Paul Ham is an Australian author and historian who is best known for his works on war including Vietnam, Kokoda and the atomic bombing of Japan, so a biography is somewhat of a departure. The cover blurb suggests Ham ‘[b]y peeling back the layers of Hitler’s childhood…seeks the man behind the myth’ and speculates as to whether Hitler was ‘a freak accident’.
Ham lets his research dictate the path for his narrative, discussing in detail Hitler’s early life and his very close attachment to his mother. He was an unsuccessful artist and failed to gain entry to the best art school in Vienna and seems to have drifted through life working at a series of unfulfilling jobs and, at one point, even being homeless. Hitler welcomed WWI as it gave his life meaning.
The war was a formative experience for the young Hitler and, by all reports, he was a good soldier, twice winning medals for delivering messages under heavy fire. Hitler, the soldier, did not view the war and the human sacrifice at battles such as the Somme and Ypres as appalling. Rather, they meshed with his beliefs in Social Darwinism and eugenics in which the fittest, meaning Germany and the Aryan race, would triumph and be the rulers of the Earth.
He believed, even towards the end of 1918, Germany could be victorious. At war’s end he was in hospital having been blinded by mustard gas and could never accept that the Kaiser had fled and a defeated Germany had been forced to sign the armistice. Ham argues Hitler saw those who had agreed to the Versailles Treaty and its crippling reparation payments had stabbed good, honest Germans in the back and this anger fed a desire for revenge against those he saw as criminals for agreeing to a peace treaty.
In giving voice to this anger we see Hitler the politician, a very different person from Hitler the soldier. He quickly realises he has the power to move people through his speeches and uses his oratory to satisfy his ambition and ruthless desire for power. Finding a scapegoat for all the ills of a society was a tried and true tactic and ‘Hitler the politician quickly grasped the popular appeal of blaming the Jews for Versailles’ (p. 164).
The book concludes with a chapter on the writing of and revolting philosophy behind Hitler’s book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), begun while he was in prison after a failed coup in November 1923.
This concise biography is well researched and very readable. If you have an interest in the World Wars, I can recommend Young Hitler.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: October 2017
RRP: $32.99 hardback, $14.99 ebook