Adolf Hitler, Volume One: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich, book review

The archetypal portrayal of a mad and bad dictator is shown to be flawed in this revealing biography, already a bestseller in Germany

Marcus Tanner
Thursday 03 March 2016 19:31
Führer in the making: Adolf Hitler in 1923
Führer in the making: Adolf Hitler in 1923

When 'Downfall', the film about Hitler's last days in the bunker, came out in 2004, praise for Bruno Ganz's vivid portrayal of the dictator's mental decline was mixed with criticism – in Germany especially – about the wisdom of focusing on Hitler's personality. Some audiences seemed spooked by taking a close-up of the Führer. By focusing on Hitler as a man rather than a phenomenon, the film broke a taboo. As the New York Times put it, curiosity about his personality "carries with it a sense of moral risk, as if understanding Hitler might be the fateful first step toward liking him".

Ullrich does not agree that looking closely at – and into – Hitler relativises his crimes. On the contrary, he insists that Nazism cannot be understood if we do not also understand the complex personality of the No 1 Nazi. The more one reads this long but engaging biography, the stronger Ullrich's case becomes. Nazism appears to have been almost content-free in terms of policy and ideology – perhaps part of the reason for its appeal. Beyond woolly talk about the volksgemeinschaft – the national community – and some guff about the dignity of labour, there wasn't much to it.

Even the anti-Semitism, though a constant theme, ebbed and flowed. Hitler knew his audiences. A committed and passionate anti-Semite, he was happy to dump the subject when addressing German industrialists, working-class Berliners or monarchists like President Hindenburg, all of whom wanted to hear different things. With the industrialists, he spoke to their fears of communism; with the workers, he reminisced about his times as a labourer in Vienna; with Hindenburg he mused about restoring the Hohenzollerns to the throne. In the end, the glue holding Nazism together was not policies but the cult of the leader, what Ullrich calls the almost "erotically charged relationship" between the masses and their highly adaptable Führer.

Ullrich busts a number of commonly held myths about Hitler, starting with the assumption that he emerged as a fully-fledged anti-Semite in his Vienna days. It is a tempting idea because Vienna was certainly bursting with anti-Semites at the time, starting with the city's formidable, populist Mayor, Karl Lueger. Few cities had changed so drastically within a generation. The late abolition of serfdom in the Habsburg Empire in 1848 sent a great wave of peasants from the poor provinces to the imperial capital in the last decades of the 19th century, many of them Slavs or Jews.

Until then, the Jews had been a negligible presence. Suddenly, they were 10 per cent of the population and increasingly influential in business, medicine, law, the arts and publishing. The Jewish-Slav influx created a panic that Vienna was about to lose its German character, which Mayor Lueger both believed and played up. It is convenient to imagine Hitler, then an impoverished and embittered young artist, being susceptible to the anti-Jewish clamour, but Ullrich says there is little evidence. On the contrary, Hitler had a number of Jewish chums at the hostels where he stayed and his relationship to his family's old Jewish doctor was reverential. The neurotic obsession with Jews, Ullrich says, came years later, when Hitler was living in Munich after the end of the First World War, during and after the short communist takeover of Bavaria.

The nuances in Hitler's personality help explain why German Jews did not pack up and leave en masse in 1933. By then he was a Jew-hater of the first order, convinced that communism and world Jewry were engaged in a joint conspiracy against European civilisation and against Germany in particular.

Even so, Ullrich writes, Hitler played his cards carefully and with discretion for a time. For two years after the Nazis took power, Hitler actually repressed the more strident anti-Semites in Ernst Rohm's Brownshirts, the SA, determined to sideline Rohm and allay the fears of the German middle class that the Nazis were a disruptive force.

Bullying from the start towards Austria, he was positively craven towards France and Poland. No wonder that many German Jews concluded that the Nazi bark was worse than its bite and that Hitler could be relied on to restrain the wilder elements. What broke the allegiance of the German working class to their old Social Democratic Party was the return to full employment, achieved by the simple expedient of abandoning the disastrous austerity economics of the last Weimar Republic governments. Again, however, this was not the result of any real policy on the part of the Nazis. The economy was improving already. By dumping austerity, the Nazis merely speeded up recovery. Either way, there was zero direction in this from the top; entirely consumed by foreign policy, Hitler had almost no interest in the subject.

Although this is a biography of Hitler, not of the Nazi movement, Ullrich produces no great revelations about the Führer's private life. He doesn't seem to have had one. Like some other dictators, Hitler matched a lust for absolute power with indifference to the perks that absolute power brings. He could have strutted round Germany like the Kaiser had done with a new uniform every day. Instead, he preferred a disorderly, bachelor-like existence: up all night, asleep all day, gorging on silly food – cream cakes mainly – and hanging round the Goebbels' flat into the small hours, chatting with Magda and Joseph. Goebbels was an ideal companion, brilliant but submissive. Unlike Rohm, he did not talk back or think he knew best. Beyond that, Hitler's private life was dogs, Wagner and his Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden. Ullrich dismisses legends of secret homosexual trysts or missing private parts.

This book is only Act I of Hitler's life and stops in 1939. The war and the Holocaust have yet to come. Should the Germans have known what they were letting themselves in for? Most did not pore over the pages of Mein Kampf looking for clues. What they heard was a brilliant orator who seemed to promise a return to the order and gloire of Wilhelmine Germany – and without the loopy Kaiser. It is easy to say they should have realised that he was far madder and badder than the Kaiser – but not many of the foreign diplomats who met Hitler in those years in power saw that, either.

The Bodley Head £25. Order at £21.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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