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“Weimar Germany was a comprehensive crisis, and thus a very peculiar, specific time when people were ready to see the qualities of a national savior in Hitler”

“Hitler,” says Ian Kershaw, “had a deep-seated, lasting sense of revenge—something you don’t come across in history too often.” In Hitler, his magisterial two-volume biography now condensed into one, Kershaw caps 30 years of studying the führer and Nazi Germany in key works like The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich and Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution.

Here he painstakingly traces the many tangled contexts—historical, psychological, cultural—that enabled this incurious narcissist’s rise to power on the wings of revenge, and culminated in the horrors of World War II.

For Kershaw, Hitler’s life teaches powerful lessons: “He comes to power in a democracy. He uncovers the thin ice on which modern civilization rests, and shows us what we’re capable of as human beings.”

Crunching two volumes into one—what was that like?

Extremely painful. It was like Mozart in Amadeus: “What do you think, Majesty?” “Oh, quite good, Mozart, but too many notes.” Reducing 2,000 pages to 800 meant eliminating the footnotes and bibliography—something no historian likes to do. Then I had to reduce the text from 1,400 to 800 pages. One choice was to eliminate context, like the descriptions of Vienna in Hitler’s youth. Since my aim was to document the relationship between Hitler and the environment that produced him, I felt uneasy about that. The one-volume work is more Hitler-centric.

You don’t think Hitler was a madman.

I’ve never had any truck with that. People with medical backgrounds have examined the evidence and rejected the idea that Hitler was insane. But it should also be rejected on another level. Maybe the project was mad, but the man was not. Saying Hitler was insane is just an apologia for him, isn’t it? He’s not in charge of his actions, not responsible for his deeds. Then you’ve got to ask, “Why did 60 million Germans follow a madman?” So it’s an apologia for them too.

You see Hitler in terms of Max Weber’s notion of charismatic authority. Could you explain?

Weber’s concept is not like saying Barack Obama has charisma. It describes a relationship. Charisma is in the eyes of the beholder. So it’s not saying the individual has fantastic personal qualities, but that in times of comprehensive crisis, people invest feelings of hopes or expectations or salvation in an individual they see as possessing extraordinary qualities. Charismatic authority is an emergency arrangement. Weimar Germany was a comprehensive crisis, and thus a very peculiar, specific time when people were ready to see the qualities of a national savior in Hitler.

So he wasn’t inevitable.

There’s a symbiosis between this strange individual and that time and place. For all its crises, Weimar was a vibrant democracy, with lots of liberal freedoms and things we admire. Hitler and his followers portrayed his rise as the result of the power of will alone, but you can see how he was able to exploit opportunities and circumstances. He exploited the weakness of his opponents to get closer to power. Power only comes to him in the context of the Great Depression. On its eve, Hitler’s party won 2.6 percent of the popular vote. Within five years his party is the largest in Germany, and he’s on the verge of being given power by conservative groups.

When did he first realize his oratorical power?

Having been hospitalized for mustard gas poisoning and experienced Germany’s defeat and revolution by the detested Social Democrats, he goes back into the army. There he gets a real political opportunity for the first time. He is sent to a camp near Augsburg for demobilized soldiers, where he gives a series of lectures in August 1919. Among the lecturers, Hitler is the star. All at once he realizes what an impact his speeches are having. In Mein Kampf, on two occasions, he writes, “And then I learned I could speak.”

Why could Hitler only have happened in a modern society?

For his ideas to be put into operation in the terrible way they were required the bureaucracy of a modern state with numerous resources and real military strength. With a weak bureaucracy, poor economy, and nondescript army, none of this would have been possible.

Yet you see Nazi Germany as quasi-chaotic.

The monolithic image portrayed in propaganda—a nation of 60 million goosestepping in unison—is a myth. There was considerable systematic disorder in the administration and government. Now, we shouldn’t misunderstand that. There were areas that were well ordered, well run, and very powerful, like the SS, which was very effective at repression and killing people. But the overall nature of the system was administrative disorder, because Hitler’s charismatic, highly personalized domination inevitably had arbitrary elements, which undercut bureaucratic regulation and created systemic disorder.


Hitler tended not to intervene in his underlings’ intense infighting. That was partly his personal predilection: a narcissist, he was really not interested in many things. But it was more because, as a charismatic figure, he couldn’t afford to be dragged into it. Hitler usually stayed aloof from infighting until it was plain who’d won, and usually sided with the winner. So there was an immanent structurelessness to the running of the state.

Hence your concept of “working toward the führer.”

I stumbled across this in a Nazi document, which opened my eyes to how the Nazi system could function without Hitler having to shout out streams of diktats. People second-guessed or anticipated what he wanted.

For example?

Take the notion that the Jews should be removed. In his very first political statement in 1919 he says this should be the aim of any national government. But when he comes to power, he doesn’t instigate a set of policies to lead to that objective. Rather, he stands for it, and others seek to implement it in myriad different ways. In so doing, they push along the dynamic of radicalization and anti-Semitism without Hitler having to do very much except at crucial moments, like the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 or the pogroms of 1938. So he intervenes where his authorization is necessary. He himself said, “On the Jewish question, I have been forced to remain inactive.” Yet the radicalization carried on.


If you have a shop, and your rival next door is a Jew, you can use his Jewishness to break a competitor. You are not asking, “What would Hitler want me to do?” and then doing it. You are exploiting something for your own advantage. But it has the functional effect of pushing along the radicalization. You can see this in all walks of German life.

What was its effect on Nazi conquests?

For Hitler, the removal and later on extermination of the Jews was the start of an immense empire. Thirty-one million Slavs would be moved out or reduced to slaves and replaced by German Ubermenschen. Now, Hitler especially admired the British Raj in India, without knowing or caring much about its elaborate bureaucracy. So some people said, “If we treat the Ukrainians halfway decently, we’ve got a strongly anti-Stalinist population.” But Hitler and some of his most trusted underlings favored only the most ruthless repression of Slav Untermenschen, so they turned the Ukraine completely anti-Nazi. Unlike the British, they didn’t want to make use of clients or client states.

So the Nazis built the great anti-Nazi coalition?

It was a gamble for world power which knew no limits, predicated on a showdown with the USA. In his unpublished second tract, Hitler made this clear, but thought it was coming long after his lifetime. In realistic terms, Germany’s gamble was enormous. Hitler brought together the unbelievable manpower of the Soviet Union, the material might of the U.S., and the force of the British Empire—an unholy alliance in coalition against him. The chances of Germany winning against that were truly remote. Nazi ideology outstripped the realistic possibilities of success. You could say Hitler had the courage of his delusions.