John Toland, the author of The Last Hundred Days and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, adds his latest book, Adolf Hitler, to the growing number of biographies of the Nazi dictator. The justification for this continuing interest in Hitler on the part of historians and their readers is to be found in the opening sentence of Toland’s book: “Adolf Hitler was probably the greatest mover and shaker of the twentieth century.” Toland’s biography of Hitler, like his other works, is written in an eminently readable narrative style. In the foreword, he states that his book has no thesis and that any conclusions to be found in it were reached only during the writing, the most significant being that Hitler was a far more complex individual than Toland had initially imagined. Toland approaches his subject dispassionately; indeed, in his effort to be as objective as possible, he informs his readers that he has tried to subdue his own feelings and to write this biography of Hitler as if the Führer lived a hundred years ago. What emerges is a very absorbing account of Hitler’s life, based to a considerable extent on interviews with the dictator’s associates, including secretaries, military leaders, doctors, and others.
In its overall scope, this biography offers a chronologically balanced presentation of Hitler’s life. The first third of the book is devoted to Hitler’s formative years up to the Nazi advent to power in 1933, the middle third to his role as Chancellor and Führer of the German Reich up to his attack on Poland in 1939, and the balance of the book to his career as military leader during World War II. The author’s meticulous research is revealed throughout the book in the interesting pieces of information which he provides about his subject’s character. Nevertheless, Toland discloses few things about the major periods and events in the Führer’s life that are not already known. Thus, a fairly standard, though lively, biography is the result.
An examination of the weight which Toland assigns to certain pieces of evidence helps to reveal his personal opinions on various matters pertaining to Hitler’s life. The best example of this is in regard to Hitler’s espousal of anti-Semitism. Like other historians, Toland attempts to document just when Hitler’s hated of the Jews began. In contrast to some writers, he does not consider as particularly decisive the influence which the writings of the anti-Semitic pamphleteer Lanz von Liebenfels had on Hitler during his years in Vienna. Instead, in a reference note, he quotes a lengthy passage from an unpublished article of Dr. Rudolph Binion, a psychologist at Brandeis University, who states that Hitler’s deadly hatred for the Jews, along with his political vocation itself, can be dated quite precisely from his hospitalization in October-November, 1918, for mustard gas poisoning which he had suffered while fighting on the Western Front. The gas, Dr. Binion continues, was actually a liquid spray that burned through the skin like iodoform, the same chemical with which a Jewish physician, Dr. Edward Bloch, had unsuccessfully treated his mother during 1907, for what proved to be terminal cancer. In Binion’s view, which Toland by implication accepts, Hitler, in the process of recuperating from the physical effects of the gas attack, developed an association between the Jewish doctor, his mother’s unsuccessful fight against cancer, and his own gassing. To make matters worse, he went into a hysterical relapse upon learning of the overthrow of the German Empire and the signing of the armistice. All of these factors, according to Binion, contributed to Hitler’s decision to enter politics in order to destroy the Jewish threat to Germany. Within a year, writes Toland, Hitler’s hatred of all things Jewish would become a dominant force in his life. While the Binion account, which is given such credence by Toland, may have merit, it does seem rather contrived.
Similarly, Toland cites considerable evidence in his efforts to demonstrate Hitler’s great love for his mother and to prove that he was with her when she died. Toland again relies on Dr. Binion, this time for deciphering the casebook for the year 1907 of Dr. Bloch. According to the records which Dr. Bloch kept in his casebook, Hitler was indeed present at his mother’s deathbed and was utterly prostrate with grief at her passing. Again, the implication is that the author regards Hitler’s great love for his mother and...
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