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"Hitler, 1889-1936: Hibris" by Ian Kershaw, translated into Hebrew by Smadar Milo, Am Oved, 703 pages (English edition: "Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris," W.W. Norton & Co., 845 pages)

On February 11, 1933, shortly after being elected chancellor of Germany, Hitler addressed the German public from the sports stadium in Berlin, packed to the hilt with admirers. At home, millions of Germans huddled over their radios, as Joseph Goebbels played the part of excited commentator. The diaries kept by Goebbels were the most valuable source of information to come Ian Kershaw's way as he set out to write his new biography of Hitler. No historian has ever had access to them before.

Electrifying the audience with his verbal skills - that was what Hitler loved best. When listeners stopped admiring him - in a private drawing room, an office or even a conference hall - he would freeze up, retreat into himself, scream, plead, threaten to commit suicide or burst into tears. He also liked to cuddle up like a poodle to rich women and be invited to the homes of the wealthy. But speechifying, and propaganda in general, with its flags, lights, torch parades and spin, were the only aspect of the political world that interested him until his dying day.

The climax of Hitler's speech on February 11, which Kershaw quotes in full and is notable for its use of the first person, is his pledge never to give up the fight against Marxism and all that goes with it. There will be only one victor in this battle, he declared - Marxism or the German people - and the people of Germany will prevail.

In his book on Nazi Germany and the Jews, Shaul Friedlander touches briefly on an important aspect of Hitler's "ideological world": "In Nazism, especially Hitler's version of it, history was a confrontation between unalterable good and unalterable bad. The outcome could only be envisaged in religious terms - annihilation or salvation."

Hitler's "unalterable good" was clearly the ignominious ideal of the pure, homogeneous Germany that so enthralled the Nazi leadership. Here there is nothing even to talk about. The "bad" from Hitler's perspective, was anything that "threatened" this ideal. Hatred of the Jews was par for the course. But hatred of Marxism sheds more light on how the majority of Germans turned into a frenzied mob that condoned violence, sneered at the law and common decency, and lost all sense of compassion. The pogroms against the leftist camp in Germany immediately after the Nazi ascent to power - against the communists, the trade union activists, the socialists, and eventually the liberals - provided the mental and organizational groundwork for what would come later: the destruction of the Jews.

The term "wiping out Marxism" - "auszurotten" in Hitler's parlance - was subsequently adopted by Himmler in his Posen speech. It was used with respect to the Jews in both a botanical sense (uprooting weeds) and a moral sense (uprooting evil). In his diary, Joseph Goebbels - a particularly repulsive creature, an easily offended yes-man who practically lived for Papa Hitler's praise and was disappointed whenever he was hesitant (and Hitler is portrayed in Goebbels' diary as pathologically indecisive, almost like Charlie Chaplin's Hitler) wrote: "Fantastic speech. Entirely anti-Marxist. Wonderful pathos at the end. `Amen.' That has power. Right on target." Indeed, the conclusion of this speech sounds like an ode to some secular religion.

Kershaw himself describes it as a powerful piece of oratory, but not much more. How British, to search for something meaningful in a political speech (and the truth is, what political culture today, apart from British democracy, still treats a party platform and electoral promises so seriously?). What Kershaw does emphasize about this speech is that it makes no mention of Jews. Even Goebbels apparently felt a need to comment on this: "Fantastic speech. Entirely anti-Marxist."

Ordinarily, the Jews came up every time Hitler opened his mouth, beginning with his days at a men's hostel in Vienna. As a scrawny young man from the provinces who earned a few pennies as an artist, he held forth before the impoverished residents of the hostel, talking about architecture, Wagner and "the Jews." So Kershaw makes a point of noting the absence of anti-Jewish invective in this speech, delivered at a time when the German nation was cheering him on and flocking around him, after he had spent many years in the opposition and slowly built up his power on the strength of his endless harangues against the Jews. In this instance, says Kershaw, the Jews were not mentioned, but the sentiments he glossed over not only spoke to the Nazis; they went to the heart of all German nationalists.

Why is this February 1933 speech so important? Because the new chancellor's pledge to stamp out "Marxism and all that goes with it" was directly in line with the political terror that characterized the first years of the Nazi regime, from Hitler's very first night in power. It is not just that laws were broken with impunity and members of parliament were kicked out after being legitimately elected. What we are looking at is the whole German people being taught, having it drilled into their heads, that anything outside German culture is a danger. And dangers must be destroyed.

First crescendo

From this standpoint, the mass pogroms targeting the left were the first stage in achieving the consensus of the German people for an active form of totalitarianism that had no need for police or secret agents to do the dirty work. Kershaw sees this dimension of Nazism - the takeover of a third of the German people, or at least its representatives and leaders - as the first crescendo in the gathering storm.

Hundreds of pages go by without Kershaw venturing into the slightest psychological characterization of his despicable protagonist. Even the brief glimpse into Hitler's sexual habits is kept low-key and technical, presenting only that which is known from documents and published reports. The challenge for Kershaw, even if he is too modest to say so, is to write a biography of Hitler without delving into his character. There have been some, of course, who say that the weakness of the book lies in the sketchy way Hitler's character is portrayed. Indeed, the book is like a giant labyrinth. But let's admit it: Biography fans are actually lovers of realistic literature, which, in the best of cases, is gossip armed with "that's how it really was" certification (hence the importance of the label "authorized biography").

Kershaw's Hitler is indeed a boring person. Kershaw himself comments on several occasions that outside political life, Hitler was pretty dull. At the same time, this man, who influenced our fate more than anyone else in the 20th century, was moved to tears by Wagnerian kitsch, and the one affair he ever had was an incestuous relationship with a minor who loved him and committed suicide.

On the other hand, thanks to Kershaw, anyone who wants to produce a play, novel or movie about Hitler the man, now has enough material about all the Hitlers that make up Adolf, from the Austrian village, through Linz, Vienna and Munich, and on to the bunker in Berlin. And that includes a muted but sensitive description of his love - apparently the only love he ever felt - for his long-suffering mother, the third wife of his father, Alois, who was born out of wedlock (not uncommon in those days among poor villagers).

Kershaw grapples with many of the cliches about Hitler. He quotes from the writings of the few West European leaders who met with him in his early days in power, such as Anthony Eden. But the reader has no chance of ever grasping the "true character" of Hitler. Contrary to what some critics have said, this is the real merit of the book. Because creating a character is an interpretative act. Characters are a literary affair. Whereas "our" Hitler is still racing to and fro, between our worst nightmares, in which every brute turns into Hitler, and the "comic" persona created by Charlie Chaplin, so deeply engrained in our psyches.

Precisely because history, as a scientific discipline, cannot leave out the Holocaust and World War II; precisely because it is impossible to explain the dark blot on the 20th century without studying Hitler, historical knowledge must skirt the anti-intellectual obstacle of personae, stereotypes and conventional wisdom.

From Kershaw's perspective, the Nuremberg laws in 1935, despite their appalling outcome, are part of the political farce that characterized the Nazi regime throughout its existence - further evidence of the disorganization, the absence of written decisions, the attempts to guess what the Fuhrer wanted, the Fuhrer's expectation that others would understand him and carry out his wishes without his having to read reports or approve them.

What interests Kershaw is the way Hitler did not have to say or write what he wanted, the way things were done for him based on what people understood from his speeches, his shouts, his nods and his silences. Perhaps that explains why there is no order from him to exterminate the Jews, to the delight of Holocaust deniers. The Germans did what they thought their daddy wanted.

From the highest echelons - from which Hitler became increasingly alienated as he grew more eccentric - to the unwashed masses, everyone behaved in the manner described by Werner Wilkins, state secretary of the Prussian Agriculture Ministry in 1934: "Very often it has been the case that individuals ... have waited for commands and orders. Unfortunately, that will probably also be so in future. Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuhrer, to work toward him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly toward the Fuhrer along his lines and toward his aim will in future, as previously, have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work."

These remarks by Wilkins were not disseminated or turned into any kind of prayer, although they are clearly a parody of Calvinism, and there is more to them than meets the eye. One might even say they are a kind of precursor of the idea of "empowerment" that has become all the rage today.

Historians, who can describe in painstaking detail the conquests of the Athenian polis in the 5th century B.C.E. or the Crusades in the late Middle Ages, are still at a loss when it comes to recording the events of our own day with any degree of precision. The shadow of the unknown hangs over the one source of real knowledge in our world - the whole truth. In this sense, Kershaw's book is a paean to the science of history.