Monday, 6 October 2014

Hitler biographies - Do we really need another one?

I spent some time over the weekend reading Volker Ullrich's new, German-language biography of Hitler. Released in 2013, it is due to appear in the UK next year, but I wanted to consult it on a few points for a forthcoming e-Book of mine (watch this space), so got hold of a copy.

A lot of people will question why we need a new biography of Hitler.  Aren't there enough already? They will ask.  Didn't Ian Kershaw's two volume offering of 15 years ago satisfy our collective fascination with that most odious dictator? Is there anything new that can be said about the man?

Well, yes and no.  As one might expect, my office shelves are rather loaded with 'Hitleriana', including all of the serious biographies.  Though there are countless books which touch on the subject in some way, or treat Hitler's life more or less tangentially - one is tempted here to recall Alan Coren's famous marketing ploy for his "Golfing for Cats" - in terms of straight biographies of Hitler, there are actually not that many available.   The most significant are Ian Kershaw's above mentioned, of course, but also those by Joachim Fest, John Toland, Alan Bullock and Konrad Heiden.

Now, one point springs to mind.  The fact that the three German volumes (Fest, Heiden and now Ullrich) were written by journalists and not historians says rather a lot, I think, about the impenetrable nature of most of the output of German historians.  If you thought British academics struggled to communicate to a wider public, spare a thought for their German counterparts, whose strictly 'scientific' approach and needlessly convoluted prose make them all but unreadable for the layman.

But, crucially, 6 major biographies over 70 years does not appear excessive.  Also, one has to bear in mind that new interpretations, archival revelations and new ideas have also informed those accounts.  The process of historical revision has been constantly at work.  So, on that basis, it is perhaps justified, even timely, that Ullrich's book should now appear.

However, I think there is something more profound at play here.  Reading Ullrich's book, it is immediately apparent that he is seeking to tell a human story as much as a political one - and that is something quite novel.  Kershaw's books, for all their brilliance, are unashamedly political biographies: they are primarily interested in Hitler as a political actor, rather than as a human being.  Hence, what we might call the 'human Hitler' is almost completely absent.  This omission is deliberate, and in line with Kershaw's belief that "Hitler the man" is less important than the structures that he put in place and the events that he inspired.

Whatever one thinks of that contention, the desire to overlook "Hitler the man" is perhaps understandable on a more visceral level.  As I have written elsewhere, I think we tend to play down Hitler's humanity as a self-defence mechanism; a way of distancing ourselves from him, and from his beliefs and actions.  Like the perennial nonsense about his supposed monorchidism, it is a way for us to set him apart - to say he is not one of us...

However, Ullrich's book marks the return of the "human Hitler" to the historical canon.  He is not afraid to foreground the human aspect of his subject, and indeed he does so very well; using eye-witness and memoir accounts to great effect.  This does not make it an extended gossip-fest; far from it.  The history presented is sound, and is amplified and enriched by the additional material.  It is worth mentioning as well that the German edition is beautifully written...

So, for that reason at least, Ullrich's is a significant book.  Is there anything really 'new' in there?  Probably not.  Is the new addition worth reading?  Most certainly.

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