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Hitler biography looks into dictator's personality

Tillmann Bendikowski ss
November 21, 2018

A new biography of Adolf Hitler by Volker Ullrich shows how easily a democracy can be destroyed, and portrays the Führer behind the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust as a master of seduction.

Hitler in Nuremberg
Image: Museen der Stadt Nürnberg/Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände

In recent months, right-wing extremists in Germany have shown no restraint in attacking the country's culture of remembrance, aiming to end the way Germany recognizes and deals with its Nazi past. 

Far-right nationalists downplay the horrors of the Third Reich as just a short chapter in an otherwise glorious history, or as co-leader of the Alternative for Germany party  Alexander Gauland put it, "Hitler and the Nazis are just bird s--- in more than 1,000 years of successful German history." 

Such statements are dangerous, believes historian and journalist Volker Ullrich: "Anyone who decides to patch together such a euphemistic account of history," he said, "is agitating the foundations of this republic."

Ullrich has now completed his two-volume biography on Adolf Hitler. The author sees Hitler's rise to power as a cautionary tale on how fast a democracy can unhinge, and on the fine line separating civilization and barbarism.

The Führer's personality

The first volume of Ullrich's biography was already published five years ago; its English translation, Hitler: A Biography: Ascent 1889-1939, came out in it 2016 (it was translated by Jefferson Chase, who is also a DW reporter).

It depicts the years leading up to World War II. Ullrich's analysis focuses on Hitler's personality — in stark contrast to recent research trends in Nazi history, as scholars in Germany rather look into the structural conditions that allowed the Nazis and Hitler to create a dictatorship based on broad consent.

While Ullrich does not ignore these questions, he underscores the personality traits Hitler had that made him attractive to the Germans. He emphasizes that the Führer's knack for acting, his talent as an orator and organizer and his sly instincts for shifting gears politically sold him to the masses. 

Book cover Volker Ullrich - Adolf Hitler, Die Jahre des Untergangs
The English version of the book is set to come out in 2020

The face of the Holocaust

The second volume of Volker Ullrich's analysis now examines Hitler's role as commander-in-chief as well as the part he played in the Holocaust. The book highlights that while thousands of helpers were required to execute the mass-murder of millions of European Jews, the events could never have unfolded without Hitler's presence.

Ullrich shows that even before the war broke out in 1939, the dictator was always the last authority involved in each plan of action as Jews in Germany were increasingly being ostracized and victimized.

In many instances, Hitler had to personally approve actions such as forcing Jews to wear the Star of David badge or deporting them from Germany into Eastern Europe. These actions would ultimately culminate in Hitler's general declaration of intent to systematically destroy European Jews.

The commander-in-chief as a failed mastermind

The weaknesses of Hitler's personality became clear through his role as commander-in-chief, according to Ullrich. Not only did he overestimate the power of the German military compared to the armies he was fighting, but he also had a fatal tendency to risk everything at once.

After initial losses on the Eastern front, Hitler burst out into angry tirades, trusting no one's judgment more than his own while pulling high-ranking military officials from the theater of war. He even stopped shaking hands with his generals during briefings and for a while he even avoided sharing meals with them.

But Ullrich says this wasn't only to express resentment towards his commanders and generals. "It also had a lot to do with the fact that Hitler could suddenly no longer present himself as this superior war mastermind."

Hitler Reichskanzler Machtergreifung 30.01.1933
Marching to the Reichstag in Berlin on the day Hitler took his seat as Chancellor of the Reich, on January 30, 1933Image: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Hitler not an excuse for atrocities

After 1945, military generals notably tried to downplay their respective roles in the Holocaust by deferring moral and military responsibility to Hitler. Germans in general also claimed after the war that they didn't know anything about what was happening to the Jews.

Volker Ullrich, whose astute depiction of Hitler builds on a great deal of archival research, stresses that his portrayal of the dictator is meant in no way to justify any of the atrocities committed during World War II.

"It is true that only few Germans knew everything about the 'Final Solution,'" says Ullrich, "but very few knew nothing at all either."

Historian and journalist Volker Ullrich, born in 1943, was the chief editor of Politics at the Hamburg-based weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" from 1990 to 2009. Volume II of his Adolf Hitler biography has just come out in German and is expected to be published in English in 2020, by Bodley Head (Penguin Random House UK).