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The Fuhrer’s latest biographer: Hitler was ‘blithely underestimated’

Those who compare him to Donald Trump ‘dangerously downplay just how horrific Hitler was,’ says German historian Volker Ullrich

  • Adolf Hitler and Nazi party members before World War II. (Public domain)
    Adolf Hitler and Nazi party members before World War II. (Public domain)
  • Adolf Hitler takes in adulation from the crowd (public domain)
    Adolf Hitler takes in adulation from the crowd (public domain)
  • Laborers with shovels listen to Adolf Hitler speak as work begins on the Reichsautobahn (Highway) from Frankfurt am Main to Heidelberg on September 23, 1933. (AP Photo)
    Laborers with shovels listen to Adolf Hitler speak as work begins on the Reichsautobahn (Highway) from Frankfurt am Main to Heidelberg on September 23, 1933. (AP Photo)
  • Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with their dogs, June 1942. (Bundesarchiv bild)
    Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with their dogs, June 1942. (Bundesarchiv bild)
  • Adolf Hitler, front, salutes parading troops of the German Wehrmacht in Warsaw, Poland, on October 5, 1939 after the German invasion. Behind Hitler are seen, from left to right: Army Commander in Chief, Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch, new commandant of Warsaw, Lieutenant General Friedrich von Cochenhausen, Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt, Colonel General Wilhelm Keitel. (AP Photo)
    Adolf Hitler, front, salutes parading troops of the German Wehrmacht in Warsaw, Poland, on October 5, 1939 after the German invasion. Behind Hitler are seen, from left to right: Army Commander in Chief, Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch, new commandant of Warsaw, Lieutenant General Friedrich von Cochenhausen, Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt, Colonel General Wilhelm Keitel. (AP Photo)

BOSTON — German historian Volker Ullrich waited decades to take on Adolf Hitler.

Ullrich, the Fuhrer’s most recent biographer, had already penned acclaimed tomes on Bismarck, Napoleon, and Nazi resisters. Along the way, the 76-year-old scholar said he prepared for the ultimate challenge.

“Hitler is a key figure in the course of German history, and I was drawn to the idea of delving into this figure at end of my writing career, in a sense as my last major work,”said Ullrich in an interview with The Times of Israel.

The second volume of Ullrich’s epic biography, “Hitler: Downfall, 1939-1945,” is set for publication in English on September 1.

“It was clear to me right from the start what a burden I was taking on,” said Ullrich. “Tackling the story of such an epochal criminal is perhaps the most difficult task historians can set themselves and brings with it a unique level of responsibility. There will always be aspects of Hitler that remain unexplained — and every generation should develop its own picture of him.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Ullrich delved into Hitler’s multi-faceted personality and the dangers posed by Nazi sympathizers in today’s Germany.

The German film ‘Downfall’ had that epic scene of Hitler ranting at his generals, and people are also familiar with Hitler’s frightening speeches at Nazi party rallies. In your book, however, you depict many moments when Hitler acted like a courteous diplomat. Why do you think it’s important for people to understand the totality of Hitler’s personality?

If Hitler is dismissed as a lunatic clown or a rabid monster, there is no way to comprehend how he could have exerted such an appeal over large parts of the German populace, so that so many people became accomplices to his horrendous crimes. There is no doubt that, in the wake of the unexpectedly rapid solution to Germany’s mass unemployment crisis and a series of spectacular foreign-policy triumphs in the 1930s, Hitler enjoyed greater popularity than any other political figure in German history.

Adolf Hitler takes in adulation from the crowd (public domain)

Hitler’s rhetorical abilities alone do not suffice to explain his phenomenal rise and his undeniable appeal. Hitler was not just an effective speaker to the masses. He was also a cunning actor who developed a certain mastery at slipping from one role to another and adapted chameleon-like to various social milieus. In this respect, he was better able than his competitors to meet the demands of mass-media society.

Hitler was not just an effective speaker to the masses. He was also a cunning actor

Hitler was a consummate modern politician who was able to play a variety of parts and know how to cynically exploit them for his own ends. This view of Hitler contradicts that strain in historiography, still popular, which wants to belittle him as a mediocrity. That school of thought makes the same mistake as Hitler’s contemporaries, who blithely underestimated him and his capabilities.

There is a disturbing trend of some European countries revising their roles during the war, specifically as it relates to collaborating with Germany to implement the Holocaust. Do you worry these nations might be hiding — as it were — behind Germany’s having taken full responsibility for the genocide?

Volker Ullrich (courtesy)

I agree with your view that the nations of Eastern Europe — particularly the Baltic states and Ukraine — have not sufficiently confronted their own complicity in the Holocaust. German SS commandos and police battalions would have not been able to do their homicidal work without the help of Lithuanian, Latvian and Ukrainian nationalists.

That, however, does nothing to alter the central responsibility of Nazi Germany for the genocide against German Jews. On that score, I concur completely with Götz Aly in his most recent book “Europe Versus the Jews,” when he writes of “German Culpability, European Collaboration.”

What has the response to your Hitler biography been like in Germany and the United States, including when the first volume published in English four years ago?

The response in both Germany and abroad was extremely positive. In the United States, a lot of interest was generated because the publication of Volume I coincided with the American election and the incipient debates about the phenomenon of Donald Trump. The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani drew clear parallels between Trump and Hitler without ever explicitly naming the former.

The reception in Germany was more reserved. That’s probably partly because in a sense, given the myriad television documentaries about Hitler and the flood of publications dealing with National Socialism, the German public has had their fill of this subject matter. Some people today think they already know enough about this chapter of the past and that Germans’ ceaseless reckoning with their own history has been taken a bit too far.

Hitler: Downfall, 1939-1945 (courtesy)

Politicians from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AFD) play on this sentiment, and Germany’s culture of self-critical examination of its own past is a thorn in their side. The AfD wants to return to a picture of the past in which National Socialism was an unhappy but ultimately minor episode within an otherwise normal — and in parts glorious — national history.

The AfD’s honorary chairman Alexander Gauland once likened the 12 years of Hitler’s dictatorship to being “shat on by a bird,” i.e. something unpleasant but not all that significant the grand scheme of things. Voices like Gauland’s are not representative of the general climate of opinion in the Federal Republic of Germany, where National Socialism’s crimes against humanity continue to occupy a central position in the country’s culture of remembrance

In recent years, many comparisons have been made between Hitler and US President Trump. What is your opinion of these comparisons?

Trump and Hitler do certainly share a number of traits, including a narcissistic personality structure, a tenuous relationship to the truth, resentment for elites, the pretense of wanting to restore past greatest to the home country, a habit of firing subordinates who don’t toe the line and the ability to use new media to advance personal ends.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare the two since such comparisons dangerously downplay just how horrific Hitler was.

Adolf Hitler receiving Christmas gifts from two men portraying Santa Claus (public domain)

Trump deserves criticism for a lot of things, but he cannot be accused of pursuing a genocidal agenda he is determined to make happen at all costs. If comparisons must be made between Trump and a leader from German history, the more appropriate candidate would be Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was also a coarse loudmouth with a fondness for theatrical poses.

You are the rare biographer of Hitler to paint a substantial portrait of his long-time mistress and later wife, Eva Braun. In other biographies, she is depicted as being kept at arm’s length from Hitler’s affairs and devoid of her own political opinions. How should we understand Braun’s relationship to Hitler?

[Braun] was a modern young woman who knew all too well what she was getting into in her relationship with Hitler and who clearly enjoyed her liaison with the man who was the most powerful man in Europe at the time. She also played a much more important role in Hitler’s life than has been traditionally assumed.

Eva Braun on the water (public domain)

As the lady of the manor in Hitler’s Alpine retreat in Obersalzberg, [Braun] had a decisive say in who was and wasn’t admitted to the exclusive circles of “Berghof society.” This was one reason that “courtiers” like Albert Speer or Martin Bormann made sure they stayed in her good graces.

Braun had a major influence on the atmosphere at the Berghof and was in charge of arranging relaxation and entertainment there during the second half of the war.

Her film footage of guests’ lively socializing at the mountain retreat was intended to reflect the supposedly idyllic nature of the place. It was also a contribution to the idea of Hitler being a congenial, solicitous patriarch for posterity.

Against this backdrop, Braun’s decision to commit suicide along with Hitler at the end of the war was the logical conclusion of her life.

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