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No. 12, December 2000
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Ian Kershaw: Hitler. A biography
article based on the German edition
 
Ian Kershaw was born in 1943. He studied in Liverpool and Oxford. From 1968 to 1989, he taught at the Universities of Manchester and Nottingham. Since 1989, he is professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield in England. Kershaw's Hitler is a monumental biography in two volumes - in German over 2000 pages. It's guiding theme is that too many Germans were ''working towards the Führer'' ("dem Führer entgegen arbeiten"). There is no document with Hitler's express order to annihilate the Jews. The leading Nazi figures depended on the dictator and, down to ordinary Germans, many wanted to outdo one another in zeal just to please Hitler. The statement "working towards Hitler" was made by a rather obscure official, the Prussian Secretary of State for Agriculture, Werner Wilkes, in Berlin in February 1934. Kershaw, who has already used the statement in a previous book, owes it to the research of Jeremy Noakes who has first published it.
 
For over a decade, Kershaw, originally a specialist on Medieval times, has studied Nazi Germany and published several books on the subject. His biography is largely inspired by his previous studies. Kershaw's strong point is also his weak one: Hitler is shown in his historical context. It is no traditional biography like Joachim Fest's outstanding one of 1973. At the same time, the dictator's portrait remains too pale - of course partly because, according to Kershaw, the man himself was dull outside politics - and partly even disappears. Luckily, Kershaw saves us from subscribing to psychobiography. He does not dwell on psychological and psychosexual theories to "explain Hitler".
 
In large parts of his two volumes, Kershaw neglects the proper biography of Hitler in favor of describing the Nazi regime. The historian himself was drawn towards Hitler by social history - and that fact is largely reflected in his two-volume biography (e.g. in the first part, the study of the Nazi movement takes an important part). Hitler as an individual as well as other leaders do not stand in the center of analysis. Of course, the idea of an omnipotent Hitler, responsible for almost everything, was too seducing for a lot of post-war historians, politicians and "ordinary" people, especially in Germany because it implicated the idea of a seduced and abused people. Kershaw successfully destroys this idea, but, at the same time, he acknowledges that Göring did not want a war in 1939 and that he cannot imagine the holocaust without Hitler. Kershaw is less interested in the dictator's personality, the experiences which shaped his ideology and the ideology itself than in trying explain "how Hitler was able to extend that power until it became absolute, until field marshals were prepared to obey without question the orders of a former corporal, until highly skilled 'professionals' and clever minds in all walks of life were ready to pay uncritical obeisance to an autodidact whose only indisputable talent was one for stirring up the base emotions of the masses.''
 
For Kershaw, Hitler's end in the abyss was logical. Almost by accident, the painter came to politics in the post-war chaos when he discovered his rhetorical talent which allowed him to flare up the passions of the masses. Hitler wanted to remedy and revenge Germany's humiliation of 1918. The Jews were, in his eyes, responsible for it. But only in around mid-1920, did Hitler combine anti-Semitism with Bolshevism. Later, he became obsessed with a new war and the extermination of the Jews. Once in power, there was no chain of orders from the top towards the bottom. Therefore, more Germans than previously thought collaborated with the regime and were implicated in its crimes. But unlike Goldhagen, Kershaw refutes the idea of the Germans as willing executioners. Since 1933, anti-Semitism became important in German society. Large parts were infected by it, an important minority took part in it and a lot of the other people remained indifferent to the issue. When, in 1938, General Ludwig Beck stepped down, he was isolated. According to Kershaw, this would have been the last occasion for a possibly successful resistance against Hitler. It could only have come from the military leaders. In 1941, the radicalization had already gone too far and terror and murder had become unstoppable. Do not misunderstand these lines, Kershaw does not deliver simplistic explanations, on the contrary, he tries to nuance his words - although he is no master of formulation.
 
Kershaw had access to newly published sources and works, inaccessible to former historians (e.g. Goebbels' diaries). Together with the gigantic size of his Hitler, Kershaw can offer us the broadest picture of the dictatorship so far. But the dictator himself and his importance in the taking of specific decisions sometimes remains too vague. Kershaw also neglects the dimension of "political religion" that the Nazi ideology and the Hitler myth had
(Michael Burleigh has made it the guiding theme in his study The Third Reich). After Eberhard Jäckel in 1969, Joachim Fest in 1973 and Sebastian Haffner in 1978, Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography is another milestone in the probably never-ending series of attempts to understand Hitler and his regime.
 


Ian Kershaw:
Hitler 1889-1936. W.W. Norton & Company, paperback,  912 p. April 2000. Get it from Amazon.com. Penguin Books, paperback, new edition, 880 p. September 1999. Get it from Amazon.co.uk. Commandez le premier tome chez Amazon.fr. Hitler 1889-1936, DVA, gebunden, 972 S. 1998. Bestellen bei Amazon.de.


Ian Kershaw: Hitler 1936-45. W.W. Norton & Company, hardcover, 832 p. November 2000. Get it from Amazon.com. Allen Lane The Penguin Press, hardcover, 1168 p. October 2000. Get it from Amazon.co.uk. Commandez le deuxième tome chez Amazon.fr. Hitler 1936-1945. DVA, gebunden, 1343 S. 2000. Bestellen bei Amazon.de.
 

Ian Kershaw: Hitler. Die Gesamtausgabe nun als Taschenbuch. Dtv, 2002. Bestellen bei Amazon.de.
 

 

www.cosmopolis.ch
No. 12, December 2000
current edition & archives
Art  Film  Music  History  Politics  Archives
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Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.