Hitler, By Joachim Fest


Now, more than ever, this is a book that needs to be read.

I picked it up after reading the recent Anthony Roberts biography, Winston Churchill: A Walk With Destiny. Part of the blurb on that book described it as being the only bio of Churchill you need to read and you can turn your back on the rest of them.

Roberts’ book is meticulously researched, and a bit like a train line; if the narrative is long lengths of steel rail, they are held in place by the laddered timber struts between them. Such an enormous work is dependent on infinitesimal detail.

Churchill was subject to the most profound vicissitudes of fate. Before the war, he had a chequered career, marked by a series of pronounced failures.

It wasn’t until the appearance of Hitler that Churchill began to distinguish himself, most notably by recognising and acting against the steel-belted predator lurking beneath the skin of the German chancellor.

It occurred to me after I’d completed the book that I didn’t know anything about Hitler himself. I had studied the second world war in high school but knew little about him.

I asked around; the most popular work on Hitler available was written by Ian Kershaw. Entitled Hitler: Part One and Part Two, the whole task would have added up to about 2,000 pages. I am not to be intimidated by such matters. Besides, once you get the momentum of such a thing, you’re away.

I’d expressed my interest to one particularly well-read friend of mine who suggested I read a different biography, also entitled Hitler, by Joachim Fest. Published in 1973 and written by a historian of German-Jewish descent, my friend suggested that Fest’s biography was the best one because it placed Hitler and his rise to power within the context of German history.

Once I told my uncle, an academic, that I intended to read a biography of Hitler and he also suggested Fest, I was sold. The book was more difficult to come by than Kershaw’s and I had to purchase it from a specialty online second-hand store.

The difference between Fest’s Hitler and Roberts’ Churchill is profound. Roberts books is excellent, but Fest’s is something else again. It is remarkably dense and rather than something linear like a railway line, Fest isn’t plotting a story as much as he’s plotting coordinates. Once they’re connected by their relationships, the book forms a weave that functions like a screen.

Hitler appears in three dimensions on the other side. Rather than a portrait, it’s more of a hologram projected within the historical detail of its time. In that way, Fest presents Hitler as a phenomenon bought about by a particular set of circumstances, rather than simply as a man who wrestles with history.

While it was dense, complex and detailed, I have never been so utterly gripped by a book that was so difficult. While it would exhaust me, I struggled to put it down. It has, however, given me perspective on my own time, and how much of present-day culture is a result of the influence Hitler had on the world during his lifetime.

For instance, Scott Morrison’s recent declaration to the Queensland Resources Council that he would work to prevent boycotts of the coal industry on ethical grounds.

Such measures would surely require changes to the law, which is a distinctly Hitlerian thing to do: upon his release from gaol after the beer hall putsch, Hitler declared that he would only seek to influence German politics by legal means.

This was more or less true, in terms of the visible right hand of the National Socialist party (the left hand, the brown shirts, or SA, continued to use violence and intimidation wherever expedient). Once Hitler became chancellor, he ensured the Nazi party had the power to draft laws and change the constitution at will.

As much as it pains me to say, the book has also given me a sense of why political correctness has acquired the momentum it has. I certainly don’t agree with it, but after the first world war, there were a number of popular anti-Semitic newspapers in circulation. It is a feature of a society I can hardly imagine in contrast with my own, but horrifies me to think of.

A client of mine, a lawyer whose first degree was in history, knew all the major plot points of the Hitler story and when we were discussing Fest’s book, remarked on my enthusiasm, asking, ‘Is it the best book you’ve read?’

I was quiet for a bit (a most unusual state of affairs, especially when someone is listening). Most of the best books I’ve read are fiction.

However, I did say to him, feeling my way through what I actually thought as we talked, that the best books – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov – change you. You begin them as one person and come out the other side as something else.

Fest’s Hitler certainly did that.

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