1936-45: Nemesis.
By Ian Kershaw.
Illustrated. 1,115 pp. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company. $35.
HITLER was a crushing bore, the last person you would wish to meet, a dinner party guest from hell. His breath stank, and his hobbyhorses -- the Jewish conspiracy, the Bolshevik threat, the German destiny, the treachery of almost everyone -- were trotted out at the slightest opportunity, interminably, madly, tediously. True, he managed to charm the odd English socialite; some of the Mitford sisters found him an absolute sweetie. But as the war dragged on, even his most loyal courtiers could hardly bear to have lunch with him. Then, of course, to be a bore is one of the perks of tyranny. You have a captive audience. The interesting thing about Hitler, however, is not so much his own personality but the effect he had on others.
How was it possible for this uncouth Austrian crank to turn so many people toward barbarism? Various explanations have been offered. A nation of poets, romantics and opera lovers was seduced by Hitler's demonic powers. Or perhaps the nation of poets and thinkers already harbored genocidal feelings toward the Jews, and all Hitler had to do was tap that well of poison. There are also those, beyond the pale of respectable historiography, who believe that Hitler was a relatively decent man who had no idea what savagery people got up to in his name.
Ian Kershaw, who has now completed the second and final volume of his superb biography, ''Hitler. 1936-45: Nemesis,'' will have none of the above. Not all Germans had genocide on the mind, and Hitler was neither a genius nor an innocent, and certainly not decent. Like most historians, Kershaw, the head of the department of history at the University of Sheffield in England, believes that the condition of the German nation had much to do with Hitler's rise. The national sense of self-pity, after wartime defeat and economic catastrophe, could be whipped into a frenzy, and the erosion of organized religion could place spiritual yearnings where they did not belong, in leadership cults and the like.
As Kershaw says, ''The rise from the depths of national degradation to the heights of national greatness seemed for so many (as propaganda never ceased to trumpet) to be a near miracle -- a work of redemption brought about by the unique genius of the Fhrer.'' If Hitler had one outstanding talent, or perhaps one should say instinct, it was an unerring sense of other people's weaknesses: their irrational fears, their vanities, their greed and their bloodlust. He was sensitive to these things because he shared them to an extreme degree. In the second half of the 1930's, Hitler gave most Germans what they wanted: victories abroad, a pumped-up economy, revenge on imaginary enemies and grand spectacles to celebrate the quasi-erotic ecstasy of belonging to a master race.
What he did on a large scale, he did for individuals too. He gave his generals -- most of whom he never trusted, and often detested -- all the arms and men they wanted. He offered the industrialists untold riches. Old comrades were loaded with titles, money and vast powers; nightclub bouncers and beer hall bullies suddenly found themselves living in grand palaces, lording it over millions of people. Mediocre scholars, artists and intellectuals were treated as geniuses, while more gifted men and women were persecuted as racial inferiors and degenerates. No wonder things looked good to most Germans in 1936, when the world came to Berlin to party beneath the Nazi banners at the Olympic Games. That is, things looked good if you were able to look away from less agreeable aspects of the new regime. And most Germans looked away.
Hitler, as Kershaw describes him, had the perfect personality for the successful cult leader. He was a malign guru, allowing his followers to project their fantasies onto him. His asexual, aloof, hollow personality probably helped. He lived vicariously through the crowd, soaking up its energy.
Kershaw's brilliant account is a depressing book to read, not only because of what it tells us about Hitler but also because of what it says about the masses who followed him. The greasy opportunism of his generals and paladins is bad enough. But there is something particularly revolting about the idea of 20,000 people crammed into Berlin's Sportpalast one night in 1938 bellowing ''Fhrer command, we will follow!'' after listening to Hitler rant hysterically about the need to stop the Czechs from ''exterminating Germandom.''
There has been a great deal of debate over the last decades about how much Hitler knew of the Holocaust. Revisionist historians like David Irving argue that there was no systematic, planned genocide of Jews, because there is no evidence that Hitler ever ordered such a thing. He believes that Jews were haphazardly killed by SS zealots beyond the Fhrer's control. Kershaw makes mincemeat of such theories, not by producing a document signed by Hitler ordering the Holocaust (there was no such thing), but by showing that nothing inside the Third Reich was beyond his control. If Nazi murder squads ran amok in Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, it was because Hitler allowed them to. He didn't have to know all the details. Others could work out the methods: shooting, starving, gassing. Hitler's people knew their enterprise was blessed by him. They murdered, and Hitler said it was good.
Kershaw has plenty of evidence for this. At the height of the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in 1938, Hitler told Joseph Goebbels to hold back the police. ''The Jews,'' Goebbels quoted him as saying, ''should for once get to feel the anger of the people.'' In a speech in 1939, Hitler ''prophesied'' that another war would result in ''the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.'' When one or two Wehrmacht generals became a bit squeamish about the mass killing of Poles and Jews in 1940, Heinrich Himmler responded that he did ''nothing that the Fhrer does not know about.'' Around the turn of 1940-41, Hitler ordered his SS chiefs to come up with ''a final solution'' to ''the Jewish question.'' There were no gas chambers at that point, but whatever the means, the end was clear: there would be no more Jews left in Hitler's Europe.
And here is what Hitler said to Goebbels in 1943, when the death camps were working at full throttle: ''In nature, life always works immediately against parasites; in the existence of peoples that is not exclusively the case. From that results the Jewish danger. So there is nothing else open to modern peoples than to exterminate the Jews.''
To say there is no document with Hitler's express order to annihilate the Jews is to miss the point. The powers of every Nazi leader, from Himmler or Goebbels down to the lowliest party functionary, depended on Hitler. That is why the Third Reich was such a mess. For Hitler's realm was less a properly functioning state than a cult run by criminals in the name of a godlike leader. Hitler's men were, as Kershaw notes, ''working towards the Fhrer.'' They wanted to outdo one another in zeal just to please him. They knew he wanted to get rid of the Jews. They would do their worst to bring this about.
The Holocaust, as Kershaw describes it, in my view plausibly, was a process of escalating radicalism rather than the result of a single decision or worked-out plan. First the Jews had to be deported from Germany and Austria and crowded into Polish ghettos together with Polish Jews. When Hitler's satraps in Poland complained of having too many Jews, plans were made to deport them to Siberia, or Madagascar, or wherever they would starve, freeze or rot to death. When that turned out to be impractical, German police units, SS killers, local thugs and soldiers of the Wehrmacht were unleashed to shoot, burn or club the Jews to death. When that turned out to be too stressful (for the killers), the gas chambers were put into operation.
There is no evidence that Hitler was an opportunist who used anti-Semitism as a tool of power. There is, on the contrary, every reason to assume that he believed the Jewish danger was real. This probably explains why he was always careful to avoid taking direct responsibility for the genocide, and never signed an order. If he had been a mere opportunist, he would have been proud to demonstrate his leadership in the killing. But Kershaw argues that it was precisely because he believed that the Jews posed a mortal threat that Hitler plumped for a peculiar kind of discretion. Somewhere in his sick mind, he was afraid that the ''Elders of Zion'' were already plotting their revenge. This shows once again that true believers can be more dangerous than cynical operators. The latter might cut a deal; the former have to go to the end -- and drag the world down with them.