Hitler: Hubris (1889-1936)

-Ian Kershaw


By any reasonable definition, Adolf Hitler was one of the most evil men ever to walk the planet.  One may argue - many do - that men like Stalin and Genghis Khan killed more people and made a longer-lasting impact on human history than Hitler, but it cannot be denied that Hitler changed the course of human history forever.  Europe, already battered by the First World War - the ‘war that made Hitler’ was left in ruins by the Second World War, the ‘war that Hitler made.’  Hitler simply does not have the excuses that can be offered - and even accepted - for the men who decided to go to war in 1914.  The Second World War would not have happened, certainly not in the form it did, were it not for Hitler.


And yet, who was he?  And what made him?


The story of how an unemployed - and possibly unemployable - street artist from a largely unknown family (although nowhere near as poor as Hitler would later claim) rose to become the supreme leader of one of the most advanced and cultured states in Europe is explored in Hubris, the first volume in Ian Kershaw’s two-part biography of the Fuhrer.  It is both a study of Hitler himself, perhaps the finest to be written (so far), and also a study of his life and times.  Ian Kershaw spares no expense to point out just how far luck - and simply being constantly underestimated - took Hitler as he rose from the ashes of defeat to lead Germany to a far greater defeat.  There were times, even at the last moment, when Hitler could have been stopped.  He wasn’t.


Ian Kershaw discusses, at some length, the possibility that Hitler’s background included either Jewish roots or incest.  There was certainly no question that Hitler’s father was illegitimate.  However, Kershaw largely dismisses the concept of both.  Hitler was nothing more remarkable than any other young child, born to a reasonably normal (for his time) family.  There was little trace of the monster he would become as he grew up, rebelling against his teachers and - eventually - deciding that he would become an artist.  He applied for an art scholarship, in Vienna, only to fail the exam twice.  How much different would history have been if he’d been accepted?


The young Hitler was a prideful stubborn man, and yet unformed.  He dreamed big - he planned to be an architect - and yet he lacked the ability to turn his talent into a career.  His political ideals were equally unformed.  Indeed, it seems that he was on good terms with a number of Jews!  (Hitler’s own account of his conversion to anti-Semitism, Kershaw says, should be regarded with extreme suspicion.)  He was unwilling to admit to his family, or even to his closest friend, that he’d failed the exam.  Instead, he stayed put until lack of money forced him into the dosshouse.  Surprisingly, he seems to have been a local hero to his fellows during that time.  They certainly tolerated him more than most people would have done.


And yet, even then, there was something a little off about him.  Kershaw describes a man who could only have a friend on his terms, a friend who he could dominate.  (Perhaps not in the sense of bossing someone around, but in the sense of someone who would listen and never disagree.)  Hitler’s relationships with women were much the same.  His sex life was apparently non-existent until the 1920s - the myth that Hitler only had one testicle is apparently nothing more than malicious rumour - and even then, he sought girls he could dominate.  His niece may have been one of them.  She certainly rebelled against his constant supervision of her life before, finally, killing herself.  It may have been the only way she could escape. 


The First World War made Hitler.  He rushed to join up - a picture exists of him amongst the cheering crowds during the outbreak of war - and he found he loved the army life.  His regiment may well have been his first real home.  And Hitler made a good impression on many of his fellow soldiers and commanding officers.  There is no question that Hitler was personally brave - a dispatch runner had the average life expectancy of four weeks - nor of his loyalty to the regiment itself.  It also exposed Hitler to the harsh realities of the trenches, then disillusionment at how the war came to an end.  He was desperate to stay in the army, surprisingly enough, because it was the only place he’d ever felt comfortable.


It was shortly after the war that Hitler joined the Nazi Party and discovered, for the first time, his true talent.  Hitler could - and did - stir a crowd into a frenzy.  This, combined with a certain degree of wolfish cunning, allowed him to make his way to the top - although, oddly enough, it would only be later that he would take the title as well as the power.  The Nazis grew rapidly, to the point where they thought they could mount a coup; this failed, but - ironically - it worked out in Hitler’s favour.  It made his name known throughout Germany and, perhaps more importantly for the future, allowed him to stay above the fray while the remainder of the leadership fought over the party’s future direction.  When he was released, he simply took back the reins and headed on.  His enemies believed he was finished.


They might have been right, if the Great Depression hadn’t sent Germany tumbling back into the abyss.  Economic collapse led to rioting on the streets, followed by massive political unrest as the Right and Left battled for dominance.  The Nazis did well enough in elections that they could not be ignored - and Hitler, as opportunistic as ever, declined to offer his support to any of the more acceptable candidates.  Attempts to limit his power, in the event of the Nazis joining a coalition government, were treated with the contempt that they (for once) deserved.  He wanted the powers of the office as well as the title.  Eventually, Hitler became Germany’s leader.  He moved fast to destroy all opposition.


It was a bumpy time for Germany.  A normal leader might have been thrown out of office within weeks.  Hitler survived, at least partly because his gift for judging the right moment to act was still acute.  He allowed a wave of violence against his political enemies, judging that the public would support him; he made alliances with the Catholic Church and others that neatly neutered any opposition individuals might offer.  And, after unleashing the first wave of attacks on Jews and Jewish properties, he struck at the SA and eliminated them as an independent force in their own right.  And when he sent troops into the Rhineland, without a peep of protest from the Western Allies, his position appeared unchallengeable.  No one saw the horror to come ...


Hitler is - and will always be - immensely difficult to understand.  It is possible, as many speculated, that he had a major inferiority complex for most of his life, leaving him strikingly unsure of himself when faced with his social superiors (or even people who might outshine him at the dinner table).  He was never as cultured as most of his opponents, and very few members of Germany’s upper class liked him, but he made up for that by being able to raise the masses and turn them against his chosen targets.  Kershaw makes it clear that Hitler was never in complete control - mobs are very hard to control, once raised - and he was permanently on the edge, but that was where Hitler thrived.  Indeed, being underestimated helped him.  The people who thought they could control Hitler had made a deal with the devil.


Indeed, it wasn’t until his trial that Hitler started to consider himself the leader.  Previously, Kershaw insists, Hitler had seen his role as laying the groundwork for Germany’s future leader, a man who would lead Germany back to greatness.  Perhaps Hitler would have stepped aside, if a better candidate appeared, but I doubt it.  By then, Hitler was well-used to manipulating the party to keep himself in power.  (Although, in his worldview, the superior candidate would have no trouble getting and keeping the party on his side.)  His inferiority complex had flipped into a massive superiority complex.


He was certainly no intellectual, although he read - and read widely.  His political ideas were crude and half-formed, even when he put them down on paper.  Kershaw wryly notes that there are no figures for how many people actually read Hitler’s first book; his second book was never actually published.  This may have led to a certain contempt for the academic elite, as well as the military, political and other elites; Hitler was certainly never interested in the nuts and bolts of practical administration, to the point where his regime was threatened by corruption and infighting right from the start.  When he did intervene, it was often with half-baked ideas that were impractical.  Sometimes, he had to back down.  He was still feeling his way into supreme power as 1936 came to an end and he knew it.


This sometimes had its absurd side.  The Nazis spent ages trying to determine exactly who was a Jew and even they found some of their supporters to be beyond the pale.  (One prominent anti-semantic was so awful that even the Nazis banned his newspaper.)  It is sickening to realise that Hitler may well have been a moderate, by Nazi standards.  Some of his party were far - far - worse.  And yet, Hitler had no qualms about a program that would eventually lead straight to mass slaughter and effective genocide.  Kershaw makes it clear that Hitler knew what was happening, even when (in the case of early attacks on Jews) it wasn't something he had authorised personally. 


How did this man win supreme power?  Luck played a large role, as I noted above.  But so did the weakness of democracy and the belief - by many - that they could control him.  This was a deadly mistake.  Hitler was not, and never was, one of them.  He was no aristocratic politician, no genteel democrat unwilling to break the rules: he was a wolf who intended to gain supreme power in support of his mission, as ill-formed as it was.  And so many opportunities to stop him were simply missed.  A show of strength, even as late as 1936, would have stopped him.  Even Hitler himself conceded the point.


Kershaw, writing in 1998, makes no reference to Donald Trump.  And yet, these days, it is impossible to write about Hitler without making some reference to Trump.  However, it is clear that the two men have very little in common.  They also live(d) within very different worlds.  Hitler had far more in common with his archenemy, Stalin, or the more modern Saddam than he ever did with Donald Trump.  Indeed, the persistent overuse of the ‘X is Hitler’ claim has devalued it; a dangerous trick, in my view, when Hitler was a monster beyond easy compare.


Curiously, Hitler and Trump do have at least one thing in common - something Trump’s enemies have rarely mentioned.  Both men rose to prominence, and then power, because vast numbers of people felt that they and their interests were either being ignored (at best) or actively under attack (at worst).  Three years of crippling depression had left Germany a far more intolerant society.  Hitler would never have been elected if the German government had done a better job of protecting the interests of its people, although it is questionable if they could have done anything like enough; Trump would never have been a serious candidate if there hadn’t been millions of Americans who felt discontented, deprived and ultimately threatened.  And both men realised that they could use this sentiment to their advantage. 


Indeed, the problem is epidemic across the West. 


The problem is, I think, that our current society - and our current crop of politicians - simply aren’t coping very well with social change.  Some people have done very well out of it - London did very well out of the EU, for example - but others haven’t done so well.  To borrow a line from a remarkably insightful CRACKED article, “the rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and [liberals] smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I'm telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It's not their imagination.”


Winning the masses, as Hitler pointed out, meant recognising their social concerns; in America, with regular elections, it also meant doing something about them.  This was not done.  Hilary Clinton lost because she could not command the affection of large swaths of America; Jeb Bush didn’t even get to be Candidate Bush because the GOP wanted a genuine leader, not another elitist in a nice suit.  It also meant merely being better than one’s opponents, rather than being the ideal candidate.  Hitler managed to present himself as better than his opponents, as did Trump.  The bar was not set very high. 


I’ll let Kershaw have the last word (Hubris pp.335)ubrisH, before I proceed to read the second volume:


“There are times - they mark the danger point for a political system - when politicians can no longer communicate, when they stop understanding the language of the people they are supposed to be representing.  [SNIP]  Hitler had the advantage of being undamaged by participation in an unpopular government, and of unwavering radicalism in his hostility to the Republic.”


And that, perhaps, is why Hitler was able to take supreme power and set Germany on a course to Hell.