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Hitler's rise: So much is familiar yet so much is different


Hitler: Ascent, 1889 - 1939

By Volker Ullrich


998 pages, $40

The lie of the Adolf Hitler myth was born more than 90 years ago in the Alpine region south of Munich. From there, it grew from a laughable little nasty lie into a monstrous world-altering lie of gigantic proportions.

Even with Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker in the face of advancing Soviet troops, his lie refused to die. Instead it took on the aura of mythology, a flat two-dimensional caricature of itself. In its second life, it became fodder for every would-be docudrama writer, conspiracy theorist, amateur psychologist and pulp fiction hack.

And by the 21st Century, that raving lunatic with piercing eyes and a little mustache who begot such horrendous worldwide misery is only an ugly cartoon of himself.

That caricature is the myth German historian Volker Ullrich set out to demolish in his new book “Hitler: Ascent, 1889 – 1939.” It ends with Hitler in the midst of a land grab and World War II only months away. We expect “Ascent” will be followed by a second volume on the war years. One can only hope that will be as thorough, as insightful and as well crafted as this one.

Be assured, Ullrich makes clear in his opening remarks that Hitler was “the most malevolent person in twentieth-century history.” You’ll read no apologies for the person or for the German people he transfixed, no excuses for the evil, no shifting of the blame.

All the well-documented seeds of Hitler’s rise are here – the loss in the Great War, the Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, the chaos of the Weimar Republic – but what is added, and it is big, is complete documentation that German leaders and the German public knew Hitler’s intentions. He wrote his intentions in the best-selling "Mein Kampf" and he shouted his intentions until he was hoarse in Bavaria’s beer halls.

Some thought he could easily be restrained. Others doubted he meant what he said. But tens of thousands agreed with him. So the German leaders who had failed at a parliamentary democracy and who feared anarchy and bolshevism made a pact with a devil who would lead their nation to ruin. (It’s so Wagnerian.)

Author Ullrich has built a stellar reputation as a German-language historian with biographies of Bismarck, Napoleon and his study of Imperial Germany. We are reading an English translation by Jefferson Chase, an American writer working in Berlin television news.

Unlike many stilted translations from German, Chase’s sophisticated prose flows smoothly. Only the occasional uncommon word or phrase reminds us this detailed and fully annotated history originally was written in German.

Ullrich credits the major Hitler biographers like Joachim Fest and Alan Bullock, while not always buying into their conclusions. For example:

Hitler the failed artist – Good yarn, but Ullrich’s Hitler was an average not-very-talented amateur who never studied art in any serious sense. His artistic taste was extremely limited.

Psychologically damaged by a brutal father – Ullrich’s young Adolf was a typical son of a comfortable mid-level civil servant. It was customary in his time and place for the father to be the strict disciplinarian and the mother to balance that with love.

Hitler the fool – Ullrich’s Hitler is an evil genius, full of himself, with a near-photographic memory, an extraordinary grasp of language and vocabulary, and no regard for truthfulness.

The country-bumpkin – Ullrich’s Hitler is the master politician who guided a minor regional party through the treacherous post-war political morass to a position of power. He didn’t descend upon Germany from nowhere.  Ullrich follows his circuitous route to the Reich Chancellery. There were successes and many failures. He was praised and criticized passionately. His party never won a national majority until after he wrested power from a weak, splintered government.

As an important aside, there is much in the ascent of Hitler and his National Socialist Party that might remind us of today’s American political scene. Yet so much is different.

The Fuhrer railed over the dysfunctional democratically elected government, but even when his paladins urged compromise for the good of Germany, he flew into a rage. Government gridlock worked to his personal advantage. His person was more important than his nation.

Immigration was a burning issue in Hitler’s public rants. In his case, it was generations of long-settled Eastern European Jews contaminating the bloodlines of “our kind.” Instead of a big beautiful wall, he planned mass deportations to Madagascar, and tragically, he eventually morphed that into the mass murder of millions.

It is ironic that when he first advocated driving all Jews from Germany, he himself was an Austrian immigrant, and not yet a German citizen. Those he advocated expelling had been productive, tax-paying German citizens for generations. Some had fought next to him in World War I. He became a German citizen only after Austria refused to take him back after his six-month stay in Landsberg Prison.

Perpetual sky-is-falling hysterics were a keystone of Hitler’s standard two-hour ravings. “Everywhere you look there is only decline and decay,” he would declare, never acknowledging Germany slowly was recovering from the war, and then later, from the Great Depression.

It was more advantageous to magnify German failure and characterize the German people, like himself, as victims of aristocratic leadership at home and the French abroad. (Modern translation: The establishment and strong trade partners.)

Next, Hitler insisted all his opponents were corrupt.  He pledged once he gained full control to have them all jailed. In fact, on the Night of the Long Knives, those who escaped death were jailed.  The great German novelist Thomas Mann described Hitler as “a dirty swindler and charlatan” who made Robespierre look “positively honorable.”

Ullrich insists Hitler was an accomplished actor, a demagogue whose whole career was built on an unending chain of lies. Once in power, he lied to the world about his intentions in Austria, in Czechoslovakia, and in Poland. He lied to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Then he lied to Joseph Stalin who didn’t take kindly to being double-crossed.

Ullrich quotes an opponent of Hitler who saw him as “nothing more than a hysterical, half-educated house painter whose big mouth has earned him a position for which he is not qualified.”

Despite the similarities, it is not likely the Nazis and Adolf Hitler will be replicated in 21st Century America.

The Weimar Republic, a representative democracy, did not enjoy our masterful Constitution with its separation of powers, or our 240-year tradition of representative government, fair elections and the peaceful handoff of power upon defeat. And despite what some talking heads would have us believe, the United States is not crumbling at its foundations. Its military is not weak. We are not a defeated nation.

We have endured every type of circus ringmaster – or modern-day TV con artist – before. We have watched demagogues of all stripes come and go.  And our media, despite their vast shortcomings, will not succumb to government control.

Ullrich’s “Hitler” is an eye-opener for a generation so far removed from the worst tragedy of the 20th Century.

It should be must reading for anyone who hopes to even begin to understand how a maniacal, delusional, totally unscrupulous demagogue could come to lead a great people to the depths of defeat.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. 

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