Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Volker Ullrich, "Hitler: Ascent"

Volker Ullrich: Hitler: A Biography. Volume 1: Ascent. Translated by Jefferson Chase. London: Vintage, 2017. 9780099590231. x + 998 pp.

It's been quite a long time since I read Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler, so when I heard that a new two-volume biography by Volker Ullrich is in the works and is being praised in similarly high terms, I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to read it as well. This is volume 1, covering the period up to the outbreak of the war (a slightly different cutoff point than in Kershaw's biography, where volume 1 ends in 1936). It seems that volume 2 will be published in German later this year, so hopefully I'll get to read it in an English paperback edition in two or three years' time.

Naturally one wants to compare the work of these two biographers, but I'm not in a particularly good position to make such a comparison as it's been so long since I read Kershaw's biography. I'd say they are both well written and complement each other nicely. Kershaw famously emphasized the structural aspects of Hitler's rule (and his coming to power), and even went so far as to say that Hitler was completely consumed by his political activity, had no real private life outside politics and was completely uninteresting as an invididual apart from his politics. This is perhaps the most notable difference between the two biographers, as Ullrich includes several interesting chapters about Hitler's personality, his relations to women, and the ‘Berghof society’ — the group of various more or less important people that often socialized with Hitler at his alpine retreat and functioned in a way that reminded me a little of a monarch's court. An interesting factoid: apparently he had an “insatiable appetite for cake and sweets” (pp. 120, 264, 407).

So in this way Ullrich's biography definitely has a few things that Kershaw's doesn't, but the converse is also true. In the earlier parts of the book in particular I had a feeling that Ullrich is moving faster through Hitler's early life than Kershaw did, and in a few places I remembered that Kerhaw's biography had interesting details that are not present in Ullrich's (e.g. the discussion of how Hitler could end up in the Bavarian army in the WW1 although he was an Austrian citizen; Ullrich p. 53; Kershaw, Hubris pp. 89–90). If I had to recommend just one of these two biographies, I don't know which one I should choose; but I think ideally one would want to read both of them.

Something I particularly liked about this biography is that it uses an interesting combination of chronological and thematic arrangement. Many chapters cover a certain topic over several years and thus overlap chronologically with other chapters that cover other topics in the same period; but overall the arrangement of the chapters still proceeds chronologically.

As always with such works, I couldn't help feeling impressed at the enormous amount of books, memoirs, primary sources etc. cited in the endnotes, though they aren't terribly useful for me as a potential source of things to read since they are nearly all in German — even when a book initially appeared in English, Ullrich usually cites its German translation (if available), e.g. in the case of Nevile Henderson's memoir, The Failure of a Mission. In the earlier chapters, I was interested to see a number of references to an English-language book that I have read myself some time ago, namely Where Ghosts Walked by David Clay Large.

One thing that bothers me a little about these historians — I remember getting the same impression while reading Richard Evans's three-volume history of Nazi Germany — is how each of them tends to select a small handful of prolific diarists or letter-writers and quotes their opinions again and again to illustrate how people reacted to some historical event. So whenever the Nazis do something in this book, we get to hear what Victor Klemperer, Harry Kessler, Thea Sternheim, Louise Solmitz (a schoolteacher from Hamburg), or Willy Kohn (a Jewish teacher from Breslau) wrote about it in their diaries, what Bella Fromm wrote in her memoirs, what Elizabeth Gebensleben wrote in her letters to her daughter in the Netherlands, etc. Now, it's not of course a bad idea to illustrate the reactions of the population to an event by quoting from diaries and letters, but one cannot help wondering why that particular group of six or so people should be considered so important that their opinions must be quoted again and again. Of course, it's obvious why — because they wrote down their opinions about a lot of contemporary events and these opinions have been preserved and conveniently published in books, so that a historian can study them and quote them with a tolerable amount of effort. There were probably millions of other people in Germany who also wrote letters or diaries, but those aren't so easily accessible. Still, I couldn't help wishing that a broader range of opinions had been included when quoting diarists and letter-writers. But this shouldn't be seen as a criticism of Ullrich specifically, since the other historians do the same, as I said above.

I have one or two other minor quibbles about this book. One is that there are more typos or misprints than I am used to in this sort of books — in my experience so far, Penguin hasn't usually been that careless. The other minor complaint is that the translator has perhaps been a little *too* thorough in translating from German into English, often preferring to use a clunky English phrase instead of keeping a German word. I found this a little confusing at times, not being quite sure what the very frequent phrase “ethnic-popular” is supposed to mean until I realized it was a translation of völkisch. I think it would have been helpful, when mentioning the English translation of the name of some Nazi institution, event, concept etc. for the first time, to include the German original in parentheses. Also on the subject of translation, I couldn't help being a bit confused at a couple of uses of the phrase ‘to read someone the Riot Act’ (e.g. p. 729). According to the wikipedia, this is a common English idiom, but it felt odd to see it used in the context of Nazi Germany, since the Riot Act is obviously a piece of British legislation rather than German one. But apart from these minor and irrelevant quibbles, I think the translation was fine and very readable.

Another problem is not in any way the fault of the book, but of the subject matter: it's a bit depressing to read about Hitler's rise to power and then about his increasingly violent persecution of everyone and everything that stood in his way. How unfortunate it is that the Weimar Republic had so many enemies in the upper strata of society! It's tempting to fantasize how little it would have taken for things to turn out so much differently. From 1930 or so, the squabbling parties in the Reichstag found it impossible to support any chancellor with a majority of votes, so the chancellors from that point onwards ruled with presidential decrees supported by president Hindenburg (p. 224). The latter was very conservative and not at all keen on the Weimar republic — his ideal would probably be to restore the monarchy — so he appointed various conservatives and nationalists as chancellors over the years, Hitler being the fourth or so of these.

How little it would take to prevent Hitler from coming to power — if Hindenburg had just kept appointing his crusty old barons from traditional conservative parties as chancellors; or if, instead of Hindenburg, there had been a leftist president, they could have social democratic chancellors ruling by presidential decree instead of conservatives and nationalists; or better yet, what if the concept of a chancellor ruling by presidential decree instead of by parliamentary support had not even been included in the Weimar constitution. . .

Or a few years later — how differently things might have turned out if France and Britain had marched boldly across the German border the moment Hitler started violating the treaty of Versailles! Sometimes it feels as if the whole of Hitler's career almost up to the very outbreak of war was nothing but one long series of failures by other people to stop him.

I guess it's easier to say these things in hindsight than at the time they were happening. The problem of how to preserve democracy in circumstances where a considerable proportion to the public seems indifferent to it and some people are even actively hostile to it is as pressing as ever, and I'm a bit pessimistic about whether we have learned anything from the failure of the Weimar republic. We see populists of various kinds coming to power all over the world, and it isn't obvious to me what can be done to stop them.


Here are a few potentially interesting books mentioned in the endnotes, or by people who are mentioned in the endnotes:

  • Martha Dodd: Through Embassy Eyes (1939). A memoir by the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Ullrich quotes what appears to be the German edition of this memoir, titled Nice to meet you, Mr. Hitler!.
  • Bella Fromm: Blood and Banquets (1943). Fromm was a Jewish-German society journalist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. Ullrich quotes the German edition of her book, Als Hitler mir die Hand küsste.
  • Sir Nevile Henderson: Failure of a Mission. A memoir by the last pre-war British ambassador to Germany.
  • Harry Kessler: The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan, 1918–1937. Kessler was an artist and writer of liberal political leanings, who lived in exile in France after 1933; this selection from his diaries has been waiting unread on my shelf for a number of years. Ullrich often quotes from the 9-volume German edition of his diaries.
  • Sebastian Haffner: Germany: Jekyll & Hyde (1940). Mentioned here on p. 163. The title refers to the two Germanies, existing simultaneously, mentioned by Haffner in his preface: one is “a peaceful, civilized people who are oppressed by their present rulers”, the other consists of “cheering masses at Hitler's meetings”.
  • Dorothy Thompson: I Saw Hitler (1932). A book based on her interview with Hitler in 1931; she was convinced he would become a dictator some day (p. 263).
  • William Shirer: Berlin Diary (1941). The author was a noted American journalist who worked in Berlin from 1934 to 1941; he later wrote a famous history of the Third Reich.

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