Review of “Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939”

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another book on Hitler? Why take the time, especially since I have read Kernshaw, Shirer, and lots of other writing on the subject. Volker Ullrich has put out the first of two volumes here, with the advantage of some new documentation along with an attempt to look at Hitler from a different perspective. Looking at Hitler’s personal life in the run-up to power, as well as a good look at the political tools he used to achieve that power, and how he governed after his being named Chancellor before the war, made this book worthwhile. I think Ullrich has met his goal with this effort, and it is worth a read.

Because of the monstrous crimes against humanity committed by Hitler he has been easy to caricature. Ullrich tries to get below that, and although some of his early life remains a bit of a mystery Ullrich sheds as much light as possible without engaging in armchair psychiatry. I had two main interests: how did he get there, and how did the Hitler govern before the war? Despite the ultimate horrors brought on by the Nazi regime there has always been an undercurrent that Hitler was personally popular pre-war at least in part due to some success of governance in Germany. While governance in pre-war Germany may be a “boring” part of the story it is, in my view, an important piece of the overall narrative, and something that this book does an effective job of covering.

Hitler’s early life, his start into politics, and the formation of his core beliefs, centered around virulent anti-Semitism linked to his hatred of Bolshevism, is covered extensively. How and when did his anti-Semitism become so fanatical? Ullrich takes a pretty good run at that, but ultimately, with today’s knowledge, cannot fully answer the question. What he does show us is Hitler’s mastery as a politician, his gift of “reading” people, and instinctively understanding their strengths and weaknesses. His powerful oratory, without question, propelled him forward as a politician, but, as Ullrich shows us, his skills were not limited to oratory. Adolph Hitler knew his audience, whether that audience was a gathering of thousands or a much smaller one where he would have to manipulate individuals to achieve a desired result. Hitler the “actor” is shown to be a man of many faces, willing to modulate even his anti-Semitism when he saw advantage to doing so.

“Heiden wrote of “an incomparable barometer of mass moods,” while Otto Strasser spoke of an “unusually sensitive seismograph of the soul.” Strasser also compared Hitler to a “membrane” broadcasting the most secret longings and emotions of the masses. Krosigk concurred. “He sensed what the masses were longing for and translated it into firebrand slogans,” the Reich finance minister wrote. “He appealed to the instincts slumbering in people’s unconsciousness and offered something to everyone.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 384). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Hitler’s success owed much to this “acting” ability, which allowed him to actually move in, and impress, some elements of “polite society” while condemning and vilifying it in his “brownshirt” mode. “Polite society” made the fatal error of underestimating Hitler, believing that they could control him.

“Nonetheless, Hitler had an undeniable ability to don different masks to suit various occasions and to inhabit changing roles. “He could be a charming conversation partner who kissed women’s hands, a friendly uncle who gave children chocolate, or a man of the people who could shake the callused hands of farmers and artisans,” remarked Albert Krebs, the Gauleiter of Hamburg. When invited to the Bechstein and Bruckmann salons or to afternoon tea at the Schirachs’ in Weimar, he would play the upstanding, suit-and-tie-wearing bourgeois to fit in with such social settings. At NSDAP party conferences, he dressed in a brown shirt and cast himself as a prototypical street fighter who made no secret of his contempt for polite society.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 386). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Hitler’s “acting” ability was but one tool he used, besides oratory, to try to win over the German people when he was actually participating in democratic elections. Hitler barnstormed Germany by plane, making many appearances at campaign rallies throughout Germany, carefully orchestrated to enflame local audiences and get his “base” energized for the next election cycle. Hitler used vitriolic anti-semitic attacks during most of his speeches, but his view was that the “other,” whether it be Jews, or others deemed to be a “threat” to the German people, needed to be excised from political and social life in Germany. How did Hitler derive the world view he came to have? His time in Vienna, in poverty, in some fashion, shaped his core beliefs. The author describes some of the political undercurrents in Austria.

“Among Vienna’s ethnic Germans and in the German-speaking parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this massive immigration gave rise to fears of “foreignisation,” of losing the cultural and political hegemony that German Austrians considered their birthright. In reaction, numerous radical nationalist associations, political parties and popular movements had formed since the end of the nineteenth century. That, of course, provoked counter-reactions from other ethnic and cultural groups. One of the main arenas for nationalist conflict was the Reichsrat or Imperial Council, the parliament of the western half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1907, with the introduction of universal suffrage for men over the age of 24, Germans were no longer the strongest faction there, and the verbal duels fought between the spokesmen for various nationalities, right out in the public eye, were so bitter that many people believed the Habsburg monarchy was in crisis and the multinational state would soon be dissolved.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 31). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Those speeches did not just vilify the “other” but blamed these outside forces for the German defeat in World War I, and for changes in German society that were “corrupting” the German nation, leading to “decline and decay.” He called for a restoration of the great German nation that had existed before these outsiders managed to “sell out” Germany, and create the mess that the nation found itself in. 

“His speeches typically began with a look back at “wonderful, flourishing Germany before the war,” in which “orderliness, cleanliness and precision” had ruled and civil servants had gone about their work “honestly and dutifully.”Again and again, Hitler directed his audience’s attention to the “great heroic time of 1914,” when the German people, unified as seldom before, had been dragged into a war forced upon them by the Entente powers. This idealised vision of the past allowed Hitler to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay. “Why do we stand today amidst the ruins of the Reich Bismarck created so brilliantly?” Hitler asked in a speech in January 1921, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the German Reich. His answer was always the same: the revolution of 1918–19 had been Germany’s downfall, casting it into slavery.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 98). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Hitler even said that the German nation, due to the incompetence of the parliamentary system, was being laughed at by the rest of the world.

“Twelve years of unlimited rule by the old parliamentary parties have turned Germany into an object for exploitation and made it the laughing stock of the entire world,” Hitler thundered.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 230). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Before Hitler took power he had to deal with a relatively free press, who managed to take some pretty good shots at him, even exposing some of the hypocrisy inherent in his finances. Hitler’s reputation was always as a “man of the people,” with no concern or care for money. But when newspapers printed the actual hotel bills for him and his campaign entourage that showed a taste for extravagance Hitler struck back by decrying the publishing of “fake” documents. The charges of “fake” news by Hitler was the best he could do to protect his carefully cultivated image.

“In a declaration on 7 April, the NSDAP chairman hastily declared the published bill a fake, and in his speeches, he continued to contrast himself with the “bigwigs” from the other parties as an unworldly politician who did not have any wealth of his own: “I don’t need any—I live like a bird in the wild.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 303). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Governance in Nazi pre-war Germany has always, in my mind, had a reputation as efficient, with Hitler himself managing to derive credit as someone who managed to re-invigorate the German economic colossus. This book manages to dispel that myth to some degree. What kind of “manager” was Chancellor Adolf Hitler?

“He would arrive in his office punctually at 10 a.m., consult with his most important aides and force himself to read documents. He carefully prepared himself for cabinet meetings in an attempt to impress his conservative coalition partners with his knowledge of details. Hitler had no experience whatsoever in administration, so especially at the start he depended on ministerial civil servants. On the evening of 29 January 1933, in the Hotel Kaiserhof, he allegedly offered the ministerial counsel of the Interior Ministry, Hans Heinrich Lammers, the post of state secretary in the
Chancellery with the words that he himself “was no politician and did not know anything of this administration business.” Hitler did not intend to change, but he also did not want to embarrass himself, so he felt he needed “a civil servant who knows his way around.” The more invulnerable Hitler thought his power was, however, and the less heed he had to pay Hindenburg and his conservative coalition partners, the more he tried to duck the routine duties of his office. With visible pleasure he told those around him again and again how people had “tried to get him used to how civil servants worked” and how he had been “so occupied reading through files and going through current issues” that he had no time “to take a calm look at larger problems.” Albert Speer quoted Hitler once saying over lunch: “In the first few weeks, every minute detail was laid before me to decide. I found piles of files on my desk every day, and no matter how hard I worked, they never got any fewer. Until I radically put an end to such senselessness.”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 568). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Ullrich, from these examples, gives us a bit of a different perspective on Hitler. In his own fashion he shows us the seeds of the ultimate destruction that Hitler would foist upon the world. Those seeds include a look into Hitler’s views on what the ultimate military goals of an expansionist Germany would be. Much has been written on that subject, with some holding the view that Hitler’s goals were more modest than world domination, assigning to him a desire to expand only to the East, with taking much, if not all of the land-space of the Soviet Union, his main geo-political goal, along with righting the geographic inequities of the Treaty of Versailles. The author shows Hitler’s true thoughts to be much more expansive than that, with a real goal of world domination. You get a sense of Hitler’s ultimate goals through his grandiose architectural plans for Berlin, and other German cities. 

“Hitler’s megalomaniacal plans for Berlin can only be understood in conjunction with his hegemonic aspirations abroad. In a sense they anticipated architecturally what had yet to be conquered by martial expansion. “Do you understand now why we plan so big?” he asked Speer one day and provided the answer himself: “The capital of the Germanic Empire.” Nor did the dictator conceal his ambitions from Goebbels. Late one night in mid-March 1937, a few weeks after Speer’s appointment as general building inspector, Hitler told his propaganda minister that he intended to incorporate Austria and Czechoslovakia into the Reich. “We need both to round off our territory,” Goebbels reported Hitler saying. “And we’ll get them…When their citizens come to Germany, they’ll be crushed by the greatness and power of the Reich…Hence the Führer’s gigantic construction plans. He’ll never give them up.” In the early summer of 1939, after Hitler had concluded the first phase of this territorial expansion and was preparing the next one, he stood once again lost in thought before the architectural model and pointed to the swastika-bearing eagle that was to adorn the dome of the People’s Hall. “We’ll change that,” he said. “The eagle won’t be clutching a swastika. It will be clutching the globe!”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (pp. 603-604). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

How does a racist demagogue assume dictatorial powers over a vast nation, erasing any shred of democratic norms? There were indeed warning voices, but the truth is that those voices were a minority in Germany. Hitler’s true character, and his aims, even early on, were discernible, with some having the courage to speak out.

“Among the casualties of the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934 were two prominent Catholics: Erich Klausener, the director of Catholic Action, one of the most important Catholic lay organisations, and Fritz Gerlich, the publisher of the Catholic weekly Der gerade Weg (The Straight and Narrow). In July 1932, the latter had subjected Hitler’s movement to a scathing analysis in an article under the headline “National Socialism is a Plague.” Gerlich had written: National Socialism…means hostility towards our foreign neighbours, a reign of terror domestically, civil war and wars between peoples. National Socialism means lies, hatred, fratricide and boundless misery. Adolf Hitler is preaching the legitimacy of lying. It is time for those of you who have fallen for the swindle of this power-mad individual to wake up!”

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (p. 641). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The author has done an admirable job of bringing a new perspective to a subject that has had countless books written. If this area of history is of interest then this book is worth a read. History may not repeat but it gives us powerful lessons that should not be forgotten.

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