Ian Kershaw: Hitler Biographer

Sir Ian Kershaw is an English historian whose work has chiefly focused on the social history of 20th-century Germany. He is regarded by many as one of the world’s leading experts on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and is particularly noted for his biographies of Hitler.

Two quotations from one of Kershaw’s books about Hitler:

The first argues that Hitler’s rise to dictatorship might not have happened. This shows the importance of constant vigilance.

There was no inevitability about Hitler’s accession to power. Had Hindenburg been prepared to grant to Schleicher the dissolution that he had so readily allowed Papen, and to prorogue the Reichstag for a period beyond the constitutional sixty days, a Hitler Chancellorship might have been avoided. With the corner turning of the economic Depression, and with the Nazi Movement facing potential break-up if power were not soon attained, the future – even if under an authoritarian government – would have been very different. Even as the cabinet argued outside Hindenburg’s door at eleven o’clock on 30 January, keeping the President waiting, there was a possibility that a Hitler Chancellorship might not materialize. Hitler’s rise from humble beginnings to ‘seize’ power by ‘triumph of the will’ was the stuff of Nazi legend. In fact, political miscalculation by those with regular access to the corridors of power rather than any actions on the part of the Nazi leader played a larger role in placing him in the Chancellor’s seat.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris (p. 424). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The second quotation is about the opening of the Dachau Concentration Camp. Dachau is a small town just outside Munich. Kershaw explains that ordinary Germans knew of the camp’s existence. There was even a press conference about the camp’s opening and people feared being sent there. In other words, ordinary Germans knew of the camp’s existence and brutal nature, no matter what some said after the war. Dachau is small. It is impossible to believe that town folk did not know what the camp was about.

Just outside the town of Dachau, about twelve miles from Munich, the first concentration camp was set up in a former powder-mill on 22 March [1933]. There was no secret about the camp’s existence. Himmler had even held a press conference two days earlier to announce it. It began with 200 prisoners. Its capacity was given as 5,000. It was intended, stated Himmler, to hold the Communist and, if necessary, Reichsbanner and Marxist (i.e. Social Democrat) functionaries. Its establishment was announced in the newspapers. It was meant to serve as a deterrent, and did so. Its dreaded name soon became a byword for the largely unspoken horrifying events known or presumed to take place within its walls. ‘Keep quiet or you’ll end up in Dachau’ was soon to join common parlance. But apart from the political enemies and racial targets of the Nazis, few were disconcerted at the foundation of the camp, and others like it. The middle-class townsfolk of Dachau, watching the column of their Communist fellow-citizens from the town being marched to the nearby camp as political prisoners, thought them troublemakers, revolutionaries, ‘a class apart’, simply not part of their world.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris (p. 464). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition (footnotes omitted).

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