Top positive review
'an unimaginable harvest of sorrow ... a level of destruction never experienced in human history'.
on 21 September 2013
The quote at the top of this review is actually a truncated observation Kershaw makes regarding the battle on the Eastern front, between Russia and the Third Reich. Whilst Mao's China and Stalin's Russia can also boast death tolls that defy comprehension, yet still WWII - Hitler's war - remains in a league of its own. Compressing the two-volume Hubris and Nemesis into a single book, in large part by stripping out the 'scholarly apparatus' (footnotes, etc.), this nonetheless remains a chunky tome, the main body of the text just shy of 1,000 pages. In addition to the 969 pages of text there are 80 pages of black and white photos, and ten pages of fairly basic maps.
This is a fascinating, gripping, and compelling account centred on the man whose life story is the focal point in the unfolding of one of the twentieth century's greatest traumas. Hitler's early unfocused slacker lifestyle was brought sharply into focus during WWI, which brought him focus, a role and position in society, and his first sense of self-esteem, having previously been something of a loner and failure as an artist in Vienna. His sense of injustice at the outcome of WWI became a monomania which he combined with a particularly virulent strain of antisemitism (both of these things seemingly commonplaces in German culture at the time), forming his lifelong creed: never again, Hitler swore, would Germany suffer the shame it did in 1918. And the alleged enemy, international Jewry - be it capitalist or Bolshevist (for many, but perhaps none more so than Hitler, the Jews were an all-purpose bogeyman) - would be made to pay.
Kershaw covers the whole story admirably. But one of the parts that's most fascinating is Adolf's rise from art-school reject to beer hall demagogue, and then ultimately Führer. Early on in that 'resistible rise', during Hitler's interment after his failed putsch (Munich, 1923), he wrote Mein Kampf, in which he laid out the manifesto he would later implement, seeking 'lebensraum' (living space) for Germany in 'the East', the east chiefly being Russia. During this erratic and uncertain ascent a dynamic set in which, prior to 1941, seemed to some to cast Adolf as an infallible leader of indomitable will, but after that point rapidly overreached and unravelled, revealing itself to contain the seeds of its own destruction.
One of Kershaw's chief contributions to the massive literature on all things Third Reich-ian appears to be the 'working towards the Führer' idea. I don't know if this is an original idea of his or not, and it does seem like just the kind of term to arise in academia (Kershaw's a professional academic as well as author). I must admit such phrases often irk me somewhat, but it has to be conceded that it fits the bill here admirably. Kershaw is also very strong on the notion that Hitler achieved his form of leadership only by dissolving norms of government, such that the whole system inevitably evolved into a complete mess, the only common thread in the chaos being the clarity of 'working towards the Führer'.
I do have a few gripes: given the massive range of sources available, Kershaw's repeated recourse to Goebbel's diaries was at times so frequent as to be a little annoying. Also, in some areas - e.g. air warfare - he occasionally appears to be happy trotting out familiar clichés (which a book like Overy's Bombing War elucidates more accurately). But all things considered this is undoubtedly an excellent rendering of a hugely important and massively fascinating if dark chapter of our recent history. I once visited a concentration camp in Germany, and it was extremely sobering to stand on the very ground where unspeakable and barely believable barbarism occurred (and the camp I visited was only a 'transit' and not a 'death' camp), so close to home both in time and space.
One can only hope we might learn something from history.