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. Kershaw also takes pains to trash any suggestion that Hitler was ignorant of the fate of the Jews. Hitler was plainly in that swamp of horror right up to his floppy fringe, even if he kept himself out of the detailed running of it (as he tended to keep himself out of the detailed running of anything).
But Kershaw never really connects any of this to an over-arching analysis. He describes the composite parts of Nazi ideology, yet never explains why a reactionary – yet radical-sounding – scavenger ideology appeared in Germany in the post-WWI era. He describes the garbled jargon of Nazism – which mixed anti-Semitism and ultra-Nationalism with apparent anti-capitalist rhetoric – but never gets into the fully capitalist nature of the regime, or the reasons why a movement with populist left-wing-sounding slogans could be so essential to saving German capitalism from revolution. He details cynical bourgeois political manouvering, yet never goes into the ways Nazism formed a continuity – as well as a rupture – with both pre-war German imperialism and modern capitalism. Imperialism itself appears as a pathological emanation rather than as a world system driven by economic competition; Germany becomes the site of a peculiarly destructive form of this pathology, with no deeper analysis offered. Etc.
Of course, one risks falling into the trap of criticising an author for not sharing one’s own ideological viewpoint… as though that’s a flaw or fault, rather than a point of difference… but reading Kershaw is often – all too often – like reading a summary description (albeit a fantastically detailed one) rather than an analysis. You need Walter Benjamin and Trotsky and Daniel Guerin and maybe even bits and bobs from Wilhelm Reich in your head as you read Kershaw.
Kershaw would doubtless disagree, but then part of the problem with him – in my opinion – is that his view is evidently that of the liberal who sees ideology itself as a primal evil, leading to extremism, leading to utopianism, leading to revolution, leading to disaster (though I should stress, one of the virtues of Vol.1 is Kershaw’s detailed fact-based rejection of the idea that Hitler was voted in, or that he staged a popular revolution). Such normative assumptions are the foundation of the entire book. Ideology is something that extremists or revolutionaries have, not bourgeois states, mainstream ‘democrats’ or liberals. Civilisation and barbarism are opposites (rather than, as a Marxist might say, different sides of the same coin) and the descent of Germany from the latter into the former is a unique puzzle. If the respectable bourgeois politicians – and other such civilised people – helped or capitulated to Hitler, the answer to this apparent paradox must lie in ‘opportunism’, ‘militarism’, and other such extraneous pathologies… and, in this way, like so many liberal historians before him, he always circles back round to find a terrible conundrum that can only be described in detail and bewailed.
Also, he’s not much of a prose stylist. He’s okay when he’s not trying, but when he gets ambitious he also gets clunky.
I feel rather mean-spirited now, because Kershaw has assembled an amazing description, parts of which are genuinely insightful and useful, and all of which is based on sincere (and appealing) revulsion…
But it is, ultimately, only a very long description.