From his illegitimate birth in a small Austrian village to his fiery death in a bunker under the Reich chancellery in Berlin, Adolf Hitler left a murky trail, strewn with contradictory tales and overgrown with self-created myths. One truth prevails: the sheer scale of the evils that he unleashed on the world has made him a demonic figure without equal in this century. Ian Kershaw's Hitler brings us closer than ever before to the character of the bizarre misfit in his thirty-year ascent from a Viennese shelter for the indigent to uncontested rule over the German nation that had tried and rejected democracy in the crippling aftermath of World War I. With extraordinary vividness, Kershaw recreates the settings that made Hitler's rise possible: the virulent anti-Semitism of prewar Vienna, the crucible of a war with immense casualties, the toxic nationalism that gripped Bavaria in the 1920s, the undermining of the Weimar Republic by extremists of the Right and the Left, the hysteria that accompanied Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 and then mounted in brutal attacks by his storm troopers on Jews and others condemned as enemies of the Aryan race. In an account drawing on many previously untapped sources, Hitler metamorphoses from an obscure fantasist, a "drummer" sounding an insistent beat of hatred in Munich beer halls, to the instigator of an infamous failed putsch and, ultimately, to the leadership of a ragtag alliance of right-wing parties fused into a movement that enthralled the German people.This volume, the first of two, ends with the promulgation of the infamous Nuremberg laws that pushed German Jews to the outer fringes of society, and with the march of the German army into the Rhineland, Hitler's initial move toward the abyss of war.
Kershaw is well aware of this. He most definitely doesn't manage to identify with his subject in the way biographers usually do: Hitler remains very much at arm's length throughout this book. More than anything else, especially in the early chapters, we are presented with Hitler as someone estranged from the world around him. He didn't have any close contact with friends or family, he never studied, he wasn't religious, he doesn't seem to have had a sex life, he never learned a trade, he evaded military service in Austria, except as a soldier in the First World War he never had a job, he didn't have any identifiable cultural interest apart from a passion for Wagner (which Kershaw doesn't examine in any depth) — up to 1919 his existence is just a string of negatives. Had it not been for the chance that he stayed in the army and was assigned to propaganda work, he might easily have ended up as a kind of Franz Biberkopf, a petty criminal leading a hand-to-mouth existence on the fringes of society, with a few crazy ideas he was fond of airing in bars.
The question how Hitler got from that point to becoming Chancellor in 1933 is not a trivial one, and Kershaw doesn't propose any simple answer. Part of it is clearly down to Hitler's abilities as an actor and public speaker (it seems improbable that he developed these skills out of nothing in the few months he was on political duties in the army, but we don't get any other explanation); Kershaw makes it clear that another large part was due to the opportunism and irresponsible self-interest of various groups in German society that saw no point in maintaining democracy.
This book certainly isn't a comfortable read, but I felt it did add a good deal of perspective to the picture of Hitler I had in my mind. Kershaw's background as someone who has spent his career studying the way others saw Hitler is uniquely well-adapted for this, even if it does tend to leave a bit of a blank space at the very centre of the narrative.
Kershaw is not the best and most fluent of narrative historians, and his prose style has clearly been damaged by years of reading bureaucratic German: all too often you have to re-read a sentence to try to work out where the verb is. He also has a few words he habitually misuses (especially "epicentre"). But these are minor issues, and only interfere minimally with the effectiveness of the book. Certainly not enough to discourage you from moving on to the second volume.