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Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi, by Thomas Weber, Basic Books, New York, 2017, $35

When and where did Adolf Hitler change from moody loner into messianic Führer? Some scholars maintain the transformative events occurred either during his childhood in Bavaria or during his World War I service on the Western Front. In this intensively researched account author Thomas Weber, a history professor at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, claims the crossover came between 1918 and 1924 in Munich. Were Hitler elsewhere, Weber argues, he would not have become a Nazi.

After Germany’s surrender Hitler traveled to Munich and joined a battalion supporting the newly proclaimed Bavarian Soviet Republic, which had seized power in November 1918. He served it until nationalist Freikorps units overthrew it in May 1919, whereupon Hitler switched sides. In reaction to the victory over the communists, the city became a haven for right-wing political groups from across German-speaking Europe.

That September Hitler joined the tiny German Workers’ Party, whose nationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-communist and anti-Semitic views appealed to him. His magnetism and oratorical skill quickly made him its leading figure. In 1920 its name changed to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and membership swelled. In 1923 Hitler organized the Beer Hall Putsch, and while the attempted coup flopped, his subsequent trial for treason spread his fame. During the year he spent in prison, he wrote his ideological treatise, Mein Kampf, and resolved that his party would seek power through democratic means.

Weber works hard to explain Hitler’s often divergent and bizarre views. As a young man he was a fervent German nationalist. He was also anti-Semitic, but it was the prevailing, socially accepted variety of anti-Semitism; he remained on friendly terms with many Jews right through his war years. By 1921, however, his speeches described a worldwide Jewish cabal that ruled Europe, America and even Soviet Russia. Many early Nazi sympathizers considered such views extreme, but Hitler’s explanation resonated with audiences, providing a satisfying excuse for Germany’s defeat. Repeated enough times, it became accepted “fact.” That Aryans were the “master race” had been a widespread and only mildly controversial belief for a century. Anthropologists grew skeptical, but the Holocaust, not science, delivered the kiss of death.

Weber never gets inside Hitler’s head, but he speculates well, delivering a satisfying, nuts-and-bolts account of the six-year span during which an obscure ex-soldier became a demagogue the German establishment should have taken more seriously.

—Mike Oppenheim