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on 18 August 2011
Ian Kershaw's monumental biography of Adolf Hitler, more than a thousand pages long (previously published as two volumes). It is obviously a very long read, but it is a fascinating story, never boring.
Reading it, what I find most incredible about Hitler's life is how someone who came out of World War I without seemingly any future prospects could become in a few years time one of the most important men of the 20th century, the man responsible for millions of dead in history's bloodiest war. The day Hitler turned 30 years old, April the 20th, 1919, Hitler must have felt an abject failure: his beloved Germany had recently lost the war, Munich was in the hands of the communist Bavarian Soviet Republic (though it seems that Hitler quietly supported the Soviet republic at the time, out of opportunism more than out of belief), if he was going to be discharged soon from the demobilizing army, as it seemed likely, he seemingly had no prospect of any civilian job. Looking at the past, he could have seen how he had failed as an artist, have few friends for the last years, was never able to have a girlfriend. Despite all this, in a few months his life would be changed when as an army spy he joined the little known NSDAP. In a few years time, he would become a national figure, the unquestionable leader of Germany's extreme nationalists. In fourteen years, he would become the leader of Germany.
The book has some good material on Hitler's childhood in conservative, provincial Austria. It is interesting to read how much his mother Klara spoiled him. As a young man, Hitler was lazy and bohemian, never having a regular job. He thought he was a great artist, so he felt crushed when the Art Academy in Vienna rejected twice his application. He was bossy and manipulative toward his few friends. Before he turned 19 both his parents were dead, and he lived in abject poverty in Vienna as a struggling artist in the years just before World War I.
I find it profitable to compare this book with another recent two volume biography of the other great tyrant of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both were originally underestimated, and turned out to be far smarter than what their political opponents thought. Stalin was probably more evil and cruel than Hitler (Stalin rejoiced in sending to their death former friends and comrades in a way than Hitler didn't) but I think Hitler was probably the crazier, less adjusted guy. Before entering politics, Hitler was a complete outcast from society, socially and emotionally, in a way than Stalin (who in his young years, as a top Bolshevik bandit in the Caucasus was always able to have many friends and female lovers) never was. Interestingly, according to some of their close followers, both seem to have lost the last piece of their humanity in the early 1930s when women very close to them committed suicide in mysterious circumstances (Hitler's niece Geli Raubal in 1931 and Stalin's wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva in 1932).