Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris

(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 845 pp.

The book Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris by Ian Kershaw reveals biography of the dictator from his birth to his political successes in 1936. In fact, the figure of the Fuhrer is highly important for the history of the 20th century. For years, people have been viewing the leader of the Nazi Party as the embodiment of evil whose actions cannot be explained in human terms. Such a point of view limits discourse on Hitler, as he has been a human being closer to common people than they would like to admit. Explaining his preoccupation with the dictatorship and the structures of Nazi regime, Kershaw writes that he was interested in “the question of how Hitler was possible: not just how this initially most unlikely pretender to high state office could gain power; but how he was able to extend that power until it became absolute” (2) in the preface to the book. However, Kershaw’s work is more than a history of Hitler’s voyage from helplessness to absolute power. 

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The author provides an analysis of the wider social and political forces, which were dominating in the country, to explain Hitler phenomenon most precisely. In the book, the author pays most of his attention to discussion of the nature of Fuhrer’s power: the way he gained and used it, and was allowed to do so by the people around him. Kershaw discovers the relationship between the dictator and Germans as well as relationships of Hitler and his supporters with Jews and other non-Arian people. In fact, Kershaw’s book brings its readers closer to the character of the extraordinary misfit than ever before and reconstitutes the conditions that made the Fuhrer’s rise possible with fantastic vividness. They include the poisonous anti-Semitism of prewar Vienna; the ordeal of the World War I with its extremely hard casualties; the fatal nationalism of 1920 in Bavaria; the madness around Hitler’s seizure of power and later cruel attacks on enemies of the Aryan race (Welch 1). Thus, the author tries to communicate the idea of that the Hitler phenomenon might not have happened if there were not propitious conditions for it. In conclusion, I will critique the author’s writing style and bias, the choice of themes, research materials and the quality of presentation of the main idea of the book.

Kershaw touches upon the theme of anti-Semitism and analyses the reasons of its emergence within Hitler and German society in general. For instance, the author poses such an interesting question as whether Fuhrer’s anti-Semitism was congenital or just a political trick. Kershaw gives a detailed answer and examines at which moment and under what circumstances the future German politic expressed anti-Semitism for the first time. The author concludes that it was a part of Hitler’s cultural heritage as anti-Semitism was widespread in the part of Austria where he was born. However, his hatred of Jews emerged only after the World War I with the defeat of German nation. Thus, Kershaw points out that the Fuhrer did deeply and unquestioningly believe in what he said about anti-Semitism.

Kershaw goes further in exploration of circumstances that shaped Hitler’s worldviews and touches upon the issue of identity of this controversial historical figure. As many scholars before him, the author describes Hitler as the one who lacks personality. The Fuhrer surrounded himself with myths and left no space for investigation of him as a person. He had no true hobbies or interests apart politics; he had no personal relationships to be revealed (Goldin 1). Probably, Hitler was so popular because he was very careful in creating and maintenance of his idealistic image and hiding his real one.

Kershaw’s writing style can be characterized by detailing and the use of repetitions. The author is very detailed and thorough in his writing; however, it can be argued that thus, he points out the importance of precise review of the subject. In the book, some themes repeat, and at the first time, they seem to be used to extend the length of the writing. However, it becomes obvious that Kershaw consideres emphasizing them more than once.

Kershaw provides an adequate presentation of his ideas

He makes his readers feel the atmosphere of Germany before the World War II fully and get a little understanding of the reason so many people did believe Hitler. Thus, Kershaw points out that the events that took place in Nazi Germany were the result of different social and political circumstances that made Hitler possible.

Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris has been written by a good historian, and, therefore, has a number of advantages comparing to other Hitler’s biographies. The author precisely surveys the development of Hitler’s ideas along with the changes within society. However, what makes Kershaw’s book an outstanding one is the use of unique sources that have never been used before.

 The author uses a number of scholarly and personal materials of the witnesses of the Nazi regime among others. Kershaw uses Hitler’s earliest speeches, the materials from Soviet archives and some indispensable sources such as Joseph Goebbels’ diary that have become available recently among others. Kershaw discusses the Fuhrer’s speeches and writings, for instance, on propaganda, in detail and considers the ways how Hitler applied his ideas in practice. Without these documents, it would not have been possible to present such a precise analysis.

However, ‘The New York Times’ reviewer Walter Reich is not that optimistic and states that new details from Russian archives “are unlikely to loom large” (1). Nevertheless, Reich praises the author’s work by noting “Kershaw is able to clarify, perhaps better than any biographer who preceded him, what made Hitler’s dictatorial power possible” (1). Bendersky even calls it “the most informative and balanced recent study of the Nazi leader” (58). Thus,Kershaw’s book is an outstanding Hitler’s biography worth studying.

Works Cited

  1. Bendersky, Joseph W. A Concise History of Nazi Germany. 3rd ed. Lanham: Rawman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007. Print.
  2. Goldin, Milton. “Review of Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris.” A Teacher’s Guide to Holocaust, 1999. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
  3. Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Print.
  4. Reich, Walter. “The Devil’s Miracle Man.” The New York Times, 31 Jan. 1999. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
  5. Welch, David. “The Review of Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris.” Reviews in History. Nov. 1999. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
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