Hitler: Volume 1. Ascent; by Volker Ullrich

The Bodley Head, £25

Reviewed by Alan Taylor

ONE of the more startling assertions in Volker Ullrich’s impressive study of the most reviled man in history is that of all the books about Hitler and his rise to power a mere four have stood the test of time. The first was Konrad Heiden’s perceptive Hitler: A Biography, which was published in the mid-1930s, when the world was only beginning to comprehend what was unfolding in Germany. Then, in the 1950s, came Alan Bullock’s “thrilling” Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, which was followed in 1973 by Hitler: A Biography by the German journalist Joachim Fest.

Finally, between 1998 and 2000, there appeared Ian Kershaw’s much-lauded two-volume biography which, asserts Ullrich, attempted to demonstrate that “Hitler didn’t need to do very much at all since German society – everyone from the underlings surrounding him to ordinary people on the street – were increasingly inclined to anticipate and fulfil the Führer’s every wish, ‘working towards him’.”

Ullrich, meanwhile, justifies adding to the Matterhorn of material on Hitler because there has been of late much documentation that was not available to previous biographers. On top of which, he remains an enigma, the inner man, the real man, as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster.

This, the first of two volumes, is sub-titled Ascent, and takes us to the outbreak of war. Running to almost 1,000 pages, it is painstaking in avoiding judgment and careful not to fall into the trap of belittling, sensationalising and damning Hitler. What emerges is perhaps the most revealing and persuasive portrait we are likely see of the man who persuaded an entire people to become part of a cult that would lead to its near destruction. There is much, inevitably, about party politics and internecine squabbles, all of which shows that, when it came to venality, double-dealing and sheer vindictiveness, Hitler could teach House of Cards’ Frank Underwood a thing or two. From time to time, Ullrich interrupts his chronological narrative to stand back and discuss aspects of his subject’s life in an attempt to address the failure of those biographers who were of the opinion that “the Führer did not have a private life”.

One such chapter is called Hitler and Women. Ullrich pooh-poohs various rumours, including the myths that he was one testicle short of a set and that as a boy he had half his penis bitten off by a goat. More interestingly, his relationships with women offer insights to a different Hitler. There is no evidence, for example, of him having a serious relationship with a woman until he was well into adulthood. The suicide of his niece, Geli Raubal, to whom he was very close, seems to have affected him badly, but how badly it is hard to tell. He was cosseted by older women, such as Winifred Wagner, who liked to mother him. He also rather fancied Magda Quandt but was trumped by Joseph Goebbels who made her his wife. Eva Braun, who was 20 when she met the 40-year-old Führer, may well have been the first – and only – woman with whom he had sex, though we cannot be sure he did. Braun, it seems, suited him because she was happy to play along with the charade that he had only time for the Fatherland.

Another illuminating chapter is titled Hitler as Human Being. What emerges in these pages is Hitler’s chameleon-like quality. In his youth he had aspirations to be a painter and an architect and he maintained, even as Reich Chancellor, bohemian traits, including slothfulness. He was a great reader, though not it would appear of poetry and novels. He liked to listen to music and was especially keen on the operas of Richard Wagner, whose family took him to its bosom. Until the start of the Second World War, he visited annually the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth and ensured that it was well-funded. He was also a balletomane. All of which goes to show that an interest in the arts and culture does not necessarily make you a decent human being.

Met in person, Hitler provoked contrasting reactions. Those who wanted to be impressed, palpably were. His best feature were his eyes. “One glance from his lovely violet-blue eyes was enough to sense his gentle temperament and good heart,” testified one swooning female fan. On the other hand, British journalist Sefton Delmer, who knew Hitler in the 1930s, said he reminded him of a travelling salesman or a junior officer. More chillingly, he could turn the charm on and off and maintained a studied distance between himself and even his closest confidantes. His greatest gift was as an orator, which encouraged mesmerised crowds to hail him as their messiah and crown him dictator.

In common with his predecessors, Ullrich struggles to explain what transformed Hitler into a mass murderer. Circumstances, certainly, roused countless Germans to rise in revolt against their lot in the 1920s and 30s when punitive First World War reparations, rampant inflation and mass unemployment made an already vulnerable populace eager to find scapegoats, namely the Jews. Why Hitler so hated them to the point of wanting to exterminate them en masse has never been clear and probably never will be. Like so many of his fellow Germans he was driven by irrationality and ignorance and the delusion that he was a part of a superior race. As Ullrich explains, this was far from the case. On the contrary, Hitler was able to achieve what he did largely because, as Edmund Burke said, “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.”