FRANK ELLIS reviews the latest biography of Hitler
Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 (Adolf Hitler – Biographie. Band 1: Die Jahre des Aufstiegs 1889-1939, S. Fischer Verlag, 2013), translated by Jefferson Chase, The Bodley Head, London, 2016, pp. viii-x, 1-758. Notes, Photos, Bibliography, Index, ISBN 978-1-847-92285-4
Meticulous, thorough and as well documented as they generally are, too many German-language studies of Hitler and the National-Socialist period which have been published since the end of the 1970s suffer from an inability on the part of their authors, all too often a point-blank refusal, to consider that Hitler was not, in Ullrich’s words, ‘the most malevolent person in twentieth-century history’. Nor was the National-Socialist revolution in Thomas Mann’s words, cited by Ullrich, ‘the most hateful and murderous revolution that has ever been’. That honour belongs to the Lenin-Stalin regime. Ullrich shows no grasp of the scale of the calamity that had swept across the Soviet Union well before Hitler came to power. Thus: ‘In light of the regime’s goal of totally dominating all aspects of life, the historian Hans-Ulrich Weber proposed the term “totalitarian revolution”, depicting a new type of political and social upheaval’. Weber and Ullrich are obviously unaware of the monstrous regime that was spawned in Russia in 1917 and which by the time Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, had laid the foundations of a totalitarian state far worse than anything that existed in Germany between 1933 and 1945, and one, moreover, which lasted until 1991.
There are, as far as one can see, two reasons why German historians, and this includes Ullrich, refuse, with some exceptions, to take into account that the Soviet and Maoist regimes were many times worse than Hitler’s. Long after the end of World War II, the endless portrayal of NS crimes plays well internationally. The cult of multiculturalism is deeply entrenched in German universities and whatever the professoriate and Dozents think privately they are all expected publicly to celebrate the diversity cult. In his highly successful study of Barbarossa, first published in 1965, the English historian Alan Clark provided a brief sketch of Hitler in his preface. In Clark’s words: ‘No truly objective historian could refrain from admiring this man. His capacity for mastering detail, his sense of History, his retentive memory, his strategic vision – all these had flaws, but they were brilliant none the less’. In today’s Germany, any historian or politician who wrote or expressed anything remotely comparable could expect to be arrested or placed on a government watch list of dangerous persons, since free speech and truth-telling are under attack from what Thilo Sarrazin has referred to as Tugendterror.
The memory of Hitler also lends itself particularly well to imposing the global cult of multiculturalism since any objectors will be denounced as Neo-Nazis. If, according to Ullrich, the fascination with Hitler ‘is, of course, due to the scale of the crimes that Germans committed under his leadership’, then based on the scale-of-crimes criterion, Hollywood and Germany’s state-controlled ZDF and the BBC would by now have produced hundreds of feature films and documentaries exposing and examining the two main totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century – the Soviet Union and China under Mao – and every schoolchild and adult would be as equally familiar with words such as Holodomor, Katyn, The Year Zero, Red Terror and the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution as they are with Holocaust. The general lack of interest in Soviet crimes against humanity – selective and mass terror, mass executions and deportations, and genocide – is no accident: it is certainly not due to lack of evidence; it is a conscious effort to propagandize Hitler as the greatest abomination of the twentieth century, even though communist regimes were on every possible index of totalitarianism, above all genocide, worse. This first volume of Ullrich’s biography of Hitler continues this trend.
For all that, Ullrich’s first volume is comprehensive, very detailed and, in places, illuminating. In total there are twenty one chapters dealing with, among other things, Hitler’s childhood, the years in pre-World War I Vienna, the experience of war, the rise of the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), consolidation of power, the spectacular diplomatic triumphs of the 1930s and ending with the period just before the invasion of Poland. It is during the years in Vienna that Hitler acquired the baggage of Pan-German nationalism, along with his psychopathic anti-Semitism. We also learn that the story of Hitler’s having some kind of genital abnormality was most likely started by one of his fellow school pupils. According to him, a goat bit off half of Hitler’s penis (The goat was called Willi and died soon after). Hitler, Ullrich tells us, was also terrified of catching syphilis and Ullrich speculates that Hitler was prompted to follow the advice of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, a noted articulator of Pan-German ideas, ‘who recommended that male members of the pan-Germanic movement remain celibate until they were 25’. Good advice: a member after all is a valuable tool. Goats are definitely streng verboten!
The war experience – das Kriegserlebnis – is a decisive stage in Hitler’s transition from a disaffected loner to a future Chancellor. War provided young men like Hitler with structure, a sense of purpose and material sustenance; in short the army was a surrogate family and it was one to which Hitler devoted him self utterly. Ullrich completely undermines clumsy slanders about Hitler’s military service. Being a combat runner was a very dangerous job and it is clear that Hitler’s superiors valued his loyalty and dedication to this vital task. In 1914 Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross (2nd Class), in 1917 the Military Merit Cross (Third Class) and in August 1918 the Iron Cross (First Class). Hitler must also have been competent as well as dedicated since he was considered for promotion to junior officer but declined the offer. The intensity of the Kriegserlebnis does, I think, explain why Hitler was drawn to politics. The politics of Weimar Germany operated in a jungle. It provided Hitler with new enemies – Social Democrats, Jews and Communists – that could be attacked in word and deed. The intense emotions and rage generated by the ideological violence of Weimar – the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) was a major contributor to this violence – provided a powerful substitute for the experiences of 1914-1918, and was ideally suited to Hitler’s exceptional gift of oratory and thespian talents.
In the early twenties Weimar Germany, above all Berlin, was a time of sexual excess and hedonism. The time and the mood were brilliantly anticipated by Georg Kaiser in his play, Von morgens bis mitternachts (1917) and examined further in Nebeneinander (1923). This atmosphere tended to work against the Nazi movement. The economy was critical: political radicalism could be held at bay as long as some sort of economic recovery was under way. German politics during this period also provided another valuable lesson for Hitler, especially after the failed putsch: the middle classes must be co-opted. Unlike Lenin who was able to dispossess and to eradicate Russia’s incipient and very small but growing middle class, Hitler had to win over this large and important stratum to his cause. Various factors worked in his favour, such as the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the hyper- inflation, reparations, the Wall Street crash in 1929 and the threat to Europe posed by the Russian revolution.
On the question of Versailles, Ullrich takes the view that the terms of Brest-Litovsk imposed by Imperial Germany in March 1918 on Russia were much harsher than Versailles and so, one assumes, he means that Germany had no grounds for complaint. The contexts of the two treaties were quite different. In the East, Germany faced a huge empire with vast resources. The terms of Brest-Litovsk were partly intended to undermine Soviet Russia’s ability to intervene in Eastern Europe. Further, given that Lenin’s Soviet regime had repudiated any international obligations incurred on the part of the overthrown Tsarist government, the Imperial German government was quite right to impose harsh terms. Lenin and his regime could not be trusted. Versailles, on the other hand, not only sought to humiliate Germany, as so many Germans believed, but severely impeded Germany’s economic recovery. Nor are these the views of ardent German nationalists, NSDAP or otherwise. A number of Western politicians at the time saw the future consequences of Versailles.
Ullrich maintains that the ‘“crisis of democracy” in inter-war Europe put the wind in Hitler’s sails’. This position, once again, exposes Ullrich’s biases. This democratic crisis did not start with Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 but with the seizure of power in Russia by Lenin’s gang in 1917. The threat to democracy in twentieth century Europe did not begin with Mussolini, let alone Hitler or Franco, it was spawned in Tsarist Russia by Lenin and his totalitarian ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Moreover, the crisis in inter-war Europe was a crisis that occurred in continental Europe. Unlike continental Europe, Britain did not succumb to the temptations of corporatism, fascism, National Socialism or the great evil, Communism. Among Ullrich’s list of states that were now, he insists, authoritarian after 1918 : the Austrian Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, the Baltic States and others, citing Heinrich Winkler, that were subjected to “authoritarian transformation”, among them, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Portugal and Spain, there is no mention of the Soviet Union. Where, one asks, is the Soviet Union in all this “authoritarian transformation”? That Ullrich omits any mention of the role played by the Soviet threat in prompting a right-wing, nationalist reaction in so many continental European states can only be due to Ullrich’s ideological bias.
Ullrich consistently plays down the Soviet factor in Hitler’s rise to power. Yet many features of NS-Germany that Ullrich thinks were unique to Hitler’s Germany had been pioneered by the Soviet regime.Take, for example, the churches. They were treated far more brutally in Russia than in Hitler’s Germany. In fact, German churches enjoyed a level of autonomy that would have been unthinkable in Russia. Any senior Russian cleric who openly attacked Stalin would have been arrested and shot. The NS-regime had nothing like the complete freedom to destroy the churches which Stalin enjoyed in the Soviet Union. National-Socialist Gleichschaltung, bringing all institutions into line with NSDAP policies, has a direct parallel with Sovietization. There was undoubtedly a Hitler cult but in the Soviet state there had been a Lenin cult and after his death Soviet myth making concentrated on Stalin from 1929 after he had managed to consolidate his position as the Boss (vozhd’). As examples of the Hitler cult Ullrich notes that certain NSDAP members wanted to call their daughters “Hitlerine” or “Adolfine”. Ullrich is apparently unaware that this sort of ideological naming started in the Soviet Union. Girls were called “Lenina” or “Stalina”. Other naming abominations were “Revdit” (Child of the Revolution), “Danera” (Daughter of the New Era) and “Datoma” (Daughter of the Toiling Masses). Both the Soviet and NS states had leader cults. The key difference was that in Germany it was genuine; in the Soviet Union (and Mao’s China and in today’s North Korea) it was fake. Even Ullrich acknowledges that the admiration of Hitler was real.
Ullrich also inadvertently provides another parallel between Hitler and Stalin. Many Germans believed that the problems that they encountered were due to Hitler’s subordinates and local Nazi leaders (Gauleiter). There was a widespread view that if only the Führer knew what was going on, all these problems would be solved. In the Soviet Union, likewise, it was not that uncommon to encounter people who believed that the arrests and terror were all the work of corrupt NKVD officials and that if only Comrade Stalin knew it would all end. Again, when Ullrich maintains that Gestapo success was based on the willingness of Germans to inform on people, he is not describing a situation unique to NS-Germany. From the very creation of the Soviet state its secret police encouraged informing and recruited informers. Such methods were also the bedrock of Stasi control in the totalitarian DDR, and, indeed throughout the other parts of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. As a German historian Ullrich would be familiar with Stasi methods – there has been enough publicity in Germany since the hideous Wall came down – so why the biased view of Gestapo methods?
Ullrich is also far too willing to look the other way concerning the role of the KPD in destabilising Weimar Germany. Instead he blames conservative thinkers:
The comprehensive criticism of the Weimar Republic by intellectual spokesmen of the anti-democratic ‘conservative revolution’ – Oswald Spengler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Ernst Jünger, Edgar Julius Jung, and Carl Schmitt – had paved the way for a movement that wanted to do away with German democracy as soon as possible.
Without any reference to the hugely destructive role of the KPD in the history of Weimar and its own hatred of Weimar Germany, the Ullrich view of Spengler et al amounts to Marxist agitprop. What made the KPD so utterly toxic in Germany was its clear and obvious submission to Moscow and the fact that Germans were well aware of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union the foundations of which had been laid by Lenin and which since 1929 were being further strengthened by Stalin. There is only one reference to Stalin in the index of this book and, astonishingly, no reference at all to Lenin, the founder of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Hitler’s rise to power cannot be fully grasped without the deadly threat posed to Europe by Stalin’s Soviet Union. Thus, the middle class reaction to the arrest of KPD members after the Reichstag fire is not at all to Ullrich’s liking: ‘On the contrary, the bête noire of a ‘Communist threat’, reinforced by years of propaganda, led many people to see draconian measures as justified’. The obvious problem with this assertion is that the communist threat was very real both from within and from without Germany. Propaganda did not invent the communist danger to Germany. Ullrich shows no sign that he grasps that the KPD and its underground networks controlled from Moscow were not benign. He also makes the dubious claim that the Social Democrats and their supporters, the “social fascists” as the KPD called them, were the sole party of the German body politic that was not permeated by anti-Semitism.
Politics like war is the realm of fear, chance and uncertainty. The moment when power was finally within Hitler’s grasp came quite unexpectedly when President Hindenburg fell out with his Chancellor, Heinrich Brüning. Ullrich’s assessment of this moment misses the point: ‘As was often the case, unexpected external events rather than any ingenious inspiration from Hitler came to the NSDAP’s assistance’. True enough, but repeated attempts by Ullrich to argue that ‘unexpected external events’ alone made it possible for Hitler to come to power deny Hitler any responsibility for coming to power. If ‘unexpected external events’ propelled Hitler to power, as if he was some plaything of supernatural forces beyond human apprehension, then Hitler has an alibi. How can he be blamed for what he did?
What made Hitler such a formidable politician, way ahead of his rivals, was his ability to recognise an opportunity and to seize it before others. It was this ability, along with his other talents and skills that contributed to his spectacular political rise. The speed with which the Nazis exploited the arson attack carried out by van der Lubbe in order to move against the KPD is an excellent example and highlights a principle applied by all politicians: never waste a good crisis. The ferocious measures being forced through by President Erdogan in Turkey against those who tried to oust him from power are a contemporary example: wholesale purges of all state institutions (“viruses in the armed forces” are to be eradicated); and rule by emergency decrees.
Looking at Hitler in power, Ullrich fatally underestimates Hitler’s eye for the main chance: ‘What National Socialist propaganda later celebrated as the targeted action directed by the Führer’s intuitive genius was actually a series of improvised decisions with which the Nazi leadership responded to and exploited unforeseeable situations’. Quite, but that applies equally to Lenin’s seizure of power in 1917 and to Stalin’s policies after 1929. According to Ullrich, Germany with Hitler in power was characterised by ‘Wasting public resources, embezzlement, abuse of party funds, shameless greed and crass careerism…’. So nothing in common with the Soviet nomenklatura, Nigeria, post-1994 South Africa or that bastion of probity, the much loved European Union?
Hitler was blessed not just with outstanding acting and rhetorical skills but he possessed an astonishing memory. He was also an exceptionally fast reader. Having acknowledged Hitler’s extraordinary range and depth of knowledge, Ullrich is unable to resist what he sees as the ultimate put down; that Hitler was an autodidact. But is not being an autodidact and an independent seeker after knowledge the real aim of any education? On the subject of Hitler’s knowledge base, Ullrich cites Karl Alexander von Müller: ‘Everything he knew was thoroughly connected with some purpose, and at the heart of every purposes were Hitler himself and his political power’. This tells us nothing peculiar to Hitler, since it could equally apply to Lenin and Stalin. It should also pointed out that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is also a purpose, the purpose being to satisfy curiosity.
Evidence for Hitler’s crude worldview and megalomania, according to Ullrich, is to be found in assertions in Mein Kampf that ancient and medieval cities were ‘constructed for eternity, not for the moment’. Is this drive for eternal memory and fame unique to Hitler? In his introduction to the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides tells us that ‘My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever’. And what purpose is served by the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, the temples of meso-America, Stonehenge, Chartres, Notre Dame and the buildings and monuments bequeathed to us by ancient Rome and Greece? They were constructed for eternity. Communist regimes also thought they were building for eternity. So Hitler’s desire to perpetuate the memory of the Third Reich in cement and stone is hardly original.
Some translation problems are evident in this book. The German word Kommando is translated as “commando” when a better translation in the context in which the German is used would be “squad”, “team” or “section”. Further, the following sounds very odd in English: ‘Hitler also wore lederhosen with suspenders.’ One gets the idea here of Hitler as transvestite, having plundered Eva Braun’s lingerie. Also, war gaming would be a better translation than ‘simulation of war’, since simulation of war might actually be read to mean sabre rattling. There are also inconsistent uses of Reichswehr and Wehrmacht: they are not the same thing and the distinction between the two should be made clearer. There are also some inaccuracies with regard to the Gestapo. Rudolf Diels was appointed head of the Gestapa on 26th April 1933 not the Gestapo. One can also note the following: ‘At the same time they were intensifying their terror campaigns, Himmler and Heydrich pressed on with the amalgamation of the SS and the police. The process was completed on 27th September 1939, a few weeks before the beginning of the Second World War, with the founding of the Reich Security Main Office (RHSA)’. Spot the error. In actual fact the formal process was completed on 1st October 1939, one month after the start of World War II.
Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 would have been even better had the author liberated himself from the ideological prescription that Hitler was the most evil man of the twentieth century or even of all time. I hope that this fashionable and demonstrably false view of Hitler does not inflict too much damage on Ullrich’s second volume.
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 Cited by Ullrich, p.453
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Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-1945 (1965), Penguin, Harmondsworth, England, 1966, p.20
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Frank Ellis is a military historian. His latest book is Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler’s Invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Empire (2015)