One of the most interesting recent developments in our understanding of Nazi Germany has been the recognition of Adolf Hitler as a charismatic "personality"; an apparently magnetic character instead of a malevolent, psychopathic void. Laurence Rees's book – and the forthcoming accompanying series for BBC2 – draw on this trend, to ask how such a fundamentally dysfunctional individual could have become a figure of adulation for so many millions of Germans.
It's a valid question, and Rees goes some way to providing an answer. He argues that Hitler's rise to power was attributable – at least in part – to an unholy fusion of his own peculiar nature and the urgent desire of the German people in the interwar years for a messiah figure to save them from their malaise. Germans, he suggests, desperately projected their desires on to Hitler, while his arrogant, inflexible nature appeared to confirm that he was, indeed, someone "on a mission".
The book is a useful vehicle for many of the first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses and participants which Rees has collected over his years as a television documentary film-maker. There are numerous interesting contributions from ordinary Germans; those transfixed by a Hitler speech, or unnerved by his piercing blue eyes or unblinking stare. Skilfully employing such testimony, the book flows along briskly, and provides some illuminating perspectives along the way.
Yet, at more than 400 pages, the book feels padded and overlong. And with other venerable Hitler volumes available, it is arguable that the subject would have been better treated in a shorter, more essayistic style. It is also curious that the book comes to rather an abrupt halt, covering the last two years of the war in a final, breathless chapter, despite this being the time when – as Ian Kershaw has convincingly shown – Hitler's charismatic leadership was so instrumental in keeping the Third Reich fighting to the bitter end.
Hitler's charismatic appeal is an aspect of the story of the Third Reich that is well worth examining. Sadly, however, Rees's book does not quite do the job. It is too long, too unfocused and too obviously a TV tie-in. There is certainly a book to be written on the subject, but sadly, this isn't it.
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