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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

“Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris”, by Ian Kershaw

912 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393046717

Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris by Ian Kershaw draws the reader closer to understanding this historically enigmatic and often bizarre human being who so changed the world of the 20th Century. Although there are a myriad of such books that have appeared in the half-century-plus since Hitler’s demise in the dust and rubble of Berlin, this particular effort, which draws from hundreds of secondary sources (many of which have never before been cited) paints an authentic and masterful portrait of Hitler as an individual. This is an absolutely singular historical work that will almost certainly displace other, older tomes as the standard text on the early life and rise of Adolph Hitler.

Kershaw takes a quite different and novel approach regarding Hitler’s early years, and it is one I thoroughly enjoyed. Here, by carefully locating and fixing the individual in the context and welter of his times, it yields a much more enlightening approach toward painting a meaningful comprehensive picture of how a neglected and conflicted boy meaningfully became such a terribly flawed and troubled man. Thus we see the boy grow and change in whatever fashion into a man, tracing the rise of this troubled malcontent from the anonymity of Viennese shelters to a fiery and meteoric rise into politics, culminating in his ascent to rule Germany. Kershaw memorably recreates the social, economic, and political circumstances that bent and twisted Hitler so fatefully for the history of the world.

Hitler was, in Kershaw’s estimation, a man most representative of his times, reflecting a widespread disaffection with democratic politics, steeped in the virulent antisemitism of his Viennese environment, twisted and experienced in the cruelties and absurdities of the First World War, thrust by circumstance and disposition into the sectarian, dyspeptic, and rough-and-tumble politics of Wiemar Germany, and rising by finding himself the most unlikely of politicians with an unusual ability to orate and emote. It is also interesting to discover that Hitler had an unusually acute (though uneven) intellect, is rumored to have possessed a photographic memory, and was said to have an amazing ability to discuss and quote facts and figures and then subsequently casually weave them into a conversation that witnesses found spellbinding and convincing. He was also unquestionably quite charismatic and charming (alas).

From the beginning Kershaw argues it is impossible to understand Hitler without understanding this extremely toxic and strange combination of social, economic, and cultural factors that characterized Germany in the post-war era. Thus, by the time he begins his ineluctable rise to power, we much better understand both how and why such a seemingly unlikely cast of characters as the Nazis succeeded so wildly beyond what one would expect to be possible in a sane and sophisticated modern industrial state.

This is fascinating stuff, as is his treatment of the concomitant rise of the slugs, thugs, and under-life accompanying him into the corridors of power and influence. Here is the world’s greatest single collection of otherwise underachieving bullies, fanatics, pseudo-intellectuals, and fellow travelers, who clashed into an uneasy coalescence that formed the nucleus of the single greatest force for collective evil seen in the modern world. One’s mind reels at the scene at the book’s conclusion, as the newly formed Nazi power structure begins applying the progressively strangulating neck-lock on Germany’s Jews, religious leaders, and other “malcontents”, a story that woefully continues in the second volume of this masterful biography.

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