What created murderous Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler?

by James Robins / 14 January, 2018

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Adolf Hitler, who was jailed as a result of the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923, after his release from Landsberg Prison the following year. Photo/Getty Images

A portrait of the Nazi despot as a young man is well written but flawed. 

“What mysterious alignment of nature, nurture, accident and opportunity created one of the most murderous dictators of the 20th century?”

Countless scholars have devoted themselves to this question in an attempt to account for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the devastation he would unleash on Europe and its Jews. Australian historian Paul Ham is but the latest.

Young Hitler: The Making of the Führer is a well-written but flawed primer that unearths the mangled roots of Hitler’s early life, from his birth in 1889 until his imprisonment in 1924, when he began to erect the corrosive architecture of Nazism in Mein Kampf.

Ham seems to portray Hitler as almost fully formed on arrival: a brute, a lout and a bigot, lacking only a total animating ideology.

“By the age of 12,” Ham writes, “Hitler had grown into an emotionally indulged, self-absorbed boy with a marked contempt for authority and the temper of a bully.” Stints as a mediocre artist and a tramp in Hapsburg Vienna follow, which seem to have instructed him in hatred of the indulgent bourgeoisie and organised labour.

Hitler as a baby in 1890. Photo/Getty Images

Ham offers nothing new to the deep and dense historiography. Instead, he tries to show up his superiors and predecessors by insisting that the true source of Hitler’s force can be found in the trenches of World War I.

Aged 25, Hitler joined an ill-trained Bavarian division that was led like stock to the Western Front’s slaughterhouse. Disappointingly, he survived those four years and won two Iron Crosses (one recommended by a Jew, no less). But even in hospital in 1918, blinded and writhing from the after-effects of mustard gas, and contrary to Ham’s claims, this ragged figure still does not resemble the future Führer.

Ham therefore has to argue against his own central point. It wasn’t the war itself that spurred Hitler’s poisonous philosophy, but its aftermath: a volatile period marked by the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles, several coups and aborted revolutions from the left and the emergence of a popular conspiracy that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” (Dolchstoss) by the Jews. Amid this fragile field of politics, and spurred on by vicious proto-fascist “intellectuals”, Hitler used his terrifying oratory power to give voice to a latent sense of humiliation and indignity.

Then again, we can forgive Ham his wider faults, because every writer who approaches Hitler must contend with the baleful veneer of mystery that still clings to the raving thug. For all the weighty tomes, psychological dissections and meticulous interrogations from such scholarly titans as Ian Kershaw, Volker Ullrich, Timothy Snyder and Ron Rosenbaum, nobody yet has fully explained the near-mystical version of radical evil embodied in that failed Austrian sketcher.

As Alan Bullock, author of the penetrating and seminal Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, once said: “The more I learn about Adolf Hitler, the harder I find it to explain.”

YOUNG HITLER: THE MAKING OF THE FÜHRER, by Paul Ham (William Heinemann, $45)

This article was first published in the December 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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