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Thursday, March 6, 2014

“Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis”, by Ian Kershaw

1115 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393049947

Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis by Ian Kershaw is the second and concluding volume of Ian Kershaw’s monumental biography of Hitler. Was he great? asked Joachim Fest in his own Hitler biography, who generously allowed Hitler a kind of “botched greatness”, a sort of monstrous parody of what we expect greatness to be. Other writers have given depth to this portrayal – John Keegan called Hitler’s leadership style “False Heroic”, in contrast to the “Heroic” Alexander the Great, the “Unheroic” Wellington and the “Anti-Heroic” Ulysses S. Grant. As far as I can see Kershaw does not contradict the Bullock or Fest biographies, but rather complements them, and further explains the malignant idea of “working towards the Fuhrer” by which Hitler’s will, rather than his spoken orders, were carried out by his minions across Europe. Kershaw gives an in-depth description of the chaotic Third Reich in which Hitler became the spider in a vast web of intrigue, in-fighting and betrayal. Out of this nexus grew the Final Solution and the Second World War, two of the most fateful events that ever befell the human race.

Kershaw has been criticized in not giving more credence to Hitler's “military genius”, as it has been pointed out that the portrait of “Hitler the military blunderer” is a self-serving one painted by his generals who liked to talk as if they were prevented from winning the war by the mistakes of a rank amateur. True, Hitler was not the clumsy blunderer of legend who by accident won a war against France and by sheer guile almost pulled off the defeat of the Soviet Union. Yet, his successes can also be exaggerated; while there will always be arguments about the success (or otherwise) of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, by Christmas 1941 it was clear that Operation Barbarossa had been no more successful than the Schlieffen Plan. Yet Germany persisted in the same course as it had then, struggling against lengthening odds until final defeat. Similarly, all his diplomatic and political victories were against weak opposition – Hugenberg, von Papen, Dollfuss, Chamberlain, Daladier, the hapless Hacha, even Benes, were not of the caliber of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet Hitler behaved as if they were. For all his emphasis on “Will”, his own will failed him in 1940 during the critical struggle with Churchill, on which so much turned.

Hence I think Kershaw’s overall portrayal of Hitler is accurate – for example, he gives Hitler the credit for saving the German army in the winter of 1941 when a precipitate retreat might have turned into a rout (however, if the Germans had been forced to withdraw closer to their borders, they would have been able to repel the Red Army for quite a long time). Hitler’s style was therefore richly suited for circumstances which were in his favor; failing that, he made mistakes, and his emphasis on his “Will” only compounded his errors. Let me add there will be little comfort here for those “revisionist” historians who argue that Churchill betrayed Britain’s interests by not making a deal with the Nazis in 1940; they fail to say which part of the British Empire (whose existence they praise) should have been given up to placate Hitler and his allies (Suez or Egypt to Italy or Vichy France, perhaps, or Gibraltar to Spain?) 

For a brave and decorated soldier, Hitler’s degeneration into the “False Heroic” leader is surprising and, for those who served with him, unexpected. Once, he had the blinds of his carriage pulled down so he would not see wounded German soldiers in an adjacent train. Compare that with Alexander, whose veterans filed past his bed with a last goodbye and whom the dying King acknowledged with a movement of his eyes. Or compare it to Wellington, his duty done, dying honored among his countrymen. Or Napoleon in lonely dignity in his exile. Or Ulysses Grant, struggling with cancer to finish his autobiography so as to leave his family free of crippling debt. One can only say that Hitler received the end he deserved – hidden in a deep bunker he took his own life in manner that had no dignity or honor.

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