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Thursday, March 30, 2017

“Hitler”, by Joachim C. Fest


844 pages, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN-13: 978-0156409469

Joachim C. Fest, the son of a Catholic anti-Nazi who grew up in Nazi Germany (but he never alludes to his own life), has written perhaps the most engaging and insightful biography of the madman of the century in Hitler. This is not the first Hitler biography I have read: I am a veteran reader of past works on the sonovabitch as Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, Adolf Hitler by John Toland, and the two-volume study by Ian Kershaw: Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis. Yet none of these books, while informative, have the depth of understanding of the horrible phenomenon of Hitler that Fest brings to his biography (perhaps, as a German, Fest is closer to his subject?) Yes, the style is dry, but within the covers of this book you will find insights and observations that are lacking in all other biographies on the Führer. Sadly, Hitler is probably less well-known to English-speaking readers than the afore-mentioned works, but for anyone who wants to understand the Nazi phenomenon and its role in history should turn to the far more trenchant and searching Fest, as he is much more focused on the man than the cataclysmic events he set in motion. Fest’s book is, to a degree, psychoanalysis, both of a leader and of the society that he led, as he delves into how we react, intellectually and emotionally, to history-moving leaders and their movements when we are but passive observers.

I cannot praise enough the author’s picture of the ambitious young Adolf, then later the Adolf of the charity men’s home in Vienna, and the Adolf serving exemplarily on the Western Front. Fest provides a real understanding of Hitler before he found his destiny as a public speaker and a leader of men. In most biographies of Adolf Hitler the portrait of the Monster or Madman have loomed so large that the man himself has been obscured, if not completely submerged. This is one point among many where Fest’s book parts company with most that have come both before and after. This is not just the best Adolf Hitler biography I've ever read – it’s possibly the best biography of anyone I’ve ever read. I never would have believed such a long book could be such an enjoyable read and yet be so totally informative, well-researched and well-documented. The will to power was always latent in Hitler’s nature, but like a volcano it needed to find its way to the surface. Many soul-searing influences were needed, most importantly being the lost war and the humiliating demands of the Treaty of Versailles. Those were the years of grinding hardship that drove the populace toward the freedom and dignity offered by Communism. This was fertile ground for Hitler, whose hatred of Marxism dated from his youth in Vienna: more even than Jews it was international Communism that he wanted to destroy, and amongst his first victims, both Jewish and Christian, were dedicated Marxists (indeed, the first Nazi concentration camps were built for them, as well as for other political opponents of the regime).

Fest makes no apologies or excuses for the monstrous crimes Germany committed at Hitler’s behest, but there is more to any man than just whatever evil he has done. The skill needed to transform events into a good read while also maintaining perspective and providing a balanced judgement from the evidence now available to scholars is clearly one of Joachim C. Fest’s strengths. This is an excellent biographical history to read in conjunction with social, economic and military histories of Germany in the grim, dark 20th Century. I am a general reader and found this more than a worthy work, unfolding as it does, like some great Wagnerian Opera, yet full of telling detail to make the events vivid and memorable.

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