Longerich’s approach evokes a moment in the late 1990s when a book by the American political scientist Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, won fame by thrusting into visibility the killers’ human agency and moral responsibility for genocide, which had allegedly been obscured behind historians’ explanatory focus on the anonymous systems and structures of the “final solution”. Goldhagen’s research was flawed and controversial and bears no comparison with Longerich’s supremely meticulous and authoritative account. But Longerich’s biography is symptomatic of a similar and understandable impulse to pin responsibility onto individuals, not disperse it among abstract “forces” and “systems”. His ceaseless and revealing focus on Hitler obliges us to confront the undoubted architect of National Socialism face to face, even as we may question his role in its scaffolding.
Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence...You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone.
I am happy to say that Hitler: A Life is a very good book, fluently translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. It is comprehensive on the domestic side of the story, and draws on the newer literature of the past two decades. Longerich’s work is much more than just a synthesis, however, partly because he grounds his account in new material (printed and some archival), but mainly because his emphasis on Hitler’s centrality to the workings of the Third Reich runs contrary to the older “structuralist” view which saw him as more or less the prisoner of larger forces in German society. Longerich explicitly challenges the iconic two-volume biography by Ian Kershaw, which looked more to the character of Hitler’s power than the man himself. Instead, Longerich emphasizes “Hitler’s autonomous role as an active politician”.The result is a fine-grained and generally very persuasive account of Hitler’s rise to power, his rule within Germany, and especially the nature of his authority. Longerich spends relatively little time on Hitler’s early life, claiming that events before 1919 have little to say about his later trajectory. He does, however, skilfully cast Hitler as a “nobody” who emerged out of the maelstrom of early 20th-century Austro-German politics. Longerich then provides a good account of Hitler’s skill at playing his opponents off against each other in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the bulk of the book is devoted to the period of the Third Reich itself.