Where Books Are Burnt


Sir Ian Kershaw’s Hitler – a vast, two volume work – ranks amongst the very best studies of Nazism:

Hitler stood for at least some things they [German people] admired, and for many had become the symbol and embodiment of the national revival which the Third Reich had in many respects been perceived to accomplish.”

It is split into two distinct halves: 1889-1936, Hubris and 1936-1945, Nemesis. Kershaw is known for his specialist studies into the rise of Nazism, especially the “working towards the Fuhrer” idea, an original topic of WWII history. Another of his specialist topics is the myth and persona of Adolf Hitler, and just how this unimpressive underachiever was able to manipulate his way to dictatorship.

The symbolic moment of capitulation of German intellectuals to the ‘new spirit’s of 1933 came with the burning on 10 May of the books of authors unacceptable to the regime. University faculties and senates collaborated. Their members, with few exceptions attended the bonfires. The poet Heinriche Heine (1797-1856) whose works were among those consumed by the flames, had written: ‘Where books are burnt, in the end people are also burnt.’”

Hitler’s early life is described as being solidly middle class, he found primary school easy which gave him time to read the Western penny dreadful writer Karl May and construct elaborate cowboy and soldier games to play with friends in the vast forests and mountains near his Austrian home. His father beat him, and his beloved mother, one of only two people he genuinely felt love for, picked up the pieces afterwards. His father died, leaving him a decent stipend to live on, and before his mother died of cancer (an event reckoning with the most anguished in his life) he had decided on a life as a great artist or architect at the Vienna school of Fine Art. He was rejected more than once, and drifted into the army where his views on antisemitism hardened into a life philosophy. Along with his beloved mother, the other great love of his life was his niece, Geli, the daughter of his sister. Amidst great scandal in the press, Geli wound up committing suicide in one of Hitler’s vast apartments. Earlier on in life, intending to study at the Viennese school of fine art, his companion (and seemingly only friend) noted that Hitler did not seek sexual conquest with women, was terrified of syphilis, and refrained from masturbation.

Up until the end of the Nazi regime, his lover Eva Braun was kept hidden from the German people, treated poorly, her status lower than that of his beloved dogs, which drove her to attempt suicide many times.

Kershaw leaves no stone unturned as he pursues the demonic, mythical Hitler, and tries to discover how a former dirty, penniless malcontent and failed artist, who spent time in Men’s Hostels and prison, could rise to be one of the most popular (at least for a good number of years) of European leaders. Kershaw guides us through the movement’s humble beginnings; with a handful of far right anti-Semites meeting in beerhalls and formulating a political agenda in the wake of German reparations for losing WWI, Hitler’s innate genius for public speaking which led to the growth of the Nazis to ultimate power, with Hitler having assumed the messianic role of The Fuhrer, and subsequently its annihilation in the Fuherbunker; war lost, Hitler given a pistol so the invading Russians couldn’t capture him, torture him or put him on trial.

Before the outbreak of war, Hitler spent his time erratically, snoozing in until late, making his coterie of chefs and servants cook several meals to anticipate his sleep pattern. At night he relaxed with films in his personal cinema. King Kong was one of his favourites.

“Believe me, he’s an absolute neuter, not a man”, remarked a middle class woman whose wealthy family doted on the would be dictator and even found an amusing, provincial charm in Hitler’s pouring of sugar into a vintage wine to sweeten the taste.

Kershaw makes it plain that Hitler was in the right place at the wrong time, the only time in history where a man with Hitler’s dubious magic could spur the world into mass murder and all out carnage.

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