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Originally published Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'Hitler': the mystery of the Führer's appeal

A.N. Wilson's new book "Hitler: A Short Biography" is a fascinating portrait, but doesn't solve the mystery of how a third-rate artist and undistinguished soldier captured the German imagination and wreaked unimaginable havoc on the world.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Hitler: A Short Biography'

by A.N. Wilson

Basic Books, 224 pp., $24.99

Here is a curious fact about Adolf Hitler. As a young man, he never looked for work — paid work — and never had any. "He could have taken a job as a waiter or a clerk or done something in exchange for pay, the way that almost everyone in the world is expected to do," writes British biographer A.N. Wilson. "Never once did he do so."

Denied entry to an art institute in Vienna, he painted postcards. He was a lazy artist. He liked to sleep in. He liked to read adventure stories and listen to the music of Richard Wagner. He didn't have much artistic talent. He had neither the commercial virtues nor the military ones; in the German army in World War I he was deemed unworthy of promotion. In fact, writes Wilson, "Hitler was almost without any skills at all."

Except two: the willingness to bully others and the ability to entrance crowds. With those two, Hitler became the leader of Germany at the same young age John F. Kennedy became president of the United States.

Wilson, a prolific historian ("The Victorians," "After the Victorians") who has written biographies of Leo Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis and Jesus of Nazareth, sets up this question: How could Hitler have done this? His answer is that Hitler grasped the importance of the new communications medium, radio, to project emotion and stir people up.

Der Führer was a combination of hatred and Hollywood, "the hypnotic artist of post-literacy."

All right, but what was Hitler's appeal? Watch the old newsreel footage of him gesticulating from a lectern. It is not attractive. The man's success cannot have been his method only. Much of it had to have been his message. What did he say that was so stirring to millions of ordinary Germans?

Too soon, Wilson drops this inquiry and moves on to other things. He aims to keep his book short, and he has many things to say.

And some are eye-catching. He shows how in World War I the future Führer was basically a messenger boy. He describes the older Hitler's hypochondria and reliance on a quack doctor to give him daily injections, Michael Jackson-style. He describes Hitler's lack of social graces, his Tourette-like urges to stand up and yell and his disgusting habit of flatulence in cars.

Wilson makes reference to scandalmongers' stories of "lurid sexual perversions" but dismisses them as unlikely. More important, he says, is Hitler's early embrace of brutality, starting with his alliance with the thuggish Ernst Röhm and ending with his order to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Wilson has written a readable and sometimes fascinating essay, though it is not nearly comprehensive enough to be a real biography. Still the reader is left with the question of why. Why did this idler, this third-rate artist, this undistinguished soldier, this preposterous ranter who offered religious hatred, dictatorship and war, appeal to so many?

It is easy to explain why Hitler ultimately lost. The mystery is why he was able to win as much as he did. This book gives a taste of the answer, but it is not all there.

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