Considering the significance and sheer squalid evil of the man, readers have come to expect that biographies of Adolf Hitler will be tomes. Even in just a partial listing, we have Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny at 512 pages, Joachim Fest's Hitler at 856 pages, John Toland's Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography at 1,120 pages, and Ian Kershaw's Hitler: A Biography at 1,030 pages - itself a one-volume abridgment of Kershaw's two-volume life, each volume of which is over 900 pages long. By contrast, AN Wilson's new book Hitler is barely 200 pages, and that in a small, almost hand-sized hardcover - shorter, in other words, than the end-notes to either Kershaw volume.
It isn't that Wilson is lazy; he's no stranger to long books. His magnificent volumes London: A History, The Victorians, and After the Victorians are all doorstops in their own right, wide-ranging studies into which a mere slip of a thing like this Hitler biography would sink without a ripple. And since it's every bit as possible to write a 190-page history of London as it is to write a 1200-page biography of Adolf Hitler, the question naturally arises: why is this new book so short?
Wilson produces no new facts or revisionist theories. His short "Select Bibliography" consists almost entirely of modern secondary sources in English (including Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1947 book The Last Days of Hitler, which one contemporary historian derided for having "a howler on every page"). His narrative hits the standard short-form Hitlerian landmarks: the strict, authoritarian father who died when Hitler was still a boy, the doting mother who died while Hitler was living the wastrel's life in Vienna, his service at the Western Front during the First World War (Wilson first speculates that he spent his time reading Karl May Western novels and then simply tells us he did), his resentment at the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, his growing anti-Semitism, his failed Munich putsch in 1923 and subsequent composition of Mein Kampf (Wilson calls it My Struggle throughout, even though the German title has long since achieved common usage), his rise to prominence in national politics, his consolidation of sole power and military expansion throughout the 1930s, his international provocations, his massive armament drives and the attempts of Great Britain and France to appease him, then the years of war, the inexorable defeats, the suicide. Wilson keeps this familiar narrative moving, although his powers of compression are weirdly uneven (Hitler's flatulence gets exactly as much space as his forced annexation of Austria, etc).
There are, in fact, many weird things about this little book. In a couple of different spots, for example, Wilson heavily implies that only secret fascists fancy keeping dogs as pets, since upon Blondi, Hitler's beloved dog, he "lavished the attention and love which only the dog-lover can bestow, presumably loving the bad breath, the slobbering, the ever-present possibility of snarling violence, and the hyper-energy of the species. But above all, perhaps, the slavishness."
There are repeated attempts to humanise Hitler, repeated implications that his personal malevolence has been overrated by posterity. He had, we're told, "bursts of energy and activity, spells of rage-fuelled hyperactivity, but for the most part he was ... extremely lazy; he was a dreamer, and he was always more of an artist than a soldier".
Wilson concedes, naturally, that Hitler was rabidly anti-Semitic - but these concessions are made exclusively accompanied by assertions that not only all of Germany but all of the West was rabidly anti-Semitic, too: "Having allowed his anti-Jewish mania to blind him to the extreme anti-Semitism of the American establishment, the strength of isolationism in the United States Senate and the unwillingness of the American public to engage in a world war, he [Hitler] decided that [American President] Roosevelt was being manipulated by a gang of Jews. For this ridiculous and inaccurate reason, he declared war on the United States of America, and thereby sealed his own doom."
The reader can't help but notice that it's the idea of a Washington-controlling gang of Jews that's called ridiculous - not the implied equivalence between an anti-Semitism that would cause some Jews to be excluded from weekend cocktail parties and an anti-Semitism that would cause all Jews to be rounded up and deported to death-camps.
This quiet, queasy note of exculpation sounds throughout the book. Wilson seems particularly pleased with stating frequently that Hitler was "ordinary in the things he believed", and he taunts the modern sensibilities that might believe otherwise: "This is something which most people find extremely hard to stomach. They want to make him into a Demon King," he writes. "Ever since he died by his own hand in the bunker, the civilised world has been on the run from his dangerous ideas ... But the truth is that Hitler, in his racial discrimination, was simply being normal. The United States and the British Empire were both racist through and through. Nor, even, did Hitler's anti-Jewish policy figure in the western powers' reason for going to war with him."
No, the reader wants to object, the western powers didn't go to war because of Hitler's "policy" toward the Jews - but that doesn't make such a policy 'normal', and it's a very slippery historian who even feints at suggesting otherwise. Other western countries might have shared a predilection for anti-Semitism, but only one built vast complexes dedicated solely to killing Jews in massive numbers - it might be melodramatic to call that the work of a "Demon King", but not all melodrama is wrong.
Occasionally, this historical egalitarianism becomes outright offensive. In what is sure to become the book's most notorious passage (and what was almost certainly intended to be so), Wilson turns his subject into a complete abstraction, an ideological cautionary tale for the feckless present. "Because we still regard him as the Demon King of history we think that if we say the opposite of what Hitler said, we shall somehow be living a better life," Wilson writes, before bizarrely continuing: "Hitler was a racist, so we shall be anti-racist ... Hitler was the ultimate Incorrect Person, so we shall invent Political Correctness, a system of thought which is in fact dominated by the unmentioned memory of Hitler and by being his opposite in all things, thinks to purge his baleful influence from the earth."
The entire social rights movement of the last half-century, reduced to a knee-jerk reaction against the "unmentioned memory" of a dead dictator; it's difficult to imagine who wouldn't be offended by such nonsense - except for Nazis, of course, who would nod in enthusiastic agreement at such an attack on weak-willed non-Aryans.
This is the main peril of idiosyncratic monographs like this book. A short summary of the facts of Hitler's life anyone can get online in any number of places, so a short life can't be only that. But the depth of insight into a figure as malignly pivotal as Hitler is directly proportional to the depth of research done, and extensive research is incompatible with such cavalier brevity.
The author is left with few options other than attention-getting irresponsibility. By way of conclusion, Wilson offers some tired speculations as to this man, "a species of magician", rose to power and changed the course of history, but ultimately he resorts to platitudes that were cliched 50 years ago: "In the end," he writes, "Hitler is a mystery who cannot be plumbed, whether you use the tool of the economist, the political analyst or the psychiatrist." This is not only pat but inconsistent, obviously: either Hitler is an everyman figure who was "simply being normal" or he's an unaccountable mystery - he can't be both, although both characterisations have one infuriating thing in common: they exonerate.
Hitler, we're told, "thought that humanity in its history was to be explained by the idea of struggle, by the survival of the fittest, by the stronger species overcoming the weaker", and then the inevitable vile summation: "Unlike the Darwinians of today, Hitler merely took this belief to its logical conclusion." Thus, we are all hypocrites - or we are all Hitlers, and readers who think the words "Hitler" and "merely" should never occur in the same sentence are left with nothing but Wilson's lukewarm rhetoric.
The fact that our author caps 190 pages of armchair psychoanalysis of everything Hitler did by telling readers neither psychoanalysis nor anything else can plumb the mysteries of the man hints at the only proper response any serious reader can have to this book: it should be shunned as thoroughly as all embarrassing taunts should be.
Either Wilson the serious historian cannot possibly believe the historical slanders that abound in this book (and is only propounding them for notoriety), or he does believe them (and worse, perhaps always has) - in either case, readers who've enjoyed this writer's earlier work find no consolation here.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.