Lazy, vi­o­lent and hate­ful, but

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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