I've got a precocious first-grader and he suddenly wants me to tell him all about Hitler. I just spent six years assuring my boy that there's no such thing as a monster. So how do I tell him about Hitler without coming off like a liar?
I doubt that I'll switch his bedtime reading to Hitler, this hernia-waiting-to-happen from British historian Ian Kershaw. But I'll keep it handy until he's ready for the full story.
This book began as a two-volume biography, appearing in 1999 and 2000. Nothing's taken out, so the one-volume edition just published is complete and nearly unwieldy because of its size.
It's also invaluable for anyone interested in the 20th century and World War II in particular. As a monster, Adolf Hitler is a universal target for scorn and revulsion. Kershaw reminds us, though, that he was human — that he was a child and he had parents and he had some of the same experiences as the rest of us. What Kershaw tries to do at every turn is understand what made Hitler into that monster.
Was it upbringing? Were his parents anti-Semitic? Did his father brutalize him? Kershaw methodically marches through Hitler's life and at each key event examines what about that situation most affected his subject.
By de-monstering Hitler, by acknowledging his humanity, Kershaw makes the man even more horrifying. As long as Hitler was a Grendel-like creature, we could compartmentalize that horror. But now that we see him as someone who was once bounced on his mother's knee, we have to confront that if he could do this, then maybe all humans are capable of such hatred.
This biography is that rare book that has other academics genuflecting in awe, yet it's not stuffy or pedantic. The average intelligent reader will find it easily accessible, and Kershaw propels Hitler from birth to suicide with a skill and narrative urgency that belie the book's thousand pages.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.