Hitler, 1889-1936

by Ian Kershaw

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2084

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 disadvantaged, people whose socioeconomic situation left them estranged from Viennese modernity and susceptible to forms of nationalism that attracted followers—among them, those who felt that the city’s multinational character wrongly eclipsed German preeminence. As Hitler moved in the vagabond circles of frustrated ambitions, men’s hostels, and offbeat journalistic opinions about politics and race, anti-Semitism was never hard to find, but Kershaw notes that the “available evidence, beyond Hitler’s own words,” does not confirm that Vienna converted him to “manic racial anti-Semitism.”

Kershaw thinks that the young Hitler’s relationships with Jews were an ambiguous mixture of self-serving friendship and “personalized hatred.” Inspired by anti-Semitic political players such as the Viennese mayor Karl Lueger, Hitler learned the city’s anti-Semitic vocabulary but rarely used it in public. To the contrary, eyewitnesses noted Hitler’s apparently cordial relationships with Viennese Jews such as Josef Neumann and Siegfried Löffner, his men’s hostel companions, and the art dealer Jacob Altenberg. Hitler’s full-blown anti-Semitism erupted, Kershaw suggests, only when he became a politician in Germany after World War I.

Although Vienna affected Hitler powerfully, it does not explain him. The people, places, circumstances, and theories he encountered there—the latter included a scheme to tattoo identification numbers on the arms of Gypsies—contributed to his German nationalism and contempt for democracy as well as his racism and anti-Semitism. Yet Hitler’s years in Vienna still leave him more enigmatic than explained, for even though his experience there “indelibly marked” his outlook and personality, Kershaw concludes that Hitler’s anti-Semitic perspectives “had not yet coagulated into a fully-fledged ideology.” There are few, if any, Viennese pieces in the puzzle to suggest that Hitler would become Hitler. Nevertheless, later circumstances in Germany enabled him to obtain power that the wildest speculations—Hitler’s included— could scarcely have imagined in 1913.

To address the challenge of explaining Hitler, Kershaw continues the intriguing photographic chronicle of Hitler’s life. A few pages beyond the previously mentioned schoolboy photograph, the reader glimpses Hitler’s face in a crowd. It is August 2, 1914. The throng in Munich’s Odeonplatz listens to the proclamation of war. Soon Hitler will volunteer enthusiastically for the German army and spend the next four years on World War I’s western front, serving in France and Belgium as a dispatch runner, an often dangerous duty that entailed carrying orders—on foot or by bicycle—from regimental commanders to leaders at the front.

“The First World War,” says Kershaw, “made Hitler possible.” It was more decisive for him than anything that happened earlier. Hitler went off to war elated, but Germany’s defeat convinced him that the German cause had been betrayed. In Hitler’s mind, Jews became the chief culprits. At the war’s end, however, Hitler still had few prospects, certainly none that anticipated the two events that Kershaw punctuates at the end of his first volume. The first was his signing, in September of 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws—those essential preludes to the Holocaust that defined conditions for German citizenship, set rules to protect “German blood and honor,” and established race as Nazi Germany’s fundamental legal principle. The second was Hitler’s orders for the German army to remilitarize the Rhineland in March, 1936.

This biography tracks Hitler’s rise from postwar disillusionment to what Kershaw identifies as “[h]ubris—that overweening arrogance which courts disaster.” According to Kershaw, Hitler’s “all- consuming egomania” was stimulated by his admirers in the early 1920’s, intensified by his political success after 1933, and heightened by the prospect of German expansion, which, energized by popular support, reinforced Hitler’s sense of destiny.

The most up-to-date and comprehensive account of Hitler’s pre-World War II life available at the beginning of the twenty- first century, Kershaw’s astute analysis nevertheless displays how elusive success can be when the challenge is to explain Hitler. Kershaw’s first volume ends, for instance, by stressing how difficult it would have been to see in 1936 that Hitler’s path “led into the abyss.” The challenge of his second volume will be to show how Hitler reached that destination and to elaborate on, among other things, the much- debated question of Hitler’s precise role in the Holocaust.

Even if issues of that kind are settled once and for all, the task of explaining Hitler will still be far from over. Kershaw himself identifies a puzzle piece that is needed for completeness. In this case, the problem is not so much that the piece is missing but that it is too huge to permit full comprehension. Kershaw puts the dilemma as follows: Answers to “the question of how Hitler was possible . . . must be sought chiefly in German society—in the social and political motivations which went into the making of Hitler.” Kershaw’s first volume goes a long way toward fusing those motivations with Hitler’s personal contribution to “the making of Hitler.” Building on the advantage that by 1936 Hitler was largely “made,” Kershaw’s second volume may interpret the powerful “later Hitler” more easily than the comparatively insignificant “early Hitler,” who was anything but likely to possess the charismatic hubris that eventually made him so formidable. Nevertheless, its sheer scope makes Kershaw’s task so daunting that it is bound to be uncompleted.

Biographical work can describe Hitler and tell us much about him, but no matter how many volumes it contains, biography cannot explain Hitler—at least not completely—because it took so much more than Hitler to make Hitler. To explain Hitler conclusively would require knowing everything—not just about him as an individual but also about the times in which he lived that were essential to produce what he became. Perhaps, in principle, Hitler can be explained completely, but human minds do not possess the wherewithal to do so. Where Hitler is concerned, missing puzzle pieces will remain a fact of life for every biographer. In the preface (which Kershaw wrote after completing his manuscript), his awareness of this dilemma is apparent when he speaks of “the continuing duty to seek understanding of how Hitler was possible.”

Kershaw’s sense of scholarly duty urges continued acceptance of the challenge that attracts and resists all of Hitler’s biographers and their readers. In spite of the fact that even the most accomplished biographers may never find all the pieces in the Hitler puzzle, there are two main reasons for the significance of their efforts. On one hand, unless inquiry about Hitler continues, we will understand less than we can and should. Hitler will be placed too far beyond explanation, an outcome that promotes mystification by taking him out of history and turning him into more than the man he was. On the other hand, to think that inquiry about Hitler is ever complete would amount to costly arrogance. If Hitler were ever fully explained, his singularity would be crystal clear, his time and place lucidly unique. With all the questions answered, and no more missing puzzle pieces, a Hitler wrapped up and put to rest would be someone we might foolishly think we could afford to forget.

It is another matter if Hitler remains explained only in part. A Hitler puzzle still unsolved strengthens the needed warning to take nothing good for granted because our undoing can emerge from sources as unexpected as they are obscure. When high-quality biographies such as Kershaw’s remain puzzle pieces, that outcome is not a weakness but a strength.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 823.

Foreign Affairs 78 (March, 1999): 146.

History Today 48 (October, 1998): 52.

Library Journal 124 (January, 1999): 112.

National Review 51 (March 8, 1999): 47.

The New Leader 81 (December 14, 1998): 5.

The New Republic 220 (April 12, 1999): 44.

New Statesman 127 (September 25, 1998): 80.

The New York Review of Books 46 (March 18, 1999): 32.

Publishers Weekly 245 (November 30, 1998): 55.

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