Hitler: Nemesis

HITLER: NEMESIS, 1936-1945
By Ian Kershaw

Nemesis is the second part of a massive new biography of Adolf Hitler. Together, the two-volume set totals over 2,000 pages and weighs a little over seven pounds. The word “definitive” comes to mind, with “exhaustive” not too far behind.

But not “best.”

The best biography of Hitler available, and a great book in its own right, is Joachim Fest’s Hitler. In Fest’s account Hitler is described as an “unperson”: an uninteresting intellect and personality who nevertheless embodied many of the hopes and anxieties of his age. What Hitler possessed was a “social character,” something impossible to communicate without the depth of understanding that Fest brought to his work.

But even with this understanding, which British historian Ian Kershaw to some degree shares, writing the biography of an unperson is a terrific challenge. Making things even harder is the fact that the private Hitler was an almost invisible man. One can search the record in vain for revealing anecdotes. His conversation is remarkably of a piece with his public pronouncements, and not a single personal letter written by him survives. After he came to power he insisted upon becoming his image, and eradicating any evidence of himself as an individual.

The resulting gaps have invited speculation. Hitler’s insistence that no one learn about his family origins – “Nobody must know where I come from” – has been taken as evidence that there was some dark secret to his birth, perhaps even a Jewish ancestor. The way he never allowed himself to be seen in public, or even semi-public, with his longtime partner Eva Braun has provoked comment on his abnormal sexuality, or total lack thereof.

For the most part, Kershaw avoids the personal and the speculative. (Readers who are interested in these aspects of the story should check out Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler.) Indeed, he has almost nothing at all to say about Hitler’s private life. His focus instead is primarily on the political, with a good deal of attention to military events as well.

In other words, it is as much a biography of the Third Reich as it is of Hitler, though of course the overlap is almost total anyway. Kershaw’s characterization of the Nazi bureaucratic anarchy is distilled into an oft-repeated slogan: “Working towards the Fuhrer.” What this refers to is the way in which radical actions were often instigated from below, not as the result of express directives, but because they were felt to be in line with Hitler’s broadly defined aims. Thus “initiatives were taken, pressure created, legislation instigated . . . without the dictator necessarily having to dictate.” Hitler the Unperson ruled one of the most repressive totalitarian regimes in history with a conspicuously invisible hand.

“Working towards the Fuhrer” is especially useful in explaining why there is no hard evidence or paper trail linking Hitler to the Holocaust. Nowhere in the historical record is there any indication, even in informal discussions, of his involvement in the extermination of the Jews. This has led some historians to question how much he was involved in or even knew about the Final Solution. What Kershaw shows is that such explicit direction was rarely the form Nazi policy took. Hitler’s role, though more indirect than overt, was nevertheless “decisive and indispensable.”

Kershaw is at this best with this sort of analysis. As a storyteller he is not as sure. His writing is lucid, but has a cluttered feel to it because of his penchant for long sentences stuffed with subordinate clauses. And while Hitler’s identity always came second to his image, Kershaw’s focus on the political rather than the personal means that Hitler’s final days in the bunker are poorly evoked. For a political historian this is understandable, but it is disappointing biography.

Hitler was not a great man, but his biography, even aside from its enormous historical importance, is a fascinating story of rise and fall. How did a naturally lazy, friendless, minimally educated homeless man take over Europe? And how did such an advanced society allow itself to be seduced and then destroyed by its own capacity for senseless barbarity? It was not, as Hitler liked to see it, a triumph and then failure of the will. But it was also more than the operation of impersonal historical forces.

Was it fate – a force that Hitler himself frequently adverted to, especially during the years of his collapse? The titles of Kershaw’s two volumes – Hubris and Nemesis – obviously suggest the workings of fate and the shape of tragedy. Tragedy, however, requires a kind of stature that Hitler, even in his bad eminence, never attained. Hitler the unperson was a celebrity, an ultimately flimsy projection of society’s anxiety and despair, its nightmares and its dreams. This was the tragedy of an image. It was not a personal or even a national tragedy so much as one that belonged to an age.

Review first published February 24, 2001.


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