"Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris," by Ian Kershaw. Norton & Co. 700 pages. $35.
He was Nature's twisted masterpiece. In a life of 56 years, millions adored him with a fervor worthy of the gods. When, finally, he plunged from pinnacle to perdition, more millions cursed his name as a symbol of pestilence. In all of history, there never was a man like Adolf Hitler. There have been tyrants of equal power, such as Stalin and Mao, but none combined the same measure of spellbinding oratory, political cunning and genocidal obsession. And no one rivaled his uncanny ability to seize the yearnings of a defeated and humiliated nation and harness them to his own vengeful dreams.
Hitler has been dead since the afternoon of April 30, 1945, when he fired a bullet into his fevered brain. Dead but not gone -- not in our consciousness and the legacy he left behind.
The continuing fascination with the son of a stern, philandering Austrian customs official and a loving, down-trodden mother has spawned innumerable biographies. How to fathom the life and times of the frustrated art student in Vienna, the brave front-line corporal, the Mafia-like murderer of former comrades, who was to rise to supreme leadership of Europe's mightiest nation?
In the quest of the definitive explanation of the Hitler phenomenon, Ian Kershaw's prodigious work is an eminently worthy contender. Kershaw, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, England, traces Hitler's life from his humble birth to his triumphal march into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland as a timid France looked on.
At the book's end, Hitler's most nightmarish deeds -- the annexation of Austria, the destruction of Czechoslovakia, the fateful attack of Poland, the Holocaust -- still lay in the future. What gives this book its particular distinction is the author's meticulously detailed recording of the forces that paved the way to the ultimate horrors.
Kershaw brilliantly sets down how Hitler influenced events to serve his grandiose visions, and how the events helped form his character. Like the fly on the wall, the reader witnesses the duplicitous political machinations that speeded the collapse of the Weimar Republic, amid the destruction of the divided Left by the determined, nationalistic Right.
We see the vicious internal struggles for the control of the Nazi Party, which culminated in the murders of Ernst Roehm, Gregor Strasser and scores of other real and imagined Hitler foes.
Kershaw persuasively argues that it was the brutal flouting of the rule of law at the Night of the Long Knives -- accepted without much protest by a blinded people in dread of a Marxist-style upheaval -- that handed Hitler the final key to unquestioned supremacy over the fate of the Reich.
"Hitler's impact," he writes, "can only be grasped through the era which created him (and was destroyed by him) ... There is something to be said for directly focusing on the figure of Hitler -- the person who indisputably played the central, often decisive role in the 'running amok' of the Third Reich."
This book is the first of two volumes. Judging by its quality, one looks forward to the sequel with impatience.
Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in the New York Times, The Sun and other publications.
Pub Date: 01/10/99