How are monsters made? How do the Neros and Caligulas, the Stalins and Maos come into existence? One of the most frequent explanations for those preternatural torturers of small animals, those psychopathic murderers and genocidal maniacs is actually quite simple: It’s all the parents’ fault. As poet Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” And it’s not just physical abuse that begets monsters but emotional and psychological abuse as well.
Does this explain Adolf Hitler, the “ultimate demon-tyrant of history,” as British journalist A.N. Wilson, author of the short biography, Hitler, calls him? In the autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), while relating a third-person account of his childhood, Hitler illustrates the daily psychological, emotional, and even physical abuse inflicted by his family: “When the parents fight … their brutality leaves nothing to the imagination [and] the results of such visual education must slowly but inevitably become apparent in the little ones.” Following this accusation, Hitler makes a less veiled remark about his parents’ negative influence: “The poor little boy … senses things which would make even a grown-up person shudder.”
Not so fast, though, says Wilson, “most fathers in history have beaten their children. … None has had a son like Adolf Hitler.” While not denying that Hitler’s father may have had “fiery tempers,” Wilson asserts early in the book that “Hitler’s own ‘struggle’ had in fact been entirely of his own making, and was owing to simple laziness.” Hitler repeatedly shirked opportunities for employment and “gradually slithered downhill from the position of comfort and prosperity into which he had been born to one of penniless indigence.”
It is from this fall that Wilson draws his central thesis: that the shame of sliding from prosperity to the poorhouse “is the single greatest dread among the middle classes” and that more than anything else, it is this fear that allowed Hitler to exist. “The ultimate capitalist nightmare had fallen on the German middle classes,” Wilson writes. “Their savings were worth nothing. … Germany had been allowed, by the international community, to sink into a situation where there was no stability of any kind.”
To this end, the biography is an engaging look at the reasons the German people, and even many outside of Germany, initially supported der Führer so vehemently. Wilson quotes history professor Robert Gellately saying that it was “perhaps first and foremost for beating the Great Depression, and for curing the massive unemployment in the country” that Hitler won accolades. “His regime overcame the Depression more quickly than any of the other advanced industrial nations.”
But while the book admirably explores the how and why of Hitler’s political rise to power, it never seriously delves into his formative makeup—how Hitler came to be Hitler. Wilson does include some discussion of Hitler’s later mental state, theorizing that “there would surely be a case for suggesting that Hitler was at the very least mentally unbalanced, and that the imbalance from 1936 onwards became ever more pronounced.” A few possibilities for Hitler’s break with reality are posited, such as the suicide of a niece, Geli Raubal, with whom Hitler was particularly close, and the premature death of his mother, about which he was said to be “obsessed.” What is most intriguing here, though, is that which, at least on a conscious level, did not seem to contribute to Hitler’s hysteria: When his mother was on her deathbed, the attending doctor, Eduard Bloch, was Jewish, and yet “neither Hitler nor his sister seem to have felt, or demonstrated, any anti-Semitic feeling towards him.” In fact, Hitler presented the doctor with a series of elaborate gifts, including a large painting and other handmade items. When war finally broke out, Hitler granted the Bloch family special Gestapo protection. Years later, Bloch said that he had “never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as was Hitler when his mother died.” Most observers would see a connection between this grief and Hitler’s coming actions, yet Wilson speculates that the “anti-Semitic mania appears to have developed later” in der Führer’s life and had nothing to do with Eduard Bloch.
These lesser-known facts, the telling details for which Wilson has a keen eye, are what make this biography stand out. Whether revealing that Hitler had an incredibly odd fashion sense, that he farted uncontrollably, especially in cars, or that he had the tastes of a child, Wilson, whenever der Führer threatens to become a caricature of the madman with which we are all familiar, drops in a detail that, as hard to accept as it may be, reminds us that Hitler was a human being with many of the same joys, difficulties, and sorrows as the rest of us.
For a brief biography of one of the largest figures of the 20th century, the inclusion of such detail is an accomplishment. As is to be expected, though, the brevity of the text, the necessary excising of information, occasionally frustrates the reader. Early in the book, for example, we are told that “chief and greatest of [Hitler’s] gifts was the capacity to speak in public, a gift which had lain dormant throughout his tongue-tied youth.” That such oratory skills somehow appeared out of nowhere is fascinating, yet the reader is never given a clear idea of how or why such an ability developed.