A life in writing: Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw's latest book is called The End – and it's the end in more than one sense. Kershaw, biographer of Hitler and anatomist of the Nazi regime, has documented the last nine months of the Third Reich in the book, from the attempt to kill Hitler made by German officers in July 1944 – a coup that would have brought the war to a swift end – to the final capitulation on 7 May 1945, a week after the Führer's suicide. But after about 40 years, he is saying farewell to Hitler, and his next task will be to write the volume on the 20th century in the Penguin history of Europe.

"This is the last thing I do on the Nazis," he says. "Finito. But for me this was an unresolved problem. I'd never focused on the last phase of the war, and I wanted to ask how the regime could continue to function for so long. That was the final challenge." With vast armies pressing from east and west, and the war clearly lost, why did Germany will its own destruction? Kershaw's argument is that, unlike in Italy, where Mussolini was deposed in 1943, there were no rival power structures in Germany that could be used to overturn Hitler's rule. All authority flowed from the Führer. The Reich was founded on Hitler's "charismatic leadership", and long after the charisma had faded and the German people had realised the country was being led to catastrophe the power structure tottered on. "I was very struck by the way that even at the very end, as late as 29 April, some of the generals are saying peace is out of the question as long as the Führer lives."

Even on the brink of collapse, some aspects of normal life in Germany continued: Bayern Munich were still playing football matches a week before Hitler's suicide; the Berlin Philharmonic gave a concert just four days before the war ended; and the bureaucrats were being paid until the very end. How did the state machine continue to function? "I was astonished that such an obvious question hadn't been tackled," he says. "In the final phase the top Nazis, Hitler included, were veering between a sense of realism and a sense of illusion. Their remaining hope was that this unnatural coalition" – of the UK, the US and the Soviet Union – "would fall apart and that the west would finally see that the Bolsheviks were the real problem and would cease the war in the west and come in on the side of Germany. People such as Himmler had this illusion until the very end. He believed he might be accepted by the west."

Kershaw, 68, was knighted in 2002 for services to history, and his two-volume biography of Hitler, published a decade ago, is likely to remain the standard life for a generation. But he doesn't have an ounce of grandeur. He tells me his wife had to stand over him and virtually force him to sign the letter accepting a knighthood. "I didn't really like the idea very much, and dillied and dallied," he says. "I dislike the neo-feudal title, and have always been a bit embarrassed by it."

The modesty reflects his upbringing. He was born in Oldham in 1943 – just after the battle of Stalingrad had ended, turning the war against Hitler. His father was a fitter, but had lost his job in the depression, so turned his hobby of playing the saxophone and clarinet into a career, playing in dance bands. Kershaw's mother worked in a cotton mill, and he says the family were never very well off. His means of escape was passing the 11-plus and going to St Bede's College in Manchester, which instilled in him a love of history. Yet for him this isn't a reason to stand up for the 11-plus. "There were only four kids in my class who were even allowed to sit it, and two of us passed and went to grammar school. It was the breakthrough for me, but is also why I've always opposed selective education at 11. I benefited, but what about the ones left behind?"

He was drawn to medieval history at school and went to Liverpool University, which had an excellent medieval history department. He did a DPhil at Merton College, Oxford, editing a manuscript of the accounts of Bolton Priory in the late 15th and early 16th century. He had unearthed the manuscript at Chatsworth, the Duke of Devonshire's country house in Derbyshire, while still an undergraduate, and expresses amazement that he was allowed to borrow it for months on end while working at Oxford. "I used to pull up at Chatsworth in my little Mini, pick the manuscript up and take it down to the Bodleian library. Imagine that nowadays."

How did he make the switch to the Nazis? "It wasn't a road to Damascus," he says, "but it was relatively sudden. I started learning German with a view to studying the history of peasant revolts in later medieval Europe, but as my German improved I became very interested in what was happening in Germany – it was just after the 1968 student revolutions, there was a lot happening and the Nazi period wasn't that far away – and how it was coping with the legacy of the war."

He spent the summer of 1972 on a Goethe Institute scholarship in Munich, and had a chilling encounter with an ex-Nazi that hardened his growing belief that he should abandon his plan to study medieval peasants and concentrate on his own time. "I met this fellow, and he asked me what I was doing there. He said: 'You English, you were so stupid, you should have been in the war with us. We'd have defeated the Bolsheviks and divided the world up between us.' And he said at one point: 'The Jew is a louse.' I was completely shocked by this, and it made me wonder what went on in this little place at that time. That was the trigger, but I was already on the way."

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