Novelists are criticized for playing god by manipulating their characters as if they were puppets. Historians misuse their hindsight to endow their subjects with foresight. The repetition of this device reduces the historical actor to the author’s marionette.

Historians do us all a disservice by pretending otherwise.

A faith in foreshadowing afflicts biographers who can rarely resist signaling that the event being mentioned will become significant in the sweet bye-and-bye. For instance, Hitler’s introduction to Roehm in 1920 becomes the occasion to announce the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This habit results in bad history on twin grounds. First, Hitler is stripped of the experiences that lead him up to murdering his comrade. Secondly, the reader is deprived of the pleasure and insights of discovery as the narrative unfolds.

One instance of the fortune-telling error in historical writing is the claim that after 1939, Hitler put into effect aims that he had spelt out in Mein Kampf as early as the mid-1920s. That book is indeed replete with anti-Semitism yet it did not specify the final solution.

Hitler had dictated most of Mein Kampf from prison at a time when he had scant prospect of becoming his nation’s Fuhrer. No one in 1924-25 could have predicted the hourly opportunism that made Hitler Chancellor in 1933. Much of the first half of his autobiography was an attack on other Right-wing Nationalists. Its original title had been “Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice”. His struggle – “Mein Kampf” – was against these rivals, as much as against the Jews, Hapsburgs, Marxists, or the French. Hitler was engaged in prophecy more than planning, self-justification rather than strategy.

By the early 1920s, Hitler had become obsessed with Jewry as responsible for every blight that threatened him - prostitution and syphilis, abstract art and Bolshevism, democracy and international finance. Yet he was not certain what to do with the Jews, apart from knowing that he had to break their domination of his world by driving them out of Germany.

Hitler’s fury at the Jews for infecting “folk-ish” and Christian culture was a seedbed for the Shoah. Nonetheless, hatred and fear do not amount to a program. His priority in 1933 was to “clean out Berlin”, contemplating Palestine as a homeland. The outbreak of war in 1939 prevented expulsions beyond Europe. His belief that the fighting would soon be over kept that prospect alive. In 1940, he again toyed with expelling the Jews to Madagascar. The “Final” Solution was that – the last in a line of Hitler’s policies for cleansing his world.

The closest Hitler had come to predicting mass murder in Mein Kampf was to regret that 12-15000 “Hebrew corrupters of the people” had not been gassed in 1914. If that mass murder had happened, he continued, then “the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain”. In a 2,000-page biography of Hitler, the basis for the recent television series, Ian Kershaw quoted those words three times, twice within a 100 pages, in support of his thesis that thoughts of war always made Hitler think of killing Jews. Kershaw needed to misrepresent this passage in order to establish Hitler’s end in his beginning, despite acknowledging that these “terrible passages are not the beginning of a one-way track to the ‘Final Solution’. The road there was ‘twisted’, not straight.”

Contrary to Kershaw’s argument, Hitler’s remarks in Mein Kampf carried an import distinct from racial genocide. The section where the reference to gassing appears is headed “Failure to settle accounts with Marxism”. The quotation from Mein Kampf demonstrates Kershaw’s double distortions of Hitler’s remarks about gassing anyone:

If the German working class, in 1914, consisted of real Marxists the War would have ended within three weeks. Germany would have collapsed before the first soldier had put a foot beyond the frontiers. No. The fact that the German people carried on the War proved that the Marxist folly had no yet been able to penetrate deeply. But as the War was prolonged German soldiers and workers gradually fell back into the hands of the Marxist leaders; and the number of those who thus relapsed became lost to their country. At the beginning of the War, or even during the War, if twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrews who were corrupting the nation had been forced to submit to poison-gas, just as hundreds of thousands of our best German workers from every social stratum and from every trade and calling had to face it in the field, then the millions of sacrifices made at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary: If twelve thousand of these malefactors had been eliminated in proper time probably the lives of a million decent men, who would be of value to Germany in the future, might have been saved.

Kershaw glosses Hitler’s mention of “Hebrews” as meaning Jews in the racial sense whereas Hitler had been talking about gassing the Social Democrats who had hoped to prevent the outbreak of war by launching a general strike. For Hitler, the Hebrew and the Marxist (like the finance capitalist) became interchangeable because of their cosmopolitanism and Internationalism, respectively. Hence, Marxism was “a Jewish doctrine”. a plausible conection because so many socialist leaders were Jews.

Although Hitler’s paragraph is about the Jews as Marxist subverters and corruptors of German working-class patriotism, Kershaw offers this abridgement:

He (Hitler) later claimed, in a horrific passage of Mein Kampf, that a million German lives lost at the front would have been saved if “twelve to fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas”.

Ninety pages later, Kershaw returned to this passage:

The notion of poisoning the poisoners ran through another, notorious, passage of Mein Kampf, already cited in Chapter 5, in which Hitler suggested that if 12-15,000 “Hebrew corrupters of the people” had been held under poison gas at the start of the First World War, then “the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.

In Kershaw’s second volume, he repeated this selective reading in order to position the 1938 Reichkristallnacht in a chapter titled “Marks of a Genocidal Mentality”:

He [Hitler] had commented in the last chapter of Mein Kampf that “the sacrifice of millions at the front” would not have been necessary if “twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas”.

Kershaw got himself into these difficulties by reading the mass murders of 1941 to 1945 back to a passage in Mein Kampf. Throughout, he weaves his hypothesis that Hitler had linked “the power of the Jews and war”. Yet, on all three occasions, Kershaw omitted Hitler’s reference to his comrades’ having been gassed “in the field”, and more importantly, that his intended gas victims were Marxists.

By trimming the references to Marxists and to the Western Front, Kershaw is able to maintain that the passage’s “inherent genocidal thrust is undeniable. However indistinctly, the connection between destruction of the Jews, war, and national salvation had been forged in Hitler’s mind”. This construction forgets that the thrust was political far more than racial. The targets were Marxists, an aspect which Kershaw elides. On that suppression, he was consistent.

Kershaw could practice his legerdemain confident that no historian is likely to be drummed out of the club for misrepresenting the worst of the bad kings. More significantly, Kershaw erred because he played god, reading the future into the past. The monstrousness of the destruction of European Jewry loomed so large in his mind that Hitler’s words from 1924-25 acquired their meaning by how well they pointed towards that horror. The political context of the mid-1920s had to be erased, even though Kershaw’s biography is illustrated by a 1926 photograph of Hitler reviewing a Nazis parade bearing the banner “Tod dem Marxismus” [Death to Marxism]. Kershaw’s handling of evidence is powerful as polemic but hapless as history. The point is not that yet another empiricist has got a fact wrong but that Kershaw tripped over his god-structured approach to writing history. In addition, he could do so in good conscience because class has been erased from scholarship in favour of race, Marxism discredited, and politics replaced by ethnicity.

Mussolini might have got some Italian trains to run on time, but Hitler could control the staging of neither domestic nor European politics. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, admired his Fuhrer’s ability “to think in three dimensions”. That talent did not extend to reading the fourth dimension of time.