Hitler's Lingering Shadow

Article excerpt

Hitler 1936-1945. Net. By Ian Kershaw. W.W. Norton. $35.00.

In 1999 Ian Kershaw warned an attentive audience at the German Historical Institute in Washington that the first volume of his Hitler biography (Hitler 1889-1936. Hubris) contained no factual discoveries of great import. He therefore posed the question: why write another life of the German dictator? One response was his promise to provide an answer to a question that has been asked again and again: how could National Socialism come to power in the country that had produced Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven, the sober political realist Bismarck, to say nothing of Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse? Kershaw had already completed two brilliant investigations of myth and reality, as well as of public opinion and dissent in the Third Reich, and these had led him to conclude that only an intensive study of the leader himself, seeking a rational path among earlier biographic interpretations, could lead to a resolution of this mystery.

Hubris spans a period of 47 years: from Hitler's birth to a middle-level Austrian civil servant to a position of unfettered political power never before attained by any individual in German history. In 17th-century France Louis XIV is said to have voiced the unwarranted claim that he was the state. In 20th-century Germany a man from petty bourgeois obscurity had reached that breathtaking identification with public authority, and in his second volume Kershaw tells us how Hitler's unassailable authority carried him and his nation to destruction.

By 1936 the Fuhrer had broken the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles, and a system of political terror had silenced all domestic opposition. The resultant belief in his infallibility was shared by the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Still, the tyrant was haunted by the fear that death would remove him before Germany had gained control of Europe, destroyed Bolshevism, and annihilated the agents of an imaginary Jewish world conspiracy. As a result, no victory satisfied him, and each conquest was followed by new assaults on a lengthening list of adversaries.

At no time after his ascent to power did Hitler reveal to his nation or the world the extent of his conquistadorial ambitions. The annexation of Austria and the destruction of Czechoslovakia within 12 months from March 1938 to 1939-for instance-were followed by assurances that all German claims had now been satisfied. These lies enabled Hitler to persuade his Western rivals that he was a reasonable representative of German national interests. Describing these events, Kershaw offers a persuasive example of his evenhandedness. No partisan of appeasement, he nevertheless rejects the contention that Neville Chamberlain and his French colleague Edouard Daladier saved the German dictator from a domestic military conspiracy when they abandoned Czechoslovakia at Munich. He points out that the senior officers at the heart of this movement, fearing that their Fuhrer was about to involve Germany in a disastrous European war, had no following among the rank and file of the armed forces. He goes on to demonstrate that the excesses of Kristallnacht in November 1938 do not indicate the existence of a policy of genocide but do signify the emergence of a genocidal mentality at the highest levels of the German government. Nazi pursuit of power no longer recognized the need for restraint of any kind. The extravagant celebration of the leader's 50th birthday on April 20, 1939, displayed the nation's unconditional willingness to accept his methods. The country celebrated more than a head of state; it worshipped a savior.

In the war that followed, Nazism truly came into its own. While its armies destroyed Poland in less than a month, destruction of "life unworthy of living" went into high gear at home, where people concentrated on the good news from the battlefront. With the surrender of France, the regime reached the zenith of its power. …