From the early (and for its time very creditable) biography by Alan Bullock through the stylish, but overblown and overpraised study by Joachim Fest, to the hopelessly inaccurate life by John Toland, biographies of Hitler have been more notable for their number than for their quality. Only with the new biography by Ian Kershaw do we have a study of Hitler's life that is both based on a thorough knowledge of the archival material and scrupulously careful and balanced in its judgments.Such was the verdict of Richard J. Evans, the doyen of English-speaking scholars of Nazism, on this definitive biography of Adolf Hitler. It is a judgement that seems well deserved.
Adolf Hitler was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1889, the son of a successful customs official, Alois Hitler né Schicklgruber.
The Hitlers' home life was emotionally challenging. Alois, the family patriarch, was stern and domineering. It doesn't come as a massive surprise that young Adolf was a naughty boy, and his misbehaviour led to repeated beatings. His mother doted on him. Kershaw suggests that she was the only human being whom he even really loved (though he seems to have been genuinely fond of his pet dogs in adult life). Numerous psychohistorians have tried to find the roots of World War II and the Holocaust in what went on between the four walls of the Hitlers' small-town home in turn-of-the-century Linz, but without carrying much conviction. Overstrict fathers and overfond mothers may leave an imprint on their offspring, but they are a lot more common than genocidal dictators.
Adolf didn't shine at school, though he does seem to have picked up the pan-German nationalism that was current among his teachers. He had no interest in following his father into the Habsburg civil service. He left school at 16 and spent the next couple of years bumming around Linz and spongeing off his family. His mother died in 1907, his father having already passed away four years earlier. His mother's death was, predictably, a severe blow to him, though he was grateful enough to the Jewish doctor who took care of her in her last illness.
Hitler then moved to Vienna to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Late imperial Vienna was a place of extremes - a city of magnificent wealth and dire poverty. It was the capital of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a real multinational metropolis. Hitler was astonished when the Academy of Fine Arts had the discourtesy to turn him down, a rejection which it repeated the following year. He toyed with the idea of becoming an architect, but took no steps towards acquiring the qualifications and training required. A remarkably lazy young man, he lived off his orphan's pension and money provided by his family until eventually he ended up in a dosshouse. He managed to rescue himself from destitution by painting and selling pictures of the city, though he was undisciplined even in this. This laziness was to be repeated in later life, as his minions organised purges and pogroms on his behalf while he lounged in bed, went on walks or watched films.
There is evidence that Hitler was already something of a fantasist in this period, with a chip on his shoulder about his rejection by the Academy, if not about the world's treatment of him generally. He had fanciful ideas, including a plan to write an opera on the legend of Wieland the Smith. Unfortunately, Kershaw comes up here against the same problem as other historians, which is how much to believe of the evidence of Hitler's friend August Kubizek. It is not always easy to separate the truth in Kubizek's reminiscences from the undoubted embellishments.
What we can say is that Hitler's political views were beginning to solidify. One experience which may have turned him off democracy was sitting in the public gallery of the imperial parliament and watching the deputies elected from across the Habsburg Empire tear each other apart, verbally and sometimes physically. He didn't like socialists, and he appears to have admired antisemitic right-wing politicians like Georg Ritter von Schönerer and the legendary Karl Lueger. Yet, contrary to what he later claimed in Mein Kampf, he does not yet seem to have been a diehard Jew-hater. He would undoubtedly have imbibed the antisemitism that was in the air in Vienna at the time, but we cannot say much more than that (Kershaw is perhaps too willing to go further here). He was reportedly happy to do business and maintain friendly relations with individual Jews whom he met, which was certainly not the case in later years. He made heated interventions in political discussions in the mens' hostel where he lived, but his outbursts were directed not against Jews but against Social Democrats and Jesuits (a favourite target of conspiracy theories at the time).
Hitler moved across the border into Germany in 1913, apparently in order to avoid being drafted into the Austrian army. He set up home in Munich. The Austrian authorities did eventually catch up with him, but they ended up deciding that he was too weak for military service. He continued to earn a modest living painting pictures of the city - at that time, home to world-class artists such as Klee and Kandinsky - and to argue with other nobodies about politics in the coffee houses.
Then came the War.
Hitler loved the First World War - really loved it - and seems to have reacted badly to the disillusionment, cynicism and defeatism which he encountered in the trenches and back in Germany while he was on leave and in hospital. It is also plausible that he was influenced by the rising tide of antisemitism on the pro-war nationalist right, and then by the anguished response of the German public to the national disaster of the Treaty of Versailles. He later claimed in Mein Kampf that he had something like a mystical awakening when he heard, in November 1918, that Germany had sued for peace. This was probably retrospective myth-making, a kind of dramatic, symbolic version of his real-life radicalisation experience.
Hitler's main interest after the armistice seems to have been to stay in the army for as long as possible. He was posted back to Munich, at that time a politically unstable city, and it was in these circumstances that he first became involved in politics - the army was pursuing a policy of promoting right-wing propaganda within its own ranks and outside. Hitler's unusual talent for rabble-rousing oratory quickly emerged, and got him talent-spotted. It is in this period that we find the first contemporary evidence of him espousing radical, pathological antisemitism. His officers even had to tell him to tone down the Jew-baiting.
Nationalism and anti-Marxism were running high in Munich at this time. A wave of left-wing extremism had swept over the city, culimating in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic of April-May 1919, which was crushed by anti-Marxist units of the army and right-wing paramilitaries. For the political right, this was a horrifying experience that would not quickly be forgotten. Hitler's own army unit had been under the command of the radical socialist authorities, and, rather surprisingly, he seems to have worked in collaboration with the leftist government before it fell.
It was around this time that Hitler came across the German Workers' Party, an unimportant groupuscle which spouted an incoherent mix of racist nationalism and socialism. Hitler had become a member by the end of September 1919. It seems that he was ordered to join the party by the army as part of its political operations, but he continued to work with the group after he was demobilised in March 1920.
By now, Hitler's time had come. He had finally discovered the one thing that he was really good at - blood-curdling rhetoric - and the unsettled political conditions of the time provided an opening for a right-wing populist demagogue. If it hadn't been for these circumstances, Hitler would never have got anywhere, and the emergence of such circumstances was far from inevitable. The old myth that Germany before the arrival of the Nazis was an essentially different and more sinister place than other European countries - obsessed with racial nationalism and authoritarian rule - has long been exploded. Both before and after the Great War, elections produced large-scale success for socialist, liberal and Catholic parties which opposed the radical right, and pre-1914 Germany had lagged noticeably behind France and Russia in the antisemitic stakes. Nevertheless, the German political scene did include a distinctive tradition of hardline right-wing nationalism - and it was the section of German society associated with this tradition which, like Hitler himself, became radicalised by the Great War and the humilitation of the Treaty of Versailles, and emerged as a force for violence and instability thereafter.
By July 1921, Hitler was running the National Socialist German Workers' Party, as it had by now been renamed. Hitler later liked to portray this as his ascent, as the man of destiny, to the leadership of an otherwise obscure and disorganised faction which then became a highly mobilised tool of his will. In truth, his acquisition of the leadership - which he had previously declined - had more to do with opportunism than with destiny, arising out of temporary tactical disagreements which provoked him into one of his prima donna moments. At this stage, Hitler still did not see himself as a future dictator - he was simply the John the Baptist figure, the "drummer" (Trommler). He was looking for the future saviour of Germany rather than auditioning for the role himself. It was only around 1922 that Hitler's followers first began to create the myth of the Fuehrer - and Hitler himself only really bought into it during his imprisonment in Landsberg. Apart from anything else, the World War I leader General Erich Ludendorff was a better known and more deeply respected figure on the extreme right. The Fuehrer-cult did not reach full maturity before the end of the 1920s.
Nor was Hitler some lone man of iron. He couldn't have got even this far without the support and patronage of others - his army contacts Captains Mayr and Roehm, the voelkisch intellectual Dietrich Eckart, and certain members of Munich high society. Following the unpleasant experience of the Soviet Republic, Bavaria had become a redoubt of the political right, as well as a magnet for radical nationalists from all over Germany. It was ruled by the hardline conservative Minister-President Gustav Ritter von Kahr. Kahr initiated contacts with the Nazis, but, in spite of their mutual dislike of liberal democracy, this was not a marriage made in heaven. Kahr mistrusted the Nazi rabble and played a key role in foiling the Munich Putsch of 1923. Hitler later settled the score by murdering him in the Night of the Long Knives.
The Munich Putsch was the Nazis' cover version of the Fascists' 1922 March on Rome, but it ended very differently. Kahr and the other men of Bavaria's nationalist establishment were by no means averse to the idea of a right-wing coup, and indeed had been thinking along similar lines themselves, but they saw it as an enterprise to be mounted by grown-ups - established politicians and reliable generals - not by the wild man Hitler and his SA riff-raff. When the Putsch came, the authorities declined to support it, and Hitler was left facing a hostile police and army. Not even the support of Ludendorff could save him. Within hours, he was in jail.
Hitler's conviction for high treason in April 1924 ought to have ended his career, but he got off remarkably lightly. His trial was so shamefully biased that it surprised even right-wing opinion. He used the courtroom as an opportunity for propagandising, and he was given a derisory sentence of 4 years in the undemanding conditions of Landsberg prison. He was given parole indecently early, in December 1924: in all, he was behind bars for barely more than a year, though this was long enough for him to dictate much of his huge, indigestible masterpiece Mein Kampf. Then he was out again, able to unite the warring factions of the fractious voelkisch movement under his own leadership. He got rid of Ludendorff by running him as a hopeless candidate in the unwinnable 1925 presidential election; the old man never lived down the defeat. Meanwhile, the German federal states successively lifted the ban on Hitler speaking in public.
All the same, the Hitler movement in the second half of the 1920s was still a small and inconsequential presence on the German political scene. In the 1928 general election, the Nazis won only 2.6% of the vote. It took the cataclysm of the Great Depression to propel Hitler into the office of Reich Chancellor and to make available to him the levers of power.
"We're boxing Hitler in." - Alfred Hugenberg, Reich Minister of Economics and Agriculture
"We've hired him." - Franz von Papen, Reich Vice Chancellor
Within six months of uttering the words quoted above, the nationalist conservative leader Alfred Hugenberg would be pushed out of the Reich Government, with his party being forced to dissolve itself and one of his senior colleagues being found dead in mysterious circumstances. The aristocratic Catholic politician Papen clung on a little longer, until July 1934, by which time he had found himself under house arrest, with his staff taken into custody and two of his associates murdered in the Night of the Long Knives. These men were members of the old conservative establishment - supposedly the natural rulers of Germany. They came head-to-head with Adolf Hitler, and they lost. How did this happen?
In truth, it wasn't just the Great Depression. The prosperity of 1920s Germany was in some respects a facade, and important sectors of German society had never accepted the liberal democratic Weimar settlement. Many among the country's élite, including Hugenberg and to a lesser extent Papen, would have preferred to turn the clock back to the Bismarckian authoritarian regime that had governed the country before 1914. At the other end of society, millions of Germans gave their allegiance to a Communist Party which had an armed paramilitary wing and took its orders directly from Moscow.
By 1932, political violence had reached deeply disturbing levels. The Weimar regime was living on borrowed time, and it seemed likely that German democracy was doomed. What was much less likely was that the Nazis would replace it. The nationalist conservative establishment thought about imposing a traditional authoritarian government backed by the army. Their leader, President Paul von Hindenberg, was not prepared to entrust the country to the "Bohemian corporal", and preferred to keep his friend and ally Papen in office as Reich Chancellor. Meanwhile, there was talk of a left-wing uprising if the right breached the Weimar constitution. Civil war was not a remote possibility.
By the end of 1932, the Nazis appeared to have jumped the shark. Their electoral support had passed its peak, the party was broke, and a split had opened up between Hitler and his lieutenant Gregor Strasser (thanks to the machinations of the devious General Kurt von Schleicher, who had briefly replaced Papen as Reich Chancellor). Hitler eventually came to power in January 1933 not because he was a man of destiny who persevered through the iron strength of his will. He became Reich Chancellor because of the continuing machinations of Papen and the miscalculations of other traditionalist conservatives like Hugenberg who thought that they could co-opt him. The deranged Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe then helped him on his way by deciding, in the middle of a lethally tense political situation, that it would be a good idea to set fire to the Reichstag.
The conservative establishment thought that it was taking no chances. Hindenburg appointed only three Nazis to the first Hitler cabinet: the Reich Vice-Chancellor was Papen, and other ministers, including Hugenberg, came from the traditionally conservative DNVP. Hitler's job would be to mobilise mass support for the government and smash the left on the streets. Then he could be quietly dropped and replaced with a proper Chancellor. Oddly enough, the opposition shared this dangerous delusion that Hitler would be willing to serve as a cipher for the country's élites: it was said in left-wing circles that Hugenberg would be the true ruler of Germany, with Hitler as his front-man. It didn't turn out like that.
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