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