An Illustrated Life

by Robin Cross (2009, Quercus)

Adolf Hitler is big business. He commands as much prime-time real estate on the edutainment cable channels as he ever did in Fortress Europe, maybe more. And as "Der Untergang" showed, he can easily blitzkrieg the pants off das Zelluloid along with its pusillanimous award-givers. Moreover, in cable and film WWII never ends. So why bother with another downsized Hitler bio that unabashedly breaks no new ground? 

To see why, one must first be clear about what the experienced military writer, Robin Cross, and to all appearances his publisher as well, never intended "Hitler" to be. It is not the monumental biography built to awe the fastidious critics, much less a meticulous scholarly tome: Ian Kershaw has already done that. On the contrary, "Hitler" seems to be positioned as a quasi-coffee table book -- not your typical oversized volume, but a tad smaller version apt for tiny tables one might find in tight places such as . . . well, bunkers. A sturdy hardcover of thick glossy paper, it nevertheless values text over illustrations, although there are plenty of period photos --in authentic B&W-- to go around. The quasi-ness ends with the content of the text; the reader gets a bona fide, serious historical account of cable's favorite dictator sans the commercial interruptions. All the important misdeeds and events, from cradle to artillery shell crater, are literally at one's fingertips. 

However, due to the book's moderate size (224 pages, by the way, not the 176 given in Amazon's product details), depth of exposition becomes a frequent casualty. At times, all one gets as background information for the event being discussed is a brief sentence or two. Supporting characters pop in and out of the narrative as needed with little consideration given to the logical continuity of their existence in the broader scheme of things. Enhancing details are perforce treated lightly or simply overlooked, and the flow of events is sometimes a bit bumpy. That, alas, is the price to be paid for concise bios; the alternative, of course, is the thousand-plus page magnum opus. 

But that is precisely what Cross's book provides: a practicable alternative to the dauntingly massive treatise many people don't have the time to take on -- or the inclination, perhaps, to devote much time to a decidedly unsavory personage. At any rate, the usual peccadillos duly arise: a smattering of typos and venial errors, accompanied by one malaprop and a dangling participle. (Norman Mailer had already done that.) Still, all is forgiven when the reader encounters elegant passages rich in sensorial texture, such as this one describing the Festsaal (festival hall) of the Hofbräuhaus München: 

"When it was not being used for political meetings, the big hall was packed with beefy male patrons, many of them wearing 'lederhosen', drinking their fill from long tables stacked with stone beer mugs. Dirndl-clad waitresses bustled back and forth bearing foaming tankards of ale to their bellowing customers. The Festsaal provided Hitler with an ideal arena in which to stage political theatre...." 

Ah, just like in the movies! All that's missing is the fine Bavarian folk music. (Be sure to check out the Hofbräuhaus for yourself, oompah tunes included, at www.hofbraeuhaus.de/. Here is mystery: with such marvelous brew and bonny lasses, why would anyone ever opt for the warpath?) 

So this clinches the coveted five-star rating, does it not? Well, much as this reader enjoyed the journey through history --the gory stuff has been scrupulously sanitized for the sake of critical objectivity, and the few action photographs beyond the staid portraits are all invariably tame-- there remain two points that conspired to scratch out a star. 

The first point of contention is the lack of references in the narrative to sustain or complement many of the arguments presented. The author provides a page at book's end with suggestions for further reading, but these works are not correlated to specific arguments in the body of the text. For instance, Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler prominently heads the reading list while the text discusses the behavioral thesis of "working towards the Führer" several times. Yet it is never stated that the thesis is Kershaw's very own theory. The second point concerns the dearth of maps in a book that analyzes a number of complex battles in distant lands. For the average reader, such as myself, understanding the strategic implications of the salient of Kursk desperately cries out for some assistance in visualization. There is a single map of Europe at the start of the book depicting the extent of Axis control in April 1943, but Kursk doesn't even show up as a dot! Woe unto you, humble initiates. 

Aside from that, "Hitler" is a worthy short biography with a very important mission: making Hitler accessible to the layperson as a fellow person, not as a caricaturesque demon. For as Thomas Fuchs observes in his "A Concise Biography of Adolf Hitler", such misconceptions are dangerous. "They make him unreal, with the possible consequence of our forgetting that what he did can be done again."