My selected book for this week was James Cross Giblin's The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. Having written a review about this book for last week's class by accident, I feel that this is my opportunity to get more in-depth with my thoughts on this biography of one of the most hated men in history.
Before I get started, I'd like to go on record saying that as a history buff, none of the information I read in this book surprised me. Hitler's boyhood in Austria with his distant father and doting mother, his multiple rejections from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, his formative years in the army--none of that is new to me. But that doesn't make it any less fascinating. Hitler, despicable though his actions were, was nothing if not a complicated, multifaceted man. After reading Giblin's book, I did a little browsing on Wikipedia and found the following lines from Mein Kampf:
"There were very few Jews in Linz. In the course of centuries the Jews who lived there had become Europeanised in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans. The reason why I did not then perceive the absurdity of such an illusion was that the only external mark which I recognized as distinguishing them from us was the practice of their strange religion. As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic antisemitism."
Did my eyes deceive me, or did I just read that Hitler actually felt sorry for the Jews at one point in his life? Of course, in the next few lines of that excerpt, he goes into detail about how passing a Hasidic Jew on the street made him an anti-Semite on nationalistic grounds, which says all kinds of interesting things about Hitler's psychology. I love those "what-if" scenarios, where Hitler (although he didn't know it at the time) reached a crossroads in his life, and what might have happened if things had gone the other way. For example, he was rejected twice from the Vienna Academy of Arts; reproductions of his artwork are included in the book, and I have to say, they're not bad; not amazing or groundbreaking at all, but not bad. What interests me is what would have happened if he had been accepted. Most likely, he would never have joined the army, which means he would never have acquired his martial fetish, which probably would result in his being much less of a German nationalist and much more of a law-abiding Austrian citizen. Giblin, unfortunately, doesn't really explore those scenarios, but since this is a biography and not an alternative history novel, I'll let it slide.
But all that aside, what really struck me about this book was its evenhandedness. Giblin takes the position of what one of my history professors called "disinterested scholarship" (as opposed to "uninterested"). That can be a precarious approach with books about Hitler and the Nazis; you have to be careful not to cross the line into praise or you're likely to be ostracized by the scholarly and literary communities, but you can't just write a fiery condemnation because anyone can do that. Ripping on Hitler is the easiest thing in the world to do. This, in my opinion, is where Giblin succeeds. His approach of "just the facts" helps paint a more even portrait of Hitler by revealing him for what he was: a charismatic, conflicted (some would say tormented), passionate man who loved dogs, painting, and military history. This was a guy who could laugh at a Mickey Mouse cartoon one day and order the extermination of thousands non-Aryans the next. The dichotomy is astounding on its own, and in Giblin's straightforward portrayal of the facts (all meticulously researched, by the way) the stark relief is all the sharper.
Although Giblin's evenhandedness is admirable, in my opinion, he goes a little too far; The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler often reads almost like a history textbook. Since Giblin wrote the book for a middle school/high school reading level, you would think he would know to avoid clinical descriptions of historical events. If there's one thing kids hate to read, it's academese (even academese written for their reading level). I'm not exactly saying he should dumb down the language of the book or anything, but let's be honest: history bores a lot of kids. I'm just of the opinion that it's better for them to understand a concept in simpler terms that they can better understand, than for them to be forced to memorize a complex explanation of the concept that they probably won't retain anyway.
That said, Giblin's tendency to air on the academic side does come in handy in one respect: the photographs. Everything in Hitler's life, from the Nuremburg rallies to Hitler's baby photos, is represented, and though all are in black-and-white and some are pretty out of focus, they serve to not only break the tedium of the text for young readers, but also to drive home for them that Hitler actually existed, and the things he did actually happened. I'm sure that to many young history students, Hitler is merely a name and a face that they associate with evil because they've been told to do so. Seeing his entire life documented in photo form allows the middle school history student for whom the book was intended to absorb the material differently--by including a photo of Hitler as a child, for example, Giblin allows his intended audience the opportunity to realize that Hitler was real, not just a name, a photo, and a few lines of description in their textbooks. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is used to brilliant effect here, and I know it probably sounds bad, but I wish more biographies written for younger readers would include more photos.
Giblin, despite his rather dry writing style, really got my attention with this book. I used to read history books all the time, even when not required to at school, and The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler made me want to get back into it again. If I were a history teacher and not a literature teacher, I might hesitate to add this to my students' reading list due to its slow pace, but as I said earlier, this isn't a novel, it's a biography, and an extremely well-researched one at that, so I suppose that can be excused.