Books: Adolf Hitler: not a lone assassin

A controversial new study of Hitler blames the country, not the man. Michael Burleigh reports
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The Independent Culture
Just when you thought it safe to re-enter the water, up bobs that forelock, moustache and those mad eyes. Today, Hitler is never far off these shores, metaphorically nearer than he ever managed when alive. He haunts newspapers and television stands, for, pace Robert Harris's brilliant Selling Hitler, there is gold in them thar alpine retreats, not to speak of opportunities for jobbing moralists, pontificating about the nature of evil. However, Ian Kershaw's extremely important book, the first scholarly Hitler biography in over 20 years, occasions no such unease.

Kershaw combines prodigious learning, and a lifetime's reflection on his subject, with a measured prose. Sane judgements are accompanied by shafts of black humour (this being lacking in his subject, for Hitler himself manages one witticism in nearly 600 pages). Contemporary appetites will not be disappointed although Kershaw's heart is not in Hitler's monorchism or sexual deviancy, subjects well catered for at the kitsch end of the Third Reich market.

So what is Kershaw's distinctive take on the oddity's odyssey from Austrian Braunau to the Berlin bunker? In some respects it is "life and times", with one notable modification. Given the indolent equivocation which characterised this supposedly wilful individual, Kershaw thinks that Nazi Germany is best understood by focusing on grassroots activists or the senior personnel, whose fertile scheming gave practical effect to the Fuhrer's nebulous visions. One sometimes learns most about Hitler by leaving him out.

Writing this biography involves one major difficulty, for in 1924 Hitler wrote his own life story. After 1933 the Gestapo enforced the canonical version, expunging inconvenient facts and persons. Young Hitler was a cossetted layabout, fantasising about future artistic greatness. He lived on diminishing inheritances and handouts, while not pursuing the study of fine arts with any diligence. Spare time was spent at performances of Wagner. Here, Kershaw does not engage with the strong views expressed, for example, by Paul Rose or Michael Tanner, either highlighting or minimising that alleged connection. In 1909 Hitler's money ran out, and he entered Vienna's largest doss-house. Thereafter, he scraped a living painting postcards. During these years, he developed a respectful fear of Marxist Social Democracy, and rationalised his own failure through a visceral hatred of Vienna's sizeable eastern Jewish population, whom he likened to "maggots". Kershaw's account of Hitler as hippy (combining faddism with mad views) is the best available. Normally such people go to seed amidst genteel dilapidation in market or seaside towns; Kershaw's book explains how this one became leader of a powerful industrial nation.

As Kershaw says, "the First World War ... made Hitler possible". Having evaded service in the Austrian army, he joined a Bavarian regiment, as a courier. He was wounded, gassed, and won an Iron Cross. The war and its attendant revolutions, in Germany, Hungary and Russia, radicalised Hitler's existing hatreds. After a tantalising episode when he represented a left-wing soldier's council, Hitler became a military intelligence observer of fringe political parties. He joined a small Munich-based sect, the German Workers' Party, which fused racist nationalism and non-Marxist socialism, becoming its star turn. Oratorical models included the wartime windbag Lloyd George. A growing sense of his own importance and the example of Mussolini's 1922 "March on Rome" led Hitler to essay usurping the leadership of the fissiparous extreme Right, the upshot being the failed 1923 Munich putsch, in which his own role was unheroic. The subsequent trial gave him national notoriety.

A spell in Landsberg prison enabled Hitler to elaborate his gimcrack ideology, a project his fellow inmates encouraged, in the hope that it would spare them his one-way style of conversation. Alas for them, Hitler dictated Mein Kampf. His existing antisemitism fused with a widespread terror of Russian Bolshevism, to produce the "blood Jew", responsible in Russia for "30 million" deaths. Here, Kershaw errs in confining lurid accounts of what was happening in Russia to Baltic emigres or the right- wing press. The Social Democrats were unsurprisingly averse to Leninist "Asiatic socialism" as they dubbed it. Some anti-Polish German conservatives thought it was business as usual with the Russians; notably the armed forces which tested illegal aircraft, gas and tanks courtesy of their new pal Trotsky. We needed these nuances.

Kershaw's account of Hitler the ideologue is outstanding. Admiring the dogmatism and fanaticism of the Marxist Left, and allegedly of the Catholic Church, Hitler combined a vulgar Darwinism with antisemitic conspiracy theory into an account of what was "really" afoot in past, present and future. There was no room for counter-argument or reason. However, Hitler was not just a "conviction politician", a Blair or Thatcher avant la lettre (a silly "analogy" characteristic of some recent literature rife with contemporary agendas). Nazi politics were a form of faith based on a story of racial perdition and redemption, with Hitler cast as Messiah. Here, Kershaw might have made more of the "Germanic" mutations Christianity underwent at the hands of the Wagnerian Bayreuth circle, an arty elite which impressed this maladroit outsider. Visions of the future, and of "Aryans" were as hazy as heaven. By contrast Satan bore a Jewish countenance in which the reader was spared no offensive detail.

The vehicle for this political mission was a wave-like "movement" which was neither conventional party, sect or paramilitary band. Goebbels hit the nail on the head when he described it as "my church". The National Socialists were a self-consciously egalitarian microcosm of the Protestant "national community" which served to maximise their appeal across the social classes, even though core support came from angry "little men", impotent between big business and organised labour, and destabilised by Weimar's chronic problems. In 1925 Hitler was released from prison prematurely. The authorities' desire to deport him was thwarted by the Austrians' cancellation of his citizenship. Hitler was stateless until the year before he took power. He used his liberty to consolidate his grip on his party, gradually transforming himself into the "Fuhrer".

A series of crises, culminating in the Depression, inclined growing numbers of German voters to abandon their existing political allegiances, casting a protest vote against the discredited Weimar system. The Depression swelled the ranks of the Communists with unemployed, heightening middle- class anxieties about a party which combined brawling with the Nazis with clandestine subversion. Since the Communists specialised in shooting policemen (as in 1931 when the future head of the Stasi gunned down three Berlin constables), the Nazis could pose as defenders, if not of law, then of order. Here Kershaw might have done more than depict the Communists simply as victims. They were an avowedly anti-democratic party obsessed with conservative or Social Democrat "fascists" rather than with the genuine item, and engaged in their own Moscow-backed campaign of terroristic subversion. Likewise, we needed a bit more on authoritarian sentiments within the Catholic community, whose oppositional attitudes, as depicted here, seem slightly unreal.

A series of presidential chancellors after 1930 pursuing orthodox deflationary policies, and manifestly biased in favour of privileged elites, enabled both Communists and Nazis to combine attacks on Social Democrat party "bossism" with denunciations of conservative aristocrats. By simultaneously advocating bold counter-cyclical work-creation policies, the Nazis increased their support among the non-socialist majority of workers to around 40 per cent. This took them to the height of their electoral surge in the summer of 1932. Things went downhill that autumn, with the Nazi vote falling by about two million in November elections. Their own activists were running out of steam, disillusioned with a leadership which would accept nothing less than total power, while voters were repelled by Nazi violence, and the rhetoric needed to appeal to the workers. In 1932 stormtroopers murdered a Polish Communist in the Silesian village of Potempa. When a court sentenced the culprits to death Hitler expressed solidarity with the condemned. Alfred Rosenberg denounced "bourgeois justice" for equating five Germans with one Polish Communist, remarking "there is no 'law as such'". Anyone conniving to put these gangsters in power knew what they were letting Germany in for.

Kershaw gives a detailed narrative of high-level intrigues involving two former chancellors, Papen and Schleicher, and the coterie around President Hindenburg, a military dinosaur who mistrusted Hitler. Their own rancorous rivalries and virtual absence of popular support led to Hitler being jobbed into the highest office in January 1933. The one-time hippy temporarily swopped his uniform for a frock-coat. The rationale was that by bringing Hitler and two other Nazis (Frick and Goering) into a conservative cabinet, they could domesticate and ditch him. Rejecting Marxist orthodoxy, Kershaw exonerates big business from responsibility for this strategy. With the exception of a handful of committed fascists, business spread its financial bets across mainstream right-wing parties, only revising this strategy when Nazi victory was a foregone conclusion or whenever the Nazis extorted money from them. Major landowners were another story.

Democratic freedoms were demolished rapidly, with rival parties banned or dissolving themselves. Trades unions turned out to be a paper tiger. Opponents were beaten up, murdered or imprisoned in camps. By 1934 however, there were rumblings of discontent both from conservatives who realised they had hired a monster, and disgruntled SA paramilitaries, who had received few jobs for the boys and whose relationship with the military was rivalrous. Ambitious men around Hitler talked up a crisis, which he resolved by unleashing the mores of Capone's Chicago upon Germany. Over 80 people were slain, including the SA leader Rohm, General (and Mrs) Schleicher, who got in the way of a bullet, and young Catholic or conservative intellectuals associated with Vice-Chancellor Papen, himself put out to grass in Vienna. The beneficiaries were the army and the ideological fanatics of the elite SS. Since the victims were calumnied as homosexuals and traitors, their deaths occasioned no domestic protest, being welcomed by the socialist working class. Hitler continued his giddy ascent, rising above the corrupt "little Hitlers" of his own Party. Thus began the larger self-deception, whereby ordinary Germans rationalised corruption and oppression by imagining that all would be well "if only the Fuhrer knew", the modern analogue of the medieval separation of monarchs from their "wicked" advisors.

In power, Hitler reverted to his earlier indolence, surfacing at midday to bore his "Chauffeureska", an entourage of lackeys and drivers, augmented by the court photographer Hoffmann and Albert Speer, deep into the night. Speer added a slick of class, like a muscular university president in a robbers' den. Bureaucratic government atrophied as papers were left unread, and agencies charged with the same tasks proliferated. The cabinet ceased to meet. As Kershaw says, "Hitler was ... the absolutely indispensable fulcrum of the entire regime, and yet largely detached from any formal machinery of government." However, any impression of wider inertia would be misleading. Investment in the infrastructure, motorisation, and massive re-armament returned millions to work, although unemployment lingered. Mounting international turbulence - much of it caused by Mussolini - provided a window of opportunity to introduce conscription, announce an airforce and remilitarise the Rhineland. As in his domestic path to power in the international arena, Hitler capitalised on the distraction and division of his opponents. Had anyone stood up to him in 1936 he might have backed down, as he did two years earlier when Mussolini rattled the sabre over the Nazi assassination of the pint-sized Austrian chancellor Dollfuss. According to Kershaw, 1936 was also the moment when Hitler began to believe his own myth. "That you have found me, among so many millions is the miracle of our time! And that I have found you, that is Germany's fortune." It was also when hubris tilted towards nemesis, the subject of the next massive instalment of Kershaw's book, a monumental project which completely supercedes Alan Bullock's 1964 biography, while providing a fresh English counterpart to Joachim Fest's 1973 brilliant literary masterpiece, all published by Penguin Press.

8 'Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris' by Ian Kershaw is published by Allen Lane, pounds 20