Most simply put, this, the second of two superb books by British historian Ian Kershaw on Hitler's life and times, quite successfully draws the reader closer to an understanding of this historically enigmatic and often bizarre human being who so changed the world of the 20th century. Although there are a myriad of such books that have appeared in the half-century since Hitler's demise in the dust and rubble of Berlin, this particular effort, which draws from hundreds of secondary sources, many of which have never before been cited, paints an authentic and masterful portrait of Hitler as an individual. This is an absolutely singular historical work; and it will almost come to occupy a central place on the shelves of serious World War Two historians. Most fascinating for me is the way in which Kershaw grows an incredibly fertile appreciation for Hitler's personal characteristics into a sophisticated appreciation for what unfolded historically. A good example is his fetish for secrecy, which left both Hitler himself and those around him incredibly poorly informed of many of the details of what their policies were doing to the society around them.
Author Ian Kershaw takes a quite different and novel approach, and it is one I enjoyed. Here, by carefully locating and fixing the individual in the context and welter of his times, it yields a much more enlightening approach toward painting a meaningful comprehensive picture of how this criminally twisted psychopath became such a fatefully placed politician and leader of post-World War One Germany. Thus, in Volume One we saw the boy grow and change in whatever fashion into a man, tracing the rise of this troubled malcontent from the anonymity of Viennese shelters to a fiery and meteoric rise into politics, culminating in his ascent to rule Germany. Kershaw memorably recreates the social, economic, and political circumstances that bent and twisted Hitler so fatefully for the history of the world. In this volume, Kershaw concentrates masterfully on how this single human being then fatefully pushes Nazi Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world into the most horrific bloodbath in modern history.
Hitler was, in Kershaw's estimation, a man most representative of his times, reflecting a widespread disaffection with democratic politics, steeped in the virulent anti-Semitism of his Viennese environment, twisted and experienced in the cruelties and absurdities of the First World War, thrust by circumstance and disposition into the sectarian, dyspeptic, and rough & tumble politics of the 1920s, and rising by finding himself the most unlikely of politicians with an unusual ability to orate and emote. It is also interesting to discover that Hitler had an unusually acute (though uneven) intellect, is rumored to have possessed a 'photographic memory', and was said to have an amazing ability to discuss and quote facts and figures and then subsequently casually weave them into a conversation that witnesses found spellbinding and convincing. He was also unquestionably quite charismatic and charming. Kershaw argues masterfully that it is impossible to understand 'why' Hitler without understanding this extremely toxic and strange combination of social, economic, and cultural factors that characterized Germany.
Thus, as Hitler begins his ineluctable rise to power, we better appreciate how and why such a seemingly unlikely cast of characters as the Nazis succeeded so wildly beyond what one would expect to be possible in a sane and sophisticated modern industrial state. This is fascinating stuff, as is his treatment of the concomitant rise of the slugs, thugs, and under-life accompanying him into the corridors of power and influence. Here is the world's greatest single collection of otherwise underachieving bullies, fanatics, pseudo-intellectuals, and fellow travelers, who clashed into an uneasy coalescence that formed the nucleus of the single greatest force for collective evil seen in the modern world. Finally, one's mind reels at the scene at the book's conclusion, as the fabulous evil empire created by the Nazis had been reduced by Soviet artillery and Allied bombing into dust and rubble, and Hitler becomes an almost comically eccentric figure, reduced by his own devices to settling for a self-inflicted gunshot to the brain rather than the worldwide domination he had struggled toward.