The second volume of Kershaw's extraordinary biography of Hitler displays such a detailed narrative sweep and analytic incisiveness that it is impossible to put down. Kershaw illuminates how Hitler's brand of leadership was little more than a series of gambles, fierce demonstrations of will, and brilliant propaganda coups. At the same time, the regime's bureaucratic fragmentation and personal rivalries resulted in growing inefficiency and an ideological radicalization that centered on Hitler's "vision" of racial purity and imperial conquest. Kershaw also shows that Hitler never gave written or detailed orders during the genocidal attempt to "solve" the Jewish question. Rather, he let his subordinates carry out what they assumed were his wishes. Since writing Mein Kampf, he had linked the mass murder of Jews to waging war; so as the war expanded, the killings escalated into the "final solution." Both the war and genocide were driven by his brutally Darwinian views on life and history and his sense of having little time. Furthermore, Hitler's style of leadership through improvisation and the resulting "breakdown of governmental structures" prevented other institutions or groups from bypassing him. After appointing himself supreme army commander in December 1941, Hitler left nonmilitary affairs to squabbling underlings. Yet so thorough was Nazism's control and so widespread was public support (until the defeats began to accumulate) that only in July 1944 did a serious assassination plot develop. Here Kershaw's account-and his description of Hitler's final weeks in his bunker-are mesmerizing.
Yet the central mystery remains. Why did a civilized and educated nation entrust its fate to a "self-professed political savior" whose endless threats to "annihilate" his enemies should have left little doubt about his true aims? The appeals of Nazi ideology and Hitler's early successes, as well as his ability to combine mysticism and nationalism, provide part of the answer. Still, rational explanations take one only so far.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.