History Book Reviews

Hitler: An Illustrated Life – Robin Cross

The rise and fall of Nazism and the events of the Second World War and its aftermath still fascinate us today, even though the majority have no first hand experience of the horrors of the time. As a theme it remains extremely popular for school and university students. The period is already extensively and extremely well documented for the English reader, either by such exhaustive studies as those by William L Shirer, Alan Bullock, Hugh Trevor Roper or, more recently, Michael Burleigh. The works of these authors and others are included in the “Further Reading” section at the end of the work. There is also exhaustive film footage, now available on DVD. The reader is therefore entitled to ask what “Hitler An Illustrated Life” has to distinguish itself from all of the other material that is available?

The answer lies in the speed of the narrative and the enviable succinctness of style. The story – for it is told as a story with a beginning, middle and end – is one of extraordinary proportions and concludes by engulfing a large part of the world’s population. To enable the reader to concentrate on the central theme of Hitler himself, the author follows his life from his relatively humble beginning and childhood, his indolent youth, his experiences in World War One to the role of global Warload and death in the Berlin bunker via his involvement in politics, the attempted Munich putsch and leadership of the NSDAP. The author concentrates on Hitler the man, his character, his actions, his relationships, his ambitions. So as not to detract from the speed of events, a number of the associated themes such as Anti-semitism in Germany and the “Endlösung”(Final Solution”) are included in separate panels, allowing the reader to return to them at another time once a hiatus in the plot has been reached.

The author’s style is both intense and concentrated. For example a synthesis of the events leading up to the outbreak of World War One, complex in themselves, is recounted in masterly brevity, having a necessary bearing on the life of the soldier who was to become a corporal. To the modern reader, the question which so many have found difficult to understand, the question of how Hitler and the Nazi party appeared to have gained power partly through the ballot box and the choices the German people believed were facing them in 1932 and 1933 – a topic subsequent generations of Germans have on occasions struggled to comprehend – is answered with authority and clarity. The phraseology often appeals to the contemporary reader, either through its picturesque imagery or current references. Making reference to the arrival of Goebbels and colleagues on the scene, Hitler’s actions are described thus: “It was a classic example of a Mafia boss dealing with his moll, keeping her guessing over whether the next move will end with her swathed in mink or with a bruised or battered face”. Mussolini draws the following comparison: “Unlike Mussolini, who liked nothing better than to pose for photographers bare-chested while supposedly lending a hand with the harvest (not unlike a modern equivalent, Vladimir Putin), Hitler recoiled from fraudulent spontaneity”. The ultimate section of the Chapter “The Warlord”, entitled “Last orders” concludes the narrative of the final days in the Berlin bunker and is told at breathtaking pace and conveys very visual imagery: the very last sentence brings to mind a film set: “Inside the bunker, those who remained lit cigarettes”.

The book cannot claim to be exhaustive in its treatment. Whilst notable omissions are scarce, it is perhaps surprising that aspects of the opposition to Hitler receive relatively little coverage. Admittedly the attempted military coups such as those involving von Stauffenberg and his colleagues are included, but there is no reference to groups such as “Die Weiße Rose” or theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who were not prepared to submit meekly.

The book also includes a DVD of 45 minutes of relevant and related footage. It cannot be totally inclusive in its coverage, but is complementary to the whole.

As an introduction to A Level or university students, or as a reminder to older readers, this book is a welcome addition to the existing scholarship. It is written with authority and understanding. The relatively few orthographical errors do not detract from the enjoyment of the whole.

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a self confessed Germanophile. A retired headmaster and former Senior Quality Assurance Officer for ISCTIP, he now lives in West Yorkshire with his wife Liz.

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