on 26 April 2007
As the book was published already some years ago, I have read it many times since. It certainly is the definitive account of Germany's war-years and Hitler's downfall. I enjoyed most Kershaw's healthy detachment from his subject - I would, maybe wrongly, ascribe it to what we believe is British coolness; more probably it is due to the advantage of being a foreigner and retelling some of another country's darkest hours. It can't be done well from within, you're getting too much involved with what it all meant to those who survived. But history is one thing and post-war ideological strife another, and it is best to keep both separate. Meanwhile, Kershaw's study of Hitler has been recognised as the standard account in Germany as well. In any case, when looking at Kershaw's achievement which must have cost him many years, I freeze in awe and ask myself: Who am I to praise his work? But certainly it merits only praise, because it is, not only for the moment, the most detailed, reliable, thoughtful and readable biography of Hitler; there is nothing more to be said for a long time to come. It is a irony of history that persons who least deserve it sometimes find the finest biographers. So it is in this case.
on 10 August 2015
‘Hitler Nemesis’ (2000) by Ian Kershaw is the second volume of his brilliant account of Nazism and its Fuehrer taking up the story in1936..Hitler had restored German pride, reformed the economy, eliminated all opposition and was about to embark on his ‘twin ideological purpose: destroying the Jews..... and, through their destruction, acquiring mastery over the entire continent of Europe’ (P. XL1). The title of this review appears on P.276 when Kershaw is quoting a speech by Hitler to leading military figures on 23 November 1939 and it really sums up the thesis of the book. By then Germany had become largely immersed in the NSDAP which, in its turn, was really a facade of the Will of Adolf Hitler. Kershaw describes the steady progress of the Third Reich uphill to Operation Barbarossa (22 June 1941). Then comes the high plain and then the descent towards the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ when it was all to come tumbling down and a new world emerge.
The author’s thesis would place Hitler at the centre of everything but not personally initiating events. Re’ the increasing persecution of Jews after 1937 ‘Hitler’s own contribution, as usual, had largely consisted of setting the tone and providing the sanction and legitimation for the actions of others’ (P. 43) As argued in Volume 1 Hitler would hesitate to make a decision and then act ruthlessly. He was the great opportunist but after 1938 the central engine started to run down. The system continued to run as before when ‘each sectional interest in the Third Reich could thrive only with the legitimacy of the Führer’s backing. Each one inevitably, therefore “worked towards the Führer” in order to gain or sustain that backing...’(P.93) ‘Concession, compromise, retreat were to his mind inconceivable’ (P. 283). In a nutshell it was ‘World power or Ruin’. As the challenges and complexities increased and Hitler, mentally and physically, weakened, the incompetence of such a system intensified the effect of disasters. But such a weakness had long been there. Hesitation during the last few days of peace may be laid to Hitler’s personality as ‘No one doubted..... that he had the right to decide, and that his decisions were to be implemented’ (P.227) – but is that really the case? With war such a trend intensified, as Hitler became a self-assessed military genius. Perhaps the climax came on 9 September 1942 when Hitler replaced Field Marshal List (commanding the 28 divisions making up Army Group A) with himself. ‘He was now commander of the armed forces, of one branch of the armed forces [OKH], and of one group of that branch’ (P.533). A temporary measure but the trend continued. Events in early 1943 ‘For Hitler..... intensified the familiar, ingrained character-traits. The facade of often absurd optimism.... The flights of fantasy.... remarks revealing deep depression and fatalism.... new torrents of rage.... in many respects an empty, burnt-out shell...... but his resilience and strength of will remained extraordinary...’ (PP564-5). Attempts to cobble together ‘under these conditions were undermined by ‘the entire baggage of court-idiots and irresponsible agitators’ (Goebbels: June 1943 qu. P.564 on the circle around Hitler).
For 3 years Hitler rarely left East Prussia and so, it’s argued, practice tended to vary (e.g. re’ treatment of Jews), as long as they “worked towards the Führer” So in Chapter 10 is described, as, using contemporary terminology ‘system creep’, the war against the Jews. In 1941 ‘the full-scale industrialised killing programme... was at this stage not in mind’ (P.463). Really? Perhaps not in practice – ‘ the actual variation in the scale of the killing operations in the first weeks, and the sharp escalation from around August  onwards, strongly suggests.... no general mandate to exterminate Soviet Jewry in its entirety had been issued before “Barbarossa” began’(P.468) It became a question of practice makes perfect!
Kershaw describes how the the original date for attacking Poland on 26 August was tumbled into that of 1 September. He stresses Hitler’s duplicity but, with Mussolini’s failure to support him, was it largely an emotional reaction to confirmation that his ‘hero’ was really a paper tiger?. Also one might ask how far did Hitler trust Stalin in the event of war on a Western Front. That’s never even considered – even though the elimination of key figures in the Stavka & the threatening conflict with Japan in Mongolia MIGHT have suggested no Soviet intervention. Incidentally this interpretation might also explain the 29 decisions postponing the date from November 1939 to May 1940 for launching the attack even though Hitler ‘had not cancelled the offensive against the West’ (P.271). Note Hitler how much prided himself on keeping to his goals– Anti-Semitism. Totalitarian elimination of any rivals, Lebensraum, World Power? These remained constant, broken down into a series of YES/NO decisions. The hesitations Kershaw stresses were really about WHEN or HOW and never WHAT or WHY.
Occasionally emotion disrupted clear decision-making – e.g. the attack on Yugoslavia (P.362) and the declaration of war vs the USA following Pearl Harbour in December 1941 when ‘To await a certain declaration of war from America would, from Hitler’s standpoint, have been a sign of weakness’ (P.446. At Stalingrad, after several weeks refusing to consider withdrawal, on 30 January 1943 when the 6th Army were about to surrender Hitler suddenly promoted its commander, von Paulus, to Field-Marshal as ‘there is no record in military history of a German Field-Marshal being taken prisoner (quoted by Shirer P. 1111). Even so, Hitler is always shown believing in the ‘Triumph of the Will. Repeatedly Kershaw shows how this belief left Hitler delaying military withdrawal until it meant disaster or excessive losses (e.g. Stalingrad P. 549) However, ‘in his view, the military disasters had been the consequence of betrayal, incompetence, disobedience and, above all, weakness. He conceded not a single error or misjudgement on his own part’ (P.609). Of course, this involved complete isolation from human suffering (PP. 500-01). Yet this feature, along with egoism and megalomania, steadily destroyed him medically (P. 611-12)..In effect, he tried to ‘defend’ himself against such pressures by rages, sacking generals, not visiting sites of war damage or wounded troops (note the incident in Nov 1942 (P. 565)). As he didn’t trust anybody, he couldn’t properly delegate – see the ‘Committee of Three’ farce (PP.568-71). As he could never be wrong, he forced through disastrous decisions – e.g. the Me262, a jet fighter but Hitler insisted on trying to turn it into a bomber (P.635).’Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction’ (Matt 7:13) especially when ‘self-deception, as well as deception, ran through the entire regime’ (P. 631). Perhaps the regime was fortunate that opposition was marked by ‘disagreements, doubts, mistakes, miscalculations, moral dilemmas, short-sightedness, hesitancy, ideological splits, personal clashes, bungling organisation, distrust – and sheer bad luck’ (P. 655)., Many of those failings certainly featured in the 20th July Bomb plot – even if Von Stauffenburg remains one of my heroes.
Note how the approaches to the Jews changes according to OPPORTUNITY. Before 1933 Hitler denounced the Jews (except when courting Big Business). After the take-over the Jews are harassed, then became victims of legislation (e.g.1935 Nuremburg Laws), then isolated and plans made for their expulsion to Madagascar considered (PP. 321-4). With war German Jews (and those from elsewhere as opportunity offered) were removed mainly to concentration camps and ghettos outside the Reich. As German forces advanced into the USSR after 22 June 1941 so Soviet Jews (and others) were exterminated with growing efficiency. That was extended in January 1942, at Wannsee (PP. 492-3), to the rest of Europe, becoming the ‘Final Solution’ in accordance with a goal appearing in ‘Mein Kampf’ (1924) but only put into practice at Auschwitz etc. under the opportunity given by total war.
As a corollary consider the muddle / hesitation re’ invading Britain after the Dunkirk evacuation (PP. 301-5). Why? From ‘Mein Kampf’ onwards Hitler saw Britain as a potential PARTNER in the struggle vs Bolshevism and its continued opposition was so unexpected as to undermine his overall strategy.
I queried some details as, although far less knowledgeable than the author, I read the book. Was a simple pattern being overlooked? Hitler’s approach to the world appears essentially dualistic – A or B. resting on a pyramid of minor A or B situations. Through that catalogue of ‘hesitations’ in his strategy so well noted by Kershaw could Hitler have been deciding not WHAT to do but HOW to do it? Here’s another query. On 20 July 1944, during the chaos caused by the unsuccessful Bomb Plot, the surprisingly ‘unusual dilatoriness’ of Goebbels may be explained because he was ‘unsure of developments and wanted to hedge his bets’ (P.679). I don’t believe Goebbels, after 1928, would have ever considered deserting his hero – note his actions AFTER Hitler’s suicide, especially compared to those of ‘der treue Heinrich’ and Martin Bormann. Regarding the fate of Martin Bormann I feel his view that he ‘swallowed poison in the early hours of 2 May 1945 In Berlin’s Invalidenstrasse’ (P.833) as somewhat glib. No mention of the VARIOUS remains claimed to be those of the Reichsleiter discovered at various times & locations in Berlin (let alone the persistent idea of his escape to South America) nor of the evidence of Axmann etc. of what happened during the exit from Berlin. He cites Trevor-Roper but in ‘The Last Days of Hitler’ (1952) a footnote reveals uncertainty re’ Bormann’s end. Kershaw’s statement that ‘the earthly remains of Adolf Hitler.... were contained in a cigar-box’ may also be too dismissive (see ‘The Death of Adolf Hitler’ by Lev Bezymenski (1968)) for photos & autopsy reports)
As in Volume 1 Kershaw has presented myself with new (if not long forgotten) information as in the following examples. An appeal by President Roosevelt to Hitler not to attack 30 named countries provoked a scornful reply in a speech on 28 April 1939 (P.189). The rescue of seamen captured on the ‘Altmark’ from captivity. The existence of a second bomb at Rastenburg on the 20th July 1944 which might have brought success if exploded. And my favourite being how General Erich Hoepner sued the Reich for a denied pension and WON, thereby provoking a drastic change in the balance between Hitler and the Judiciary (see PP 507-11).
Taken as a whole Kershaw’s biography of Hitler, because of its scope and depth of detail, shrewdness of analysis, easy style and masterly management of resources, is THE biography of the Fuehrer. Well worth 5 stars.