R.H.S. Stolfi, a military historian, takes aim at the work of what he deems the "great" Adolf Hitler biographers -- including Allen Bullock, Joachim Fest and Ian Kershaw, to name the three principal targets. Stolfi conducts his argument like a military campaign, probing his fellow biographers' weaknesses -- especially their penchant for denigrating Hitler's intelligence and personality, both portrayed as second-rate and vapid.
How could such an "unperson," as Kershaw calls Hitler, have become what Stolfi calls him: a world historical individual, a rare human being who, according to Hegel, makes decisions and takes actions following a vision of history that often defies conventional moral categories? Biographers have belittled Hitler, Stolfi contends, because they cannot conceive that a man capable of such evil could also be human in the ordinary sense of the term.
Stolfi is no apologist for Hitler in the sense of minimizing his culpability for the Holocaust and the war, but the biographer wants to understand, even empathize, with the man. He portrays Hitler's great personal courage during World War I as an intrepid combat soldier, and afterward as a man who personally waged war in the streets of Germany against Marxist street gangs. Stolfi quotes Thomas Mann's reluctant admission that Hitler was an artist, and shows, in detail, Hitler's consummate understanding of opera and architecture and how those arts shaped his view of history and modern Germany.
Most important, however, Stolfi analyzes Hitler as a world leader of astonishing capability, a leader unlike any other politician of his time. Hitler was a messiah, wishing to create a new Germany unencumbered by the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty that crippled German politics and the country's economy. Over and over, Hitler made decisions alone, drawing on an inner inspiration -- which Stolfi likens to Muhammad's impetus -- and commanding not only a loyal band of followers but the allegiance of millions.
Why did Hitler fail? Ultimately, his major weakness was his siege mentality. He halted the German army in August 1941, just when it was poised to take Moscow in a victory that in Stolfi's judgment would have ended World War II before the United States entered it. Hitler next directed his forces toward the Ukraine and other areas with rich natural resources that could sustain Germany. Consequently, the German drive to Moscow, delayed until October 1941, ran into the coldest winter in 200 years and stalled.
"The Allies did not win the war; Hitler lost it," Stolfi claims in this rousing book, which is sure to provoke outrage but also admiration for its author's attempt to offer a new and more comprehensive understanding of Hitler's psyche.
Carl Rollyson is the author of several biographies, including forthcoming books on Dana Andrews (fall 2012) and Sylvia Plath (spring 2013).