Another book on the making of the world’s most studied dictator.
As former Sunday Times correspondent Ham (Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath, 2014, etc.) notes, the rise of Adolf Hitler from provincial nobody to central figure on the world stage would have been impossible without a chain of extraordinary catastrophes: the collapse of the old European empires, economic depression, and, particularly, the bloodletting of World War I. In that regard, Hitler, already known as a prudish and abstemious young man, was a brave, dutiful soldier who, unlike so many in the trenches, “never abandoned his belief in the sacrifice, for the glory of the German Army and the future of the Reich, a goal for which every man must be willing to give his life.” Even so, Ham adds, Hitler was never quite the war hero of later Nazi myth. He did not single-handedly capture a squad of enemy soldiers at the end of a pistol, and neither did he oppose the anti-war left, at least at the beginning of a political career marked by “opportunity, hypocrisy, skill and sheer desperation.” In his study of formative politics, Ham ponders why Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew to such virulent proportions when, throughout much of his early years, that sentiment was absent. The author’s speculations in that regard will be of interest to students of mass psychology as much as history, as are his notes on Hitler’s protean ability to be all things to all people and make promises he never intended to keep—but also ones he did. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book in a time of resurgent nationalism is its quiet reminder that Hitler was an all-too-human product of his time who “personified the feelings of millions, and still does.”
Ham makes many good points, but while useful and well-executed, this is an ordinary entry in a field dominated by more authoritative books.