“Hitler: A Biography” by Peter Longerich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 1344 pages, $39.95 (hardcover).
Not a single person in the 20th century has been the subject of more speculation than Adolf Hitler. The studies of the whats, whys and hows of his life have generated massive amounts of research simply because no other figure in the 20th century has accumulated so much power so quickly or abused that power so completely or cost so many human lives in the process. The singular phenomenon of Hitler’s rise from a complete nobody to an absolute dictator has inspired both historians and nonhistorians alike for decades. Volumes have been written in an attempt to understand who this man was, where his ideas came from and how his rise to power was even possible. Subtracting Hitler from the Nazi party is impossible, but trying to find where the Nazi bureaucracy ended and Hitler’s dictatorship began is the goal of this new biography on Hitler.
This most recent work in the study of Hitler is by Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway University of London, who has also written biographies of both Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. Turning his attention to Hitler, Longerich uses his vast knowledge of the subject of the Nazis and his extensive research to illustrate Hitler’s personal involvement in the formulation of policies of the Third Reich, including the Holocaust.
Beginning with the world into which Hitler was born, Longerich starts with a short prologue tracing the rise of nationalism and the anti-semitism of the German states in the late 1800s. This work does not, however, spend time speculating about Hitler’s childhood, but instead focuses on Hitler as the driving force of Nazi policies. Along the way, Longerich’s work points out often overlooked bits of Hitler’s personal history. One example is Hitler’s personal interactions with both Jews and others before the outbreak of World War I. Longerich is careful to place firsthand accounts of the pre-powerful Hitler in a context of the post-powerful Hitler, pointing out that the party legend was crafted by Hitler himself for propaganda reasons. Hitler worked very hard to create a history and mythology of himself and once in power he could easily control which stories reached the public and therefore influence how he was viewed as a whole. It is therefore very important to read any accounts about him from others critically. Even with a critical eye on these early accounts, it is possible, as Longerich’s research shows, to find some insight into Hitler’s interactions with Jews, politics and others.
Hitler did have a respectful relationship with his family doctor who was Jewish and who had treated Hitler’s mother before her death from cancer. He also appeared to have had a business partnership with Josef Neumann and another unnamed Jewish peddler who sold Hitler’s painted postcards for him while he lived in Munich. Hitler even appeared to have gone on a 10-day sightseeing tour with Neumann. But by 1919-20, the extreme right-wing movements that had formed to provide a counterweight to the unstable socialist government had increasingly included anti-Semitic propaganda. Most of these groups blamed the socialists for the outcome of the war and worked to add an anti-Semitic message into their form of nationalism. Thus it was, that anti-Semitic views became more common both in government and in the public. This is the political world into which Hitler entered. First in the minor role as a soldiers’ council representative, which Hitler downplayed and omitted mentioning whenever possible, and finally as head of the German workers party.
The story of Hitler’s rise is well known: how he attended a meeting of the German workers party, known as the DAP, how his passion and willpower had saved this minor political party from the brink of extinction and his emergence as the leader of the German people. A common view of the rise of the Nazis, and one that this biography of Hitler points out as an oversimplification of the facts, is drawn from the Nazi party legend created by Hitler. This biography clearly shows that while the party legend of Hitler omits much, it would be shortsighted to attempt to separate Hitler from the movement he came to embody. In those early years, the DAP was one of many right-wing parties, but it was well connected to the establishment with ties to the city commander’s office, and the information department of Munich. And while it is true that the DAP was in many ways a minority political party, the value of these important connections cannot be overlooked. Ultimately, however, it would be Hitler’s political skill and his personal ruthlessness that would lead to his domination of Germany.
Hitler has been called many things, but among those, he must be called a politician; for he was a political man. One did not rise to the position he held without knowing how to make the most out of a situation. He was able to both turn unfavorable situations to his advantage and to create favorable ones; his rise through party ranks to his dictatorship was, as Longerich’s work shows, much more than simply a matter of charisma and later the use of fear. The task of the biographer is to understand the forces that not only created the possibility of Hitler’s rise, but also those forces set in motion by him. This balance is not easy to understand or to create. But as researchers like Longerich continue to uncover more information on the national socialism of that age, it becomes clear just how actively involved in the day-to-day running of the party Hitler was. This means that to fully understand one without the other is impossible.
All too often, biographies lose sight of the forest for the trees. Longerich’s work never does but instead places Hitler in the context of National Socialism and perhaps more importantly National Socialism in relationship to Hitler. This work shows in an up-to-date, well-written, thoughtfully-researched way, Hitler himself did indeed create the conditions to bring about the fragmentation of traditional government. Then by using individuals appointed with far-reaching duties who were answerable only to him, he was able to become, in fact, the government. Thus his will and his ideas were the driving forces of any decision or policy the government made, from troop movements to Holocaust. Beginning with Hitler’s early political career in Munich and ending with his final hours in the bunker, this work is a fantastic look at how the führer became the embodiment of the Nazis and the terrors of World War II. For historians or history buffs, this new and comprehensive biography is a must-read for anyone who is at all interested in the history of the man behind the Holocaust and the Second World War.
– Reviewed by Lyrae Borders of Glasgow.