Can We Ever Escape Him?

Book review of Hitler: A Short Biography by A.N. Wilson

Brendan Simms

There is no shortage of good, large-scale Hitler biographies, including the pioneering work of Alan Bullock not long after the war, the literary masterpiece by Joachim Fest in the early 1970s, and Ian Kershaw’s acclaimed two-volume study completed at the turn of the millennium. There is always room, however, for a fresh approach and in particular for a handy short study of the most destructive figure in human history. A.N. Wilson’s short biography brings out well the ordinariness and extraordinariness of Hitler. He reminds us that the key to the Führer’s success was his ability to articulate the feelings and prejudices of the German people concerning who was responsible for the lost First World War, the injustice of Versailles, and who was to blame for the world economic crisis after 1929. At the same time, Wilson points out, Hitler led the electorate much further than they intended to go when they voted for him: to dictatorship at home, aggressive war abroad and to genocide against the Jews. 

That said, Wilson’s biography cannot be recommended as a starting point for the lay reader. It is insufficiently grounded in recent research and too whimsical in execution to serve as an introduction to the subject. The author has taken into account new work on Hitler’s experience in the trenches, which appears to have been less heroic than he himself claimed, but the account of the Second World War is not only — necessarily — rushed but also rather hackneyed. Little attention is paid to the concept of Lebensraum, while too much time is wasted on relatively marginal issues such as the influence of Wagner. There is no sense of the fact that Blitzkrieg — the “lightning war” with which the Germans overwhelmed much of Europe in 1939-1941 — was developed on the hoof, or of Hitler’s long-standing preoccupation with the power of the United States. In particular, Wilson both misunderstands the level of logistical investment made in the murder of the Jews — it took up a relatively small proportion of the rolling stock — and fails to see the link between the war against the Jews and the “conventional” war against the Grand Alliance. In Hitler’s mind, the former was not a distraction from the latter, it was an integral part of it. 

Towards the end, Wilson opens up a potentially fruitful line of inquiry by trying to relate the rise of Hitler to our own times.   After all, the “spectre of bankruptcy”, where “something . . . happens in the world’s stock markets which suddenly ruins you”, is common to both the post-1929 age and the post-2008 period we are still grappling with. Wilson is therefore right to ask whether there might not be some new beast “slouching towards Bethlehem” with deadly panaceas for an enraged and insecure population. This exercise is undermined, however, by various bees in the author’s bonnet, only some of which, such as his hostility to the Roman Catholic Church, bear tangentially on his subject. The comparison between Hitler’s demand for typewriting lessons for children and Tony Blair’s call for a laptop in every British primary school, on the other hand, seems extremely forced. Surprisingly, Wilson does not make much of the most important contemporary relevance of Hitler, which lies in the exponential growth of conspiratorial paranoid international anti-Semitism over the past 15 years or so. Nowadays nobody bats an eyelid at the suggestion that mysterious Jewish lobbies and manipulate US foreign policy. More than 60 years since his death the tragic truth is that Hitler now seems less unusual in a global context than he did 20 years ago.

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