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Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris, by Ian Kershaw

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Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, by Ian Kershaw

Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, by Ian Kershaw

The importance of Adolf Hitler for the history of the 20th century is undeniable. People see him as the personification of evil rather than as a human being, though, and this creates a problem because it allows us to treat him as separate from the rest of humanity, as a “thing” or force which cannot be explained in human terms. This is just an excuse, however, to avoid the fact that as a human being who can be discussed in human terms, Adolf Hitler is closer to us than we would like to admit.

Title: Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris
Author: Ian Kershaw
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393046710

• Uses recently available material from Russian archives and Hitler’s earliest speeches
• Solid introduction to the social and political milieu that made Hitler possible

• Very, very long

• Biography of Adolf Hitler until his last real political successes in 1936
• Written to explain how Hitler and the social structures of the time interacted

Book Review

In order to learn more about Adolf Hitler as a human being, the obvious place to start would be a biography of him — something that explains his life, his family, and his development as a person. There are several biographies of Hitler in print, but probably the standard work for some time to come is Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography which begins with Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris.

This first book covers a lot of territory: the origins of his family, his childhood, his intellectual influences both during his youth and as a young man, his time wandering in Vienna, his war experiences, his attraction to far-right politics in the aftermath of Germany’s surrender, his involvement with the Nazi Party, the putsch, his time in prison, the Nazi electoral successes, the Nazi takeover of Germany government, and his earliest successes against other Western nations.

It’s no wonder that there are over 600 pages of text and nearly 200 more pages of notes — but this is the shorter of the two volumes! To say that Kershaw is “detailed” and “thorough” is something of an understatement, but given the importance of the subject the length is understandable. There is some repetition of themes and comments which might have served to reduce the length a little bit, but perhaps he saw them as important enough to emphasize more than once.

Kershaw describes himself as being more of a “structuralist” when it comes to explaining history. When he seeks to understand historical events, he usually focuses on structural conditions rather than the biographies of “great men” who are assumed to be the “driving forces” of history.

A biography of Hitler would appear to be a repudiation of Kershaw’s usual approach, but in fact he is attempting an integration of the two. Thus, Kershaw’s biography of Hitler is an explanation of how both Hitler the person and the various social, political, and religious structures of Germany combined to create the awful events of World War II and the Holocaust.

The results are convincing. Kershaw describes Hitler as someone almost entirely lacking in personality. He can identify no particular “person” inside the man — no real hobbies, interests, or personal relationships which might reveal anything of substance as a human being. Before entering politics, he was a nobody: idle, talentless, and disgruntled, he would make the worst slacker today look good by comparison. Everything he did was for public consumption in order to construct a mythic image that would allow him to accomplish his goals. How do you create a biography of an un-person, though?

This would lend significant credence to the idea that the events in Nazi Germany were the result of various social and political structures, with Hitler simply playing a role which might have been filled by someone else.

Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, by Ian Kershaw

Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, by Ian Kershaw

Kershaw makes it clear, however, that while Hitler could not have accomplished what he did without those structures, he was still indispensable. The First World War and German history made Hitler possible, but not necessary; Hitler made the Holocaust possible, but not necessary. Perhaps because he was an un-person, people saw in him what they wanted. Because he was so careful in the creation and maintenance of his image, the myth of Hitler served as a basis for political action.

Hitler and his success were always contingent, never inevitable. He believed he was enacting the will of God, but in reality he was very, very lucky (and smart enough to take advantage of his luck): lucky to be in the right places at the right time, lucky to have certain supporters, lucky that political opponents were timid at the right time, even lucky that his family name had been changed from “Schickelgruber” before his birth. Kershaw makes clear is how many times history could have been massively changed, but wasn’t.

This isn’t the best place to start reading on Hitler or World War II — the book is too involved and long for this. It is, however, a good resource for anyone who is already interested in the subject and wants to learn more.

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