Who makes history? Great men or the masses; the individual or the collective?
This fundamental question underlies any study of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. According to the 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, “History loves to condense itself into one person whom the world obeys.” As dictator of Germany between 1933 and 1945, Hitler was able to launch a bid for global supremacy, which led to both the worst conflict and the most heinous crimes in history. Hitler’s responsibility for initiating the Second World War and the Holocaust is overwhelming. Yet hundreds of thousands of others—men and women who, under different circumstances, might have led quite blameless lives—also contributed to the atrocities of the decade.
In the 75 years since the Führer’s suicide, in the Chancellery bunker, the pendulum has swung between historians who have emphasized the personal and those who have taken a social and structuralist approach to the history of National Socialism. While Alan Bullock’s pioneering Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952) and Joachim Fest’s 1973 biography belong to the former school, Ian Kershaw’s magisterial two volumes (1998 and 2000) focused more on the character of Hitler’s power and its effect on the German people than they did on that “strange” personality.
It is Volker Ullrich’s significant achievement, in his own, elegantly written two-volume biography, to have re-stated the importance of Hitler’s personality, while never losing sight of the broader social and political context.
In his first volume, Ascent, Ullrich showed how Hitler’s considerable talents as a politician (not always recognized by historians)—his oratory, organizational ability, and ruthless determination—combined with the effects of the Great Depression and the naïveté of a handful of conservative politicians to bring him to a position of supreme power within Germany. In this second volume, he shows how war allowed Hitler to enact his racist ideology on a hitherto unimaginable scale.
Unlike Bullock, who portrayed Hitler as a serial opportunist—a seeker of power for power’s sake—Ullrich stresses both the consistency and sincerity of Hitler’s political beliefs. The need for Germany to acquire “living space” (Lebensraum) in the East, articulated in Mein Kampf in 1925, was a conviction that spurred both the drive to war and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Similarly, it is impossible to understand the latter decision and the war of annihilation that followed without appreciating Hitler’s belief in the Slavs as inferior beings and his determination to “destroy Bolshevism.” In the summer of 1939, he made a “devil’s pact” with Stalin, allowing for the invasion of Poland, but he never resiled from his loathing of Communism, nor from his dream of establishing a new German Empire on the steppes of Russia.
The most notorious component of Hitler’s creed was, of course, his anti-Semitism. It is true that anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany prior to the advent of the Nazis. In September 1919, the diarist Victor Klemperer wrote of “the horrible anti-Jewish hate-mongering that is being practised in shameless and threatening fashion all over Germany.” There was also a vast cast that enabled the persecution, the deportation, and finally the murder of roughly two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. In addition to the obvious perpetrators—the SS and their Einsatzgruppen (death squads)—the cooperation of the Wehrmacht, the German police, local authorities, railway workers, diplomats, industrialists, foreign collaborators, and, ultimately, the majority of German society was necessary for the Holocaust to unfold as it did. Yet Ullrich is surely right in his assertion that, “without Hitler and his eliminatory anti-Semitism, the genocide of European Jews would not have happened.”
The lack of a document, bearing Hitler’s signature, ordering the Holocaust (a straw long clutched by Holocaust deniers) is irrelevant. As Ullrich and others have shown, it was the Führer’s style to make his wishes known verbally and rely on his lieutenants to make them a reality. Hitler’s statements on what he called “the Jewish question” are legion and unequivocal. “The Jews must leave Europe,” he declared on January 25, 1942, five days after the “final solution” was presented at the Wannsee Conference. “If they are destroyed in the process I cannot help that. I see only one option: complete extermination, if they do not go voluntarily.” Later, when ordering the occupation of Hungary, in March 1944, he told Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels that they would not let that country’s 700,000 Jews “slip through our hands.”
“Without Hitler and his eliminatory anti-Semitism, the genocide of European Jews would not have happened.”
Although Hitler’s megalomania is well known, his hubris and myriad delusions still have the capacity to shock. In February 1941, he ordered the Wehrmacht’s Chief of Operations Staff, General Alfred Jodl, to conduct a study for the invasion of Afghanistan and India, so confident was he of victory over the Soviet Union. One year on, despite being pushed back from the gates of Moscow, he outlined plans for a “gigantic wall separating Asia from Europe.” He declared war on the United States, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with alacrity and took his survival from the assassination attempt carried out by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg on July 20, 1944, as evidence of providential protection.
By contrast, the portrait that Ullrich paints of the private Hitler is eerily mundane. His morning routine, whether at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia or at his Bavarian retreat, consisted of rising around 10 A.M., taking a short stroll (often with his German shepherd Blondi), listening to a daily situation report, and then breakfasting on milk and grated apple. What set him apart was his total lack of compassion or empathy. Aside from his mistress, Eva Braun, he exhibited almost no affection for any humans (he was attached to his dog), and when Germany was being pummeled by Allied bombers, he showed far greater concern over the destruction of German monuments than for the people he purported to represent. Unlike Churchill, he never visited cities following air raids, and when a train of wounded soldiers approached his own, he ordered the blinds pulled.
It was the American author and attorney Mike Godwin who came up with the “law” that the longer an online political discussion continues, the greater the likelihood that someone will cite Hitler or the Nazis as “evidence.” There certainly are good reasons for avoiding gratuitous historical comparisons, beyond a healthy aversion to cliché. Yet it would be equally absurd if we decided to ignore the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s simply because the crimes committed during those decades are unique in scale and horror. The last five years have seen, across the world, a resurgence of nationalism and isolationism; an assault on liberal values, including the freedom and plurality of the media; the fracturing and denigration of multi-national institutions; the politics of grievance, conspiracy theories, and division; and the decline of “truth.” Many will say that these are the exaggerated concerns of a “liberal elite,” that the failures of liberal democracy and the inequalities of capitalism are what got us into this mess. They may not be entirely wrong.
The trouble is, this is exactly what people said before. As Volker Ullrich concludes in this stunning book, if the study of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis teaches us anything, “it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended.”
Tim Bouverie is the author of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War