- - Wednesday, September 28, 2016

HITLER ASCENT: 1889-1939

By Volmer Ullrich

Translated from German by Jefferson Chase

Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 1,008 pages

Even at decades removed, historians remain fascinated with the why — and how — of Adolf Hitler’s rise to evil power, and the role of the German people in his horrendous assault on mankind. Many splendid works already exist, beginning with Alan Bullock’s 1952 masterpiece, and more recently, a two-volume work by Ian Kershaw in 1998 and 2000 (all of which I have read).

Now comes the German scholar/journalist Volmer Ullrich, with the first of two planned volumes, which offers keen insight into how Hitler perfected demography to sway audiences into hysteria. And Mr. Ullrich displays an insight into the making of Hitler that I did not find elsewhere.

When Hitler first dabbled in politics, he was a nobody, a slightly wounded war veteran who had served a jail term for trying to overthrow the government. He eked out a living selling postcards he painted in Munich. One person who saw him in those years later recollected, “When I first met him, he was like a tired stray dog looking for a master.”

But Hitler sensed that war-wrecked Germany ached for a “savior” who would restore to glory a nation defeated because of “Jews, communists and other traitors.” A passage in “Mein Kampf,” which he wrote in prison, revealed both his planned approach and the low mental esteem in which he held fellow citizens: “The receptivity of large masses is very limited. Their capacity to understand things is slight whereas their forgetfulness is great. Given this, effective propaganda must restrict itself to a handful of points, which it repeats as slogans as long as it takes for the dumbest member of the audience to get an idea of what they mean.”

Although his podium voice was shrill and unremarkable, Hitler displayed an ability to exploit the anger of a populace who felt they had been betrayed by their own leaders in war, and suffered from an unjust peace imposed at Versailles by the victors.

Police (and the media) kept a wary eye on the fledgling demogague. A Munich newspaper called him “the cagiest of the rabble-rousers plying their unholy trade in Munich at the moment.” In a two-hour speech, a policeman counted 56 interruptions “by positive audience outbursts.” He showed scant regard for truth. One example cited by Mr. Ullrich was a 1926 speech in which Hitler claimed that 12 million persons were unemployed. “In reality,” Mr. Ullrich writes, the correct number was only 2 million.

No matter. According to a police report of one appearance, “Hitler used vulgar comparisons, tailor-made to the intellectual capacities of his listeners, and he did not shy away from even the cheapest allusions . His words and opinions were simply hurled out with dictatorial certainty as if they were unquestionable principles and facts. All this manifests itself in his language as well, which is like something merely expulsed.”

A constant theme — sickening to read after decades — was the denunciation of Jews (a term he used interchangeably with Marxists). He threw out hints — no, threats — of what he would do when in power: “One cannot compete with parasites, one can only remove them.”

But given that those in power “appeared to have no solutions” to Germany’s problems, he would be the “political messiah who would lead [them] out of economic misery.”

One skeptic was the Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann, who decried Hitler’s National Socialism as “a gigantic wave of eccentric barbarism and primitive, populist fairground barking … a repetition of monotonous slogans until everyone foamed at the mouth.” But as an admirer noted, “The power of his words lies in his temperament, not in his intellect. He shakes things up.”

And eventually crowds greeted Hitler with mass hysteria, chanting “Heil Hitler!” repeatedly at mass rallies in such cities as Nuremberg. Civil servants exchanged the stiff-armed Nazi salute as a greeting.

One of several unresolved mysteries concerning Hitler involved women. A young niece to whom he was obviously attracted killed herself with his pistol in the apartment they shared in 1931. Rumors abounded about his sexuality, But a younger Eva Braun was with him as his mistress — even if not acknowledged as such — for years. Mr. Ullrich feels he masked the relationship as a means of displaying his sole allegiance was to the German people.

Hitler boasted many admirers but few friends, even among his closest associates. One called him “a book with seven seals,” a man who renounced personal relationships “for the sake of his historic mission.”

In due course, Hitler junked Versailles strictures, rearmed Germany, stood down timid French and British leaders, and led the world into catastrophe.

A longish book, to be sure, but highly readable — and an insight into the monster of our times.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 non-fiction books.

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