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Sympathy for Hitler, but not that much

Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris by Ian Kershaw (Penguin, £12.99)

Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris by Ian Kershaw (Penguin, £12.99)

While the row brews over Edmund Morris's biography of Reagan - the one in which the authors inserts himself as a fictional character into Ronnie's story - here's a powerful reminder of what biography can and should be like. What makes Kershaw's book impressive is not so much the facts as the non-facts: he sifts through all the myths and propaganda that have surrounded Hitler's life, the Fuhrer's own self-glorifying fabrications, the fibs concocted by coat-tail riders who wanted to play up their part in his rise before the war, play it down afterwards ... The book is rife with qualification, pondering, hesitation. The effect could be pedantic, dishwatery; but Kershaw's easy style and grip on the material mean that, on the contrary, it comes across as authoritative. You know that is as close to the truth as we are likely to get.

It helps that Kershaw is, on his own account, drawn to social history. He is forever putting Hitler in his place, showing how far his attitudes and obsessions reflected the everyday bigotries of Austria and Bavaria in the early years of the century, and how far his ideas were stolen (the "Heil" greeting and the title of Fuhrer were both borrowed from the pan- German nationalist Georg Ritter von Schonerer, whose ideas Hitler encountered in Vienna before the First World War).

The result, despite the private "emptiness" which Kershaw detects at the heart of his subject, is a rounded, surprisingly human, even at odd moments sympathetic portrait. Which is not to say that Kershaw is any kind of apologist. Sometimes, in fact, he seems keen to condemn Hitler - a couple of pages after discussing Schonerer's influence, he is describing the young Adolf's enthusiastic trips to the opera in Vienna: "Many attending the performances ... were far more skilled than Hitler, with his self-taught, amateurish, opinionated approach, in understanding Wagner's music." Self- taught? Amateurish? Of all the criteria we can bring to bear on his character, musical snobbery is surely the weakest and strangest.

But in humanising Hitler, in setting him against the society that bred him, Kershaw has an important moral purpose. As in the television series The Nazis: A Warning from History, for which Kershaw acted as historical adviser, the message is that Nazism was the creation of people, not monsters.