The road to destruction. Hitler was not interested in world domination. He had only two real ambitions: to destroy the Jews and to make Germany master of Europe. Richard Gott on the Fuhrer's final failure

Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis

Ian Kershaw<em> Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1115pp, £25 </em>


Hitler was never much fun. He had breakfast when other people were ready for lunch, and his personal staff were often obliged to sit up half the night while he held forth on the past triumphs of the Nazi party. Wagner, Beethoven and Strauss were always available on record and, on most evenings, movies were shown, which the chauffeurs of visitors might be invited to attend. Yet nobody found it pleasant to be close to Hitler. He was not good at small talk, and had no intimate friends.

Only Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer enjoyed a close relationship with Hitler. They seem to have genuinely "worshipped" him, as did many of his other acolytes. The Fuhrer in his prime who emerges from the second volume of Ian Kershaw's magnificent biography resembles a demented prophet from the Middle Ages, surrounded by true believers. They treated him with the kind of awe and respect more often reserved for religious leaders than for politicians or military commanders.

Hitler, according to this reading, was a satanic Antichrist, holding the "charismatic community" of his disciples in absolute thrall. He was the Messiah, and they raised him up to the status of a "demigod". Hitler, too, was convinced that he was "walking with destiny, guided by the hand of Providence". The disciples might have wondered and marvelled in his presence but, whenever they entertained serious doubt - which some of them began to do when defeat followed the early wartime victories - they could not bring themselves to question him.

Kershaw's second volume begins in 1936, with Hitler as the idol of the mass of the German population. His ambition to shake off the chains of Versailles and to resurrect Germany as a European power was within his grasp. The recovery of the Rhineland was achieved without adverse foreign reaction; and in the Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin in the August, Germany won more medals than any other country.

Just before the Games began, Hitler made the first moves of a more outward-looking foreign policy, securing allies in the west. Meeting emissaries from General Franco in Morocco, Hitler agreed to provide support for the Nationalist side in the nascent Spanish civil war. In truth, Hitler had no real interest in the west. Since his youth, his eyes had been fixed in the opposite direction, on the fulfilment of his only two aims in life: to destroy the Jews and to make Germany master of Europe, creating "living space" for millions of German citizens "in the east". He cared little about the wider world. He had no interest in the United States or Japan. Unlike Napoleon, who was the strategist of a genuine world war, Hitler's interests were confined to Europe and its eastward extension. He viewed the world from the lower Danube, as an Austrian, not a Prussian. When the invasion of Russia was well under way, he dreamt of the German people driving in their Volkswagens down motorways to the Crimea - "their version of the Italian or French Riviera".

Hitler had great enthusiasm, however, for the British empire: he wished to emulate it, not destroy it. The empire was his model for the domination of conquered territories in the east. "His inspiration for the future rule of his master race was the Raj," writes Kershaw. Hitler told the Indian nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, as he put him on a submarine to Japan, that India needed another 50 years of British rule (a revealing anecdote that is not included in this book).

Kershaw has constructed a huge "life and times" biography; in volume two, the "times" inevitably triumph over the "life". For the last decade of the Fuhrer's career, little distinction is made between the story of Hitler and that of the Third Reich in general. Where the first volume contained a wealth of new or unfamiliar stories that leavened the lump of political history, the second volume is singularly focused and inevitably grim. Kershaw produces one wry smile, at Mussolini's expense. When the Italian dictator was imprisoned on the island of Ponza, Hitler arranged for the collected works of Nietzsche to be kept for him as a 60th birthday present. Evidently, Kershaw points out, he presumed that the Duce would have the time and inclination to reflect on "the will to power".

As in the first volume, the set pieces are written up quite brilliantly, starting with the extraordinary scenes in 1938, when the war minister marries a known prostitute and an army commander is accused of having an affair with a rent boy, and concluding with the multiple suicides in the Berlin bunker. This is first-class narrative history, based on extensive research and impeccable scholarship, and Kershaw always allows the story to shine through the detail. He is particularly good at explaining how Hitler was able to lead the various institutional forces of the nation down the road to disaster and moral obloquy. Wrong-footed by Hitler's great victory in the west, the army commanders were obliged to go along with his criminal plans to wage total war in the east. A few senior officers grumbled, and a handful began the long road to rebellion that ended so disastrously in 1944, but most of them fell in with Hitler's commands. They believed them to be right.

The Nazi zealots who surrounded Hitler were given significant powers of autonomy; they did not need to wait to be told what to do. They operated by "working towards the Fuhrer" (the management system of the Nazi state outlined by Kershaw in volume one); they imagined what Hitler would like them to do in any given circumstance, and would then act on their own account, without orders from on high.

The administrative conditions of the Third Reich were chaotic, with fresh bureaucratic creations overlapping existing institutions. Yet there was no excuse for not taking the initiative. As a result, Hitler was everywhere and nowhere, and his influence is surprisingly difficult to locate in written records. As David Irving correctly pointed out during his unsuccessful libel case against Penguin earlier this year, no actual documents link Hitler to "the Final Solution" of the Jews. His disciples, "working towards the Fuhrer", had no need for written instructions, or even for private debate. They knew what he would want done, and he knew what they were up to. Controversial subjects such as the destruction of the Jews were almost never mentioned in his presence.

In this context, Kershaw is particularly skilful at explaining how one decision led seamlessly to another. Hitler's programme to kill the mentally ill, authorised specifically in September 1939, was followed inexorably by the barbaric treatment of the Slavic Untermenschen of occupied Poland ("Asia begins in Poland," Hitler told Goebbels). Eighteen months of involvement in the brutal subjugation of the Poles prepared the way for "the readiness to collaborate in the premeditated barbarism" of Operation Barbarossa, in which Hitler sought to eliminate the Bolsheviks. This, in turn, led to the decision - hinted at, but never precisely spelt out - to embark on the extermination of the Jews.

The "euthanasia" programme eventually backfired, as casualties escalated on the eastern front. Rumours about killing mentally ill patients in asylums caused "intensified disquiet" in Germany. The idea of eliminating "life not worth living" was more threatening when ever larger numbers of injured young soldiers were being brought back from the front to be housed in hospitals and asylums throughout the Reich.

For one group, defeat in the east meant certain death. In Hitler's mind, Jews were inextricably associated with Bolsheviks, and the struggle against one was the struggle against the other. In the countdown to the Final Solution, Kershaw highlights the significance of a Reichstag speech made in January 1939, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, in which Hitler revealed publicly "his implicitly genocidal association of the destruction of the Jews with the advent of another war".

"If the Jews should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war," Hitler ranted, "the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the Earth, and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

Kershaw follows the threads of this "prophecy" through the succeeding years, as the comparatively small numbers of surviving German Jews were pushed eastwards to an uncertain future, into the old German lands "recovered" from Poland (the Warthegau), and then into occupied Poland itself. Here, the Nazis who were granted control of the eastern territories found a Jewish population numbering in the millions, further increased as the German armies marched into Ukraine. As the advance into the Soviet Union faltered, the fate of these Jews was finally sealed, and the death camps silently prepared.

Although no member of Hitler's entourage spoke up or complained, they were well aware of the enormity of the crime in which they were involved. Himmler told a group of SS leaders assembled in Poznan in October 1943 that the extermination of the Jewish people was "a glorious page in our history", yet he was obliged to point out that it was "one that has never been written and never can be written". In the final year of the war, as all other war aims evaporated under the pounding of Russian tanks and Allied bombers, the destruction of the Jews became Hitler's sole and terrible triumph.

Hitler was a fastidious person, and may not even have known the details. He was as careless of German lives as he was purposive in the elimination of Jewish ones. He refused to visit hospitals or bomb sites; once, when his train to the east passed a train carrying wounded soldiers in the opposite direction, he asked his man- servant to pull down the blinds of his carriage.

In this definitive account, Kershaw portrays Hitler not so much as a gambler, but more as a figure reminiscent of Mr Micawber, always hoping that something would turn up. Most of the time, and to everyone's surprise (including sometimes his own), something did. Time and again, friends and foes played into his hands. His opponents abroad were aghast and demobilised by his audacity; his critics at home (notably in the army) were astounded and silenced when his hunches proved correct.

Even when the tide had turned against him, with defeats on two fronts in 1943, Hitler continued to imagine that something would turn up. Improved U-boats or V-rockets - "secret weapons capable of razing London to the ground within a week" - were among his final hopes.

His last hope was the death of F D Roosevelt in April 1945, as the Russians were closing in on Berlin. "Here, read this!" Hitler shouted at Speer, pressing a horoscope into his hand that predicted an improvement in Germany's military position in the second half of the month. "You never wanted to believe it. Here we have the great miracle that I always foretold. Who's right now? The war is not lost. Read it! Roosevelt is dead!"

Within six weeks, Hitler, too, would be dead, killed by his own hand.

The Appeasers, the classic account of prewar British policy by Richard Gott and Martin Gilbert, is now available in paperback from Phoenix Press (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street