Biographers Peter Longerich and Brendan Simms are Revisiting Hitler in a New Authoritarian AgeHistorians in the News
tags: World War II, biography, book review
How was Hitler able to turn a democratic nation into an autocracy organized around race-based hatred? In recent years, as much of the Western world has seen a notable, sometimes violent turn toward nationalism and anti-Semitism, that question has become one of broad, anxious interest. This fall, two new books seek answers: Longerich’s “Hitler: A Biography” and the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms’s “Hitler: A Global Biography.” Both were underway well before the tumult of current events, but both biographers recognize that recent political trends have made their subject especially charged.
“The questions that Hitler was addressing — inequality, migration, the challenge of international capitalism — they’re as salient as they were when he set out to provide his peculiarly destructive and demented answers,” Simms said. “In a very alarming and upsetting way, Hitler is actually less strange today than he was 20 or 30 years ago.”
For Longerich, only a few factors separate the events of 1923 and 1933. An alliance between conservative factions that lasted just long enough. A steady degradation of the country’s constitution to prime the path. Most important, a leader who, through acumen, willpower and charisma, united a movement given to immobilizing infighting.
For decades, prevailing scholarly attitudes have de-emphasized the centrality of that leader, preferring instead to examine the structures that enabled the broad terror of the Third Reich. “The individual events that were happening, from Warsaw to Norway, from Italy to France, and deep into the Soviet Union, cannot be explained simply by central decision-making,” said Jürgen Matthäus, head of research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But Longerich and Simms are among several historians to reassess that attitude lately. (Another is Volker Ullrich, author of a recent two-volume biography of Hitler.) It’s not the case that “dangerous developments only stem from social movements or structural trends,” Longerich said. “It can also be, simply, that a person has the abilities to use a certain political situation to set a new agenda.”
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