Hitler: A Life

Christopher Clark writes:

Something very strange happens in the middle of The End, the sixth and last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s titanic work of self-description. At around page 482, the book swerves away from scenes of family and social life, and plunges, like a car crashing through a safety barrier, into a prolonged reflection on Adolf Hitler. For 360 pages Knausgaard discusses Hitler’s youthful longing and seriousness, his love for his mother, his struggle with an authoritarian father, his refusal of the destinies prescribed for him by convention. Long passages are given over to summarising, or simply quoting from, the first volume of Mein Kampf, written while Hitler was in prison in 1925. Knausgaard reflects (twice) on that moment in 1945, preserved on film, when Hitler emerged, ‘his hands shaking with sickness’, from a bunker beneath Berlin, ‘with the world in flames and millions of people dead as a result of his volition’, to greet a line of young boys who had been called up to defend the collapsing city. In that perilous moment, he writes, Hitler revealed, ‘in a fleeting gleam of his eyes … something warm and kind, his soul’. ‘He was a small person,’ Knausgaard concedes, ‘but so are we all.’ And out of these and many other thoughts about Hitler spiral a long series of reflections on modern life, accompanied by high-end literary and cultural references. Not until page 848 does The End escape from Hitler’s orbit. In the meantime, the reader has trekked across a massive, crater-like depression in the book’s structure. It is like coming up for air when we are finally allowed to re-inhabit the body of the writer: ‘I sat down again, poured myself some tepid coffee from the vacuum jug and lit another cigarette.’

(LRB 7 November 2019)

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