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Reviews of Ian Kershaw's work

Hitler 1936-45: Nemesis

Ian Kershaw Allen-Lane £25, pp1,168


London, October 15, 2000

  Book review


Little Hitler

Ian Kershaw reveals a Führer who was a clinically insane monster but a dull amateur with bad breath in Hitler 1936-45

Peter Conrad

Hitler 1936-45: Nemesis Ian Kershaw Allen-Lane £25, pp1,168

More than a political phenomenon, Hitler is a psychological and moral enigma. How did an idle, talentless, disgruntled wastrel come to terrorise a continent? And what self-destructiveness in human nature begot this nihilist who was gleefully able to sentence millions of his men to death because he considered mankind to be nothing more than a grubby and imperfect 'cosmic bacterium'?

The scale of the damage Hitler did -- to his victims, to the world, and to our self-esteem as a species -- makes us liable to aggrandise him. His followers thought of him as a divine being, a non-Christian saviour and redeemer; to his enemies, he was the devil incarnate, a Mephistophelean sorcerer. He complacently likened himself to Wagner's war-mongering gods, or to the elemental energies of romantic nature. Before the Anschluss, he promised to erupt in the sky above Vienna 'like a spring storm'.

KershawIan Kershaw, in his two-volume biography, seems at first to share this tendency to treat Hitler's life as a Heldenleben. Behind the bullying, the thuggery, the ranting, the outright mania and the episodes of obscene savagery, like his revenge on the von Stauffenberg plotters, Kershaw discerns the trajectory of the classical tragic hero. This is why he has taken his subtitles from Aristotle. The first volume was about Hitler's hubris -- that sublime arrogance which prompted Agamemnon to step on the red carpet. Now follows nemesis, the downfall decreed for all such proud over-reachers.

In effect, it's not much more than a structural conceit. Nemesis needs a god of unchallenged power to enforce it, and just who decreed Hitler's defeat? In the telling, Kershaw's story turns out to be much less cloudily supernatural, with no presiding metaphysical justice. Hitler survived as long as he did thanks to luck, and to the succession of minute mischances which baffled a series of would-be assassins. He made up military strategy as he went along and may have lost the war because of muddled tactics: if the Germans had reacted more swiftly on the Normandy beaches, Kershaw reckons, they might have beaten back the Allied invasion.

This was no apocalyptic combat between good and evil. After all, as Hannah Arendt pointed out after listening to the shabby, incoherent testimony of Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem, the Nazis deprived evil of its infernal allure and made it banal, bureaucratic, officious.

Kershaw's Hitler is therefore mediocre, not monstrous, a blundering amateur rather than the malevolent genius of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus or Klaus Mann's Mephisto. With his braggatry and his tantrums, Kershaw finds him pitiably infantile, 'the spoilt child turned into the would-be macho man'.

Along with a capacity to unleash violence on a global scale, he possessed faults which were only too shamingly ordinary. He was vain, and because he refused to wear spectacles, he insisted that memoranda should be printed out in banner headlines which required the invention of a 'Führer typewriter' with preposterously over-sized keys. He was lazy, with little patience for detailed planning, hence the reckless, ludic reliance on improvisation which made him provoke the Czech crisis in 1938. He absented himself from Berlin during the war and preferred to brood on his aquiline perch in the mountains above Salzburg. Above all, he was boring, to the point of stupefaction for those courtiers who had to sit through his all-night rigmaroles and chuckle at his sadistic whimsies in the bleary dawn.

Despite Hitler's phobias and his carpet-biting hysterics when crossed, Kershaw refuses to declare him clinically insane. That would be an easy way out. If arraigned in an American court today, he might claim an extenuating addiction to prescribed medicines and blame the quacks who dosed him with anti-gas pills containing strychnine and belladonna, ophthalmic drops laced with cocaine and the smorgasbord of several dozen assorted tablets that he gobbled every day. It's a wonder that his arteriosclerosis, or the Parkinson's disease which involuntarily agitated his limbs, didn't make a premature end of him.

So how did this puffed-up pub orator, virtually indistinguishable from Chaplin's caricature of him in The Great Dictator, acquire such absolute dominance of a modern, supposedly civilised state? Hitler had no ideas beyond a rabid hatred of Bolsheviks, though even this maniacal crusade was compromised when he signed his non-aggression pact with Stalin (and he soon contradicted his own contradiction by turning on Russia). His ideology was a farrago of mythical nonsense. But he understood publicity and propaganda, which can augment the individual's power by magnifying his image and making him omnipresent.

The radio took his harangues into every German household and ensured that all his subjects were attuned to the frenzies he incited. Rehearsing his speeches in front of a mirror in order to fine-tune his gesticulation, he was the first politician for whom performance mattered more than policy. After him come Reagan, folksily ingratiating rather than nightmarish, or Tony Blair with his play-acted air of commiseration whenever a son keels over drunk in public. At least we are now merely force-fed soundbites instead of having to listen to tirades like those at the Nuremberg rallies, which lasted an average of two hours.

Kershaw has written two huge books about Hitler. But the man inside them is dismayingly small -- a hollow, self-deluding fantasist. At the end of Nemesis, we watch him decompose. A guard in the Chancellery garden nudged Hitler's incinerated corpse with his boot and it collapsed into ashes. A dental bridge was picked out of the grimy debris for purposes of identification; the rest of the Führer, who considered himself the greatest man in history, was scooped up and sifted into a cigar box.

Hitler has always been terrifying, but Kershaw makes him more intimately repellent. During the seizure of Poland, the Swedish industrialist Birger Dahlerus found him in a nervous funk: 'The odour from his mouth was so strong that Dahlerus was tempted to move back a step or two.' Instead of the stench of brimstone from the pit, Kershaw's Hitler exudes halitosis. It's a useful and vindictive reminder that he too, like the fellow beings he excoriated as subhuman and set out to exterminate, was little better than a bacillus.


David IrvingDavid Irving comments:


We are flattered that Professor Kershaw has thought so highly of our Hitler's War that he has relied so heavily on it for his own work. Of course he has felt it needful to place a different spin on things.

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