Book review: Hitler, Ascent by Volker Ullrich

I admit, I bought this book in part to help me understand how close to authoritarianism we (in the U.S.) are lurching under Trump. I may write more about that aspect in another post. But this entry is about the book. It is a long entry, as it’s a long book: 758 pages of content with a stunning 187 pages of notes. I only read some of the notes, mea culpa.

So, why undertake such a behemoth? I always wondered, when reading about the rise of Hitler in general history texts, when they said “he seized power” — how did he do that, exactly? Well, Ullrich tells us how, with a very detailed forensic investigation, using personal diaries and other primary sources which unearth precisely both the motivations and means of the Nazis. And in doing so, he does an excellent job of unearthing the methods and frailties of a man who still remains an enigma. We know very little of Hitler’s personal thoughts, as he had papers about his early life confiscated (p.17) and all his personal papers were burned at his death. Very few examples of his personal writing remain, and his outward facing persona was just that — a persona. As for that, he put all of his outward-facing concepts into Mein Kampf. So while Hitler’s thoughts may remain obscured, the man’s actions are not. Ullrich applies a magnifying glass to Hitler from his very beginnings. It turns out to be a very consistent view. Hitler did not vacillate, at least not strategically.

Ullrich starts with Hitler’s grandparents, using them to frame the humble beginnings of Hitler’s immediate antecedents (and busting the grandparent as a Jew myth, FWIW). We learn that, like Trump, Hitler’s father (likely illegitimate, p.14) had a name-change in his past, from Schicklgruber to Hitler. The elder Hitler was married twice, Adolf coming in the second marriage. A fourth child in a family where the first three died early, Hitler was spoiled by his mom, to his step-siblings detriment apparently (p. 18). Maybe that primed his maniacal feelings of entitlement later on? Those are the kind of interesting details Ullrich uncovers. We hear ofAdolf’s success in the small village primary school, and the rude awakening he had at his urban secondary school (p. 20) where he failed math and natural science and eventually dropped out. Ullrich found quotes from Hitler’s primary teachers, pure gold: “…Talented…not diligent” was one assessment. That is another aspect of Hitler’s personality that remained consistent — his penchant for dilettantism (p. 390) and just hanging out. It is odd to read about Adolf Hitler kicking around Bavarian coffee houses and art galleries, even after becoming leader of the Third Reich, but he liked to do so (p. 23, 249, 403). Odd. And, like our dear leader, he had a distrust of experts (p. 489, 390) and a trust in his ‘gut’ which served him well politically in the early days. The reach for Alsace and the Sudetenland were against the objections of the experts. Those successes emboldened him — to his later detriment. But this book takes him only to the cusp of WWII, to early 1939, when Hitler was riding on a wave of unparalleled success politically and, to an extent, diplomatically. He had achieved goals beyond his dreams, although by then Britain was awakened to the threat from the increasingly belligerent Germany.

How does it read
I found the book surprising and very engaging to have so much detail from primary source material in the text. I expected a rather dry tome but Hitler: Ascent is undeniably a good read because of such detail. At every step, we see exactly who he was, at least through his actions. We find Hitler the dropout spending his time drawing, painting, and wandering along the Danube (p. 23). Ullrich has quotes from his closest teenage friend to shows what lay inside that feckless youth, describing a Hitler likely to “explode into anger” (p. 24).

Other gold from Hitler’s early life: at 17, he traveled to Vienna and sent postcards to his friend, Kubeck. The postcards from Vienna are the oldest examples of Hitler’s writing and he waxes eloquent, though with spelling and grammatical errors (p. 26).

What do we learn of the man?
During his Vienna period, Ullrich lays out the first real blow to Hitler’s ambitions: failure to enter the art academy. Interestingly, they thought his drawing was fine, he could have studied architecture — but as a secondary-school dropout, Hitler was not qualified. He still had talent, but without the Academy, fine art was out of his reach. He could only aspire to commercial art.

Too bad the kid did not stay in school…perhaps Hitler the architect would not have carried the grudges he did as a journeyman artist. We often hear about Hitler the failed artist but in fact, he was making a modest income in Vienna drawing and painting. Until this book I never had much of a vision as to what Hitler was doing in this period. He hustled (p. 41-2), scratched out a living, and was homeless for a while (p. 39).

Not long after his failure to gain the Academy, Hitler’s mother died. He wrote to his family’s Jewish doctor: “I will be forever grateful to you, Doctor.” Ullrich tells us on page 28 that Hitler’s Gestapo put him under protection, and the man and his wife later escaped Germany. This is a contradictory and strange piece of sentimentality from a man later known for virulent anti-Semitism. Ullrich examines that event, and as far as I can remember, we never really learn whether Hitler hated Jews, or he simply realized that the ‘Jewish question’ was the most effective way to rouse the people. Despite the horrific lengths to which the Nazis went to destroy the Jewish people, there is no document nor witness who could testify as to whether this antipathy of Hitler’s was personal or professional. That is probably the biggest shortcoming of the book but I don’t think we can blame Ullrich — the primary sources are either nonexistent or were affected by later events.

Other interesting details: Hitler did not drive (p. 405), never traveled outside Germany (p. 390), was apparently asexual and never comfortable around women (pp. 40, 43, 268-269), could not swim (p. 391), was afraid of flying (p. 301) though mastered that fear and leveraged the speed of aircraft and the immediacy of radio to campaign tirelessly (301, 315, 329). So, he wasn’t always lazy. He loved campaigns, rallies, the challenge of public speaking.

Where is the monster?
That is the question I wondered and, again, the lack of his personal papers makes it hard to see except through his actions and public speeches. He railed incessantly against Jews. Even when others counseled him it was not strategic (in early days), Hitler persisted. Beyond that we can see the monster in his ambition (pp. 87, 89, 11-112, 135, 141, 151, 188, 260, 320-1), incredible coldness, even towards his own followers (p. 217). He used insults and mockery (p. 161, 388) effectively and without reservation. His contempt for democratic means (p. 35. 90) megalomania (p. 125, 128, 136, 222) and dishonesty/use of lies for gain (pp. 484, 486, 501) simply make him the equal of one modern leader I can think of. Considering modern times, you have to wonder what sets him apart, and that would be the acceptance of violence in pursuit of his overweening ambition. The Nazis used violence, intimidation, beatings to a heinous degree (pp. 114-5, 136-7, 141, 243-4, 257, 302, 311, 322, 399, 420, 429, 449.) For example, on page 322, Ullrich recounts a case of SA men kicking to death a man in front of his family. When the special court sentenced some of the perpetrators to death for the murder, Hitler, as leader of the National Socialists, sent the men a telegram saying their “freedom is a matter of honor for us.” And, of course, in the Night of the Long Knives (p, 399), Hitler did more than discard his political rivals, he had them killed.

What I learned
I love reading history for the imagination it inspires. I try to see myself in other times, facing challenges we comfortable, content citizens of modern democracies never face. In this case though, I was more trying to use history as a scrying glass, to discern if we were heading down a similar authoritarian path as Nazi Germany. I found far too many parallels to modern America, not to mention Hungary and other authoritarian hotspots around the world. What differentiates modern politics from the Nazis? Well, Trump may encourage people to ‘punch’ reporters, or lock up political opponents. Hitler went a few steps further.

I hope we do not.

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Whisky and Words Number 40: Caol Ila Moch

This is my wife’s ‘so good I had to bring it home’ whisky from our trip to Islay. It was an offering of our post-tour tasting. Being a big Caol Ila fan, my wife really took to it. Maybe because (besides Caol Ila 12) she tends to prefer more civilized stuff like Glenmorangie, and the Moch is presumably a dialed-back Caol Ila. But is it? Let’s find out…

A sunny day, a light straw color and cookies. Not a bad combination.

This expression is another NAS whisky – no age statement. Since my last screed on NAS whiskies, I have reviewed a couple more and liked them. NAS whiskies can be good and bad, and all over the map as far as price. I do not remember what we paid for the Moch, but on Master of Malt it’s about $55, a pretty moderate price for a special expression.

I like to start with what the company says about its product. The box proclaims this spirit is “Soft, smooth clean and fresh…the dawn of a new day.” An odd way of introducing a whisky, sounds like the ad for a bar of soap. For this whisky in particular I find the marketing understated (for a change). This is a spirit that makes its presence known immediately on the bottle being opened. It won’t clear a room like Laphroaig but the peat and seaweed produce a lively bouquet. A better image might be ‘a breath of sea air’ but they called it Moch (‘dawn’ in Gaelic) so we get the ‘dawn’ thing.

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Whisky and Words Number 39: Talisker 18

Talisker 18, looking pretty.

This bottle of Talisker 18 was a gift from my wife who knows I am a huge fan of Talisker’s 10-year-old, and knows I was blown away by the Talisker 25 I had in a New York restaurant. (That was Aureole, a great combination of superb food and service without pretension. A Michelin starred restaurant, and there were folks eating there in jeans and t-shirts…) But I digress. When I woke up Christmas morning and found this bottle stuffed in my stocking I broke out in a broad grin. Santa sure knows my taste.

This is a whisky with a serious price (about $165 around here) so I’m going to give it a detailed analysis. I’ll be comparing it to the Talisker 10 of course and the Caol Isla 18, which is comparable in some ways (age, Island flavor profile) though the Caol Isla is unpeated. (I have to find a peated Caol 18!)

The 10 (l) and 18 (r) in glass

From the photo above you can see the understated carton and classic design of the Talisker bottle. The label looks like one you could find going 50 years into the past: classic fonts on a cream-colored background. A map of the island (Skye) and their roaring mer-lion fading into the background. Pretty typical Diageo. The color of the spirit is ‘russet muscat‘ and exactly the same as the 10 (see second photo). That they match so well makes me suspect a little bit of alchemy at the bottling. You would think an extra 8 years would render a darker whisky.

A deep and refined dram

The first thing you notice when pouring a Talisker is the aroma. This is not a shy whisky that waits for you to stuff your nose in the glass…it comes and gets you. The air within a few feet of your Glencairn glass will carry that unique combination of seaweed, peat, and a solid midrange of malt and fruit. Since both the 10 and the 18 are bottled at Talisker’s odd 45.8% strength, we can do a solid head to head comparison on aroma. The 18 is very similar to the 10, though smoother. Whereas the 10 can sting a little in a deep draught and has noticeable aromas of drying grass and grapefruit, the 18 is smoother on the nose and less grassy; the 18 is more citrus peel than citrus, carrying as well heavier notes of prune, fig, and worn leather — hence Diageo listing it on the ‘rich‘ side of their tasting chart, versus the 10 being on the ‘light‘ side. Both have a solid background of peat – reminding me of the peated barley we sampled at one of our tours (Caol Isla IIRC). The peat is not overpowering by any means, which is why I love Talisker so much—it’s not heavily phenolic like a Laphroaig (in fact the Diageo folks rate this on the ‘lighter’ side of their tasting chart), but it is complex, balanced, and a treat for the palate.

On the palate, the 10 has a wonderful foretaste of caramel, followed by citrus and peat, a little peppery on the tide of the tongue and the citrus lingers into the aftertaste, where the oak really comes forward—not too bitter but definitely a strong note.

In the 18-year, the citrus and medicinal nature of the dram give way to a refined mid-palate. The peat is more laid back, but the caramel is tempered, like toffee—more caramelized (though not burnt) than in the 10-year and less a factor overall. The more laid back sweetness allows the subtlety of vanilla to come through. A softer oak finish riding on soft billows of peat and seaweed completes an overall smoother, less lively (although more complex) dram. Note there is not a lot of fruitiness in a Talisker. You are getting mostly ex-bourbon casking, just a small percentage of sherry butts (for great detail on the technical side of Talisker, read Difford’s guide.)

About the Caol Isla 18: it is a different beast entirely. I had to add a little water, it being almost 60% ABV. The Caol Isla 18 has a lighter aroma and palate, with toffee (but not as carmelized), grassy notes more like the Talisker 10, and of course no peat. The sweetness is lighter, and the finish smooth and not as interesting as either Talisker. Not as much punch. I would consider the Talisker altogether a more interesting dram, even outside the peatiness. Color me surprised. The Caol Isla single casks we tried at our tasting, and the Moch NAS that the wife brought back, have a magic I think is missing from the unpeated variety.

Talisker 18, Island (Skye) single malt 45.8% ABV

Nose: Gentle, but aromatic! Seaweed and saltwater, peat smoke, malt, citrus peel, figs.
Palate: Toffee, honeysuckle, vanilla, peat smoke and burnt seaweed, a bit of that ‘old spirit’ leathery/meaty magic, less so citrus peel and a touch of peppery/listerine medicinal liveliness around the edges for balance. None of these dominates or is abrupt.
Finish: Lengthy. Toffee, vanilla, oak tannins gently fading in to balance the sweet side, but not a trace of harshness. The peat rides on as well! A little of the listerine-medicinal/citrus peel from the palate.

Bottom Line: The great 10-year expression is a tough competitor. While the Talisker 18 comes in with refinement and improved mid-palate richness, is it enough? Or is it too laid back? The price is not outrageous for an 18-year-old, in fact it’s about even with the Highland Park 18 (coming soon to this blog BTW). But it is not cheap and I think about the 25-year I had in New York which blew my mind and wonder if this is a spirit that reaches its pinnacle with just a few years more. Where the 18 shines is in the aroma and finish. I find it enjoyable just having a glass poured somewhere in the room, and the finish lingers on for paragraphs.

The Talisker 18 and a few oddities

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla Cask Experience

In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.

We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.

We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..

L-R: 1988 ‘forgotten’ Sherry, 1996 Sherry, 2006 Bourbon, 2012 Bourbon. Click for hi res.

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla (technical)

Our enchanting guide, in the tiny visitor’s center.

I have wanted to visit this distillery ever since I came upon this photograph on the web. With those big windows looking onto the water, the facility struck me as a particularly attractive still house. Being my wife’s favorite single malt, it became a primary destination for our Islay visit.

Caol Isla, a big distillery, is owned by Diageo, a massive multinational. You might expect an experience like we had at Glenmorangie: scripted, restricted, slick but shallow. Well, nothing like that on the shores of the Sound of Islay. We had a fun and altogether rewarding tour, especially the tasting—the Caol Ila Cask Strength Experience. Highly recommended! Sadly, as with the Glenmorangie folks, no photographs were allowed inside. Too many lawyers with these big firms. However, our guide was a really lively, fun local lady, Hazel, who invigorated the experience with wit and panache.

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Whisky and Words Number 38: The Singleton 15 (Glendullan)

Glendullan 15, color in the bottle is more accurate (the glass is taking some color from the gourd behind).

This was a gift from a very considerate member of the family. It sure beats getting a tie! But of course, then the giver risks the chance I’ll critically review the gift. In this case, they can rest easy. The Singleton 15, an American-only release, comes from Glendullan distillery in Dufftown. You won’t find much about the place online, though the folks at Malt Madness have a pretty good history of the place here. It’s a modern Diageo operation, producing 5M litres of spirit a year from six stills. I found it interesting that it has larchwood washbacks. Does it matter? Probably not; you can read more at

The Singleton 15 presents well for its price, and offers a very compelling value in a 15-year whisky, about $50 locally (Oregon). What you are hoping for in a 15-year is a noticeable step forward in maturation over a 10 or 12-year: a gentle nose, complex flavors, and depth as the flavor profile moves from taste to finish. In this case, the malt master has gone for a gentle and sweet dram, very approachable even for a non-Scotch-drinker. For the Scotch aficionado, this dram lies on the lighter side.

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Whisky and Words Number 37: Clynelish 14

I first encountered Clynelish 14 at the Whisky Library in Portland. I had taken a group of whisky-loving friends there for an end of year celebration. We tried a number of whiskies and the Clyne 14 caught my eye as at that time I had not had many highland malts. I found it quite pleasing, interesting on the palate and went to buy a bottle a few weeks later. The salesman directed me instead toward the Oban 14, and I went for the Oban. But I’ve been on the hunt for the Clynelish ever since and recently picked up a bottle. Time for a comparison—does it stack up against the Oban?

Clynelish 14, lovely straw color.

The parallels between the two are interesting. Both are owned by Diageo, and presented in similarly classic packaging. Both are coastal Highland distilleries (Oban west coast, while Clynelish is not far north of Glenmorangie on the east coast), both are 14-year expressions. There is quite a difference in output. About 4.8M litres produced yearly, the modern Clynelish facilities produce about seven times the output of Oban. (ScotchNoob has a great writeup on the history of the distillery).

Both malts have a dry, nutty nose, with Clynelish being drier, and the wood shows more. Oban has a more complex nose loaded with more fruit and extends the palate considerably. The 46% ABV makes itself known with the Clynelish, as it can sting the nose, while the Oban 14 is, at 43%, completely gentle on the nose. I have to hand it to my local beverage store guy, he was right. Oban is like Clynelish, but more so. More so in price too, by about 45%.

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