Review | Hitler: A Biography – Ian Kershaw

About the Book

“The Hitler biography of the twenty-first century” (Richard J. Evans), Ian Kershaw’s Hitler is a new, distilled, one-volume masterpiece that will become the standard work. From Hitler’s origins as a failed artist in fin-de-siecle Vienna to the terrifying last days in his Berlin bunker, Kershaw’s richly illustrated biography is a mesmerizing portrait of how Hitler attained, exercised, and retained power. Drawing on previously untapped sources, such as Goebbels’s diaries, Kershaw addresses crucial questions about the unique nature of Nazi radicalism, about the Holocaust, and about the poisoned European world that allowed Hitler to operate so effectively.

1072 pages (hardcover) 
Published on November 17, 2008
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This book was an Audible purchase.

I’m not a person who enjoys a brief overview. When I read history books, I want to learn, and I often find the most interesting nuggets of information in the details, the things that typically get left out of brief overviews and vignettes. Furthermore, while the actual big event is interesting, really what captivates me is all the stuff that led up to the big event, and less the big event itself. I like to see just how things had to move, how decisions had to be made so this Big Thing was even an option in the first place. 

So, knowing that, you might not be that surprised that out of all the biographies of Hitler I had to choose from, I decided to land on one that was over 1,000 pages long. And yes, it’s a lot. A whole lot. I actually listened to the audiobook and it took me a long, long time. That being said, I didn’t regret any one of those 40+ hours. Reason? This book is amazing. 

The thing is, World War II was a big event. Big. Very big. And the guy at the center of it all was… well, he was kind of weird. But more on that later. 

For now, I will tell you the real reason I picked this book up. It was actually less due to its length, and more because I really, really want to know what life was like when Hitler was just existing in the world, rather than leading his corner of it. I wanted to understand who he was as a man. I wanted to know what events had to happen to make this guy become who he became. Mussolini considered himself the best actor in the world, and I wanted to know if Hitler felt the same way about himself, and what happened that made him that way. I’d heard of Ian Kershaw, and I knew that he was a man who was well suited to the task, so I jumped. 

This book really doesn’t skimp on any details, and if you aren’t the kind of person who finds it interesting to hear about how someone passes their free time, for example, you might find this book more of a slog than anything else. That being said, Hitler had an absolute ton of free time in his early days. He was basically allergic to work, to the point where he lived in a men’s home rather than get a job. 

If you don’t think it’s interesting to know that his contemporaries, when he lived in Austria thought he looked like he was starving, and he stunk, then maybe this book is not for you. 

If, however, those sorts of human details about a man who has burned away all his humanity are interesting, if you like the more intricate picture they paint, then you’ll probably want this book. 

That being said, to understand Hitler, you have to know where he came from. You have to know what social stresses existed at the time, and you absolutely must understand how World War I impacted the politics of the time. Kershaw does a great job of this, not just detailing how these political and social forces pushed and pulled people, but how they specifically impacted Hitler himself. It paints a vivid portrait of a rather lost, lacklustre youth growing up during an extremely changeable, and changing time, complete with all the stresses (like the Great Depression, the impact of World War I in Austria and Germany and more). 

Further, Kershaw frequently points out common and popular rumors that have spread about Hitler, like the fact that he was abused as a child, or the rumor that he was gay. He addresses them nicely, stating what the rumors are, and then giving reasons why it probably was/wasn’t like that, and here’s the evidence as to why. He often frequently sights contemporaries at the time, and people who were around Hitler when these things were reported to happen. However, he does say when an account should be considered questionable, and why.

Smooth writing, and a very balanced perspective as well as fantastic sources I’d never encountered before, really helped me understand not just who Hitler was, but why someone like Hitler was even possible in the first place, and what happened once he had all that power… and how his house of murderous, genocidal cards came falling down. He didn’t exist in a vacuum, and that’s why history is so interesting to me. There are always forces at play. Social changes, political changes, war, and the loss of a war all combined to set the stage for something like the Nazi party could even come to be. 

Cause and effect. It’s pivotal that we know these things so “never again” isn’t just a thing we say, rather something we fundamentally understand and adhere to.

The fact is, there are about a billion books on Hitler and probably that many and more on World War II. So out of all the books in the world, why should you pick up this one? 

Because, with the sheer magnitude of knowledge we have, there is still a whole lot we don’t know, and there are only a very few authors who are up to the task of presenting this wealth of information as succinctly and well-sourced as Kershaw. He takes complex, nuanced events, and makes them digestible. He paints a brilliant backstory, with which all the foreground is even clearer. One of my favorite quotes I ran across recently was, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot.” We have to learn about the past, about the things that happened, and all the stuff that had to transpire so that one event could take place. And we need to understand. There are no new stories. 

But Ian Kershaw sure does a great job vividly painting a story we all know at least something about. 

5/5 stars


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