Copyright 2000 www.cosmopolis.ch Louis Gerber All rights
Ian Kershaw: Hitler.
article based on the German
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
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
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
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.
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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
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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.