Mad, sad or just plain bad

25th September 1998 at 01:00
HITLER 1889-1936: Hubris
By Ian Kershaw
Penguin Books #163;20.

By Ron Rosenbaum
Macmillan #163;25

Ian Kershaw's Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris is an authoritative biography that will become essential reading for anyone studying Hitler. Writing a biography of Hitler is an extraordinarily difficult task. Few subjects can supply less objective information. Nobody - from fallen allies to Nuremberg war criminals - has written about Hitler without having a significant axe to grind. Kershaw draws upon fresh evidence from the Goebbels diaries, lost until recently in Moscow archives, but gives them little credence. And he asks - echoing a German historian - as anybody studying Nazism is left with no alternative but to reject the doctrine: "Does not such rejection imply a fundamental lack of understanding?" Hitler has been the subject of 100 biographies and 120, 000 articles since 1945, yet we seem no nearer to understanding him. Kershaw writes of "chasmic divisions of interpretation". Why was he like he was? When did he develop his views? How did he achieve such mesmeric power over even field marshals and professors?

Was he "convinced of his own rectitude", or "entirely without principle"? Was he a madman, or "a politician far more rational than up to now thought"? How far was he personally responsible for the barbarity of Nazi rule? Was he wholly evil, or should we identify laudable aims within the ultimate evil of the final solution?

In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist with New York Times Magazine, investigates the ways in which biographers have answered these questions. His is not an academic analysis (John Lukacs's The Hitler of History is more scholarly), but if you want easy access to a range of ideas about Hitler, this book presents a lively way in. Rosenbaum introduces us to 30 authorities, many of whom he interviewed personally. He debates with Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock about whether Hitler was an ideologue or an actor, and balances David Irving (who claims Hitler never ordered the Holocaust) against Lucy Davidowicz (who believed Hitler conceived the final solution in 1918 - and enjoyed every atrocity).

We meet people such as the film director Claude Lanzmann (who believes that even trying to explain Hitler is obscene), the author George Steiner, and the theologian Emil Fackenheim.

Rosenbaum examines many of the theories advanced by historians trying to explain Hitler's evil (although, strangely, he neglects Hitler's fascination with the occult). Was Hitler psychotic because his penis was bitten by a goat? Because he was short of a testicle? Because he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute? Because he had a Jewish grandfather? Because his father beat him? Because his father beat his mother? Because malignant incestuousness towards his mother developed into a "necrophilous" obsession? Because a Jewish doctor failed to cure his mother of cancer?

Was post-hypnotic suggestion to blame? Post-encephalitic sociopathy? Or sexual perversion - Rosenbaum devotes more than 50 pages to Hitler's affair with Geli Raubal, mentioning "an excretory perversion" frequently and salaciously until, eventually, he gives the reader the details, commenting piously: "It's a story that can give no one any gratification."

Rosenbaum studies, also, several explanations for Hitler's success. Was Hitler the ultimate product of Western aesthetics? Of a specifically German "eliminationist anti-Semitism"? Of Christianity? Of a backlash against a "blackmail of transcendence" perpetrated by Jews?

Kershaw would argue that all such theories - most of which demonstrate merely that human ingenuity has no limit - are irretrievably flawed. They are simplistic, because they are single-faceted. And they put Hitler at the centre of his own destiny, which is not the case. Kershaw adopts Max Weber's aphorism that hero-worship exists in the worshipper, not in the hero. And he agrees therefore with the German historian, Gerhard Schreiber,that we need to look for an understanding of Hitler that is "anchored in the epoch".

Thus Kershaw declines to seek the "murderous dictator" in the child, passes over the Geli Raubal affair as "of no significance", and dismisses the "alleged deviant sexual practices" as "fanciful anti-Hitler propaganda". Instead, he places Hitler's life story in its historical context and demonstrates how his world view probably developed from his experiences in Vienna and post-war Munich.

And while Kershaw acknow-ledges that Hitler was the Chernobyl of history, he points out that nuclear accidents do not occur without systematic causes. Hitler was no accident - he rose to power within a specific, explicable context.

Kershaw (to quote Rosenbaum) focuses upon "the complex interrelation between Hitler's consciousness, his projected image, and the German people's reception of it". He shows how developments in Germany - social Darwinism, nationalism, fear of communism, acceptance of public violence, a disastrous war and economic crisis - created an environment that encouraged Germans to seek a saviour, and where Hitler's hate-filled speeches simply echoed their anger. Kershaw's Hitler surfed to power on a wave of wishful thinking. Another time, another place, and the message would have been ineffective.

But even then, Kershaw stresses, Hitler's rise was far from inevitable - he presents Hitler as reactive, dependent on others, inconsistent and lazy,often hesitant and nervous. Even after 1933, he argues, Hitler was of secondary importance - the explosion of Nazi activity occurred because organisations and individuals within Germany strove to "work towards the Fuehrer", and change welled chaotically upwards from party activists.

The problem, Kershaw argues, was that Hitler grew to believe his own propaganda. Hitler was an egotist - a flawed character arrogant enough to vaunt himself as "theoretician, organiser and leader in one person". Ultimately, this arrogance - his hubris - destroyed him. We will have to wait until next year, for Kershaw's analysis of Hitler's "Nemesis" awaits a second volume.

Hitler, said Winston Churchill, was "a monster of wickedness", and historians have hesitated to move beyond a simplistic demonisation of Hitler - as if to treat him as a man rehabilitates him. Fifty years on, it is time to be more objective, and Kershaw offers a multi-faceted, structuralist approach, studying Hitler as just another historical character, analysable, understandable within his context.

To explain Hitler is not to exonerate him.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today