• Of all the myriad phrases that should be banned from the vocabularies of critics, “definitive biography” belongs at the top of the list. No such book exists, least of all when its subject is a person of major historical significance. About such rare birds no last words can ever be uttered. I’ve published one large-scale primary-source biography of an important writer and recently finished writing another about an important musician, and in neither case did it ever occur to me that I had said everything there was to say about my subjects.
Even less did Ian Kershaw exhaust the subject of Adolf Hitler in his impeccably researched, coolly well-written two-volume biography, in part because Kershaw, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, sought to describe Hitler’s life in the light of the contemporary historical point of view that emphasizes the power of society over the significance of the individual. Like all such books, Kershaw’s Hitler, for all its great value, sometimes resembles a handsomely crafted picture frame with nothing in it. So it is in certain ways even more profitable to read Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (Yale, 394 pp., $32.50), a collection of essays written between 1977 and the present day and assembled by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here we can see Kershaw working out his interpretation of Hitler step by step.
The insufficiently vivid literary portraiture that is the chief weakness of Kershaw’s “Hitler” is by definition less of a problem within the narrower compass of a single-topic essay. Without exception, the 14 pieces collected in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, which range from an analysis of Hitler’s early speeches and writings to an exceedingly hard-headed essay that asks why “the ultra-violence that characterized the first half of the [20th] century had no equivalent in the second half,” are penetrating and illuminating. The introduction, in which Kershaw offers the reader “a clearer glimpse of the historian behind the history,” is no less worthy of close consideration. What led him to devote the greater part of his adult life to studying Nazi Germany and writing a two-volume scholarly biography of a monster like Hitler? As Kershaw explains it:
I had come to German history via an increased competence in the German language-German was a subject unavailable at my school, so I was able to begin learning it only in 1969, and then for three years purely as a casual hobby-and what really, and increasingly, intrigued me, as a product of postwar British democracy, was how Germany had so completely succumbed to a dictatorship which had brought about world war and, to ratinal minds, a scarcely intelligible persecution and extermination of the Jews.
By such unlikely routes are life-shaping decisions reached.
Kershaw’s prefatory excursion into intellectual autobiography ends with “a rather gloomy look into the crystal ball”:
At least, a replication of the conditions which produced the Holocaust is, mercifully, nowhere in sight. The problems are now very different to those which gave rise to Hitler and genocidal antisemitism. Even so, it is difficult to view the future with great optimism. The threat from an international order in disarray, most obviously in the Middle East, is palpable. And humankind’s capacity to combine new forms of ideological demonisation with bureaucratic refinement and unparalleled technological killing power is far from eradicated. So far, with great effort, the combination, which would be truly dangerous if marshalled by a powerful state entity, has been held in check. Will it continue to be?
To read these words in a book that bears the name “Yad Vashem” on the title page is at once sobering and tonic.