Chronicle of Hitler's rise seems eerily familiar
Columnist Esther Cepeda sees similarities to what's happening today in the Unites States.
You wouldn’t have expected much from the modest young man who moved to the big city from his backwater country home and ended up in an artsy halfway house peddling hand-painted postcards.
He was a late-blooming boy; a congenital late sleeper whose dad thought he was lazy and underachieving (a perception shared by many others). A dreamy kid who was bad at spelling and grammar, he was a scatterbrain who was always running late. Plus, he was terrifically boring and normal in the way he loved his mom, his sweet cakes heaped with whipped cream and his white fox terrier.
And yet from these humble beginnings emerged the man German historian Volker Ullrich calls, in his spellbinding new book “Hitler: Ascent (18891939),” a “sensationalist, popcultural icon of horror.”
Ullrich explains that part of his reason for reconsidering Hitler is that since the global entertainment industry has created a caricature designed to “send the maximum shivers down audiences’ spines,” the phenomenon of the dictator stands to lose all connection to real life.
And so over the course of 998 pages, Ullrich leads us through Hitler’s early life and his rise to power, before chillingly concluding this first of two volumes with Hitler nearly killing the Czechoslovakian President Emil Hacha during a late-night bullying session in which Hitler secured that country’s forced break-up.
Ullrich starts us off with what few details the world has about Hitler’s youth, then the disappointment that Hitler’s socialclimbing father felt about his moody son’s artsy aspirations. We quickly move to Adolf’s time in Vienna (where he lived alongside Jews in a men’s home), his gratitude to his mother’s Jewish doctor during her long and ultimately fatal battle with breast cancer, his seven years of struggle to make it as an artist and, eventually, his unimpressive military service. Then things get interesting. From the outset, Ullrich declares his aim is to sketch a man who was neither an “ordinary guy” with poor social skills who was merely in the right time and place, nor the brilliant demagogue and extraordinarily gifted speaker who wooed the masses into complicity with genocide.
The somewhere-in-between perspective provides us a collection of pause-inducing facts:
• Hitler blamed globalism for Germany’s economic woes and cast its political leaders as “tools of ‘international stock-market and interest capital,’ which held Germany in its clutches and was sucking the lifeblood out of the country.”
• He liked to depict himself as a man of the people, but he lived a resoundingly lavish lifestyle and, Ullrich says, “actually despised the masses, which he regarded as nothing more than a tool to be manipulated to achieve his political ambitions.”
• He was disliked by many yet still intrigued them. “Even those who found his political radicalism repellent regarded him a fascinating object of study, whose mere presence guaranteed an evening’s entertainment,” Ullrich wrote. “Thus he was passed from one salon to another, where he elicited a mixture of spine-tingling excitement and half-concealed amusement.”
• Hitler harnessed economic frustrations, mastering the “language of the postwar little guy” who “like no one else ... was able to express what his audience thought and felt: He exploited their fears, prejudices and resentments, but also their hopes and desires.”
• Despite his barbarism, much of his popularity was due to his ability to respond to the working class’s concerns. Ullrich quotes a worker explaining his rationale for supporting Hitler: “You people always made socialist speeches, but the Nazis have given us jobs ... I don’t care whether I make grenades or build the autobahn. I just want to work. Why did you not take job creation seriously?”
If this all sounds eerily familiar, well, yes.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group.
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