Adolf Hitler, Alan Bullock, biographies, book reviews, Ian Kershaw, Joachim Fest, John Toland, Nazi Germany, Volker Ullrich
Hitler: A Biography
by Ian Kershaw
W. W. Norton
Published: Nov 2008
“Hitler: A Biography” is Ian Kershaw’s 2008 abridgment of his masterful two-volume series on Adolf Hitler. Kershaw is a British historian focused on 20th-century Germany and is a noted expert on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The volumes underlying this abridgment (“Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris” and “Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis“) were published in 1998 and 2000, respectively. The series was originally conceived as a study of power – much like Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon B. Johnson – but grew into something even deeper and more substantial than expected. Kershaw was convinced to condense the series in order to make it accessible to a wider group of readers.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is one of history’s most horrifying and unfathomable demons. Not surprisingly, there are a large number of excellent books focused on his life and legacy including well-known biographies by Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, John Toland and Volker Ullrich, among others.
Readers seeking an uplifting and entertaining biography would do well to steer clear of Hitler, of course. But anyone willing to embrace a serious and somber subject will find that Kershaw’s abridged biography of Hitler is extraordinarily thoughtful, methodical and penetrating.
Much of the 969-page narrative is devoted to considering Hitler’s personality, psychological make-up and his rhetorical and political talents. As Kershaw adeptly observes, these catalysts – along with a unique combination of timing, chance and circumstance – converged in such a way that Hitler and his perverted world view could take root and flourish.
The book’s focus on Hitler’s persona – which also considers his childhood influences, early professional failures and the broader context of post-WWI Germany – is arguably the most interesting and insightful part of the book. But the remainder of the narrative – which systematically documents the disintegration of the old German Republic and the rise of Hitler’s monstrous variant of fascism – is undeniably meritorious.
In many ways, this is really a political biography of both Hitler and the Nazi Party. As such, it is careful to consider the broad social, cultural, economic and political contexts which contributed to Hitler’s rise. Readers unfamiliar with mid-twentieth century history or World War II’s broad thrusts, however, may find Kershaw’s field-of-view too tightly focused on central Europe to provide much insight into the “big picture.”
The narrative is consistently serious, analytical and reflective. It is also frequently dry and fact-heavy. Kershaw’s riveting dissection of Hitler’s persona eventually transitions to an exhaustive chronicle of events which fans of the era will find intellectually invigorating. But some readers are likely to find large sections of the biography tedious or superfluous.
In addition, it may surprise some readers that such a detailed biography of Germany’s idiopathic villain almost entirely fails to involve figures like Winston Churchill, FDR and Dwight Eisenhower. However, notorious henchmen such as Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess (among many others) are prominently featured, along with other key adversaries and allies such as Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin.
Overall, Ian Kershaw’s “Hitler: A Biography” is nearly everything one could expect from a serious survey of Hitler’s life: it is magisterial and sweeping, serious, thorough, analytical and extraordinarily thoughtful. Only readers with an inclination toward more buoyant topics, or a lighthearted and mellifluous narrative, will find much lacking in this biography.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars
Russ Robinson said:
I’ve only read one complete biography on Hitler, and it was John Toland’s I would recommend it also. This bio doesn’t bog down at all. Not only covers all aspects of Hitler’s life, but does a good job of describing of what made Hitler.
Christopher Saunders said:
Nice review as usual. I’ve read the full two-volumes of Kershaw’s bio but it doesn’t sound like the abridgement lost much of substance. He has a very good handle not only on Hitler but also the broader concept of the Fuhrerprinzip and how Nazism actually functioned as a system of government. Some other writers (Richard Evans I think) have criticized him for being too narrowly focused on Hitler’s perspective, but that’s probably inevitable in a biography.
I was fascinated to read Kershaw’s explanation for writing the single-volume condensed version of the series and the struggle he faced trying to abbreviate something he felt was already the perfect length 🙂
Although his narrative is certainly quite focused on Hitler’s sphere, I suppose it’s hard to fault. This book isn’t likely to have many readers who cannot fill in the bigger picture – even though adding that even broader context intermittently would have made this a better, more approachable book for a larger potential audience.
Darren Seacliffe said:
For Steve, from Volker Ulrich’s introduction to Hitler, which I hope will help him in his subsequent journey:
“Parallel to but largely independent of the entertainment market, academic historians around the world have pressed forward with investigations concerning nearly every aspect
of Hitler and National Socialism. No historical topic has been more thoroughly researched in all its nooks and crannies—today the literature on the subject fills whole libraries. And yet academic interest in this “murky figure” never wanes. The riddles surrounding Hitler —the questions of how and why he could come to power and hang on to it for more than a decade—demand ever-new explanations. There has been no shortage of biographical approaches to these questions, but only four have stood the test of time: Konrad Heiden’s two-volume Hitler: A Biography, written in the mid-1930s from Swiss exile; Alan
Bullock’s canonical Hitler: A Study in Tyranny from the early 1950s; Joachim Fest’s sweeping portrait Hitler: A Biography, first published in 1973; and Ian Kershaw’s standard-setting Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris and Hitler 1936–1945: Nemesis from 1998
Thanks for this! I always love reading pithy thoughts about competing biographies from people who, although possibly biased, are in a position to have keen insight.
Kershaw’s To Hell and Back was a rough read for me (though that may be due to its breadth), so I did not have his Hitler bio on my list. Good to see you liked this overall, though your dry and fact heavy comment reminds me of why I did not like To Hell and Back. I have also been considering whether to read Evans’ Third Reich Trilogy which gets a lot of positive reviews.
Christopher Saunders said:
Evans’ books fully deserve their reputation. Especially the second volume (The Third Reich in Power) which gets into the fine grain detail of what it was like to live in Hitler’s Germany.
Thanks. I think I will read them.
I have been using your bibliography of American presidents with abandon. I usually order used copies of hard cover ones since they are too unwieldy to read in paper. I am so grateful for the depth of your reviews. I am looking forward to volume 2 on JFK and note that the author is on leave, hopefully to finish it. Logevall is such a good writer that I went ahead and read his volume on the French involvement in Viet Nam as it transferred to be our problem. I will pass on Hitler, but appreciate your clear review.
It’s funny, but I have found myself strongly tending towards hardbacks as well. Easier to travel with, easier to keep open without laying another book on the edge of the pages I’ve read while I read and type notes, …..
I am looking forward to Logevall’s 2nd volume (and have been for quite some time). I’ve not yet read volume 1 though it’s staring at me from a bookshelf. But having skimmed it, I’m really looking forward to the series once it is complete!
I devoured Volume 1 and was particularly captured by his clear prose. Hence my following up with his other books.
I have found that some of the biographies are so big that they are difficult to hold and in those cases I look for an e-version from my library.