Chaplinesque Rapscallion New Leader of Germany’s National Socialist Party
      —The Onion

“I have nothing to say about Hitler.” With this line Karl Kraus, turn-of-the-century Vienna’s most famous journalist, began his 300-page anti-Hitler invective, The Third Walpurgis Night. Kraus’s fate has been shared widely. Hitler tickles and tortures the authorial imagination like no other twentieth-century figure. At first as a hero, for the most part, then as a villain, also for the most part, Hitler has been a fantastically popular subject among all kinds of writers since his postputsch courtroom antics transformed him into something much larger than a right-wing rabblerouser. Indeed, between 1923 and 1995, more than 120,000 essays and monographs on Hitler were published. Attenuation seems unlikely. For if it has changed at all, our fascination with Hitler appears to have grown even stronger in the past five years.

And so we should not be surprised by the fact that a lot of books about Hitler have been published recently. Yet there is a twist here; it has to do with quality rather than quantity. We expected more books about Hitler. What we did not expect is that the most prominent of them would be so good. This remark is less cynical than it sounds. Over the years able scholars have produced a very substantial body of excellent research on Hitler. Of course, it would be absurd to regard as unexpected everything that adds to it.

Furthermore, we had reason to hope for significant new contributions. Ideology does not play quite the same role in Hitler studies that it did fifteen years ago. Historians in East Germany tended to treat Hitler as an effect of capitalism, while historians in the West often viewed him in narrowly personal terms, as a deranged, gigantic individual crushing a fragile democratic experiment. But scholars in the West, and especially in West Germany, were not exactly of one opinion with regard both to Hitler’s causes and his effects. In the mid-1980s, a new revisionist conservatism led to a new contentiousness. At issue was a series of incendiary questions–even the question of whether it was appropriate to ask them: Was Hitler a revolutionary? Which of his policies were rational? Ernst Nolte, who had been drifting steadily away from the trenchant analysis of Nazism he advanced in the early 1960s, went so far as to call Hitler’s worldview an understandable reaction to a perceived Bolshevik threat. Just a few months ago, Nolte received one of Germany’s most prestigious awards for cultural achievement, which simply confirms what we already knew: Hitler remains an intensely politicized field of inquiry. However, in general, the intellectual atmosphere in this area has improved. It is more open, as are archives in Moscow. And material discovered there–for example, Hitler’s skull and a complete copy of Goebbels’s diary–has helped to answer old questions.

But discovering new sources will only get you so far. It certainly will not explain a phenomenon as complex as Hitler. Nor will sheer intellectual openness. The great majority of the thousands of open-minded books about Hitler have little interpretive value. In fact, until recently there were only two truly formidable biographies of him: Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952, revised 1962) and Joachim Fest’s Hitler: A Biography (1973). We now have a third major biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw’s two-volume masterpiece Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000). It is the best of the three, by far.

Improvements in biographical research do not always imply a general shift in the significance of the subject. Yet that is likely to be the case here. For, again, the publication of Kershaw’s biography was accompanied by a procession of incisive and well-researched books: The Hitler of History (1997), John Lukacs’s useful survey of, and critical engagement with, historical scholarship on Hitler; Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (1999), Fritz Redlich’s illuminating “psychography” of Hitler (this should not be confused with “psychohistory”: Redlich, who is a psychiatrist, works carefully with relevant sources and examines Hitler’s mental condition at every stage of his life, minutely charting the changes, and he does not seek to “solve” the enigma of Hitler’s psychopathic behavior by focusing on childhood trauma or a particular psychic disturbance); Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), Ron Rosenbaum’s extensive collection of interviews with scholars, intellectuals and artists who, in some form or other, have tried to “explain Hitler”; and Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship (1999, German original 1996), Brigitte Hamann’s scrupulously researched and intelligently argued account of Hitler’s early years in Vienna (1906-13) and of their influence on his later development.

Every one of these books represents an attempt at sustained, comprehensive critical reckoning with Hitler. In the past, the most compelling works on him were often of a very different character. (Consider Eberhard Jäckel’s and Sebastian Haffner’s shorter, much more synthetic books on Hitler’s Weltanschauung, which were published in 1969 and 1978.) But if there has been a structural change, what has caused it? Kershaw himself offers an insightful answer. “Reflecting” on Hitler’s historical significance in the preface to Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, he writes: “Hitler’s dictatorship has the quality of a paradigm for the twentieth century.” Kershaw also claims that “Hitler’s mark on the century” has been “deeper” than anyone’s. The implication is clear. Taking leave of the twentieth century means trying to settle our accounts with Hitler, its paradigmatic problem, which, in turn, means engaging in sustained, comprehensive critical analysis. Certainly something close to this seems to be at stake in Rosenbaum’s work, and in Hamann’s. She suggestively tracks the full extent of Hitler’s debt to “twentieth-century culture” by examining his encounter with one of its paradigms: fin de siècle Vienna. Kershaw has given us a twenty-first-century biography of Hitler that could have been written only at the end of the twentieth century.

Kershaw’s biography is a true “social biography,” to use a phrase the great film theorist Siegfried Kracauer coined, in exile, as he wrote about the culture that Hitler’s Germany had begun to annihilate. Without a trace of moralism, and without losing himself in quotidian minutiae and psychological speculation, Kershaw nonetheless shadows Hitler the way a conscience might have. He examines Hitler’s daily life, as well as his emotional and political development, in vivid detail. At the same time, he situates Hitler’s personal narrative within its social context, charting their reciprocal influence and pointing out how Hitler’s experiences and attitudes were emblematic of large social trends. And he does so with impressive erudition. The result is a kind of interpretive balance, which is very difficult to bring off in Hitler’s case. With him, moving back and forth between the microlevel of personal narrative and the macrolevel of social context entails entering into not so much a hermeneutic circle as a dizzying spiral. For, at a certain point, Hitler’s narrative begins to reshape–as few, if any, personal narratives have–the social context that shaped it, only, of course, to be shaped again itself by the context it reshaped.

Neither Bullock nor Fest came close to producing a real social biography, as both of their books focus on the personal narrative. They offer well-informed, penetrating answers to one crucial question: Why did Hitler commit the terrible crimes for which he will be remembered? But neither one makes a serious attempt to shed light on Hitler’s path to the chancellorship or to understand how he remained in power for twelve years while executing policies of mass destruction and mass self-destruction. They do not tell us how Hitler became Hitler.

Kershaw’s book works so well as social biography because his approach proceeds from a transitional concept: charisma. Elaborating on the argument he developed in The “Hitler Myth” (1987), Kershaw invokes charisma as a sociological category. Here charisma is a modern, postliberal structure of authority, one that became possible in Weimar Germany for a number of impersonal reasons. These include the “ignominy of Versailles,” the concomitant collective longing for national redemption and the inability of the democratic government to appeal to a strong democratic tradition in Germany.

Charisma is also a psychological category. It can therefore function as a way to mediate between the levels of biographical analysis. And, indeed, Kershaw makes his overriding concern the fateful match between Hitler’s personal charisma and Germany’s impersonal readiness for charismatic rule. Summing it all up, Kershaw writes, “The Germany which had produced Adolf Hitler had seen its future in his vision, had so readily served him, and had shared in his hubris, had also to share in his nemesis.” Germany followed the charismatic leader it “produced” because he envisioned, in just the right way, at just the right time, the Germany it wanted to see.

In Hubris, Kershaw explains how Hitler’s idiosyncratic “vision” for a “better” future and Germany’s receptiveness to it took shape. In Nemesis, he tracks the bloody business of implementation. We might expect the second volume of a two-volume Hitler biography to begin in 1933. But Kershaw divides Hitler’s life into pre- and post-1936 stages, because 1936 marks “the culminating point of the first phase of the dictatorship.” Kershaw wants Nemesis to begin with the beginning of the end, with the onset of the “ceaseless radicalization” that persisted until 1945. Both volumes are well written and come equipped with helpful maps and eerie photographs. And because Kershaw keeps his debates with other scholars, as well as his extensive remarks about primary sources, neatly contained in his footnotes, Hubris and Nemesis read smoothly, remarkably so, given their factual girth and cognitive intricacy. Some chapters are structured as accounts of Hitler’s life stages, such as his “dropout” years in Vienna, while others are organized around seminal events, for example, Germany’s strategic “miscalculation” during the 1939 Poland crisis. Kershaw puts personal narrative into the foreground when it seems to be of decisive importance. And he does the same with social context. Tellingly, all the chapter headings in Nemesis refer to large historical developments, starting, again, with the Nazis’ “ceaseless radicalization.”

In 1936, according to Kershaw, Hitler was at once more delusional than ever and cannily realistic. His early diplomatic and economic successes had fed his surging megalomania. Both Hitler and the nation that, at the time, overwhelmingly supported him believed that he could achieve whatever he wanted to. Yet Hitler also astutely recognized that his authority could not rest on a foundation of rationally organized domestic prosperity. It would last only as long as he was associated with a “project of national salvation.” The pressure to expand, “to radicalize” unremittingly, came from outside as well as from inside his circle.

Kershaw’s most original, most provocative claims have to do with the place of Nazi Party leaders in this constellation of causal forces. He insists that even as they used the most cynical images and slogans to manufacture Hitler’s charisma, men like Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler and especially Joseph Goebbels remained fanatically in Hitler’s thrall. As Kershaw puts it, they “combined pure belief and impure propaganda.” Working closely with Goebbels’s complete diary, which proves to be a key new source (Hitler’s bond with Goebbels was the closest thing he had to a friendship), Kershaw draws out the full, chilling extent of this belief. He also shows that well into the war, and until the very end, defeat did nothing to shake it. For in taking huge risks and losing, Hitler remained true to the principles that had won him such loyal disciples.

Perhaps even more chilling is Kershaw’s account of how these same party leaders influenced the Final Solution. Here again Goebbels’s diary is crucially important. More lucidly than other sources, it reveals that Hitler had to be prodded into instituting not only the policy of mass deportations but even the compulsory-identification measure (the yellow Star of David) for Jews living in Germany. Party leaders had urged Hitler to take this latter step in the wake of Kristallnacht (November 1938). He resisted it until August 1941, when Goebbels finally “convinced” him to act. And in the summer of 1941, he repeatedly “rejected” Reinhard Heydrich’s proposals to make the destruction of Eastern Jewry more systematic. Why? Certainly moral compunction cannot be the answer. According to Kershaw, Goebbels expressed a certain dismay at the inconsistency between Hitler’s behavior and his stated principles on the “Jewish Question,” yet he never suggested that Hitler had softened his attitude toward the Jews. During this time Hitler continued to cite his own prewar “prophecy,” according to which the Jews would be destroyed if they started another world war, and to provide various justifications for large-scale murder. Kershaw speculates that Hitler may have been acting, or not acting, out of denial. For to devise a “Final Solution” before winning the war in the East was to acknowledge that the war could not be won anytime soon. As long as the fiction of imminent victory could be sustained, it made more “sense” to wait for the acquisition of vast new territories. After all, the Nazis were trying to figure out how to dispose of millions of people and had not yet begun to think seriously about gas and ovens.

The problem, for Kershaw, is that Hitler had given up this illusion by the fall of 1941, and yet he remained reluctant to authorize mass deportations and overtly genocidal policies. Hitler did not enumerate his reservations, at least not on records available to us. And so we are left wondering. What is clear is that the solicitations of Heydrich, Himmler and Goebbels had the desired effect–Hitler eventually did license extermination. Yet, as Kershaw stresses, he did so only in the most general terms. Pushing his claim, Kershaw goes so far as to contend, “Whatever the reasons, [Hitler] could never have delivered the sort of speech which, notoriously, Himmler would give in Posen two years later [1943] when he described what it was like to see 1,000 corpses lying side by side and spoke openly of the ‘extermination’ (Ausrottung) of the Jewish people as a ‘glorious page in our history….’ Even in his inner circle Hitler could never bring himself to speak with outright frankness about the killing of the Jews.” Hitler “could not bring himself” to discuss the Holocaust directly, apparently not even with Goebbels. This is an unsettling idea. Indeed, David Irving, the British historian and notorious Hitler apologist, rushes from Hitler’s silence to the conclusion that he did not know about the death camps. What Kershaw does is very different. With unrivaled precision and without polemicism, he circumscribes Hitler’s unwillingness to speak about the Holocaust, ultimately treating it as a question. Far from exculpating Hitler, Kershaw’s move invites further inquiry. Nemesis does more than inform exhaustively and explain brilliantly: It points to what remains to be said about Hitler.