Ian Kershaw is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield and one of the world's leading authorities on Hitler. He was the historical advisor to the highly successful BBC series The Nazis; A Warning from History.
He is the author of 'The Hitler Myth': Image and Reality in the Third Reich, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Bavaria 1933-45, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation and Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941. He is editor of Weimar: Why Did German Democracy Fail? and Hitler: A Profile in Power; and co-editor, with Moshe Lewin, of Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison.
He was knighted in 2002.
PROFILE: IAN KERSHAW
I was born to a working-class family in Oldham, Lancashire, in 1943. At school, a Catholic grammar-school in Manchester, I was not particularly interested in history until inspired by an excellent sixth-form teacher, Father Burke. I went on to study history at Liverpool University, then, for my doctorate, at Merton College, Oxford. My intellectual passion at the time was, however, medieval, not modern, history, and I was appointed to my first job in 1968 as Assistant Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Manchester. My first book was, accordingly, in medieval history – a specialist work (for which, disappointingly, no film offers were made!) on Bolton Priory: the Economy of a Northern Monastery (Oxford University Press, 1973). Meanwhile, however, I was making rapid progress in mastering German, which I had been unable to learn at school or university, and, through my increasing linguistic competence, I became ever more drawn to trying to understand how Germany had succumbed to Hitler. The possibility of attempting some serious research in this area improved drastically in 1974, when I was miraculously appointed to a new post in modern history at Manchester University and, the following year, when I was invited to work on a major research project in Germany, based at Munich, on the social history of Bavaria in the Nazi era.
For more than thirty years since that time I have been researching and writing on the darkest episode in German history, involving me in studying the appalling brutalities of the most destructive war in history and the depths of inhumanity that created the Holocaust, the most terrible genocide yet known to mankind. Why work for so long on such a depressing era in history? Perhaps, like many historians, I’m more drawn to trying to explain disasters and destruction than success and stability, so that the collapse of the Weimar Republic always struck me as inherently more interesting that accounting for the uneventfulness of 18th-century Geneva. But, mainly (and more seriously), there have been few episodes in history as tragically crucial for modern times as the Nazi era. This era belongs to world history, not just German history, and is vital to any understanding of the world we live in. That in itself is justification for subjecting this period of history to intensive study. I’ve felt privileged that I have been able to do this.
My first book in modern history, Der Hitler-Mythos, Volksmeinung und Propaganda im Dritten Reich (Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, Stuttgart, 1980) was prompted by my work on the Bavaria project and looked at the popular image of Hitler during the Nazi Dictatorship. I later recouched my original German text and brought out an extended English version, The ‘Hitler Myth’. Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford University Press, 1987). Meanwhile, I had written another book that emanated from my Bavarian research, this time exploring the oppositional mentalities in the German population under Hitler, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich (Oxford Univerity Press, 1983), and then turned to investigating the heated controversies that had arisen in interpreting Nazism in The Nazi Dictatorship. Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (Arnold, London,1985, 4th edition 2000). This book had taken me from the social history of the Third Reich into debates about the governmental structure under Hitler. Inevitably, this drew me increasingly to the key figure in the regime: Hitler himself. I had earlier shown little specific interest in the dictator, and was more concerned with the nature of the regime that he headed. Influenced by German historical writing, I was also somewhat adverse to the genre of biography. But the invitation to write a short book analysing Hitler’s power, Hitler. A Profile in Power (Longman, London, 1991) focused my attention much more than hitherto on how Hitler’s rule operated in practice. By this time, I had already committed myself to writing a full-scale Hitler biography. When the invitation to undertake this had come in 1988, I had initially declined, on the grounds that at least two important biographies, by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, already existed. However, I was sufficiently intrigued to re-read these, and came to the conclusion that, for all their merits, they were not the last word. Each had deficiencies that, in my view, it was possible to transcend. So I agreed to write a new biography, a work which I could not really commence (on account of duties at my university) until 1994. This work expanded so much in the concept and writing that it became two volumes - Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (Penguin, 1998) and Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis (Penguin, 2000).
While working on the Hitler volumes, a chance find in the Public Record of Northern Ireland in Belfast led me to the voluminous correspondence of Lord Londonderry, a Conservative peer and prominent German sympathiser in the 1930s. I became increasingly interested in his dealings with the German leadership, not just from a biographical standpoint but also because of the light it cast on the British government’s difficulties in dealing with Hitler, rearmament policy in Britain, appeasement and British fellow-travellers of the Nazis. The outcome was Making Friends with Hitler. Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War (Penguin, 2004). Then, a casual chat with my friend Laurence Rees, the brilliant television producer with whom I had collaborated on three major series (The Nazis: A Warning from History, War of the Century, and Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution) made me turn my attention to a study of decision-making in the leaders of the major belligerent powers in a crucial phase of the Second World War, published as Fateful Choices. Ten Decisions that Changed the World (Penguin, 2006).
In all this time, my ‘day-job’ has been as a university lecturer (and, when ‘elevated’, as a professor) at Manchester (1968-87), Nottingham (1987-9) and Sheffield (1989 to present). Just as I am about to retire (end of September 2008) from the splendid Department of History at the University of Sheffield, it has been gratifying to see published a collection of some of my essays (Hitler, the Germans the Final Solution, Yale University Press, 2008) and – after some pain in removing 350,000 words, together with footnotes and bibliograpy from my original two volumes – an abridged, single-volume version of my Hitler biography, now just entitled Hitler (Penguin, 2008), though I am glad that the full version will remain in print.
Will I continue writing? Yes, for the forseeable future. It’s not that I find the process of writing hugely enjoyable. There’s a lot of hard slog and long hours involved, and at times I’d almost rather doing anything else. Ultimately, though, it’s rewarding. Anyway, I’ve done it for so long that I would be lost without it. Moreover, I still have things I want to do, and writing has always been for me the best way to wrestle with difficult problems (even if facing a blank computer screen and knowing that no one but you can fill it with words is a daunting one). That others have been interested in what I have written has been an enormous bonus and given me great satisfaction. But explaining complex historical issues for myself has always been the underlying driving-force. Has it been worth it? Every essay or book I have written has taught me a great deal. I feel immensely lucky to have had a career that has allowed me time and space for teaching, research and writing. So, for me: unquestionably. For others: that’s for them to judge.
An exclusive interview with Ian Kershaw author of Hitler: Volume One: 1889-1936: Hubris and Hitler Volume Two: 1936-1945: Nemesis
Do you feel you
understand Adolf Hitler?
What do you aim to
achieve with your books on
Help an understanding of how such a figure could come to exercise such power to such devastating effect.
Is there any reason why you have written this
2 parts, and why have you split as you have?
There was a lot to say. By 1936 Hitler was triumphant within Germany. To end Hitler 1885-1936: Hubris with his power unchallenged within Germany but before entering upon foreign expansion made sense.
If you could meet Hitler, what would you say
"Please be brief, I have to leave in 2 minutes".
Do you think there was a point after which the 2nd
War became inevitable?
Yes. At the latest, the march into Prague (15.3.39).
There is a debate
historians about the role
played by the German people in the war, in
particular with regard to the
genocide. How much responsibility to you think can be placed on one man for
A great deal. However wide the culpability, it can still be said no Hitler, no holocaust.
How would you describe the 2 volumes of Hitler?
How long did it
take you to research these books?
11 years (and since the 1970s working on the 3rd Reich).
were one thing in your life you
able to achieve, what would it be?
Turn Oldham Rugby League Football Club into a championship-winning team.
What is your
The History of Bolton Priory by Hamilton Thompson
book do you wish you
Dom David Knowles The Monastic Order in England.
What are you reading now?
Proofs, proofs and more proofs.
you intend to write
The history of Europe in the 20th century (for the Penguin History of Europe series) - when I've had a rest.