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HITLER: 1889-1936 By Ian Kershaw Norton 845 pp., $35

The facts we know, but the mystery remains: How could this Austrian vagabond take over a great country and rip the world apart?

With hungry workers, street battles with the communists, hatred of the Versailles settlement and of Weimar democracy, the future opened for Hitler to take power - constitutionally - in 1933. The next step was an assault on Europe to acquire "living space" in the Slavic east, all of it outlined and predicted in polemics he wrote in the 1920s.

All this is presented with great clarity and precision in this impressive book. Ian Kershaw avoids fanciful interpretations; there is no psycho-history or its equivalent. Nor does he blame Hitler's rise either on Western failings or on his "hypnotic" powers over fascinated Germans. Instead, he focuses on a Germany where democracy had little place.

Kershaw finds a growing identification after 1933 among Hitler, Nazism, and ordinary Germans in a fragmented country. He contends that, in effect, there was no "Germany," but only millions of individuals whose scattered loyalties were with individual political parties, regions, and religions. It was Hitler's great "achievement" that he could present himself to a desperately unhappy land as "The Leader," offering a mystical unity in great rallies born of territorial ambition and hatred of the Jews, the Slavs, the French, and indeed, of the entire non-Aryan world.

The book makes one ponder the troubling parallels in some of today's fragmented countries where a sense of national unity and the public good are lacking, and authoritarian governments manipulate diverse social groups.

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