BOOK REVIEW. "Young Hitler: The Making of the Fuhrer", interesting but amateurish
Yes. From what the reviewer says, the book is amateurish. He rightly says that Hitler was not initially antisemitic but does not know why he became so. He offers no understanding of Hitler's psychology at all. Yet Hitler himself gives a perfectly clear and believable account of that in "Mein Kampf".
Hitler was a strong patriot who wanted to make Germany great again. That is normal enough. Strong patriotism is common even in nations where there would seem to be little to be patriotic about. So there is no mystery or madness about his basic motivations.
And what turned that patriotism into anti-semitism is also clear. People say it was because of his rejection by the Vienna art school -- but Hitler himself agreed with that rejection. The Rector told him that his main talent was in architecture and Hitler enthusiastically agreed with that. He was not antagonized at all.
What DID anger Hitler was all the revolutionary talk in postwar Vienna. There were many orators calling for class war and a revolution. But that went completely against Hitler's patriotism. He wanted Germans to be one big happy family, not fighting among themselves. And it was his constant belief in Germany and German unity that got him his following. He came across as someone who loved his people. And they followed him to the bitter end because of that.
And guess who the revolutionary talk came from? Predominantly Jews. Karl Marx was a Jew and many of the Bolsheviks were Jews and to this day, Jews tend strongly to support the political Left. There is no doubt that there WERE many Jewish preachers of revolution in Vienna in the aftermath of WWI. Hitler even lists the names of the ones he knew of.
So he saw the Jews as enemies of Germany. Thus his hatred of Jews mirrored his love of Germany. All perfectly understandable and straightforward in an era where EVERYBODY (just about) hated Jews. His ideas were perfectly normal in the context of his times. The vast majority of Germans would have nodded their heads wisely when Hitler demonized Jews. It was a tragic overgeneralization but it was far from mysterious
Young Hitler is a new direction for Australian writer Paul Ham. His previous books have been about war, specifically defeats, disasters and grossly abnormal loss of life, such as Passchendaele: Requiem for a Doomed Youth (2016). His least blood-soaked book is Vietnam: The Australian War (2007), which remains the only one-volume treatment of the subject and is still useful, if in need of updating.
Now, however, he has turned to a biographical study, albeit of a soldier and the instigator of the most widespread war in history. But Hitler! Why Hitler? Ham’s 18-page bibliography makes it clear that Adolf Hitler is hardly neglected by other writers.
The question Ham believes has not been sufficiently answered is how “the experiences of Hitler’s youth, especially during the First World War, wrought the conqueror of Europe out of this unpromising human clay”.
In fact, Ham doesn’t quite mean that; he’s not trying to explain the Reich’s military successes. Rather, what is it about World War I that “created one of the most murderous dictators of the 20th century”? Ham believes “the finest” biographers of Hitler — Alan Bullock, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich — “tend to give less emphasis to the role of the First World War in shaping Hitler’s character than it deserves”. His book is to remedy this flaw. It’s an ambitious if not cheeky aspiration.
Ham quotes Kershaw: “What happened under Hitler is unimaginable without the experience of the First World War and what followed it.” So it must all be a question of degree, for what veteran’s personality and subsequent impact on the world is not influenced by war experience?
What are the striking features of Hitler’s 1914-18? That he survived all 4½ years of it on the Western Front. That he was a brave soldier and deserved his two Iron Crosses. That he was exhilarated by the dangerous life of combat. That he was disgusted by defeatism on the part of his comrades (although any suggestion of intimacy in that word hardly applies). That he resented whingeing and poor morale on the home front. That he saw the heavy losses in the First Battle of Ypres as the malign doing of the German political and military establishment.
Naturally, all or much of this played into the man’s evolving personality. But certain central traits of the “mature” Hitler don’t seem to have had a Great War genesis or particular encouragement — his anti-Semitism, for example. At length, Ham refers to the anti-Semitic miasma in the air in Hitler’s youthful days in Vienna and Munich, but keeps commenting that Hitler was not irrevocably infected then. And it wasn’t the war that did it either: Hitler’s Iron Cross First Class was recommended by his Jewish officer, and Hitler doesn’t seem to have noticed or minded, much less felt disgusted or ashamed.
If anything — and this seems the strong countercurrent of Ham’s book — it was Hitler’s experience of the aftermath of the war, rather than 1914-18 itself, that was responsible for the final fuhrer mould. Hitler bitterly embraced the myth of the stab in the back as an explanation for Germany’s defeat, and he threw himself into the business of fingering and nailing the assassin. In the end, this came down to being the entirely imaginary figure of Jewish Bolshevism.
Despite, it seems to me, arguing against himself, Ham has written an interesting primer. For the serious Hitler aficionados, brought up on Bullock and Kershaw, the obvious next step is Ullrich’s 2016 book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. But Ham’s Young Hitler works well as an introductory text. It has a good parade of the non-partisan witnesses to his youth, a discriminating account of Hitler’s war service, and offers just as much of Mein Kampf as a strong stomach can handle.
Yet a slight air of amateurishness hangs over the book. There’s a non-nuanced reference to the causes of the war, which seem to come down to Prussian militarism. Ham’s bibliography strikingly omits great Australian historian Christopher Clark’s groundbreaking 2012 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. And there is no trace of what I might even call empathy for Hitler. Despite the book’s avowed intention, there is no prising open the psyche of the as-yet-unformed young man. His devotion to his mother comes across more as an aberration than any kind of possible key to a flicker of a less-egocentric consciousness.
Ham’s earliest assessment of the child is as “sullen and resentful” and “by the age of 12 Hitler had grown into an emotionally indulged self-absorbed boy with a marked contempt for authority and the temper of a bully”.
It could be said that Ham has taken a predetermined set against him. Maybe he can simply find no spark of humanity even in the child. “Whence came this juvenile rage at the world? … The answer has eluded the powers of psychiatrists.” It’s as though the evil machine was born ticking over and just waiting to be pointed towards its destined field of destruction.
Ham’s epilogue opens out into an analysis, a sermon, even a harangue on the present. Conventional wisdom has long been that once you bring Hitler into your argument, you’ve lost it. Present times, however, seem to call for the overthrow of this maxim.
In April, historian Christopher Browning devoted his review of Ullrich’s Ascent in The New York Review of Books to a comparative, and very sane, essay on the rise of Hitler and the rise of Donald Trump. For Ham’s last eight pages he says “a few points are worth making about Hitler’s legacy”. What follows is a fairly cosmic denunciation of white supremacists, far-right European parties, Steve Bannon, Islamophobia, trickle-down economics, Western inequity …
Ham then lays down his own combative program in a series of paragraphs that begin: “The solution …” As it happens, there’s little I disagree with, but the style is denunciatory, highly generalised and flamboyantly rhetorical. Is this intentional? Too much unnerving Hitler here.
An interesting collage