A rigorous life of Hitler strips away the myth to reveal the man
Hitler, far right, with fellow soldiers from his Bavarian unit in 1916. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
This is the year when Mein Kampf has been published in Germany for the first time since the end of the war. Seventy years on, the Bavarian state government, which was entrusted with the rights by the American occupying forces, has allowed the dissemination of Hitler’s seminal work. It has done so with the utmost care, handing to academics the job of reproducing a heavily annotated version of the book, which has won plaudits for the tone of the scholarship.
Also in 2016, to a new biography of the man himself: volume one of the work, entitled simply Hitler, by Volker Ullrich, which was published in German in 2013, going straight on to the bestseller list. And with good reason: this is, by any measure, an outstanding study. As Ullrich notes in the introduction, this most difficult task for a historian “demands the greatest responsibility”. This 750-page volume, which transports the reader from Hitler’s curious Austrian antecedents to the start of the second world war, is in turns learned, calm and riveting.
All the huge, and terrible moments of the early Nazi era are dissected, from the early beer hall speeches, to the failed putsch, through the economic and social dislocation of Weimar and the opportunities that presented.
Ullrich captures the seizure of power in 1933. Only months earlier the NSDAP (the Nazi party) was at one of its lowest ebbs and yet by playing off the various parties, by a mix of violence, threats and the occasional moment of flattery, Hitler had brought himself to a pinnacle he couldn’t believe he had reached.
Five days after moving into the Chancellery he told the head of the youth league: “We have power and we’re going to keep it. I’m never leaving here.” Within a mere five months he had consolidated his dictatorship. As the author notes, his dismantling of the fragile democratic norms should have come as no surprise. Hitler had always been frank about his intentions. His coalition partners either thought he wasn’t serious, or they could control him.
Hitler emerged as a fully fledged antisemite not while in Vienna, but straight after the first world war in Munich, in the days of the Russian revolution and Versailles. This was a time of “explosive mixture of economic misery, social instability and collective trauma”. Ullrich notes: “The central goal of removing Jews from German society… was by no means the eccentric idea of a lone individual.” There was a large amount of consensus across the reconstituted army and elsewhere in society.
The political history is meticulously told. But the real strength of this book is in disentangling the personal story of man and monster. A common word used by the author is “demythologising”. Hitler’s father was a brute, but perhaps no more than many patriarchs of his age. Young Adolf’s failure to get into Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts was a trauma, but which young person hasn’t had a setback? The death of his mother, Klara, in 1907, removed from his life one of the few women he had feelings for. The family doctor said: “In almost 40 years of practice, I have never seen a young man so utterly filled with pain and grief.”
Hitler would supervise the seating plan for lunch at the Berghof. He placed particular emphasis on flower arrangements
No area of his life “contains more rumours and legends than his relations with women”. A rare love was the young Geli Raubal, whom he doted on and harangued. She died in mysterious circumstances in September 1931. His most famous partner was Eva Braun. She ran the household but was not seen in public. So why could he, would he, not sustain any relationships? Ullrich deconstructs the various canards, as he calls them: no, he was not gay; no, he didn’t have abnormal genitalia, yes he did have relationships, but all were awkward. The most likely reason was his reluctance to devote much energy to his private life “so as to prevent his personal concerns from limiting his political latitude”.
Ullrich paints a picture of fear, fury… and pettiness. Hitler is portrayed as spiessig, a very German word that translates as narrow-minded or petit bourgeois. Daily life at the chancellor’s Alpine retreat of Berghof was formal and stifling. For his hour-long lunch, Hitler would supervise the seating plan. He placed particular emphasis on flower arrangements. Albert Speer’s mother scoffed: “How nouveau riche it all is.” He would do expander exercises, as part of his morning routine; this would allow him to keep his right arm raised for extended periods of time.
“As is typical for many autodidacts, Hitler believed he knew better than specialists… and treated them with an arrogance that was but the reverse of his own limited horizons,” the author writes. “As a parvenu, Hitler lived in constant fear of not being taken seriously or, even worse, making himself look ridiculous.”
In the historiography of the Third Reich, any detailed focus on Hitler’s character has in the past led to accusations of relativism. Ullrich’s rigour and sensitivity enables him to succeed. The next instalment – war and Holocaust – will be all the harder.
John Kampfner’s The Rich: A 2,000-Year History is out now in paperback.
Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 is published by Bodley Head (£25).Click here to order Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 for £20