Considering the significance and sheer squalid evil of the man, readers have come to expect that biographies of Adolf Hitler will be tomes. Even in just a partial listing, we have Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny at 512 pages, Joachim Fest's Hitler at 856 pages, John Toland's Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography at 1,120 pages, and Ian Kershaw's Hitler: A Biography at 1,030 pages - itself a one-volume abridgment of Kershaw's two-volume life, each volume of which is over 900 pages long. By contrast, AN Wilson's new book Hitler is barely 200 pages, and that in a small, almost hand-sized hardcover - shorter, in other words, than the end-notes to either Kershaw volume.
It isn't that Wilson is lazy; he's no stranger to long books. His magnificent volumes London: A History, The Victorians, and After the Victorians are all doorstops in their own right, wide-ranging studies into which a mere slip of a thing like this Hitler biography would sink without a ripple. And since it's every bit as possible to write a 190-page history of London as it is to write a 1200-page biography of Adolf Hitler, the question naturally arises: why is this new book so short?
Wilson produces no new facts or revisionist theories. His short "Select Bibliography" consists almost entirely of modern secondary sources in English (including Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1947 book The Last Days of Hitler, which one contemporary historian derided for having "a howler on every page"). His narrative hits the standard short-form Hitlerian landmarks: the strict, authoritarian father who died when Hitler was still a boy, the doting mother who died while Hitler was living the wastrel's life in Vienna, his service at the Western Front during the First World War (Wilson first speculates that he spent his time reading Karl May Western novels and then simply tells us he did), his resentment at the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, his growing anti-Semitism, his failed Munich putsch in 1923 and subsequent composition of Mein Kampf (Wilson calls it My Struggle throughout, even though the German title has long since achieved common usage), his rise to prominence in national politics, his consolidation of sole power and military expansion throughout the 1930s, his international provocations, his massive armament drives and the attempts of Great Britain and France to appease him, then the years of war, the inexorable defeats, the suicide. Wilson keeps this familiar narrative moving, although his powers of compression are weirdly uneven (Hitler's flatulence gets exactly as much space as his forced annexation of Austria, etc).
There are, in fact, many weird things about this little book. In a couple of different spots, for example, Wilson heavily implies that only secret fascists fancy keeping dogs as pets, since upon Blondi, Hitler's beloved dog, he "lavished the attention and love which only the dog-lover can bestow, presumably loving the bad breath, the slobbering, the ever-present possibility of snarling violence, and the hyper-energy of the species. But above all, perhaps, the slavishness."
There are repeated attempts to humanise Hitler, repeated implications that his personal malevolence has been overrated by posterity. He had, we're told, "bursts of energy and activity, spells of rage-fuelled hyperactivity, but for the most part he was ... extremely lazy; he was a dreamer, and he was always more of an artist than a soldier".