Hitler: A Life
Oxford University Press, $59.99 pb, 1,339 pp, 9780190056735
It’s a disconcerting image. Piercing blue eyes stare out at you from the cover of the book. It renders Adolf Hitler somehow human, which is the intent of the author, Peter Longerich, and which sets this biography apart from the many others that have preceded it. Two other notable biographers, Ian Kershaw and Joachim Fest, refused to engage with Hitler’s personality and declared that he was ‘unhuman’ or a ‘non-person’. This book, on the other hand, does what few have succeeded in doing well – integrating the life of the man with the history of the Nazi regime.
Longerich depicts Hitler up until the end of World War I as a nobody who had an unimpressive childhood, a down-and-outer in the streets of Vienna, an eccentric loner completely on the margins of society, a colourless figure incapable of connecting with people on an intimate or physical level.(Longerich implies that he was asexual and probably died a virgin.) The women that came later in his life – his niece Geli Raubal, Magda Goebbels, and Eva Braun – were only ever appendages used to make him look ‘normal’.
Nothing in the first three decades of Hitler’s life pointed to what was to follow, which is what makes this story all that more remarkable. What we do find, however, are a number of personality traits that help explain his actions once he does come to power: a complete lack of empathy; infantile fantasies about himself and the world that bordered on the delusional; an intense anxiety about losing control of his life; and an exaggerated fear of humiliation.
Hitler’s life only found purpose with the outbreak of war in 1914. Despite the fact that he had earlier moved from Vienna to Munich to dodge the Austrian draft – he was born in Braunau am Inn in the Austrian Empire – Hitler volunteered for the Bavarian Army and, for the first time, led an orderly and disciplined life. He spent most of the war as a runner, that is, relatively safe compared to those in the trenches, although he received the Iron Cross, twice, for feats of bravery.
Germany’s ultimate defeat supposedly came as a great shock to him, which is more an indication of his inability to accept reality, and which laid the foundations for ‘the destructive energy necessary to punish those whom he blamed for the deepest humiliation of his life’. Shortly after the war, at the behest of ultra-conservative members of the German Army, for which he still worked, he joined the German Workers’ Party (later the National Socialist German Workers’ Party). There he uncovered his one and only talent: an ability to speak to crowds for hours about his beliefs and dreams.
When accounting for Hitler’s success as a public speaker in these early years, it is his ‘almost pitiable quality, his awkwardness, his obvious lack of training and … his intensity and ecstatic quality’ that made such an impression on his public. His lack of social graces, shoddy clothing, and poor table manners all betrayed his lower-middle-class origins, but even those flaws did not prevent people from being drawn to him. The enigma is that he was so successful at convincing people that his overblown fantasies and megalomaniacal imaginings were achievable, indeed realistic.
It is because they fed into the dreams, fears, and hatreds of many middle-class Germans. But not only that. Hitler’s rise to power had as much to do with a conservative political and military élite that despised democracy as with Hitler’s powers of persuasion. The complicity of the German Army, both in the early stages of his political career and especially in the crimes committed during World War II, the general acceptance of anti-Semitism in the broader public, and the desire of conservative political élites to undermine the fledgling Weimar Republic coincided with the economic difficulties being faced by postwar Germany and the stock-market crash of 1929. The Nazis thus went from an extreme-right-wing group that garnered only a few per cent of the vote to being one of the largest parties in the country in less than ten years. By the time Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, largely due to political machinations behind the scenes, the Weimar Republic had already ceased to function as a democracy, undermined from within.
What followed was an extreme-right-wing revolution, as the Nazis took hold of the state apparatus and gradually eliminated all organised opposition. This required a considerable amount of political skill, but it was only possible because Hitler had millions of supporters. That said, it is clear that the majority of Germans did not enthusiastically support Hitler. The regime survived because it was built upon the twin pillars of all dictatorships: fear and surveillance. The Party and the Gestapo were ever vigilant and the slightest opposition to the regime could end in a concentration camp and death.
All this is outlined in detail, including Hitler’s transformation of German society and his desire to start a war. We have just commemorated the eightieth anniversary of the invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II on 1 September 1939, but there is an argument that it began a year earlier, with the Western democracies’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. Despite some rapid and notable successes in the opening phases of the war, this was a war Germany could never win, for reasons lucidly explained by Longerich.
This is a Hitler who was no ‘weak dictator’, as some historians have contended, but one who was in control, and whose personality shaped the course of history. Hitler was thus behind the radicalisation of anti-Semitism – even if people like Himmler, Heydrich, and Eichmann carried it out – not from a preconceived plan, as is sometimes thought, but rather as a function of the war against Russia and as a means of deliberately implicating his allies in the crimes of the Nazi regime in order to hold together the Axis alliance even as defeat loomed.
Hitler conducted the war as a racially motivated one of extermination. He refused to listen to advice from his generals, and insisted on his armies ‘standing their ground’ and of fanatically holding the line to the last man, even when tactical withdrawals would have saved hundreds of thousands of troops from annihilation (Stalingrad is only one among many examples). This has often been explained as a result of Hitler being out of touch with reality, unable to give up the illusion of a ‘final victory’, but Longerich explains this irrational decision-making in terms of Hitler’s ‘all or nothing’ attitude, born of the defeat of 1918. There could be no capitulation, only victory or defeat that would end in total destruction, or, as Hitler preferred to put it, a ‘heroic downfall’. It was this fantasy that cost the lives of millions of people in the last years of the war.
This is certainly one of the best biographies of Hitler on the market. Longerich is one of the most established historians of the Third Reich, with acclaimed biographies of Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. The reader then is in very capable hands. What is missing, and what I find frustrating as a biographer, is any real sense of getting to ‘know’ Hitler, if that is at all possible. We are told, for example, that Hitler was prone to ‘fits of rage’, without any speculation about the deep source of that rage. Some might argue that this is prudent. It is true that Longerich does a better job than most at trying to get at the personality behind the façade, and of trying to understand Hitler’s motives, but we don’t really get any sense of how, once in power, Hitler so easily developed his murderous disposition.
More than seventy years after the death of one of the bloodiest tyrants in history, our knowledge of the man and his regime is still evolving. This will not be the last word on the Hitler, and it is not the ‘definitive’ biography that some have already made out. It is, however, an object lesson in what can happen when extremes are given a voice and belief in democracy is undermined. History never repeats itself, but we ignore its lessons at our own peril.
In 1921, Hitler wrote, ‘We want to pour hatred, burning hatred into the souls of millions of our national comrades.’ Consciously or not, any number of populist politicians in the West seem to be doing exactly that.