Interview with Ian Kershaw | HistoryNet MENU

Interview with Ian Kershaw

By Gene Santoro
2/4/2009 • Interviews, World War II Conversations

“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.

11 Responses to Interview with Ian Kershaw

  1. elliot gravitch says:

    i have a quetion for MR. Kenshaw.I read your pevious 2 books on Hitler and am reading your 3rd book now.My question is with the dislike of jewish people so strong in Germany and Hitler able to bring it to the surface,how were the jewish people able to acheive so much success in Germany before the rise of Hitler.

  2. Norbert Ommler says:

    For scientific reasons I need the email and the postal address of the historian Sir Ian Kershaw. Can you help me by email:to:

  3. Norfer says:

    I am in the process of reading Ian Kershaw’s book of Hitler until 1936. In this fine book, he says that he will leave it to the scientists or psychiatrists to say what Hitler was in a mental sense.
    I think this was an unfortunate huge mis-direction of his thinking’s exact required focus and his subsequent resulting presentation as an historian.
    I may be incorrect as I have not seen the second book, but from summaries of his books elsewhere on the web I see no recognition or outline detailed for the true nature of what Hitler was along the lines I propose as possibly valid below.

    I believe the simple explanation for what Hitler was is that he was a man suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
    I think this was likely caused by his Father’s harsh treatment or his home environment very early in his life, and possibly augmented or strengthened by other grave events or periods to follow at various times during his life.

    As no one can definitely say what causes NPD, it is conjecture but I think it can be supported by what we know so far of the illness.

    First one must look at what narcissism means, a definition of it.
    Second one must look at Narcissistic Personality Disorder and what it entails.

    People miss this, just how the illness operates. It is an aid if one is intimately understanding of this illness by personal experience, (first-hand unfortunately), it helps to have stood in the face of the rage, the strange logic and complexity of what this illness throws at you, as it does not debilitate people, but it strengthens the victim into pursuing what their inner goals are.

    People with NPD are livng the illness and all of those around them are sucked in as well and effected for better or worse.

    It is a difficcult illness to identify because it has so many facets.

    I think all of the elements of Hitler’s character are there in the major symptoms usually listed and as well in what I suppose are called secondary or additional symptoms or characteristics, as identified in some of the web articles.

    The illness is strong, sneaky, hidden, pervasive, all controlling and makes the victim a puppet and unknowing agent for its’ dictates.

    The results are complex and most importantly bewildering (and hence confusing) to those interacting or around the victim of the illness.

    If one applies the illness to Hitler as fact and then examines his actions in relation to the illness, I think there are logical fits.

    Some would be in no particular order:
    One, his ability to know what to say to manipulate through situations or during speeches. This driven by his need to control, to dominate.
    Two, his need to gather power around him and to exercise this power.
    Three, his capability to fly into rages and then act calmly immediately after. Some of this was an act, but much of it was I think automatic. It was there from childhood.
    Four, his inability to acccept criticism or opposition to his thinking as identified by his Generals. They were reduced to helplessness in front of him. No one or very few he respected could oppose him without fear.
    Five in the same vein, his lack of close friends or associates, NPD drives people away with demands that cannot be consistently met without strain.
    Six, his need to dominate and control those around him, with all subordinated to his needs and direction. Lackeys or close daily associates were in awe and served him, ie. Hess, Goring and Goebbels.
    Seven, his taking complete authority without penalty. His use of fear.
    Eight, his ability to demean those who had crossed him, his vindictiveness and ability to discard them when no longer useful.
    Nine, his inability at times to act, while then once having decided on action, he was resolute and unchanging in his path, while rarely admitting fault or error on his part.
    Ten, his tremendous memory for events and detail as well as his lack of forgiveness. His willingness to see others as the cause of his problems, his ultimate failure.
    Eleven, his apparent duality of personality: the charmer; the raging bull.
    Twelve, his arrogance, ability to inspire loyalty and his confidence that came as bursts of energy and action followed by exhaustion and a need to recuperate.
    Thirteen, his sense of vision, grandiose plans and world goals, his need to be the great agent in this attainment (if carried off). His sense that he was a Napoleonic like figure, but greater.
    Fourteen, his fragility, if challenged.
    Fifteen, his thinking that he was somehow selected and chosen to act for Germany, to make Germany a world power and that he would be recognized for this.
    Sixteen, his pragmatism and opportunism.
    Seventeen, the eyes.

    I will leave off here as I think a vast list can be developed.

    I think it is a simple fact that rather than looking at facts and seeing how they made the man, we must look at what he was as a narcissist and see how that created the facts around him.

    In this way, maybe we will better uderstand why it took the might of so many nations to subdue one man who was using a nation to fulfill his own strangely crafted logic.

    It is why with his death it only collapsed so quickly. Until he died, the fear or loyalty he caused kept the war going because an entire nation was linked to his illness.

    I urge more research re this illness and Hitler’s life. I think it controlled every moment of it, the unidentified thread that historians instinctively know is there, but cannot define without knowing the illness first.

    Sam Vaknin knows, I think, the above, but I have not read his comments on Hitler in depth, so I can only guess he likely raises the idea of the malignancy of Hitler as fact, but maybe not from the point of view as an historical examination or presentation. I assume he sees that it needs to be understood for us to have greater truth.

    I apologize if any of this offends anyone.

  4. Karel Colpaert says:

    I would be grateful to have the email address of Sir I. Kershaw.

  5. jason williams says:


  6. Axel says:

    We can drive through the world by looking in the back mirrors only but we will not get very far. Germany has dealt and still deals with its past.
    More importantly it has also paid for it.
    England; Great Britan; United Kingdom or whatever you want to call it has not.
    Almost all recent tragedies and suffering is in some or other form caused or with the involvement of England; Great Britan; United Kingdom and its lies. Never mind the past in this regard.
    Germany does not need Ian Hershaw to be reminded of its history but England; Great Britan; United Kingdom desperately does.

  7. […] într-un interviu dac? Hitler a fost într-adev?r nebun, Kershaw a r?spuns negativ, considerând c? întregul […]

  8. […]   Hitler denounces the Weimar Republic as 5,000 storm troopers demonstrate in […]

  9. […] officials meet in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to decide the “Final Solution of the Jewish […]

  10. […] officials meet in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to decide the “Final Solution of the Jewish […]

  11. stephen says:

    on th e pro Annihilation you said ” nazi sought to creat lebensraum by murder of the jews . Tjhis is false at least incomplete lebensraum could only be created by effective genocide of all the population the ” slavs” i understand that in some areas of byelorusia the death proportion was as high as that amongst jews to ignore the genocide against the slavs is quite disgusting esp. as it relates to current anti putin/russian sentiment in so amny areas the death rates of russiandds approached that of jews if a little less focused metal detectorists dig up dozens of soviet bodies in short time joseph mekhlis kille d 170,000 cowards in 1941

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