The butcher in his shambles

<i>Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis</i> by Ian Kershaw (Allen Lane, &pound;25, 841pp)
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The Independent Culture

During the Cold War, it suited the west to lump vanquished Nazi Germany together with the Soviet Union under the category of "totalitarian" states. This idea had respectable pre-Cold War origins and is currently enjoying a revival. It is particularly popular in Germany, where anything that blurs the horrible specificity of the Third Reich is seized upon, and in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

During the Cold War, it suited the west to lump vanquished Nazi Germany together with the Soviet Union under the category of "totalitarian" states. This idea had respectable pre-Cold War origins and is currently enjoying a revival. It is particularly popular in Germany, where anything that blurs the horrible specificity of the Third Reich is seized upon, and in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

In Latvia, for example, there is a passionate desire to equate Soviet domination with Nazi rule so as to elide the difference between the genocide against the Jews, aided by local collaborators, and Latvian suffering at the hands of the KGB. But it is hard to see how totalitarian theory will survive the evidence for Nazi singularity that emerges from the second volume of Ian Kershaw's garlanded biography of Hitler.

Kershaw's work is immeasurably more than the study of one man. It is not just that by setting Hitler in context and explaining the Führer's domestic and foreign policy, Kershaw also explains the course of the Third Reich and the Second World War. His biography transcends its genre because Hitler's person and personality was the ultimate defining factor of the Third Reich. The leader was the inspiration, dynamo and embodiment of the regime. His curious routine, within the day and the season, acted as a political metronome. His eccentricities reified into a pattern of government.

Hitler hated routine administration. He had a huge "study" in the new Reich chancellery, but hardly sat at his desk. He almost never wrote anything or dictated memos. He rarely read state papers (which had to be composed on a special machine with a huge typeface because he was too vain to wear glasses). Contrary to the image of decisive leadership, he vacillated over every major decision and was frequently prodded by others.

When he did make his move, it was often the most reckless, potentially destructive option, the Flucht nach vorne or flight forward. Hitler had a gambler's instinct and repeatedly wagered "all or nothing". This was one thing when the wrong choice merely entailed a personal or political setback; but once Germany was at war such a mistake provoked human suffering of titanic proportions.

This hardly bothered Hitler, who was closed to human empathy at the best of times. He convinced himself that providence was on his side and that his will could substitute for economic resources, military hardware or manpower. In a system of rule that was so focused on one man, his self-delusion and self-destructiveness condemned a nation to ruin.

But how did such an irresponsible, egotistical man with few talents bend the governance of a complex modern state to his will and retain power? Kershaw shows that personality and politics melded in a unique symbiosis. For most of his career Hitler had no need to cajole or terrify the Germans. "Hitler's fixed points of ideology... acted as such broad and compelling long-term goals that they could easily embrace the differing interests of those agencies which formed the vital pillars of the Nazi regime."

Elites and masses fell into line with his goals, even if for different reasons. The military welcomed rearmament. Industry relished fat armaments contracts and the chance to exploit vanquished states. Until 1941, ordinary Germans benefited from the plunder victory brought. Even the most humble could lord it over the millions of "racial inferiors" who were soon slaving for them.

This alliance of interests held good even after the tide of war turned. By then Hitler's extreme form of "personalised" rule had reduced every element of the regime to dependence on him. Nothing could happen without his approval and no one could prevail in administrative conflicts without his backing. This reduced administration to paralysis when running the war overburdened the Führer.

Every time Goering or Goebbels or Speer tried to fill the vacuum of power left by Hitler when he was at his military headquarters, other potentates, such as Himmler or Bormann, blocked the way. The creation of central councils for mobilisation of the economy didn't help because Hitler still reserved crucial powers to himself. Ministers spent months bickering over trivialities, such as the suspension of horse-racing, even as the eastern front was collapsing.

Government in Nazi Germany was less an example of totalitarianism than total chaos. In a single sentence that removes it from the totalitarian stable, Kershaw remarks that "As a system of government, Hitler's dictatorship had no future". Why did it last as long as it did? One reason was Hitler's extraordinary good luck, which saved him from several competent assassination attempts.

The one that got nearest to killing him, in July 1944, was managed by brave, idealistic dolts. The July plotters knew that even if they succeeded few Germans would thank them for their handiwork and, indeed, Hitler enjoyed a surge of popularity after the plot.

Once admiration and loyalty evaporated, there was still fear of retribution. Kershaw argues convincingly that Hitler used complicity among his allies and subordinates in the persecution and mass murder of the Jews as a sort of bond of blood. Like him, they had no way out: it was all or nothing.

This compelling analysis answers many questions about the fate of Germany, but Kershaw's magnificent work may be best remembered for his insights into the countless individual tragedies Hitler wreaked on Europe. From letters, diaries and memoirs, he draws a host of extraordinary anecdotes about life in the Führer's entourage and the impact Hitler had on ordinary people.

One important effect is to demythologise and deglamourise Hitler. From mid-1943, Hitler was an increasingly isolated, ill and pathetic figure: a Bohemian turned workaholic, confronting bad news every day with a mixture of will-power sustained by drugs and far-fetched optimism.

The Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, recorded of one diplomatic meeting that "Hitler talks, talks, talks, talks". Ciano observed one general slump forward and fall asleep during a Führer monologue.

But this talk could be lethal. In September 1944, Hitler ordered that all men aged from 16 to 60 should join Volkssturm units, a fantasy people's army to throw back the invaders. By now, supplies were so strained that the boys and old men had to provide even their own rucksacks and blankets. Within months, 175,000 poorly-trained and ill-equipped men had been mown down to gratify Hitler's delusion.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University

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