Hitler: there is still more to be learned

By Ben Barkow, September 25, 2008
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Hitler, The Germans And The Final Solution
By Ian Kershaw
Yale University Press, £19.99

Hitler's empire: Nazi rule in occupied Europe
By Mark Mazower
Allen Lane

These are two works by acknowledged masters of their craft. Ian Kershaw is an historian of modern Germany and the (perhaps definitive) biographer of Hitler; Mark Mazower has written about the German occupation of Greece, the history of the Balkans and Europe in the 20th century.

Kershaw's volume brings together essays spanning his career from 1981 to 2006. The student of the period is thus spared the effort of going to 14 different sources. The volume covers four subject areas that have dominated his scholarship over 30 years. In the 1970s and early '80s he was a pioneer researcher on the topic of public opinion in Nazi Germany and the prickly - and yet to be satisfactorily answered - question of ordinary Germans' attitude to the murder of the Jews.

During the 1990s, Kershaw's work focused on the person of Adolf Hitler, the way in which he wielded power and his role in the "Final Solution". Many of the essays here represent the research for the magisterial two-volume biography of Hitler, which is likely to remain the jewel in Kershaw's crown. At various times in his career, Kershaw also concerned himself with the development of historical writing in his field.

The chapters are arranged thematically, which makes it hard to track the progress of Kershaw's own thought. This is a disappointing structure relating to a scholar acutely sensitive to the fact that the writing of history has a history of its own, and that examining historiography is a vital part of the historian's work. Overall, however, this collection is greatly to be welcomed.

Mark Mazower's 700-page doorstop is equally fascinating. Its thesis is that Hitler was an empire builder and the heir to a line of European empires. The Hitlerian "contribution" was to attempt to build an empire inside Europe, rather than in faraway lands, to do it at breakneck speed and with the greatest imaginable use of force.

The peculiar and vile nature of Hitler's empire has marked Europe's political life ever since. The uncomfortable fact is that Hitler's empire has influenced the post-war world more than we might care to admit. For Mazower, understanding the imperial aspirations and actions of Adolf Hitler is a key to understanding the complicated and painful legacy the Nazis bequeathed to Europe.

Mazower offers a fairly straightforward summary of the history of the Third Reich and its occupied territories, taking account of the recent scholarship. What he adds is a layer of intellectual and historical context that helps to reveal how policies and strategies emerged from the experience of empire, Nazi and other.
For example, Mazower finds common origins between Nazi racial theory and aspects of Zionist thinking. Similarly, the Zionist Arthur Ruppin, who purchased land from non-Jews in Palestine, is described as mirroring the policies of his pre-Nazi Prussian homeland in its struggle to dominate the Polish borderlands through land acquisition.

The book is full of fascinating snippets. For example, it was apparently not Churchill who coined the phrase "the iron curtain" but Joseph Goebbels in a February 1945 article warning what a German defeat would mean for Europe. Another revelation is that of the existence during the war of a small enclave of virulently Nazi Germans interned in Australia - taken there from their home in former-German New Guinea following Pearl Harbour.

These fine books show that the outpouring of scholarship examining Hitler's legacy remains in full flood.

Ben Barkow is the director of the Wiener Library and Institute of Contemporary History

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011