Hitler: Nemesis

-Ian Kershaw


In the previous volume, we saw how Adolf Hitler took advantage of the post-war chaos in Germany to establish himself as a leading politician, eventually managing to manoeuvre himself into a position to take supreme power.  A combination of bribes, lucky judgement and the weakness of his enemies allowed him to secure his position, with the reoccupation of the Rhineland the crowning glory of his march towards the Fuhrer.  Germany celebrated Hitler’s success; the young men and women fooled themselves into believing that they shared his success.  They were soon to share in his nemesis.


Hitler: Nemesis covers the period between 1937, when Hitler was at the height of his power, to 1945, when Hitler killed himself to avoid capture.  Like the previous book, it is both a biography of Hitler himself and a social history of Nazi Germany, focusing on the moments when the ‘Hitler Myth’ conflicted with reality.  It is also a seething indictment of weakness and folly amongst Hitler’s enemies, both inside and outside the country.  The internal opposition to Hitler was always weak and divided, unwilling to take the risk of assassinating the Fuhrer until it was too late; the outside opposition was equally unwilling to stand up to Hitler until it was too late.  Munich, as Kershaw makes very clear, was perhaps the last chance to stop Hitler without major bloodshed.  It was a chance the West allowed to slip out of their hands. 


Central to this, of course, is the character of Adolf Hitler himself.  He had always been a gambler - and, as a gambler, was lucky rather than good.  He understood his early enemies very well, but failed to grasp that Churchill and Stalin were considerably tougher than the British and French politicians who allowed him to rape Czechoslovakia.  Worse, from his point of view (but not for us), was that his early successes went to his head.  When he overruled his generals, the first few times, and was proven right ... he took it as a sign that he would always be right.  Thankfully for humanity, he was often wrong.  Germany might well have been able to hold out for much longer, perhaps even secure better peace terms, if Hitler had listened to his generals a little more.


Hitler was, in many ways, increasingly unable to focus on a single subject even before the war started slipping out of his control.  He would issue vague orders, then change his mind; he would give nominal authority to some of his subordinates, but make sure they couldn’t turn their new position against him.  He was, in short, more interested in securing his power base - and, later, his legend - than in preserving Germany.  This had disastrous effects on the war effort.  No one could have handled the vast number of offices Hitler collected under his banner effectively, not at once.  Hitler was, simply put, the worst kind of micromanager, in the worst place for one to be.


The state Hitler built was, inevitably, a reflection of his haphazard approach to government and policy.  His individual subordinates competed with each other to please him, rather than focusing on uniting against Germany’s growing list of enemies.  This ensured that they couldn’t unite against him, which was probably what he wanted, but it also weakened Germany at the worst possible time.  It also led to a demented approach to ridding the state of everyone Hitler and his followers considered undesirable, ranging from war-wounded to the Jews.  It is horrible to contemplate what a more efficient Nazi Germany would have done. 


Hitler himself, Kershaw makes clear, did not issue specific orders regarding the mass killings of Jews.  He seemed oddly unwilling to commit himself, unlike Himmler and the really fanatical Nazis.  At the same time, there is no doubt that Hitler knew what was happening and approved; there is certainly no suggestion that Hitler ever intervened to save Jews - or anyone - from his pogroms.  The idea that Hitler was innocent in such matters is thoroughly absurd. 


As the war worsened for Germany, Hitler withdrew more and more from his people.  He grew increasingly reluctant to see anyone, even his closest followers.  The love and admiration the German people had once felt for him was gone, replaced by fear of an increasingly-powerful administrative state.  Hitler himself may have conceded, as early as January 1945, that the war was over and Germany had lost, but he did everything in his power to keep the Reich fighting until the bitter end.  His death was an escape from the horrors he had done so much to unleash upon his people.  The Germans who followed Hitler followed him into hell.


Hitler did face internal opposition, although it was weak, unfocused and more given to infighting than actual action.  There were a handful of churchmen who spoke out against the regime, worrying the Reich’s administrators, but their efforts came to nothing.  (The church’s refusal to speak out against Hitler will go down as a black mark on its record.)  The military opposition faltered, at least partly because of a long-standing fear of what would happen after Hitler’s death (not, it should be noted, an entirely unjustified fear).  Hitler himself seemed to have the luck of the devil.  The handful of attempts to assassinate him that came close enough to actually work only made his position stronger.


In the end, what was Hitler?  He was a monster, plain and simple.  His single-minded determination to make war, in the belief that it would redeem Germany, dragged his people into the fire, while his failures as a war leader and his lunatic eugenics policies ensured that Germany would lose the war.  Once he had started, he couldn’t stop.  His obsession with negotiating from a position of strength, impossible after the Western Allies were solidly established on the European mainland, made certain that there would be no peace short of the destruction of Nazi Germany itself. 


It is hard to be sure that Hitler was the most evil man in world history.  Stalin was probably responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing more people than Hitler.  Mao, Saddam, Genghis Khan ... there were others who were as thoroughly unpleasant as Hitler, lacking - in many ways, the redemptive aspects of Napoleon.  But it cannot be denied that Hitler is very much amongst the top ten most evil men in human history.


There are few people today who can truly be compared to Adolf Hitler.  Certainly, no American President comes close to the sheer unrelenting monstrousness of the man.  One can pick and choose aspects of Hitler’s personality and apply them to everyone from George Washington to Donald Trump, but none of those comparisons is remotely fair.  Indeed, very little could be more flattering to Hitler and insulting to any American President.  The overused claim that ‘X is Hitler’ does nothing more than weaken our resolve to stop any future Hitler-types from gaining power.  How would we recognise one when we saw one?


It might be easier to draw a comparison between 1919-1933 Germany and modern-day America and Europe.  Faith in everything from the government to the media is declining rapidly (not least because of the ‘X is Hitler’ comparisons); immigration is provoking ethnic and racial tensions, there’s an economic crisis, people are growing increasingly desperate ... people are crying out for a saviour.  But who will save them?  Will it be a Reagan ... or a Hitler?


In conclusion, there are few other biographies of Adolf Hitler that come close to the sweeping magnificence of Kershaw’s two volumes.  I highly recommend them.