Lazy, violent and hateful, but
Biographies of Hitler come along surprisingly rarely and are unsurprisingly vast. There are any number of partial histories and an even greater number of potboilers dealing speculatively with the German dictator’s supposed traits and proclivities. But what you might call “the full Fuhrer” is attempted only every couple of decades. The first volume of Ian Kershaw’s mighty two-parter was published in 1998 and was followed by historian Volker Ullrich’s equally substantial attempt, which first appeared in Germany in 2013. Now we have his first volume — all 1008 pages of it — in English.
It is a compliment to Kershaw’s work that Ullrich in his preface tells readers what his efforts add to those of the British historian. And, in his own words, his idea is to “refocus attention on Hitler” — to rescue Adolf the man and to lessen the emphasis that otherwise has been placed on the context in which the Fuhrer was possible. In response to Kershaw’s framing question about how a man who was no intellectual, was a crude thinker and was poorly educated could have become a figure of such historical importance, Ullrich counters by asking: “What if Hitler’s horizons and intellectual abilities were not so crassly underdeveloped?”
There are a few, but not many, new sources of information that have become available since Kershaw was writing in the late 1990s. But in the end the idea that Hitler was more intellectually sophisticated and somehow deeper than he previously has been depicted — and therefore (and here’s the rub) was an even more formidable seducer of the German people — becomes difficult to sustain.
He was a man of violent shallowness, who (this is not in the book) thought, among many other prejudices, that a second-rate 19th-century German painter called Eduard von Grutzner would one day be seen as a second Rembrandt. As his lifelong emotional and political commitment to Wagner suggests, he could do a lot with very little.
Hitler was stunningly lazy, though this emerges almost accidentally through the pages of this book. He couldn’t drive, he couldn’t swim and, despite spending so much time in the Bavarian Alps, he couldn’t ski. He played no sports and took no exercise. He and his entourage would take a 10-minute stroll down the hill from his Alpine villa at the Berghof and he then got a lift back while everyone else walked.
After the mid-20s he didn’t pay for anything or look after his finances, which were largely kept aloft by royalties from the book he wrote from his comfortable Bavarian prison cell, Mein Kampf. Both before and after the Great War (where he was a dutiful soldier) he never seems to have worked for any length of time at any trade that required application. He read only works that confirmed his already firm beliefs.
If Ullrich’s picture fails to present the Fuhrer as a man of depth, it succeeds brilliantly — and so requires to be read as widely as possible — in capturing the instinctive populist. The idea of Hitler as a perpetually frothing demagogue is dissipated by his emergence as possibly the first truly modern politician.
Take this, from Mein Kampf, which might have been coined for this month’s US presidential primaries. “Who cares,” demanded Hitler, “whether they laugh at us or insult us? The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.” Or his observation that getting a message across involves constant repetition until “the dumbest member of the audience” had understood what was being said.
Hitler understood the need to control the