The concluding volume of Kershaw’s (Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, not reviewed) masterful biography of the “quintessential hate figure of the twentieth century.”
Kershaw (Modern History/Univ. of Sheffield) succeeds impressively with his wish to “try to explain the grip Hitler had on . . . society.” The author establishes that, by 1936, Hitler believed he was “guided by the hand of Providence.” On the basis of official Reich documents, Goebbels’ diary, and the communications of ordinary Germans, Kershaw follows the Führer’s surprising military successes as the Wehrmacht rolled, virtually without opposition, into the Rhineland, Austria, and farther afield. As Hitler’s fortunes soared, he achieved enormous popularity. Swollen with hubris, he delivered 26 major speeches in 1937, ranting against Jews and Bolsheviks and preaching the political philosophy of Lebensraum for the German people. (By contrast, in 1944, once the tide had begun to turn, he delivered no public speeches and spoke on the radio only twice.) Convinced of his own invincibility, Hitler took command not only of the political structures of the Reich but also the military (where he displayed a truculent intransigence, refusing to listen to the advice of his generals). As the war intensified, he virtually ignored his civil responsibilities and “conceded not a single error or misjudgment on his own part” as the country imploded and exploded around him. Kershaw gives appropriate attention to the Holocaust and reminds us, once again, of the unthinkable horrors of the 20th century’s “defining episode.” He also describes the war’s significant battles and brings to life with the power of his style the creepy cabal of criminals who surrounded Hitler and participated eagerly in the “orgy of atrocities.” Some may question the author’s conclusion that Hitler was “certainly not clinically insane,” however, in light of the evidence that Kershaw himself provides.
The most soulless of modern history’s monsters is preserved here in an amber of splendid scholarship and graceful, pungent prose.