Books: The diary of a nobody

David Cesarani asks how an idle nonentity was able to bring terror to his nation and the world
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Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris

by Ian Kershaw

Allen Lane/Penguin Press, pounds 20, 758pp

The apparently insatiable interest in Hitler is not simply ghoulishness or a fascination with absolute power. In a theologically impoverished, philosophically illiterate culture, Hitler has become synonomous with evil, and discussion of the Holocaust a substitute for serious thought about morality. At another level, the preoccupation reflects a deep anxiety that Hitler was not an aberration, but a structurally embedded phenomenon of modernity.

Understanding Hitler is also freighted with urgency. The turmoil in Russia inevitably provoked a wary search for a Fuhrer in the wings or even already on the political stage. To be forearmed, we need a profile of the personality and belief system of the past, and hence potential, Fuhrer.

As Ian Kershaw admits in his exemplary biography, even the most sober scholar cannot fail to be awed by the burden that comes with studying the Nazi dictator. Kershaw, one of the foremost chroniclers of the Nazi era, brings to his subject a deep familiarity with the milieu which formed Hitler. But he never loses sight of the man. On the contrary, he has arrived at a solution to the perpetual dilemma of the political biographer: how to place the subject in context, and connect personality with environment.

Hitler crafted a persona that was designed to service his political goals. What evidence does testify to his "real" character suggests that little existed in the first place. The vacancy of the man enabled him to act as representative of the masses, struggling hero, valiant leader, and so on.

By careful forensic work, drawing on new material in Russian archives and the latest scholarship from a new wave of German historians, Kershaw reveals that most of the autobiographical passages of Mein Kampf are self- serving rhetoric. Whereas previous biographers relied on Hitler's version of his life, Kershaw ekes out corroborative evidence, buttressing it with his own formidable knowledge.

He shows how the struggling leader of the small Nazi party rewrote his youth to appear as a man of destiny, with a long-established belief system. In Mein Kampf, Hitler attributed the formation of his politics to his vagrant years in Vienna from 1909 to 1913. Kershaw exposes this fabrication and undermines all the nonsense about Hitler's world-view stemming from ill-treatment by a Jewish prostitute or sexual inadequacy.

For a few months during 1909-10, he was very poor and slept rough or in doss-houses, but mostly he lived in respectable shabbiness in a hostel for employed single men. He earned an adequate living as an artist and, although he ranted about politics, displayed no signs of Manichean anti- semitism. He got on amiably with the mostly Jewish art dealers who bought his paintings.

The First World War "made Hitler possible". He was a good soldier and was twice decorated, the second time on the recommendation of a Jewish officer. But Germany's defeat deprived him of the first satisfying life he had known; like most Germans, he wanted to blame someone. Like many, he picked on the Marxists and the Jews. But the "revelation" he claimed to have experienced in hospital while recovering from the effects of a gas attack seems greatly embroidered.

His conversion took rather longer. Hitler witnessed the shortlived Bolshevik regime in Bavaria in 1919 and frequently alluded to this as a portent of what might befall Germany. But he never admitted that he continued in the Bavarian army even when it was subordinate to "Marxist Jews". Either he was a hypocrite, or else his monolithic outlook was still germinating.

Kershaw proves the latter. The army provided Hitler with his world view, rather than the other way around. It hired him to penetrate right-wing groups and trained him as a propaganda officer. Hitler drew army pay even when he became an activist in the German Workers Party, forerunner of the NSDAP (Nazis). Now his speeches and letters began to reveal his ultra- nationalism, social Darwinism, anti-Marxism and anti-Semitism.

Yet Hitler was only distinguishable from other agitators by virtue of his rhetorical talents and gift for propaganda. Moreover, he was dependent on powerful backers. Kershaw shows that Hitler, average in most ways, was unusually blessed by good luck and patrons. He was also lucky with his lieutenants: he could not bear paperwork, and the Nazi organisation was done by Gregor Strasser, while Ernst Rohm forged the SA, the party militia.

Hitler used his ludicrously brief spell in prison in 1924, following the failed Munich putsch, to compose Mein Kampf. Here his politics crystallised. To regain its place in the world Germany needed to acquire living space - lebensraum - in the east, and destroy the Jewish- Bolshevik menace. Germans were destined for this cosmic role: Hitler was ordained to be their leader.

Kershaw regards the next half decade, usually dismissed as the wilderness years, as critical. Hitler presided over the creation of a party that could exploit the crisis of Weimar when it came. He concentrated on propaganda and mobilisation, embodying the popular longing for unity and articulating the aspirations of every discontented group. He could not formulate policy or arbitrate between conflicting interests since this would have risked alienating one or more sections of the party or society.

Hitler's absence of character thus helped him to remain "everyman". In return for his charismatic leadership, he demanded total subordination. By offering themselves as a catch-all party of protest, whose leader was a palimpsest of dissatisfation, the Nazis garnered votes from every section of society when the Depression struck. However, far from being a personal "triumph of the will", as he liked to depict it, Hitler's route to power rested on the machinations of others.

Following his party's electoral breakthrough in September 1930, he was courted by the power-brokers. After two years of intrigue, which Kershaw charts with masterful clarity, Hitler was "levered into power" by a political elite. The mass of Germans were bystanders to what happened in January 1933. In the fateful words of Von Papen, the ex-Chancellor, "We've hired him".

In office, Hitler outmanouevred opponents and allies. The establishment of the dictatorship was achieved partly through terror and pseudo-legal means, but Kershaw stresses how often key individuals or bodies voluntarily aligned with the Nazis. Hitler and the party did amazingly little. At his most conscientious he would rise in mid-morning and see aides or ministers until lunchtime. In the afternoon he might attend some meetings, but was never in his office. By 1936, his role in government was confined to snap decisions, taken in the hour before lunch, based on options put to him by members of his entourage.

Ministers and civil servants deduced from his writings and utterances what he wanted. They knew that anticipating the wishes of the Fuhrer was a key to advancement and riches, the latter being of no small matter since the Third Reich was endemically corrupt. This engendered radicalisation since Hitler's underlings naturally sought to gratify his most extreme aspirations and exagerated their prowess to fend off rivals. Ultimately, the system provoked its own destruction.

Whereas previous biographers began with the assumption that Hitler was extraordinary, falling prey to his mythology, it is the very ordinariness of this Hitler that is so awful. The tragic message of this superb biography is that it could so easily have gone the other way.

Professor David Cesarani's life of Arthur Koestler will appear later this autumn (Heinemann)