Young Fogey Made Bad

By Gott, Richard | New Statesman (1996), September 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

Young Fogey Made Bad

Gott, Richard, New Statesman (1996)

In his youth Hitler exhibited a languid, joyless conservatism that harked back to the 19th century. But he had one great modern talent to deploy: public relations

Adolf Hitler is one of the great demonic figures of history and no new research or fresh interpretation is likely to budge him from that central position. The British, who like to take their villains as read, have shown little interest in the discoveries of German scholarship in the past half century. Only two significant biographies of Hitler have been published in Britain since 1945, by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, and both are now seriously dated. The huge quantity of research on the Third Reich done by contemporary German historians is largely unknown over here, and that of an entire generation of British historians has been consistently undervalued (though their work has often been published in Germany). The revisions introduced into academic debate by these researchers (among whom Ian Kershaw has long been a prominent figure) have rarely been incorporated into public discussion and most people have preferred to stick to the simplicities of wartime propaganda.

Yet there are signs that the climate is changing. The concept of "evil", in the wake of recent notorious murder cases, is now the everyday topic of the colour magazines. So a reappraisal of one of the great murderers of all time comes clearly on cue. Ian Kershaw's Hitler (the first of two volumes) is, by any standard, a staggering achievement. With a cool tone, a measured stride, and an encyclopaedic mastery of the available sources, he takes his readers by the hand and guides them through the complexities of the story, outlining the moral dilemmas and never forgetting to describe the climate of opinion at the time. The set pieces depicting the moments of Nazi breakthrough on to the national stage and the dramatic infighting within Hitler's movement - the downfall of the Strasser brothers, the Night of the Long Knives - are expertly done. In taking the first volume up to 1936, and the demilitarisation of the Rhineland, Kershaw is able to document the first fumbling reactions of the outside world, and the beginnings, under Sir John Simon and Anthony Eden, of the British policy of appeasement.

The special advantage of Kershaw's Hitler over earlier biographies is that the lapse of time since 1945 allows us to view Hitler not so much as a creation of Germany's past but as a figure who looms over our present and all our futures. Hitler in this reading comes across today as an almost familiarly contemporary figure. Deeply and joylessly conservative in his early years before the first world war, he had all the affectations of a lower-middle-class "young fogey", with a passion for the nationalism typical of the time, for symphonic music and Wagner (he shared a room in Vienna with a music student), and for the art and architecture of the previous century.

Later, as his political career took off after 1919, his great strength - another unexpectedly modern accomplishment - lay in marketing and public relations, referred to in those days as "propaganda". Spurning organisation, for which he had no talent of any kind, he was among the first to perceive PR as the highest form of political activity. He was also a pioneer of political sponsorship, approaching the manufacturers of Sturm cigarettes to help fund his Sturm Abteilung, the SA stormtroopers who put muscle into the Nazi movement in the 1920s by beating up its opponents. In 1933 he even became "the people's Chancellor". Only his manic anti-Semitism cuts him off from today's world, a disease far more virulent than the "ethnic cleansing" of the last years of the 20th century.

Born in 1889, the son of a civil servant, Hitler spent the first 30 years of his life in complete obscurity, and Kershaw has had some difficulty in unearthing a narrative tale of that time from under the dungheaps of myth and legend. As a plainly disoriented young man, clearly suffering from acute depression because of unhappiness and rebellion at home (his father refused to allow him to become an art student), Hitler was unable to engage in either work or study. …

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