Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: Profiles In Power

HitlerGlance, for a moment, at the face adorning the cover of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: Profiles In Power. You’d be hard-pressed not to concede that this is the face of an evil man, a man without conscience or moral scruples, just the sort of person that could perpetrate a genocide or instigate what Time magazine famously called “a revolution against the moral basis of civilization….against the human soul.” In Macbeth we are told that “There’s no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face,” and surely this is what we would like to believe, but these lines are spoken by the doomed Duncan, and expressly contradicted by the shrewder Lady Macbeth, who tells her husband that his face is like a book “where men / may read strange matters.” Hitler’s “strange matters” included megalomania, seething hatreds and grim ambition, the qualities that ensnared a nation and have proved morbidly fascinating for generations of scholars. And for good reason: who could fail to wonder how a third-rate Austrian painter with fringe political beliefs and no money or influence could ascend to a position of absolute authority in Europe’s most powerful country? Hitler: Profiles In Power is renowned Nazi scholar and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw’s attempt to answer this question.

Central to current debates about the Third Reich is the question of Hitler’s influence. Continuing the time-honored academic tradition of giving confusing, often nonsensical labels to otherwise simple stances, historians are roughly divided into two opposing camps: “intentionalists,” who view the horrors of the Nazi regime as the fruition of Hitler’s vision, and “functionalists,” who emphasize the role of preexisting hatreds and political strife in creating the conditions necessary for genocide. The principle point of disagreement between the two camps: would war and the Holocaust have been inevitable or even likely had it been some other fanatical malcontent that rose to power in pre-war Germany? Even today, more than a half-century after Hitler took his own life, leaving all of Germany to confront its murderous complicity, tensions run high around this issue, with many believing that to grant Hitler too much influence absolves the greater German population.

In his academic career, Kershaw has done battle with both sides, mocking those who would reduce the history of National Socialism to a character study of one man while at the same time insisting – quite correctly, in my judgment – that Hitler’s role was nonetheless pivotal. Propitious circumstances (in a manner of speaking), including vicious economic debt coupled with rampant inflation and the forced indignities of the Versailles Treaty’s “war guilt” clause created the widespread social unrest that revolutionaries thrive in. But why Hitler? Kershaw demonstrates that, from his earliest involvement in politics, Hitler stood out for his magnetic personality. It seems perverse to speak of Hitler’s “qualities,” but they proved essential to his political success. He was intelligent and sharp-witted, and a keen judge of people (he would become famous for the consideration he showed his secretaries, for example, and his ability to buy even mere acquaintances personal gifts), showing immense loyalty to those who managed to get close to him. He read extensively, though not widely, happily soaking up everything that had been written on his favorite subjects – antisemitism, German history, social Darwinism – without ever bothering to confront opposing views. This autodidacticism, coupled with his prodigious memory, made him a formidable debating opponent, and he spoke with a charisma that continues to defy my understanding but nonetheless captivated his audiences.

But Hitler’s cult-like appeal cannot alone suffice to explain the coordinated efforts of Germany’s notoriously fractionalized bureaucracy, and hence the above debate. It is Kershaw who introduced the concept of “working towards the Fuhrer,” by which even the lowliest functionaries, those with no direct orders from or contact with Hitler, were still enthralled enough by his vision that they molded their actions to suit what they believed to be his goals. Recall, from an earlier posting, Eric Hoffer’s counterintuitive insight that an ideological doctrine is effective in direct proportion to how little it is understood? Hitler offered an ideological framework that would ensure his ultimate goals – German expansion, racial animosity and political conformity – without prescribing specific actions, actions that he might end up being held accountable for if they led to undesired results.

None of this would have mattered, of course, had he not been so frighteningly successful at eroding civil liberties and the inbuilt safeguards against despotism that are the hallmark of any functioning democracy, and Kershaw traces the descent from democracy to dictatorship with aplomb, albeit in prose that often languors. It is a worthy contribution to the study of the 20th century’s most reviled figure and a frightening glimpse into how easily government power can be subverted and repurposed.