. But can we imagine Hitler’s Germany not going to war, if not in 1939 then two or three years later? It was a regime primed for aggression, whose leader talked about the subject relentlessly. And if the rapid rearmament programme was not (as we once believed) the key to economic recovery, it was certainly decisive in binding the Army to Hitler. War or the coming of war provides the framework of this book. Kershaw leads us expertly through a familiar sequence of events: the Anschluss with Austria, Munich, the destruction of Czechoslovakia, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, war over Poland, successful Blitzkrieg, the attack on the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa (it was originally code-named ‘Otto’), then the inexorable turning of the tide. His account weaves analysis into the narrative, like the magisterial seven pages that conclude the chapter on the outbreak of war, and he is generous with detail and direct quotation.

There is plenty of room for both in a book whose two volumes contain more than 1400 pages of text. Its scale offers another opportunity, allowing Kershaw to distribute key themes through the book so that the reader has a real sense of how things unfolded. He does this quite brilliantly in the many foreshadowings of the Holocaust. Another motif is Hitler’s relationship with his generals, which we can follow from the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis in 1938 that broke the spirit of Wehrmacht leaders, through early military successes that seemed to vindicate Hitler’s go-for-broke approach (in 1940 Keitel called him ‘the greatest warlord of all time’), to his growing personal direction of the war effort and the disasters of the Eastern Front that prompted the July Plot. Kershaw emphasises Hitler’s shortcomings as a commander, apparent as early as the Scandinavian campaign and fully exposed in Russia, while rejecting any idea that the Wehrmacht, left to its own devices, could have won the War in the East.

Hitler is rich in material, balanced, perceptive, humane and very well written – altogether a magnificent achievement. Ian Kershaw’s previous books were built around arguments; Hitler triumphantly retains that reasoning historical voice in a work organised on strict chronological lines. The narrative is superbly sustained; it even picks up new strength in the 350 pages that take us from the pivotal year 1942 to the end. Kershaw conveys an almost physical sense of the war coming home to Germany, while Hitler withdrew into isolation, appearing and even broadcasting less and less often. He refused to visit the bomb-damaged Ruhr; and when his train happened to pull up opposite a transport of weary troops from the Eastern Front he abruptly pulled down the blinds. ‘Weakness’ was a word that came easily to Hitler’s lips when castigating his generals and others; now he wrote off the German people for failing him. As he increasingly shut out the reality of the lost war, his deluded conspiratorial ideas remained intact. The Last Testament, dictated on the day before his suicide, blamed the war and the destruction it had brought on ‘international Jewry and its helpers’.