DCSIMG

A complete guide to the worst villain in history

Sir Ian Kershaw's new biography of Adolf Hitler is published this week. Chris Bond talks to him about history's most infamous dictator.

THERE can be few rooms that contain as many books on Hitler as this one.

The name of the 20th century's towering monster looms from row after row of shelves, along with fleeting glimpses of the instantly recognisable face, the piercing blue eyes and faintly ridiculous moustache.

It's the office of Sir Ian Kershaw, professor of modern history at Sheffield University, a man regarded by many of his peers as the pre-eminent historical expert on Hitler.

His new, mountainous biography, Hitler, is a single volume version of his acclaimed books on the infamous dictator, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis.

Sir Ian wanted to write a scholarly account that was also accessible to the ordinary reader. The result is a compelling and finely detailed work which charts both Hitler's rise from his origins as a social misfit and the conditions in German society that enabled him to gain unparalleled power.

Sir Ian has established himself as one the country's foremost historians but his career could easily have taken a very different path. "I was more interested in languages than I was in history, but the only modern language I could do at university was French, so history was my fall back subject," he says.

Having studied at both Liverpool and Oxford, he became a history lecturer at Manchester University. "I was a lecturer in medieval history and then I jumped seven centuries into the 20th."

To help his medieval research he joined a German language course at the Goethe Institute, in Manchester, which coincided with him being offered a job teaching modern history, and an invitation to work on a project charting the history of Bavaria during the Nazi era.

"I started off as a social historian of Nazi Germany and I became more and more interested in the structures of power and that pushed me into looking at Hitler's power."

By 1987, having already written a book (in German) on Nazism, he was approached by publishers to write a biography of Hitler, which he initially declined. "I didn't think there was any need for it. There were two good ones and I didn't think I was the person to write another one."

However, after re-reading the two key biographies of Hitler, one by Alan Bullock and the other by German historian Joachim Fest, he felt neither focused enough attention on Hitler's obsession with the Jews. "Although Hitler's anti-semitism featured in both books it didnt have the prominence I thought it should," he says. "Hitler was the most radical spokesman regarding anti-semtism, but he didn't take an every day role in directing anti-Jewish policy."

Sir Ian has spent 30 years researching Hitler's life and believes part of his success lay in what he calls his "charismatic authority".

"This is not the charisma we might associate with say Barack Obama, or Elvis Presley. It's based around the idea that in times of colossal crisis people can place their trust in an individual who they see as being able to bring about salvation."

There have been many attempts to get inside Hitler's mind, but Sir Ian believes these offer little insight. "What is interesting is the fact he had no friends. Hardly anyone goes through life without friends and yet here was a man who once said his only friends were Eva Braun and Blondie, his dog."

By the end of his life Hitler was taking a daily cocktail of 28 drugs but Kershaw rejects the idea that he was mad. "It's a cop-out and it doesn't explain anything. If that was the case, why was he able to capture the imagination of so many people?"

So is it feasible that a figure like Hitler could unleash a future armageddon? "It could only happen after a war that shook the foundations of society, or after an immense crisis following a catastrophic global collapse of the economic system.

"We're a long way yet from something that would lead to people getting rid of the monarch and parliament."

Why, then, does Hitler still attract such fascination? "Ultimately he was the main author of the worst war in history which killed upwards of 50 million people and he's the main author of the worst genocide in history," says Sir Ian, who retires from his post at Sheffield University next month after 19 years.

"Britain spent six years fighting this man so he has a direct interest for us. But if you look around his legacy is worldwide, because nearly every country has victims, or the descendants of victims, of Hitler and even today we keep uncovering things which keep bringing us back to the Nazis. As one German historian said: 'It's a world that won't pass away' and it's one we're still wrestling with."

Hitler, by Sir Ian Kershaw is published by Allen Lane, priced 30.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page