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Ian Kershaw: Casting Light on the Shadows

Sunday, October 19, 2008

As Italy fell to the Allies, and Hitler moved to crush the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ian Kershaw was born in Oldham, a mill town not far from the "cottonopolis" of Manchester, England. His father was a mechanic; his mother a worker in the cotton mills. But the Depression had taken a toll, and his father was unemployed, playing saxophone in a dance band as the war raged, trying to maintain what Kershaw remembers as "an extremely happy" if bookless house. By the '50s, his father had opened a small grocery shop, which he ran until his death in 1969.

Kershaw never imagined he would be a writer. In his early teens he flirted with the notion of sports journalism but decided impulsively on academics and began to develop, "rather late in my school years," a strong and abiding interest in history.

Schooled at St. Bede's, Liverpool University and, later, Oxford, he thought he'd be a medievalist, but by his 20s he had changed course. Working closely with West German historian Martin Broszat on his "Bavaria Project," Kershaw began studying the cult of Hitler. The result was a seminal work, The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich.

Kershaw, now 65 and retired from the department of modern history at Sheffield University, is widely regarded as the world's leading expert on Adolf Hitler. His books include: Hitler: A Profile in Power; Fateful Choices; and his most recent, just out this summer, Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Six years ago, the Queen awarded him a knighthood for his steady and numerous "services to history."

"I have never thought of myself as having a 'writing career,' " he says. He considers himself first and foremost a university professor. But insofar as writing has become the focus of his work, his big break was unquestionably the appearance of his two-volume biography: Hitler: Hubris and Hitler: Nemesis.

When asked what he has learned from his immersion in Nazism, he replies that "the Third Reich shows in vivid form our terrible capacity for evil. But it is important to temper this pessimistic view of human nature with our immense capacity for good. Humanity has -- and has had throughout history -- a Janus face."

-- Marie Arana

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