It’s been fascinating following Ian Kershaw’s trajectory as a historian over the years. Trained as a specialist in the social and economic history of English monasteries in the Middle Ages, Kershaw changed countries and centuries in the late 1970s, in search of topics more relevant than medieval estate management. Two pathbreaking books were the result: The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (published in German in 1980; translated into English in 1987) and Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945 (1983).
Having begun his research independently, Kershaw had by this time become closely involved with the “Bavaria Project,” led by Martin Broszat, then director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. Like other historians working on the project, Kershaw sought to reconstruct the history of Nazi Germany “from the bottom up” by using the extensive reports of the SS Security Service and local government officials on public morale and the voluminous and very detailed accounts of popular opinion smuggled out to the exiled German Social Democratic Party leaders in Prague by agents based in Germany. The resulting picture was complex and highly differentiated. Instead of presenting the conventional postwar clichés of a ruthless dictator bending everyone to his will, Kershaw showed a huge variety of popular responses to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, ranging from resistance and opposition through dissent and indifference to enthusiasm and praise.
In this vision, relatively few Germans were committed Nazis; most were lulled into acquiescence by Nazi propaganda and Nazi achievements in one or another area, objecting–sometimes with success–only when the regime interfered directly with the innermost values of their daily lives, most notably in matters of religious practice. All of this of course raised the question of how the regime managed to put its policies into effect. In The “Hitler Myth” Kershaw showed how the propaganda image of the Führer provided until near the end of the war a repository for people’s hopes and aspirations that deflected many of their discontents onto his subordinates or held out the prospect that he would eventually find a remedy. People were reluctant to believe that in reality Hitler was a man driven by a fanatical hatred of the Jews, a boundless desire for conquest and, at bottom, a deep contempt for the mass of ordinary Germans.
Kershaw’s pioneering study of Hitler’s propaganda image thus seemed to point naturally to the next step, a biography of the man himself. After a decade of research, the resulting two volumes–Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000), totaling nearly 2,000 pages–established themselves immediately as the standard works on the German dictator. Among their many virtues were their scrupulous scholarship, their meticulous sorting-out of fact from myth and, not least perhaps, Kershaw’s new, more relaxed style of writing, displaying a hitherto unsuspected talent for taut narrative, gripping description and the atmospheric re-creation of past events and situations.
Kershaw came to the biography, as he confessed at the time, from the “wrong direction”: not from the history of high politics and decision-making but from the history of everyday life and opinion in Nazi Germany. What resulted was a book that for the first time related Hitler convincingly to his historical context, that showed him as created by his times rather than acting independently upon them. The biography, indeed, rushes impatiently through Hitler’s obscure early life, dismisses psychological speculation about his motives (his alleged fears of Jewish ancestry, supposed homosexuality, early failure as a painter, etc.) and devotes only minimal and evidently somewhat irritated attention to the few episodes we know about in his personal life.