Magazine article The Spectator

The Humanising of Hitler

Magazine article The Spectator

The Humanising of Hitler

Article excerpt

The humanising of Hitler

Norman Lebrecht


by Ian Kershaw

Penguin, 25, pp. 1,156



by Michael Burleigh

Macmillan, 25, pp. 965


by Gitta Sereny

Penguin, 20, pp. 378

It is not often that you feel the tectonic plates of history moving beneath your feet, but a seismic shift is taking place in our grasp of the greatest moral conflict in modem times.

Three recent studies of Nazi Germany need to be equipped with a public health warning. None is even faintly sympathetic to the Third Reich. Yet, written from the objective distance of half a century, their effect is to soften the accepted image of Adolf Hitler, making the Fuhrer appear more human and credible than ever before.

The new wave of Nazi histories focusses on the social and mass-psychological causes that enticed a great and cultured nation to submit to the bloodlust ambitions of a man so ordinary - so downright commonplace - in almost every respect that the intelligent world refused to take him seriously, until too late.

This is a useful, timely approach. But the methods used and the time-lag involved trigger a mechanism that alters the angle from which we view Hitler. No longer the acme of evil, no longer the race-crazed orchestrator of national Gotterdammerung, Hitler emerges from these studies as a subtle, ambiguous, sometimes insidiously appealing challenger to a corrupt established order. What we are starting to witness is the humanising of Hitler, his march to a sunnier place in posterity.

Since last week, we have been able to go and amuse ourselves at a new London musical celebrating the love-life of the all-- conquering Napoleon. How long before Hitler, too, is cleansed of blood and presented as just another historic giant?

Leading the field in redefining Hitler is Ian Kershaw (born 1943), professor of modern history at Sheffield and adviser to the BBC's well-balanced series, The Nazis -A Warning from History. Kershaw, in the second volume of his 1,900-page Hitler biography, declares:

I personally find Hitler a detestable figure and despise all that his regime stood for. But that condemnation scarcely helps me to understand why millions of Germans who were mostly ordinary human beings, hardly innately evil ... would find so much of what Hitler stood for attractive.

Prudently and with evidence amassed from official archives and members of Hitler's inner circle, Kershaw views Hitler's path from world conquest to final collapse as a direct function of his epic personality and its visible fault-lines: obsessiveness, tenacity and the propagation of hatred.

Using fly-on-wall techniques borrowed from television, Kershaw describes life in the Chancellery and Fuhrer-bunker as if from a hidden camera, dragging us compellingly into the heart of affairs. His method succeeds brilliantly as a literary device, but the reader's perspective is affected by sustained proximity.

Hitler was nothing if not a spellbinder. Seen so close that the edges start to blur, his mesmeric powers can still distort moral judgment. Mixed with revulsion at the deeds he inspired, one cannot avoid a sneaking admiration for a lone individual who overturned an entire civilisation. `Never in history,' says Kershaw, `has such ruination - physical and moral - been associated with the name of one man.' Top-heavy truisms of this kind, no matter how well-intentioned, can only serve to reinflate Hitler's stature in post-millennial imaginations.

Michael Burleigh (born 1955) of Cardiff University sternly eschews any fascination with Hitler's personality. …

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