Tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease eventually turned Adolf Hitler’s handwriting into a scribble, but not before the twentieth century was marked by his signature more than any other. Hitler’s life continues to be a disturbing puzzle whose complexities attract and resist the biographers who try to solve it. Hitler, 1989-1936: Hubris, the first installment of a projected two-volume work by British historian Ian Kershaw, a veteran interpreter of Nazi Germany, is among the most ambitious, accurate, and successful attempts to do so. Nevertheless, even Kershaw’s brilliant efforts will be unable to answer completely the fundamental problem that confronts every Hitler biographer.
The photographs that typically appear in Hitler biographies illustrate the problem. Kershaw reprints, for example, a blurred photo from 1899. Cropped from a print of Hitler’s school class, it shows the future führer as a youngster. The full class picture finds Hitler standing in the center of the top row, arms folded across his chest, black hair parted on the right—but none of these factors forecasts Hitler. Nevertheless, the boy who was born on April 20, 1889, became the man who launched World War II, controlled the attempted annihilation of European Jewry during the Holocaust, and, arguably, redefined forever what evil means.
Solving the Hitler puzzle challenges biographers to explain how an obscure Austrian child became the führer, but to what extent can this question be answered? As Kershaw addresses this problem, his biography of Hitler becomes a piece in the Hitler puzzle in three fascinating ways. First, through methodology and original research, Kershaw significantly increases knowledge about Hitler and provides key insights that help to work the Hitler puzzle. Second, despite its extensive coverage, the biography itself remains but a piece of that puzzle because Kershaw can deal only with parts of a story that continue to elude full comprehension. Third, Kershaw has also written a “puzzle piece” in the sense that his biography provokes, but does not resolve, two basic issues: What would have to be known to solve the Hitler puzzle completely? Where might the missing pieces be discovered, if they can be found at all?
Kershaw’s challenges are magnified because biographical inquiry is inherently paradoxical. Biographies attempt to explain how and why individuals acted the way they did and became the persons they were. Usually they are written because the person in question exerted substantial influence far beyond that individual’s life alone. Therefore, a full explanation of the person requires coming to terms with historical and social forces vast in scope, but not only in terms of the individual’s leverage on them. The relation works the other way as well: Historical and social forces must be taken into account to explain how and why the person in question became the individual who motivates biographical investigation. Concentrating on individuals as they must, biographies are bound to be self-defeating; their forms of inquiry cannot by themselves fully comprehend the persons they seek to understand. Specifically in the case of Hitler, then, the paradox that clings to biographies, Kershaw’s included, is that the Hitler who became Hitler was not simply an individual who can be contained in the confines of biographical investigation.
To his credit, Kershaw understands this difficulty and its implications for the immensity of his scholarly project. He emphasizes that the Hitler who became Hitler was profoundly influenced by sociohistorical contexts. More than that, Hitler was even created by the followers who did his bidding and sustained by the bystanders who let him have his way. These aspects are central to Kershaw’s book. For instance, no credible biography of Hitler can ignore his early years in Vienna. From Alan Bullock to Joachim Fest to John Toland, the standard scholarly and popular biographers have explored this terrain, which includes basic questions about the development of Hitler’s anti- Semitism. For a time, Kershaw also immerses his readers in the Vienna that impressed Hitler from 1906 until he left that Austrian city for Munich in 1913 at the age of twenty-four.
Hitler’s determination to control information about his past makes an appraisal of Vienna’s influence upon him as complicated as it is necessary. Insisting that his own Mein Kampf (1925) was to be the sole authoritative biographical source for his early life, Hitler contended that Vienna fueled and focused his anti-Semitic vision. Mein Kampf, however, was written more than a decade after Hitler’s departure from the city. Much had happened—especially World War I—during the intervening years. Like Brigitte Hamann, whose Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship (1999) provides the richest account of Vienna’s influence upon Hitler, Kershaw revises Hitler’s autobiographical account.
Kershaw indicates that Hitler knew best the Vienna that mirrored him. Its culture was that of the “little,” even...
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