1889-1936 : hubris

by Ian Kershaw

Paper Book, 1999

Status

Available

Publication

New York [u.a.] Norton 1999

Description

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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mancmilhist
Heavy going in places and short on his personal life, but a very detailed account of each part of Hitler's development. Fascinating are the opportunities to stop his rise and the perfect storm of the economy, Versailles and a contemporary German appetite for authority that delivers him to power. It's terrible, and compelling.
LibraryThing member thorold
Like most people alive today, I'm only a generation or so away from people who were involved in the Second World War. What happened in Nazi Germany isn't an abstract bit of history, but it's something that had direct and severe effects on people very close to me. I've therefore grown up with the notion of Hitler as a "special case", the one person you can't abstract into a "character from history" and the one character from history that you daren't identify with as a person. Reading a biography of him feels like a risky act: the idea of seeing Hitler in the normal human terms β€” someone who is born, quarrels with his parents, goes to school, etc. β€” is a distinctly uncomfortable one. It feels like tangling with dangerous knowledge.

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) β€” 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.
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LibraryThing member FPdC
This book is the first of a two volume biography of Adolf Hitler by one of the present day leading scholars on the Third Reich. Covering his life up to 1936, it starts with his "pre-history", that is, the history of his family in provincial Austria at the second half of the 19th Century (actually, precisely in 1876, when a customs official in Braunau named Alois Schicklgruber changed his surname to Hitler, something that decades later will very much please his son Adolf.) The book then moves on to detail what is known of Hitler's early life as a young boy, his failed attempts to enter the Art Academy in Vienna, his diletant life in the city, the move to Munich on the eve of the World War. This is achieved in the first two chapters. Then comes the time as soldier in the German army during the war, the bitterness and revolt felt over defeat and revolution in 1918-19, the discovery of his hability to speak in public and his adherence to the small National Socialist Party in 1920 in Munich. And on, to the Munich putch of 1923, the trial and prison, the second half of the 1920s, where the unity of the radical right-wing factions took place and the Party was transformed into a novel political institution: a Fuhrer's Party. The onset of the Great Depression at the end of 1929, and his lever into power by the conservative political elites on the wake of his spectacular electoral victories of mid 1932. Then, finally, the first four years of Nazi rule, where a really momentous, and ultimately disastrous, trail of events was put into movement. This is a remarkably brilliant book, in which all this events and the man at the fulcrum of them, are not only described, but put into historical perspective and, as much as possible, explained. And this is not an easy task: how a cultured, sophisticated, industrial society, in the wake of war, defeat, and revolution, political crisis and economic colapse, became voluntary prey of a movement on the lunatic fringe of the political spectrum directed by one of the most successful demagoges of all times, whose political ideology (if one can call it that...) was a repelling mixture of ferocious anti-Marxism, 19th Century social darwinism, and, most notably, a rabid anti-semitism and racial world view. This book goes a long way to turn intelligible these questions, and does it with an admirable fluency of style. A truly magnificent work, already called the Hitler biography of the 21st Century.… (more)
LibraryThing member Muscogulus
This was assigned for a graduate seminar on fascism, and I must say I did not at first look forward to having a two-volume biography of Hitler on my shelves. But Kershaw's magnum opus (including both this volume, Hubris, and the second volume, Nemesis) is a keeper. It's a sensitive, convincing, readable biography of Hitler with plenty of context to shed light on the times.… (more)
LibraryThing member charles.peter
This substantial volume, which at first sight, might appear something of a task to read, is by far the very best and most compelling explanation of a monster I have ever read. The 600 pages disappear far more quickly that you would believe. It has the pace of a thriller and the authority of a great historian.
LibraryThing member TheCrow2
Despite it’s bulky appearance this book is a very easy to read and factual story of how a man who later burned the world had risen to power. Everything you wanted to ask at history classes but you were afraid to ask.
LibraryThing member BiblioLorenzoLodi
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.… (more)

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