Hitler: A Life review: A rounded picture of the man’s personality and power
Peter Longerich’s biography of Hitler is a comprehensive and impressive work
Adolf Hitler addressing soldiers at a Nazi rally in Dortmund, Germany, circa 1933. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Hitler: A Life
This particular reviewer approached Peter Longerich’s study of Hitler with mixed feelings because he is himself – full disclosure – publishing a new biography in September.
Longerich is very well qualified to write such a work, having been a considerable presence in the field for more than 30 years. He has written authoritative accounts of the structures of the Third Reich – especially the SA and Rudolf Hess’s Nazi party Chancellery – before moving on to the study of the Holocaust, and a short but compelling book on the depth of Hitler’s involvement in the mass murder of the Jews, despite David Irving’s attempts at denial. More recently, Longerich has produced large-scale biographies of two of the regime’s most notorious figures, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels.
I am happy to say that Hitler: A Life is a very good book, fluently translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. It is comprehensive on the domestic side of the story, and draws on the newer literature of the past two decades.
Longerich takes us expertly through the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship and racial state, and fully delivers on his promise to supply a 'history of the regime' and biography
Longerich’s work is much more than just a synthesis, however, partly because he grounds his account in new material (printed and some archival), but mainly because his emphasis on Hitler’s centrality to the workings of the Third Reich runs contrary to the older “structuralist” view which saw him as more or less the prisoner of larger forces in German society. Longerich explicitly challenges the iconic two-volume biography by Ian Kershaw, which looked more to the character of Hitler’s power than the man himself. Instead, Longerich emphasizes “Hitler’s autonomous role as an active politician”.
The result is a fine-grained and generally very persuasive account of Hitler’s rise to power, his rule within Germany, and especially the nature of his authority. Longerich spends relatively little time on Hitler’s early life, claiming that events before 1919 have little to say about his later trajectory. He does, however, skilfully cast Hitler as a “nobody” who emerged out of the maelstrom of early 20th-century Austro-German politics. Longerich then provides a good account of Hitler’s skill at playing his opponents off against each other in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the bulk of the book is devoted to the period of the Third Reich itself.
History and biography
Longerich takes us expertly through the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship and racial state, with its exclusionary and ultimately genocidal policies. He fully delivers on his promise to supply a “history of the regime” alongside a biography. Inevitably, much of this is familiar, but Longerich often finds new and interesting angles.
Instead of separating out Hitler’s private life in a separate chapter, the author integrates this into the main narrative
For example, he shows that the infamous Day of Potsdam at which Hitler supposedly co-opted the Prussian elites was a fraught event for him, whose detail and choreography he did not control. He also contradicts the claim by Kershaw and others (including myself) that the notorious Berlin Olympics were a propaganda victory for the regime. In fact, the foreign press resonance was highly ambivalent. Longerich also argues that Hitler did not back euthanasia until relatively late, contrary to Kershaw’s claim that that he had supported it as far back as the 1920s; here the evidence is unclear.
Longerich shows how Hitler’s role in German politics remained crucial during the war, despite the many demands on his time; that the radicalisation of policy in Poland, which was murderous from the start, followed his explicit instructions; that most of the key impulses in domestic politics – characterised by what Longerich calls a “Führer autocracy” – came from Hitler himself.
Often-mythologised figures such as Martin Bormann are given their due, but down to size. Whether it was constitutional and administrative changes in the Reich itself, policy in the occupied territories, or the radicalisation of measures against the Jews, which eventually led to the murder of six million people, Longerich shows Hitler to have been the directing force.
Longerich also does not neglect Hitler’s personality. He decisively rebuts Joachim Fest, author of a famous biography in the 1970s (entitled Hitler), who claimed that his subject was basically a “non-person”. Instead of separating out Hitler’s private life in a separate chapter, the author integrates this into the main narrative where appropriate, for example with respect to the shock of his niece and possible lover Geli Raubal’s suicide (on which he wisely refuses to speculate), or the subsequent relationship with Eva Braun. Longerich’s decision to steer clear of both voyeurism and prudishness is surely the right one. The author also provides insight into Hitler’s keen artistic and musical interests. The result is a generally rounded picture of the man and his times.
All in all this is an impressive book, which significantly moves the dial back in the direction of a Hitler who was 'master in the Third Reich'
Having said all this, I am also happy to say that this is not (and no book can ever be, of course) the last word on Hitler. Longerich’s impressive grip on Nazi domestic politics and Hitler’s authority is not quite replicated in the fields of ideology and strategy. The author is aware of the führer’s anti-capitalism, but seriously underplays its salience in his belief system. Hitler’s fear and hatred of international finance capitalism was a key driver of his strategic world view and his anti-Semitism; he lumped “world Jewry”, the United States and the British Empire together as the “haves” who were grinding the faces of the global “have-nots”, such as the German Reich. By contrast, Hitler was less concerned by Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, which he saw as agents of international capitalism, and for this reason Longerich somewhat overstates the importance of communism and the Eastern Front in Hitler’s mind.
Here Longerich’s decision largely to set aside the pre-1919 period does not serve him well. It was during the first World War, or at least in his subsequent reflection on that conflict, that Hitler was confronted by the might of Anglo-America. He regarded the “Anglo-Saxons”, as he dubbed them in the standard German parlance of the time, not only as an economic and military, but also a demographic and racial threat. Hitler was haunted by the spectre of German emigrants returning as enemy soldiers, something which he ironically did more than anybody else to bring about again after his declaration of war on the US.
Finally, Longerich does not say enough about Hitler’s sense of the fundamental weakness of the German people, even once purged of the Jews and other “undesirable” elements. He should have placed more emphasis, for example, on Hitler’s fear of Bavarian separatism, a salient factor in his thinking during the early 1920s, which fuelled his worry about the innate German tendency towards fragmentation. Hitler’s belief that some of the best Germans had left the country in the course of the 19th century and “fertilised” the US and the British Empire aggravated his sense of inferiority towards the “Angle-Saxons”.
All in all, though, this is an impressive book, which significantly moves the dial back in the direction of a Hitler who was “master in the Third Reich”, as Norman Rich put in during an earlier debate. If Longerich is a little weaker on ideology and grand strategy, that only means that while he told us much, there is still more to say.