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A revealing look at the Fuhrer, without the furor

Hitler A Biography; Ian Kershaw; W.W. Norton: 1,030 pp., $39.95

December 02, 2008|Martin Rubin | Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

Avid readers of biographies have asked me whether it is necessary for a biographer to be sympathetic to his subject: a good question but sometimes a vexing one.

In most cases, sympathy is an advantage, but if you are writing about a monster like Adolf Hitler, can you -- or, more important, should you -- sympathize? Well, no, but you do need above all to seek the fullest possible understanding of who this person was, what shaped him and how he came to be the force for evil and destruction that he undoubtedly was. This too can be a slippery slope toward exculpation; after all, as the French adage has it, "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" (to understand all is to forgive all).

The great virtue of Ian Kershaw's massive, probing two-volume biography of Hitler, now condensed into one thousand-page-long book, "Hitler: A Biography," is that it aims at -- and produces -- maximum understanding while never betraying so much as a hint of apologia for its rebarbative subject.

A professor of modern history at Britain's University of Sheffield, Kershaw has devoted his academic career to a study of Nazi Germany -- doubtless a depressing, but certainly a necessary, enterprise -- and this devotion shows in the scope and depth of the knowledge he brings to his biography. Indeed, it is interesting that he refers to it, at one point, as "a history of Hitler [that] has to be, therefore, a history of his power -- how he came to get it, what its character was, how he exercised it." You get the feeling at times that he is as much historian as biographer, which fits him superbly to his subject:

"A biography of an 'unperson,' one who has as good as no personal life or history outside that of the political events in which he is involved, imposes, naturally, its own limitations. But the drawbacks exist only as long as it is presumed that the private life is decisive for the public life. . . . There was no 'private life' for Hitler. . . . 'Private' and 'public' merged completely and became inseparable. Hitler's entire being came to be subsumed within the role he played to perfection: the role of 'Fuhrer.' "

Which is not to say that Kershaw ignores the man behind the public figure. Details of his private life, including his daily routine and his personal traits, are explored, and the biographer does not hold back his judgment of Hitler's character:

"Genuine fondness was reserved only for his young Alsatian. [Although he would use his beloved dog as a guinea pig to see if his cyanide capsules really worked before using them on himself and his new bride. Some fondness!] Human life and suffering were of no consequence to him. He never visited a field-hospital, nor the homeless after bomb raids. He saw no massacres, went near no concentration camp, viewed no compound of starving prisoners-of-war. His enemies were in his eyes like vermin to be stamped out. But his profound contempt for human existence extended to his own people. Decisions costing the lives of tens of thousands of his soldiers were made -- perhaps it was only thus possible to make them -- without consideration for any human plight. The hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed were merely an abstraction. . . . "

For all the pornographic violence of Hitlerian rhetoric, with its embrace of spilling blood and blood lust, it is clear that the phrase famously applied to his underling Adolf Eichmann "Schreibtischmorder" (desk-bound murderer) applies just as much to the supreme architect of all that death and destruction. Kershaw does not indulge in dime-store psychologizing, but he does not shy away from Hitler's profoundly and fundamentally pathological nature. In the end, for all Kershaw's understanding of the man and the milieus that formed him and that he was able create around him, this tireless and talented biographer can no more definitively explain how this monster evolved than an oncologist can know why a human cell becomes cancerous.

At the conclusion of his biography, Kershaw reveals some of the passion he feels at the unprecedented awfulness of his subject: "Never in history has such ruination -- physical and moral -- been associated with the name of one man." So a final authoritative judgment is rendered in these pages that Hitler is the greatest villain of all time. But Kershaw does not let Germany off lightly either, managing to put the onus on the nation as well while still keeping the focus on the Fuhrer himself:

"The extreme form of personal rule which an ill-educated beerhall demagogue and racist bigot, a narcissistic, megalomaniac, self-styled national saviour, was allowed to acquire and exercise in a modern economically advanced, and cultured land known for its philosophers and poets was absolutely decisive in the terrible unfolding of events in those fateful twelve years."

The ability to confront such dreadful truths in a clear-headed, subtle and insightful manner -- and to express them in pithy, revealing language -- this is why Kershaw is the indispensable and definitive guide to Hitler, Nazism and the nation that, for a while, shamefully refracted his evil genius.

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