Was Adolf Hitler Leader or Follower?

New Biographies Put Nazi Horror in Context

Hell’s Henchmen: Hitler’s personality alone fails to explain how such a ‘bizarre misfit’ could seize power in an advanced country and do so much damage to the world.
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Hell’s Henchmen: Hitler’s personality alone fails to explain how such a ‘bizarre misfit’ could seize power in an advanced country and do so much damage to the world.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published April 19, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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Hitler: A Biography
By Ian Kershaw
W.W. Norton, 1,030 pages, $25.95

Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich
By Robert Gerwarth
Yale University Press, 336 pages, $35

Heinrich Himmler: A Life
By Peter Longerich
Oxford University Press, 1,072 pages, $34.95

Those who can, make history; those who can’t, write history; those who can’t write history write biography.

This, at least, was once the attitude of professional historians toward biography. Biography was either too narrow (oblivious to the great sweep of political, social, economic and intellectual changes), too shallow (one cannot begin to plumb the complexities of an era through the life of one person), too presumptuous (surely no one believes that one person, no matter how powerful, can actually inflect the course of history) or too trivial (more or less the above three criticisms combined).

Read the Forward’s story about the new volume of the Holocaust encyclopedia.

But the disdain for biography among historians has itself become history. Most of us now recognize the merits of biography; more important, we also recognize the breadth of its appeal. One need only visit a Barnes & Noble to confirm biographer Paula Backscheider’s observation that the “last literary genre to be read by a very wide cross-section of people is biography.”

Samuel Johnson, the subject of the first modern biography — and no mean biographer himself — best expressed this attraction. He claimed that biography is the most useful of literary undertakings: We see our own struggles in the lives of fellow human beings. “We are all prompted,” he wrote, “by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”

Do all struggles share these ties, though? Would Johnson, in other words, have extended his remarks to Adolf Hitler, the author of “My Struggle,” better known by its original title, “Mein Kampf,” along with those whose horrifying careers he made possible?

Backscheider devotes an entire chapter to the relation between biographers and their subjects in her authoritative “Reflections on Biography.” She notes the occasional affinities between the biographer and subject, but more frequently commercial incentives and professional ambitions. As a result, biographers “write the lives of people they consider monsters or repellant human beings.” Yet, almost as if determined not to look too deeply, Backscheider quickly returns to more admirable biographical subjects. Hitler gets precisely one mention in her work.

And yet there are hundreds of Hitler biographies — enough to spawn meta-biographies, books like Ron Rosenbaum’s “Explaining Hitler,” in which the author interviews historians, as well as theologians and philosophers, who have written on Hitler. For Rosenbaum, the endless stream of works on the Nazi leader reflects a “persistent anxiety that Hitler has somehow escaped explanation.” His many interlocutors seem to agree: Historian H.R. Trevor-Roper, one of the earliest biographers of Hitler, confesses that his subject “remains a frightening mystery,” while Alan Bullock, author of “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,” concedes: “The more I learn about Hitler, the harder I find it to explain.”

Another tough-minded Brit, the late Tony Judt, took a slightly different tack. In “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” the series of conversations he held over the course of 2009 with historian Timothy Snyder, Judt remarked that former communists often make the best commentators and historians of communism. “We have never quite lost the sense that… you cannot fully appreciate the shape of the 20th century if you did not once share its illusions, and the communist illusion in particular.” But he refused to extend this observation to Nazism: “The choice made by prominent Germans in 1933 to welcome the Nazis… is not intelligible to us today, except as an act of human cowardice.” Judt argues that this unintelligibility derives from the utter impoverishment of Nazi thought: “I simply cannot think of a single Nazi intellectual whose reasoning holds up as an interesting historical account of 20th-century thought.”

And yet, the best biographers of such figures as Hitler or Himmler must do what Milton did for hell in “Paradise Lost”: make “darkness visible.”

All three of the biographies under review — Ian Kershaw’s “Hitler” (Norton, 2008), Peter Longerich’s recent “Heinrich Himmler” (Oxford, 2012) and Robert Gerwarth’s “Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich” (Yale University Press, 2011) — act on Milton’s imperative. After more than 2,000 pages of text, and immense scholarly effort, do they succeed? The answer is a qualified yes.


“You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler…. Nobody on the faculty of any college or university in this part of the country can so much as utter the word Hitler without a nod in your direction…. He is now your Hitler, Gladney’s Hitler…. You’ve evolved an entire system around this figure, a structure with countless substructures and interrelated fields of study, a history within history. I marvel at the effort…. It’s what I want to do with Elvis.”


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