'He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.' - Friedrich Nietzsche.
I've studied Nazi Germany for years through my courses at university, college and High school, but also as an interest in my own free time. I think the Nietzsche quote has been one that has always stuck with me for this very reason. I watched a Kershaw interview recently on YouTube, in it he was asked if he ever became desensitized to the horrors of the Nazi regime through decades of research. He responded that he did not. But for me that has always something that has been in the back of my mind a little. I've spent a lot of time studying horrific regimes. Inevitably when writing long essays on such things you come across sections of material with particularly harrowing stories of famine, torture and death.
These studies have definitely shaped my views on humanity and what people are capable of. When you look at some of the worst things people have done, it is hard not to have your world view impacted. At the same time I tend to put a positive light onto it. It sheds away any naivety you might have about the world around you. I don't ever regret studying heavy topics or history in general. Without it I would not have the depth of world knowledge or the critical mind that a lot of other people simply don't have.
With that in mind I'll kick off this review of Ian Kershaw's Hitler, by simply stating that if any of you have an interest in Hitler or the Nazi era, this is a must read. I think this is the first time I've ever used the word masterpiece to describe anything. This is the culmination of one man's knowledge, learnt through decades of research into Nazism. Every section is painstakingly structured yet written in a way that is not only easy to read, but genuinely gripping. I think this is the best we're ever going to get.
One of the problems with studying this era is that the person and the actions he orchestrated are almost unimaginable. The Second World War and the holocaust are only 70 years in the past and yet the Europe of today seems an absolute far cry from the conditions that allowed Hitler and his party to rise to power and conduct such horrors. You kind of sit there at first and go wait a minute; this is something that happened pretty recently?
What this book does so well is to strip down the pantomime and the over dramatizations of his character and show us who the man actually was. It suggests what might have motivated him; how it was he came to be that person and what his personality was like. The result is that Hitler becomes very real. The villain is cast aside and you delve deep into the persona of the human being.
The downside of the book is that so little is known about Hitler's early life that even though it is still insightful and meticulous, we will probably never know for sure what it was that made Hitler such a pathological, anti-Semite. There are theories of course, but as he goes on to say in this biography, there is nothing concrete enough to conclude definitively what it was that shaped Hitler in this way. This is probably the last great burning question I have with regards to Hitler. What was it that made you so hateful? So unrelenting in the lengths of which you'd go to in order to annihilate Jews?
But ultimately that's not a statement to take away from what is totally an insightful masterpiece. My understanding of the man and the regime has progressed massively through reading Kershaw's account of Hitler's life. If a book can still give you a fresh perspective on a topic that you've studied for years, then you know it is an important one. In a perfect world this would be something that everyone who studies the Nazi regime at any level reads. It is that accessible and that insightful.