Voluminous Description

Finally finished Kershaw’s biography of Hitler.  I’ve been working on it – both volumes, unabridged – for years, picking it up for a bit, putting it down for a bit, etc.  (This is how I usually tackle mammoth reading projects.)

Can’t help feeling underwhelmed.  I mean, I’m in absolute awe of the scholarship and knowledge and patience and effort involved in such a massive and detailed project… but it fails to live up to the hype from the middle-brow and/or reactionary reviewers – Paxman, Sereny, Hastings, Burleigh, etc – that is splashed so proudly all over the back covers.

Kershaw has produced something that is, at least for long stretches, narrative history.  The narrative history of one protagonist.  This would be fine if the protagonist possessed fascinating and complex (if vile) interiority.  Hitler, however, did not have anything of the kind.  He appears to have been a nonentity, a psychological nullity, a hazy cloud of pedestrian neuroses, a reflex machine made of clockwork prejudices, a lazy fool, a windbag, a crashing bore, a plodder, a cold and self-involved man, a man with little capacity for any passion other than fury, and little in the way of emotional complexity.  His reactions are utterly predictable once you’ve spent any time (so to speak) in his company.  This leads to endless paragraphs which begin with Kershaw saying something like “Hitler’s reaction was predictable”, followed by a re-run of something you’ve already read a hundred times.  Kerhsaw isn’t to be blamed for Hitler’s personality, but he is – perhaps – to be blamed for taking so much space repeatedly describing it in detail, despite the worthlessness and tedium of such a project.  Kershaw doesn’t really have much to add when it comes to explaining how such a man could so entrance so many people.  He makes glancing references to national pride, demagoguery, etc – all the usual explanations – and then seems to get back to the recitation of events.

Kershaw almost apologizes in the preface to Volume One: Hubris, talking about how he has knowingly strayed from his background in social history.  He’d been plugging away at the social history of the Third Reich for years before writing this biography – a more ‘popular’ type of book – and often brings insights from social history to bear… especially in Vol.1 (which is by far the better book)… but it can sometimes feel like a series of asides in the dull story of a dull narcissist.  The asides can be genuinely fascinating.  Kershaw is good on the mechanics of how the Nazis were levered into power by cynical bourgeois politicians, for example.  The repeated motif of ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ is cleverly seized-upon by Kershaw to show how much Nazi policy originated at lower levels with ambitious lickspittles and careerists pandering to Hitler, and his perennial attraction to the most radical ‘solution’ to any problem.  In the second volume, the best bits are about how the haphazardly evolved structure of the Nazi state meant that, with more and more power invested in a man pathologically incapable of countenancing retreat under any circumstances, almost everyone except Hitler knew that the war was lost, yet were unable – often unwilling – to do anything about it. …

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