A new chron­i­cle of Hitler’s rise to power is eerily fa­mil­iar

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Es­ther J. Cepeda Es­ther Cepeda’s email ad­dress is es­ther­j­cepeda@wash­post.com. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @ es­ther­j­cepeda.

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 to pay for his next meal.

He was a late­bloom­ing 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. 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 — and said he en­vi­sioned a class­less so­ci­ety — 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.”

If this all sounds eerily fa­mil­iar, well, yes.

And that’s why this book is so im­por­tant right now.

Ull­rich deals with the ques­tion of whether Hitler should be de­picted as a hu­man be­ing rather than a mon­ster by de­cid­ing that por­tray­ing him as a per­son ac­tu­ally makes him more hor­rific.

Quot­ing his­to­rian Eber­hard Jackel, Ull­rich il­lus­trates why we must look to our past to pre­vent fu­ture hor­rors: “Hitler will al­ways be with us, with those who sur­vived, those who came af­ter­wards and even those yet to be born. He is present — not as a liv­ing fig­ure, but as an eter­nal cau­tion­ary mon­u­ment to what hu­man be­ings are ca­pa­ble of.”

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