What created murderous Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler?

by James Robins / 14 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Adolf Hitler Paul Ham

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.

Latest

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed limit and people weren't happy
102497 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z World

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed lim…

by Cathrin Schaer

A Government-initiated working group suggested putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways to lower emissions and make roads safer. Big mistake.

Read more
Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's brilliant buffoonery
102440 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Movies

Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's br…

by James Robins

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are lifelong devotees to comic duo Laurel and Hardy – and it shows.

Read more
Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on ending up in my books)
102594 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Books

Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on endin…

by Colin Hogg

With his second book about Sam Hunt proving a hit, Colin Hogg ponders why so much of his writing career has been inspired by his mates.

Read more
Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award
102345 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot P…

by Metro

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award and be in to win dinner for two.

Read more
Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri dieback disease
102578 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri di…

by Bob Harvey

The closer you get to a kauri, the more you realise you are looking at one of the wonders of the planet.

Read more
National’s failure to grasp climate change a major challenge for NZ
102598 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

National’s failure to grasp climate change a major…

by Steve Abel

National's Bluegreen wing are set to hold their annual conference this weekend. Greenpeace’s Steve Abel will be there to challenge the party.

Read more
The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te reo on television
102606 2019-02-20 22:10:47Z Education

The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te r…

by Vomle Springford

Lidu Gong first started learning te reo in bed.

Read more
Win a double pass to Everybody Knows
102573 2019-02-20 13:19:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Everybody Knows

by The Listener

Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows is a gripping new thriller about the fissures and fault lines that can tear a family apart.

Read more