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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, GERMAN-STYLE

HITLER, 1889-1936:
Hubris
By Ian Kershaw
Norton
845 pages, $35

Luise Solmitz, middle-class Hamburg schoolteacher and ardent German nationalist, makes her first appearance in the middle of Ian Kershaw's "Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris," just as Adolf Hitler begins seriously to figure in German politics. In 1932, on a lovely spring day, Frau Solmitz attends a Nazi rally at a speedway track in the Hamburg district of Lokstedt. Not yet herself a Nazi, she keeps a certain critical distance, reporting the event:

The hours passed, the sun shone, the expectation mounted. . . . It got to 3 o'clock. "The Fuhrer's coming!" A thrill goes through the masses. Around the platform hands could be seen raised in the Hitler greeting. . . . There stood Hitler in a simple black coat, looking expectantly over the crowd. A forest of swastika banners rustled upward. The jubilation of the moment gave vent to a rousing cry of "Heil." Then Hitler spoke. Main idea: Out of the parties a people (Volk) will emerge, the German people.

In 1932 Hitler is the dominant leader in the Nazi Party, which has itself recently emerged as a force in German politics. There are still other leaders in the Nazi Party, Gregor Strasser among them. The paramilitary SA headed by Ernst Rohm is often restive. In 1932 the German nationalist movement is still fairly diverse, Prussian here, Bavarian there, offering numerous parties and leaders. We hear repeatedly from Frau Solmitz, exemplar of pre-Nazi German nationalism, as she observes Hitler's coming to power. Here she is on Jan. 30, 1933, as Hitler is finally appointed Reich Chancellor:

Hitler is Reich Chancellor! And what a cabinet!!! One such as we did not dare to dream of in July. Hitler, Hugenberg, Seldte, Papen! A large part of my German hopes are attached to each. National Socialist drive, German national reason, the non-political Stalhelm, and -- not forgotten by us -- Papen. It is so unimaginably wonderful. . . . What an achievement by Hindenburg.

There is a final citation of Frau Solmitz in Kershaw's book, which we will come to later. One wonders if she will appear in the second volume of this new magisterial biography of Hitler, the last such biography of Hitler of the 20th century. Jeremy Noakes, of "Nazism 1919-1945: A Documentary Reader," is already calling Kershaw's book "the standard Hitler biography for the next generation." Is it? Luise Solmitz is important to Kershaw's thesis. She is, in her typicality, a critical witness.

Kershaw gets around the difficult issues that divide Hitlerology by effectively diverting his gaze from the person of Hitler to the question of Fuhrer power. What is this power? How does Hitler come to assume it, to enact it? It isn't at all, Kershaw is at pains to disclose, a triumph of Hitler's will, the creation of his imagination and will. Hitler's absence as a human person in this large volume of biography is truly striking. Kershaw's Hitler is about the phrases and sentences that construct Der Fuhrer, a script Hitler reads and revises.

As such, Fuhrer power already exists in the political mythology of German nationalism. In the '20, many Germans thought Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff, the Hero of Tennenberg, a great victory in World War I, had it. In the '30s, most Germans thought Paul von Hindenburg had it, except he was too old, too decrepit. Hitler moves warily toward it. Fuhrer power thinks Hitler over at length, considering his negatives: his petit-bourgeois Austrian origin, those desperate down-and-out days in Vienna, the young homeless person living in a welfare dormitory, Hitler the corporal, Hitler the crazed fanatic. It couldn't see itself in this ignoble Hitler.

When is Hitler Hitler? Not, Kershaw argues, as some would think, and as Hitler himself thought, at Pasewalk in 1918, a Pomeranian hospital, gassed and temporarily blinded at the front, hearing of Germany's surrender and vowing revenge. Hitler is Hitler, Kershaw argues, at Landsberg Prison in 1924. Here, imprisoned for his part in an aborted putsch in Munich, Hitler writes "Mein Kampf."

At once he writes his autobiography and escapes it. In Landsberg Prison, comfortably installed, receiving visitors, and working with staff, Hitler's immediate entourage begins to give him unquestioned obedience. Rudolf Hess is the first to go over. There is a moment, and Kershaw locates it, when the Nazi Party (NSDAP) becomes a leader party, a party given over to Fuhrer power.

Kershaw gives us a thick reading of the German Volk-ish tradition, of its complex nationalist movement, already vigorous and impassioned, when Hitler was an Austrian schoolboy, a subject in a multicultural, multiracial Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. So much of what we identify as singularly Nazi -- the salute, the so-called Hitler greeting, the swastika -- was already long in use. The late 19th-century Austrian anti-Semite George Ritter von Schonerer, a fanatic admirer of Bismarck and Wilhelmine German nationalism, was immensely popular in little Adolf's elementary school. His followers saluted him: "Heil George Ritter von Schonerer."

It is a long broad history -- German nationalism, German anti-Semitism. The concept of the total leader forms in it, gestates, is expressed in Richard Wagner's operas and the nationalist fantasies of the mythically buried Frederick Barbarossa, in Frederick the Great, in Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor. Hans von Nordern designed a postcard in 1933 that showed Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Hindenburg and Hitler with this caption: "What the King conquered, the Prince shaped, the Field Marshal defended, the Soldier saved and united."

This is how nationalist Germans suddenly saw him in 1936. There Hitler was, the new Reich Chancellor, riding in an open car with the Reich President, Field Marshal Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, Prussian epitome of the German character. Famously photographed, the two leaders were on their way to a political rally in Berlin's Lustgarten.

What about Luise Solmitz? In 1935 she discovers that her husband, a former Army officer of part-Jewish descent, and her daughter, under the new Nuremburg Law, are rejected as German citizens. For all that, Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 thrills her, causes passionate nationalist feelings to surge in her modest Hamburgian person.

"I was totally overwhelmed by the events of this hour," she wrote, "overjoyed at the entry march of our soldiers, at the greatness of Hitler and the power of his speech, the force of this man."

In the index of Kershaw's "Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris," under H, there is no Holocaust.

Maybe we will see in the next concluding volume what happens to Luise Solmitz, German citizen and German patriot, and to her husband and daughter.