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.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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