In 1950, appalled by the flood of books and articles about National Socialism that was pouring from the printing presses, a German journalist wrote, “He has played a trick on us. This Hitler, I think he’ll remain with us until the end of our lives.”
Fifty years later, the situation has not changed. It is true that Hitler has failed to go down in history as “the greatest German,” as he predicted he would after the completion of Germany’s absorption of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, but he has surely become the one most written about, leaving such competitors as Frederick II, Goethe, and Bismarck far behind. In The Third Reich, Michael Burleigh writes of “the avalanche of morbid kitsch and populistic trivia” evoked by the mere mention of his name (“surface scratchings about whether Hitler slept with his niece, loved his dog or had plans for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor”), and it is true that this makes up a large part of the total. Fortunately it is balanced by works that reveal new information about the Führer’s life or see old problems in ways that illuminate and instruct. The three books considered here share those qualities, while differing markedly in content and approach.
In the first volume of his biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw described the early political life of his subject, how he was brought to political power more by chance and the manipulations of others than by his own talents, and how he then, through the weakness of the Western Powers, had a series of diplomatic successes that made Germany once more a power of some consequence. These came to a climax in March 1936, when Hitler, disregarding the warnings of his generals, dispatched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, destroying the Locarno Treaty of 1925, in which Germany had promised to respect established European borders.
For the mass of the German people, these incidents served to turn Hitler into a statesman of extraordinary talent, and the Führer was not inclined to disagree. As Kershaw tells us at the beginning of his second volume, subtitled “Nemesis,” he soon developed new ambitions and, in November 1937, at a meeting with his top commanders, told them that they must be prepared to solve Germany’s problem of “living space” sometime between 1943 and 1945, at the expense of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Once more the professional soldiers were overcome by misgivings, but—more by accident than design—the Austrian problem was actually solved to Germany’s advantage within four months by the Anschluss, the incorporation of Austria into Germany as the province of Ostmark. Kershaw writes:
The Anschluss was a watershed for Hitler, and for the Third Reich…. The overwhelming reception he had encountered on his grandiose procession to Vienna, above all his return to Linz, had made a strong impression on the German Dictator. The intoxication of the crowds made him feel like a god. The rapid improvisation of the Anschluss there and then…proved …