Part of my course load this year requires me to teach Nazi Germany. Frankly, it’s been years since I’ve done work on the Second World War, but I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the subject. The unfortunate thing is that studying the Nazis is emotionally challenging if only because good history requires, to paraphrase Atticus Finch’s words to his daughter Scout, the ability to walk around in another man’s shoes. Of course empathy for an abused black man is easier for us to grasp that for a demonic mass-murderer. And yet the historical enterprise seeks truth: what happened, why did it happen, why did people do what they did? To answer these questions there is no choice but to get into Hitler’s jackboots and strut around a bit, no matter how painful for the historically conscious.
A. N. Wilson has written a short but complete history of Hitler entitled, well, Hitler. For the most part his methodology is on track and he does a good job standing above the emotional fray and giving a straight account of the man and his times. He does fall into some unnecessary dissonance with his description of counterfactual history as a mere parlor game while occasionally playing the parlor game himself. Alternative histories can be specious, and Wilson is astute to point this out, but we must be careful not to be fooled into thinking that what happened must have happened. Nevertheless, one thing (among others) that Wilson does well is help the reader appreciate not only how insane Hitler was, but more importantly, how normal and sane he was by the standards of his times.